WORDS FOR BIRDS
Michael Ellis
May 30, 1997

I love birds and I love etymology (the study of words). This is not to be confused with entomology the study of insects, which I also happen to like. But I am fascinated by the origin of bird names. Many are echoic or onomatopoeic, that is the names reflect the call or song of the particular bird. Some examples are Killdeer, Phoebe, Murre, Willet, Bobolink, Dickcissel, Whippoorwill, and Cuckoo. Many of these birds are named for species found in Europe or the Eastern United States, they make the sound for which the whole group is named. Unfortuneatley here in the West our Black Phoebe does not fee-bee like the Eastern Phoebe it pee-wees. And our Yellow-billed Cuckoo doesn’t cuckoo it kuk-kuk-kuks. Oh well.

Other common names describe the action of the bird — Turnstone, Woodpecker, Dipper, Flycatcher, Skimmer, Wagtail, Hummingbird, Creeper, Swallow and Oystercatcher (which should actually be called a limpet plucker). While some other names are purely descriptive such as Yellowlegs, Bluebird, Longspur, Waxwing, and Redshank.

Most people think that the word loon is from lunatic, as in “crazy as a loon.” These birds do in fact have a loud, eerie cry on the breeding grounds. But Loon is actually from an Old Norse word, lomr, which means clumsy oaf. Loons have legs that are located far back on their bodies, perfect for propelling themselves in water But on land they must plop along on their bellies to move, they cannot even stand up on their legs, hence their awkward movement.

In the South where I am from the Green-backed Heron is sometimes called a shitepoke and the Great Blue Heron, the shite-up-the-creek. According to The Dictionary of American Bird Names this is “an attempt to render more delicate by a change in spelling, a name for the bird derived from its habit of ejecting effluent when making a startled departure.”

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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