Some years ago I switched from the convention to which I had grown accustomed at the RSPB of not capitalising birds’ common names to the alternative. So whereas Falco subbuteo used to be the hobby it then became the Hobby and whereas I still wrote of gulls, I started writing about Herring Gulls rather than herring gulls. I was slightly disappointed that nobody seemed to notice and nobody commented upon this momentous change.
It would be nice if everyone did the same thing – but they don’t! Birdwatch talks of Hen Harriers but Nature’s Voice (Yuk! Still yuk!) writes of hen harriers (although not enough!). British Birds is Hen Harriers and the Guardian is hen harriers.
This is a question that can occupy many column inches and many an end-of-evening birding conversation but there are things to be said for and against either convention.
But I spotted a good example of one of the consequences of non-capitalisation a while ago. The Guardian (or guardian?) had written about the species of albatross called the Shy Albatross, but had called it the shy albatross, when stating that it lived on only three Tasmanian (or tasmanian?) islands in the Bass Sea (or bass sea). Whereupon a reader thought that he (for it was a ‘he’) had found a terrible error and that the Guardian did not realise that albatrosses nest in places other than those three islands. The letter was published and the only explanation is that the reader took ‘shy’ to be a description of how un-bold albatrosses are and the Letters’ Editor didn’t realise that the original article was correct. This would probably have been avoided if the species name had been capitalised as Shy Albatross.
But there are arguments on both sides and the discussions can reach the fever pitch of Lilliputian egg-cracking debates.