Some people who write articles for Arizona Wildlife Views, particularly ornithologists, capitalize the common names of species, and are shocked (shocked!) when I correct those names to lowercase. They’ve seen common names capitalized in other publications, and assumed we would follow the same style convention.
We don’t. We follow the AP Stylebook, which says, “In general, avoid unnecessary capitals.” The only words we capitalize in the name of a species are proper nouns: Hammond’s flycatcher. (Yes, there is such a bird.)
The AP rule is based on a distinction between common and proper nouns. A common noun refers to each member of a whole class: a dog is a dog. A proper noun is a name for a specific person, place or object: your golden retriever’s name is Pumpkin.
There’s controversy over capitalization of common names of species, of course. Those who argue for it make the case that it’s confusing to read about a “yellow warbler,” because you can’t tell whether the writer refers to the common name for Setophaga petechia, or to some sort of warbler that just happened to be yellow.
The argument is even stronger when it comes to the word “common,” which is part of the name for many bird species. If you say you saw a “common raven,” do you mean that many ravens hang around the area where you were birding, or that the bird you saw was a member of the species called “common raven” (and not a Chihuahuan raven)?
I’m sympathetic to any argument that aims to dispel confusion and make text more clear. But in the case of Arizona Wildlife Views, I stick with the decision to use lowercase for common names of species. Our readers know this is a wildlife magazine, and quickly figure out that our articles talk about particular species using common names. As an editor, I will help writers disambiguate any problematic usages: If I have a writer who wants to explain that ravens of unknown species were ubiquitous in a particular area, I will make sure he doesn’t refer to them as “common ravens.”
The other way we could handle this is to follow every common name with the scientific name. That way, readers would know whether it was a yellow (colored) warbler, or a yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia). But I worry that the average reader might bog down in all the Latin nomenclature, not to mention the challenge we would face during layout, making sure every scientific name is italicized properly.
My final argument against capitalizing common names is for readability. Capital letters attract the reader’s special attention and slow his progress. Anything that helps a reader get through a story is a good idea, in my book.
Besides: If we capitalized the name of every species in the magazine, (and there are usually dozens), we would look old-fashioned. In the mid-1800s, capitalization was done more for Emphasis than by Rule. And we want to Look Modern, do we Not?