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Birds of the World

Chinese species names

(For those who don't speak Chinese)

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Here I will present a method for finding the Chinese name of virtually any bird species in the world, and figuring out its pronunciation and meaning. This can be used by anyone, even those with no knowledge of the Chinese language whatsoever. All you need is a modern computer (one that can display Chinese characters) and an Internet connection. A publicly available list of Chinese bird names and Google Translate will do the rest.

There are two lists of world bird species in Chinese: Birds of the World (Latin, Chinese and English Names) 2nd ed., Chief Editor Cheng Tso-Hsin, and A Checklist on the Classification and Distribution of the Birds of the World, Chief Editor Zheng Guangmei. Both are by the same publisher, Science Press in Beijing. Both have the year of publication as 2002 but the Zheng Guangmei (ZGM) list, which is based on Clements, is more up to date.

Fortunately, the ZGM list has been posted to the Internet so that anyone may find the Chinese name of almost all avian species of the world. The main problem is that Chinese is written in an impenetrable script that requires considerable study and resources to figure out either the meaning or the pronunciation. But there is a way. Read on.

1. The list

The ZGM list can be found at a site called 中国野鸟图库 (Photo gallery of Chinese wild birds). The list itself is accessed from hereherehere.

The entry page is in Chinese but with strategically placed English translations. It offers the option of performing searches (Chinese, scientific, and English common names -- English input a minimum of 5 letters), or accessing family lists by menu.

The menu is accessed by first clicking the button marked <請選擇 Select>. This will call up a list of Orders (in Chinese and English). Choosing an Order will call up a new button at the right offering a list of Families within the Order. Click on the Family you want, click on the button at right marked <查看> ('view'), and a list of species will open in a new page. The list shows scientific, Chinese, and English common names.

But what to make of the Chinese names, which appear in indecipherable Chinese characters? This is where Google Translate does its magic.

2. Finding the pronunciation of Chinese names

Open Google Translate and set it to translate Chinese > Chinese Simplified. The secret is that you don't want to translate to another language; you want to keep the output in Chinese. The output will be identical to the input. Google Translate then allows us to find and actually hear the pronunciation. (More recently Google has started showing the pronunciation more generally, often making this step unnecessary).

Let's take as an example Zosterops palpebrosus, the Oriental White-eye. From the ZGM list we know that this is 灰腹绣眼鸟. Just copy the Chinese name into the blank box in Google Translate and click "Translate". The result on the right will be the same: 灰腹绣眼鸟. That is what you want.

Underneath the result Google Translate offers two options: Listen and Read Phonetically.

First click on Read Phonetically and you will be presented with the pinyin reading of the characters: Huī fù xiù yǎn niǎo.

Then click on Listen and you will hear what that sounds like in Chinese.

So now you know how to read 灰腹绣眼鸟 in a romanised script (pinyin), and how it is supposed to sound. But what does it mean?

3. Finding the meaning of Chinese names

This is a bit trickier, but with a bit of fiddling about you can usually figure out the basic meaning of the name. It helps greatly that Chinese word order is pretty much the same as English, and that Chinese characters are discrete, invariable units. The last is important: Chinese characters don't carry inflections that change the form of a word beyond recognition depending on the context.

First it's necessary to reset your translation options to Chinese > English.

I would recommend starting with a translation of the whole name. That may give an intelligible result, although it may also result in nonsense. In this case, at the time of writing 灰腹绣眼鸟 gives the nonsensical "Abdominal gray birds-eye".

So now you have to try and figure out what is going on. The best way to do this is to input the name character-by-character. The result is:

The name clearly means something like "Grey-bellied embroidered-eye-bird". A quick inspection of the names of other members of the family will reveal that they are all called 绣眼鸟 xiù yǎn niǎo ('embroider-eye-bird'). That is thus the normal name for the white-eyes in Chinese.

So there you have it: the name of Zosterops palpebrosus in Chinese is 'Grey-bellied embroidery-eye-bird' -- that is, 'Grey-bellied white-eye'.

In this way it is possible to find both the pronunciation and the rough meaning of bird names through judicious use of Google Translate. Enjoy!

(If you come across an insoluble problem, don't hesitate to drop me a line and I will do what I can to help.)