I was adding some recent sightings to my life list when I got distracted reading down the list of the world’s bird species. There are so many—and some have pretty peculiar names! I started wondering how birds get their common names.
There’s always the old standby of choosing a name based on appearance. Red-headed Woodpeckers, bluebirds, and Black-throated Gray Warblers fall into this category, as do spoonbills, crossbills, and hornbills. Other names are based on location—you know where to look for the West Indian Whistling-Duck, Chilean Flamingo, or Galapagos Petrel. Some names are based on size, with plenty of “greater” this and “least” or “lesser” that.
You could honor that ornithology professor who taught you so much—which is how we came up with MacGillivray’s Warbler, named by John James Audubon in honor of Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray. It happens that the bird was actually discovered by John Kirk Townsend, so perhaps he deserved the honor, but then he has plenty of other creatures bearing his name, including a ground squirrel, chipmunk, mole, vole, bat, jackrabbit, and two birds: Townsend’s Solitaire and, yes, Townsend’s Warbler.
Rails are secretive marsh birds, more often heard than seen. I’ve seen a Sora twice, but I’ve heard them dozens of times. Yellow and Black Rails are notoriously hard to spot. I’m sure the rest of the rails are just as elusive, so I can’t fault the scientists for getting a bit frustrated. Still, someone must have been having a really bad day when they named the Invisible Rail!
A flightless rail of Indonesia, The Invisible Rail is endemic to the island of Halmahera (meaning it isn’t found anywhere else in the world), and it lives in dense sago swamps—the kind of place you really don’t want to venture into. Add in its black plumage, and I can understand why most people never see one, even with its contrasting bright orange legs and beak.
Many birds are named after the sounds they make. The chickadee (-dee-dee), various pewees, towhees, and kiskadees say their names. There are Laughing Kookaburras and Laughing Gulls, mockingbirds, and hummingbirds. (Oddly, the Pale Chanting Goshawk is described as a quiet bird.)
Then there’s the Snoring Rail (Aramidopsis plateni), another flightless endemic of Indonesia. Does it really snore? No one knows. Only a few specimens have made it into collections, and decades may pass between sightings.
Birds are named for other characteristics, too—Fish Crows eat fish, the various lizard cuckoos eat lizards, and flycatchers catch flies. The Fluttering Shearwater presumably flutters. And woodpeckers definitely peck at wood (and siding, and stucco, and chimney flues). Some bird names try to include everything; witness the Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler.
I wonder, did someone count the spots on the Forty-spotted Pardalote? Is the Red-faced Barbet embarrassed? Is the Melancholy Woodpecker sad? Does the Red-necked Grebe have a couch on its porch?
I get the creeps wondering how the Blood-colored woodpecker got its name, especially since there’s a closely related Red-stained Woodpecker as well.
And speaking of red—there are more color names than in a paint display. Birds (or parts of birds) come in scarlet, rufous, coral, vermilion, rosy, rose, ruby, ruddy, cardinal, crimson, wine, claret, maroon, carmine, chestnut, magenta, copper, garnet, pink, roseate, and rufescent. And those are just the reds.
I’m particularly fascinated by birds with names that are simply—weird. Considering that there are approximately 10,000 bird species, maybe ornithologists just ran out of ideas. How else would you come up with Restless Flycatcher, Rifleman (a small, inconspicuous little brown job from New Zealand), Gibberbird, Bohemian waxwing, or Antenna Satinbird. (I guess the single feather sticking up from its head does resemble an antenna… if you’ve had a few margaritas.)
Recent research has ornithologists wondering if perhaps they’ve missed as many as 8,000 additional species of birds, hiding in plain sight—birds that look the same, but are actually different enough to be separate species. If so, as these birds are split into different species, we’re going to need 8,000 new names. Maybe they should ask for suggestions?
The first “Name that Bird!” post appeared in 2016.
Photos, from top: Black-throated Gray Warbler, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Townsend’s Warbler, Laughing Kookaburra, Laughing Gull, Vermilion Flycatcher.