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Strange Bird Names

DHChurch / CC 2.0 /
Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Have you seen any Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers recently? This is a good question for separating birders from non-birders. Non-birders would laugh, certain that this absurd name is made up - it sounds like a name invented by a tv writer to make fun of birdwatchers, as they do. Birders would quickly answer yes or no, because they know this is a real bird, an attractive but uncommon woodpecker. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s time to talk about silly, fun, and just plain annoying bird names.

Maybe the most frustrating category of bird names, especially for beginners, is “birds named for invisible anatomical features”. A classic local example is the Ring-necked Duck – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the alleged “ring”- and most people who’ve seen one would prefer to ring the neck of whoever named them. Another is the Red-bellied woodpecker, with it’s flaming red crown and nape but barely visible, sometimes there in good light, vague reddish wash on the belly. And when is the last time you noted the partial webbing between the toes of a Semipalmated Plover as you walked down the beach? These names arose because the old ornithologists used to shoot everything, then name them in the hand.

A couple of our local owls have equally unhelpful names, but relating to their calls. Eastern Screech-Owls don’t screech, and Northern Saw-whet Owls don’t sound like whetting saws, whatever that is. Their names supposedly reference the sound of a saw blade being sharpened, as you will discover if you google it, though none of the sources admit that they have no idea what “whetting a saw” sounds like.

None of the birds named for states make any sense at all. I once knew a life-long, hard-core Connecticut birder who had never seen a Connecticut Warbler because they are quite rare there. Nashville Warblers don’t breed, winter, or particularly occur in Nashville – they just moved there for while in their 20s to pursue songwriting.

Some of the best bird names are the old defunct ones, a few of which are still in use by old hunters. Great Blue Herons were “big crankys”, Surf Scoters were “skunkheads”, Ruddy Ducks were “sleepy ducks”, wigeon were “baldpates”. John James Audubon’s strangely judgy name for the Common Murre was the Foolish Guillemot, I’m not sure why. Our familiar Greater Yellowlegs, a lanky sandpiper, was known as the “tattler” back during the market gunning period when people shot shorebirds – they tended to flush loudly and scare up the flocks. Supposedly the old name for a shorebird known as the Black-necked Stilt was the “lawyer”, though I’m not sure what they did to deserve that.

The old name for the Bohemian Waxing was the Bohemian Chatterer, bringing to mind one of those carefree twentysomethings who won’t shut up about their time in Europe. Baseball fans may be familiar with the minor league Toledo Mudhens, representing the only sports team I can think of named for the decidedly unathletic American Coot.

A lot of species, particularly in South America, were named as if the ornithologist in charge was being paid by the hyphen – examples include the Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, which sounds like a derogatory name for a hair-stylist, and the Sulphur-bellied Tyrant-Manakin, a very plain, monochromatic bird for whom a shorter name would have sufficed, like maybe “Bob”. Around here we have the over-hyphenated, confusingly capitalized Black-crowned Night-Heron to endlessly torment those of us who type out bird names regularly.

If your sense of humor never graduated from middle school, there’s always the Hairy Woodpecker, the European birds known as Great Tits, the seabirds known as “boobies”, and the cormorants known as “shags”. Of course, my sense of humor is far too sophisticated to find those amusing – I just mention them out of an obligation to completeness…

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.