Common Birds

Common Goldeneye_ShorelinePark-MtView-CA_LAH_9074_filteredThere are a lot of birds with “Common” in their names: Common Goldeneye (right), Common Loon, Common Raven, Common Murre, Common Tern, Common Yellowthroat, and so on. Some truly are common— the Common Gallinule is one of the most widespread birds in the world. Others, such as the Common Eider, are only found in remote areas. Perhaps they’re common in their range (the Common Eider is considered a species of least concern), but they’re certainly rare or nonexistant where I live.

It seems sad to me that any bird (or any other creature, for that matter) could be stuck with “Common” in their name. “Common” can mean ordinary, vulgar, low-class, or coarse, so we’re tempted to dismiss common birds as not worthy of our attention. At times, I even wonder if we’re giving these birds an inferiority complex!

Common Pauraque_EsteroLlanoGrandeSP-TX_LAH_4636Calling a species “common” might also be upsetting to the birder who still lacks his or her first sighting. I’ve yet to see a Common Eider or a Common Tern, and it took me forever to get my first Common Pauraque (right). I keep thinking that it must be my fault, since these birds are obviously “common. (Or course, it helps to be at the right place at the right time, too!)

As an antidote to all these negative connotations, I’d like to briefly highlight three common birds. See if you agree with me that these birds are anything but run-of-the-mill!

Common Gallinule
Common Moorhen_Bennett's_Brownsville-TX_LAH_3955.nefWe could call this The Bird Formerly Known as the Common Moorhen; the name was recently changed in an ongoing effort to confuse long-time birders. This is truly a cosmopolitan species, found from Canada to Chile in the Western Hemisphere, as well as from northern Europe to southern Africa, and all the way across Asia. A subspecies is even found in Hawaii. Oddly, we don’t normally see them here in Colorado. I suppose the name Common Gallinule is appropriate, for they are certainly widespread and abundant, but how about something a bit flashier—perhaps Scarlet-fronted Gallinule?

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll_FtCollins-CO_LAH_0165These might be common in the north (estimates put their worldwide population at about ten million!), but a lot of eager birders flocked to Ft. Collins last winter to see Redpolls in Colorado. That’s because most Redpolls live in the far north. They’re long-distance travelers too. One bird banded in Belgium wound up in China!

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these hardy little dynamos can survive temperatures as low as 65° below zero. They do this by adding feathers—as much as 30% more—and by burrowing into the snow to escape the cold. Plus, Redpolls eat and eat to keep up with their high metabolism. That’s why I think a much better name would be Furnace Finches.

Common Grackle
Common Grackle_Pueblo_LAH_3772c4x6filIt seems no one likes grackles. Granted, Boat-tailed Grackles (in Florida) and Great-tailed Grackles (in Texas) are pretty obnoxious. Huge flocks fill palm trees, bombarding the ground (and any parked cars) below with their stinking droppings, and shrieking and squawking from the moment the sun comes up—or even earlier. Compared to their ill-mannered cousins, Common Grackles are almost demure.

Perhaps their black plumage turns people off. Black is pretty boring. But look what happens when the sun hits their feathers. They’re absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous. That’s why I think they should be called the Gleaming Grackle. (I considered Resplendent, Iridescent, and Magnificent, but Gleaming Grackle has that alliteration going for it.) Do you think I can convince the ornithologists?

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2 Responses to Common Birds

  1. Carey says:

    Great post! They changed the name of the moorhen? Really?! (Are common names more “fixed” or officially deemed for birds than plants? And I am guessing the scientific names of birds get changed occassionally too?)
    Our common grackles are real feeder raiders. My husband takes it as his personal mission to exclude them. It is really interesting to see them figure out ways to get around each new obstacle though. They seem pretty smart! (Oh, and the rusty gate/swing noise they make is, uh, interesting too.)

  2. LAH says:

    Common names are standardized, at least in the West, and hopefully eventually worldwide. Bird names are much more organized than plant names (which are in total disarray)!

    Scientific names are changed as new research suggests a more accurate taxonomy. They announce the new names every summer. You might want to read my post on lumpers and splitters: https://blog.mountain-plover.com/2011/01/24/lumpers-and-splitters/

    Some recent changes have been the splitting of the White-breasted Nuthatch into 3 species and the splitting of the Winter Wren into 2 species. There’s currently talk of lumping the 3 species of Rosy-finch into one with several subspecies. Of course, listers prefer splits, as we get more birds that way!

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