Oh ye faithful followers of Footloose Forays know that I have a strong interest in words and their derivations. No, it’s an overwhelming pre-occupation. Well, perhaps it’s more like an irrepressible passion. OK, OK I admit it; it’s an overwhelming OBSESSION. Ob (on) sedere (sit)…to sit on relentlessly. But I find that by learning the name of something it becomes less mysterious and more familiar. And by knowing how that name came to be, I not only get the history behind the word but I can remember it better.

Herein are some of my favorite bird names and their origin. For reference I use The Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John Terres and The Dictionary of American Bird Names by Ernest Choate.

But first, some background. There are numerous common names for birds; these names vary not only from country to country but even from state to state. For example there are two birds commonly called a robin. The one in England is quite different than the one in Virginia. Scientists however have created a universal system that allows only one scientific name for each organism on our planet. These names consist of two words, a Genus and a species, that are usually derived from Latin or Greek. The European Robin is Erithacus rubecula and the American Robin is Turdus migratorius (kids love that one… the migrating turd).

The American Ornithologists Union has also agreed that there is only one acceptable common name for each bird. This is possible because there are so few species of birds in the United States (only 800 or so). This would be nearly impossible with plants because there are so many (in California alone there are over 5,000 species of higher plants!) There are, of course, still colloquial names in use. Some people refer to American Goldfinches as wild canaries and House Finches as linnets. I know what they are talking about and don’t bother to correct them.

Many people get upset when they discover that a bird they know very well has been renamed. Suddenly a Marsh Hawk becomes a Northern Harrier, a Gallinule becomes a Common Moorhen, an Audubon’s Warbler becomes a Yellow-rumped Warbler. The birds, of course, could care less what humans deem to call them; they are what they are.

I have seen very polite and calm people turn into raging fiends as they rail against those awful scientists, those elitists who change names in order to confuse and perplex innocent birdwatchers. These name changes however aren’t arbitrary. The rules (we must have rules) are that the first common name used for a particular bird is the correct one. When the Europeans invaded the New World they usually assumed that they were seeing all new bird species and so of course they gave them new names. (This wasn’t the case with the Robin, however.) Many years later ornithologists determined that a Marsh Hawk in Montana and a Harrier in England are exactly the same species. And the oldest name has preference. The same thing happened for the Gallinule and the Moorhen. So don’t take it so personally.

In other birds, what were originally thought to be two separate species are, in fact, two races of one species. Even though they differ in appearance the Myrtle Warbler of the eastern United States and the Audubon Warbler of the western region were found by researchers to be exactly the same species, that is they are capable of mating with one another and producing viable offspring. Therefore it was necessary to lump the two species into one and to come up with a new name for both — the Yellow-rumped Warbler with a race of “Myrtle” and a race of “Audubon.”

The opposite also occasionally happens when two races of a single species are found to be actually two different species. In this case the species must be split into two. The light race of the Western Grebe is now known as Clark’s Grebe. The red phase of the Yellow-breasted Sapsucker is now the Red-breasted Sapsucker.

Many bird names 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, Poorwill, Dickcissel, and Cuckoo. Unfortunately for us some of these birds are named for one of their close relatives (often found in Europe or the eastern United States) that makes the sound for which the whole group is named. The Black Phoebe does not fee-bee it pee-wees. Our Yellow-billed Cuckoo doesn’t cuckoo it kuk-kuk-kuks. Oh well.

Other common names describe the action of the bird — Turnstone, Oystercatcher, Woodpecker, Dipper, Flycatcher, Skimmer, Wagtail, Hummingbird, Creeper, and Swallow. While some other names are purely descriptive such as Yellowlegs, Bluebird, Longspur, Waxwing, and Redshank.

Ospreys are frequently seen in waterways throughout the Bay area. Back from the DDT-induced brink of extinction, this cosmopolitan bird is home on every continent but Antarctica. These magnificent eagles would strike terror in the minds of their prey, if only the prey was a bit more aware. Plato, whose opinion about fish closely mirrors my own, said that “fishes are senseless beings, which have received the most remote habitations as a punishment for their extreme ignorance.”

I guess another punishment is the presence of ospreys. Os is Latin for bone and fraga is from frangere, to break. Osprey literally means the bone breaker. This name originally applied to the European vulture (the Lammergeier), for its habit of dropping bones from the air to break them into pieces. Somehow
this word was incorporated into English and now applies to our fishing eagle.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a common sparrow that frequents bird feeders in the winter as well as many other habitats. However it’s common name comes from the Latin for a rush, Juncus, which this small bird was thought to prefer. It doesn’t.

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 where they spend most of their time. But on land they must plop along on their bellies to move, they cannot even stand up on their legs, hence their awkward movement.

Storm petrels are oceanic birds seldom seen from land. Because they often patter across the sea, they were named for St. Peter, the famous Biblical water-walker. Often birds become more agitated and flighty when the barometric pressure drops. Mariners noted this with petrels and thought the birds could predict a coming storm. Legends about petrels abound. When mean sea captains died their souls were thought to be condemned into these birds. As punishment for their cruelty the captains were damned to forever fly at sea and never come back to land.

In the South (where I hail 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.”

Oh shite, I gotta go.

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Posted on

August 4, 2009