What Does The Word "Avian" Really Mean?

Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus) and Red Knots (Calidris canutus), Grays Harbour, Washington State, USA Danita Delimont / Getty Images

People are using the term “Avian” a lot more than they used to. The usage of the word has increased over time from when it was first used in 1870. It comes from the Latin term “avis” meaning bird. And if you think about it it is the root of another common word currently being used. That word is “Aviation.” And of course the business of commercial air travel is a huge industry now and yet the term that defines what it does and that is flying airplanes either loaded with cargo or people is a hot topic in the news as well as a big business. 

Essentially it is used in relation to all things “bird.” The care of birds is called “aviculture,” another use of that word, avian.

Of course birds have been around a lot longer than the word. They first evolved from theropod dinosaurs over 150 million years ago in what is now China. 

But the word avian has more of a role in taxonomy than anything else. Birds are classified taxonomically first belonging to the the class of vertebrates that are birds. 

A bird is very easily defined because essentially if the animal has feathers, it is indeed a bird. The bird is in fact the only animal that has feathers. It is what defines them as belong to the family, Aves, the Latin word for bird.

But what is “Taxonomy?” Taxonomy, also known as “binomial nomenclature” which is a fancy way of of describing the scientific method of classifying birds into groups or families and sorting out their relationship to each other. 

The science of the classification of animals all began by a Swede by the name of Carolus Linnaeus, who was keenly interested in understanding the nature of well, nature and trying to sort out how each plant and animal lined up in the world and his aim was to come up with a formal Latin Label for every organism. He originally wanted to include minerals along with plants and animals, but as there was no scientific way or observing rocks as there was no microscope and no table of the elements in chemistry that existed at the time. So Linnaeus had to abandon this thought and concentrate on plants and animals as his only way of confirming similarities and differences in these two types of organisms was by seeing them with the naked eye. 

Linnaeus settled on a two word naming system which was in Latin, of course. He felt this two word system could be applied to any organism and anyone would be able to understand what organism you were referring simply by the name. (That is, if you new Latin.) Originally the name was referred to as the “Latin name.” But apparently there was grumbling in the ranks and it was decided that this name be referred to as the “scientific name.” The reason is due to the fact that the people given the privilege of naming any new species, keeping the records clean on the subject who are called “taxonomists” saw that not all names were of Latin origin. So the term “scientific name” became the new norm. 

While Linnaeus set up a two part naming system, the science of taxonomy has progressed. There are now seven categories. As you more narrowly define the organism, the smaller the group becomes until you reach that individual organism in its own species. Those categories are: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. 

In other words, each organism, be it a plant or an animal starts out by belonging to a massive kingdom of organisms. As you further whittle down and define what the thing is you are trying to describe, the group becomes smaller and smaller as those who are not related to this organism are whittled away and are distanced due to lack of relationship. 

But it doesn’t stop there. The taxonomists get even pickier and decided that there are such things as sub-species. A good example of this is the African Grey Parrot. The scientific name for this stunning bird is Psittacus erithacus erithacus. The last repetition is due to the fact that taxonomists believe the Timneh parrot, Psittacus erithacus timneh belongs to the same species. But they believe it is a sub-species derived from the original Psittacus erithacus species. Apparently they are still duking it out over this and have gone back and forth countless times over whether the Timneh is a subspecies or deserves its own classification as a species. We are all waiting with bated breath as to their decision. 

So as you can see, the word avian has a long history both in the history of science, in taxonomy and nature in general. 

Edited by: Patricia Sund