What’s in a name? Sometimes nothing at all
(published 3-31-10)

In 2009, National Audubon Society’s board of directors elected Holt Thrasher as chairman. He succeeded a woman named Carol Browner. So the top leadership went from Browner to Thrasher. At the time, Audubon’s president was John Flicker. I’m not making this up.

Mr. Flicker resigned recently—migrated to another job or into retirement I suppose. It will be interesting to see who replaces him. Audubon’s Missouri office is headed up by Tony Robyn. He seems like an ideal candidate for promotion.

People names can be amusing, and bird names even more so. Scores of non-birders out there seem to love saying “yellow-bellied sapsucker.” It’s a great name, I agree, but why stop there?

The world contains about 10,000 bird species and each has a scientific name and at least one “common name.” Many birds have intriguing nicknames, too.

This is a fun and fascinating aspect of the hobby. I enjoy thinking about how some birds are perfectly named and some not even close. I wonder about – and then try to learn – how certain birds got their names. And always, always, I’m on the watch for dreamlike names such as “superb fairy wren” and “twelve-wired bird of paradise.”

Most bird names are far less exotic and some are probably too plain. Handsome species like the black-and-white warbler and yellow warbler deserve better. I’d change the black-and-white’s name to “zebra warbler” if given the chance.

Oh, I could fix a lot of bird names if the ornithology police would just let me. First on my list would be the red-bellied woodpecker. Anybody seen that red belly lately? “Faint wash of red on belly rarely visible,” says the Sibley field guide. Precisely! When a bird is named after a field mark, let’s choose a field mark that is a little more obvious.

It’s the same issue with orange-crowned warbler. Last October, however, when birding at Morton Arboretum, I got a nice close look at this rather drab warbler. For a second, for the first time ever, I saw an orangish smudge on the bird’s crown. I think.

Red-headed woodpecker, now there’s a well-named bird. It has a red head and it pecks wood. I’m partial to bird names that depict both appearance and behavior. Swallow-tailed kite. Black skimmer. Brown creeper. Yellow-breasted chat. Perfect.

Some bird names give us both a visual and audio clue. Black-capped chickadee, for example, and gray catbird. Others are named after their songs alone. This can work quite well, as with mourning dove, bobwhite and whip-poor-will.

Other times not. I’ve listened to dickcissels but I don’t hear them saying “dickcissel.” Maybe they’re saying I need new ears.

Geographic names can be even more confounding. Some warblers are named after states or cities where they were discovered, presumably during migration. Connecticut warblers are quite rare on the East Coast and do not live in Connecticut at any time during the year. Tennessee warblers do not live in Tennessee. Nashville warblers do not sing country music songs and could just as easily been named after Peoria or Milwaukee. It was chance, nothing more.

Baltimore oriole makes more sense. The species was named for the first baron of Baltimore and founder of Maryland, George Calvert. His family colors were orange and black, like the bird. If his colors had been black and purple, we might now have a Baltimore grackle.

If I may pick one more bone, let’s make it the magnolia warbler. This is a beautiful bird to watch for in May as it migrates through our region. But don’t get too focused on magnolia trees. “Maggies” are just as likely to appear in maples and oaks.

Alexander Wilson, known as “the father of American ornithology,” collected the type specimen. When he shot it, the victim happened to be perched in a magnolia.
I wouldn’t suggest that we change a lot of bird names, especially the ones based on random occurrences. That would be tampering with history. Discussing bird names would also be a lot less fun. Just be aware that the common names given to birds often have no connection with science.

For more on this subject, check out “Dictionary of Birds of the United States,” by Joel Ellis Holloway, and “100 Birds and How They Got Their Names,” by Diana Wells. Each book is loaded with interesting facts and anecdotes.

Copyright 2010 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Magnolia warbler photo by Sue Wagoner