What’s in a Name?

by Joe Meche

Great egret                                                                                                                  photo: Joe Meche

With the January hump behind us we can begin anew, having experienced the wild windstorm of Dec. 20. Wind gauges at Mt. Baker measured gusts of 117 mph and the shoreline roads in Birch Bay and on the Semiahmoo Spit will take some time to be cleared. The outside lane of Birch Bay Drive from Harborview Road to Shintaffer Road collapsed under the constant pressure of high tide and wind-driven waves. For the most part and with the exception of scattered power outages and damage, we escaped relatively unscathed. With that excitement in the record books we can move forward into another calendar year to get back on track with birds and birding.

For me, birding is the most effective form of meditation I’ve ever practiced. From the time my grandfather started teaching me about the birds in our backyard, I was fascinated that they all had names. Blue jays and cardinals were easy enough to understand because their colors were part of their names. I needed a little help with mockingbirds and mourning doves. Red-winged blackbird made sense, but the name grackle was puzzling. As I grew older I discovered the public library and the relative wealth of books about birds. As it turned out there were more birds than I had ever imagined and they all had different names!

Learning to identify people, places, and things by their names is an essential part of life. The more you know about any subject is a valuable asset and that particularly applies to complex sciences where nomenclature is crucial. It might not be a big deal if you confuse a mallard with a wigeon, but you should know the difference between a tibia and a fibula. With more than 10,000 species worldwide, birders who travel far and wide to see birds need to arm themselves with a small arsenal of field guides. It might be better, however, to start slowly and learn to identify birds in your backyard and expand outward from there.

The scientific names of birds are part of the much larger taxonomic scheme of naming plants and animals, a system that was formalized by Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist. As part of this system of binomial nomenclature, all birds belong to the class Aves and are further divided into Orders, where birds are placed into groups with shared characteristics. Thankfully, the scientific names eventually evolved into common names, which are much easier for the everyday birder.

As you begin to understand the groups and its members, you then get down to the business of learning the individual names … and this is where the fun begins. Bird names come from so many directions it’s challenging at times to grasp the logic of the process. Some bird names come from external features like bill shapes and outstanding colors. Many names are associated with early pioneers of ornithology or explorers who first observed them in their travels. The final authority with bird names in North America is the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU).

The most perfect use of the system of classification is Roger Tory Peterson’s separation of the groups according to physical characteristics, habitat, diet, and their methods of securing food. Peterson’s concept was to make it easier for the layman to learn the birds. The easy way to get started is to isolate each of Peterson’s groups and read through the lists to become familiar with the individual group members. Immediately, ducks, geese and swans present challenges as to the origins of their names. A duck is a duck and though it might be understandable how long-tailed ducks and redheads were named, what about scoters and gadwalls?

Peterson’s group of aerialists is made up of gulls and terns, whose names follow the general pattern of the naming process. Our prominent glaucous-winged gull was named for the color of its plumage, and the Caspian tern was named after the Caspian Sea, where the first specimen was collected. Though not a Washington bird, one of my favorite bird names has to be that of the laughing gull. If you’ve ever experienced large flocks of these birds, you can see the connection. They always make me smile, and it’s also a perfect example of one way that birds get their names.

Herons and egrets have names that are appropriate to their size, considering that they range from great blue heron and great egret to least bittern. Few bird names are as indicative of external features as the roseate spoonbill. Like the northern shoveler, the name is in the bill.

The smaller wading birds are generally known as shorebirds, but within this group are numerous and interesting name twists. From rails and oystercatchers to avocets, plovers, and sandpipers, there are names that include short and long bills, barred and black tails and bristle thighs. When it comes to identifying birds, songs or calls are important to learn. In fact, a killdeer will tell you its name if you listen carefully. Peterson’s fowl-like birds comprise one of the smaller groups of birds but their names speak well of their respective ranges and habitats. The name sage grouse tells you where to find this uncommon bird, as it does with mountain quail.

Owls, eagles, and hawks are the birds of prey that create more excitement among birders than any other group. Some of our owl names include short and long ears and horns, even though they’re not really ears or horns. One eagle is named bald even though it isn’t really, and one of our accipiters is sharp-shinned. Among the hawks are harriers and kites, and the family of falcons includes kestrels and merlins. Look into these names to see the sense of the naming process.

Non-passerine land birds include our array of woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The family of woodpeckers includes flickers and sapsuckers. Their respective names come from outstanding characteristics, like the bright red crest of the pileated or the bright white head of the aptly-named white-headed woodpecker. Hummingbirds, not surprisingly, were so named for the sound generated by their rapid wing beats.

Saving the largest group until last also offers some of the most interesting names. Breaking down the names of the wood warblers alone will occupy your time on many a rainy day. Sparrows and swallows are frequent sightings but consider that this last group contains birds with names like tanager, creeper, grosbeak, jay, towhee, etc. If you get started with passerines to learn more about bird names, you’ll be at it for a while.

If you’re eager to expand your own knowledge of birds, I highly recommend “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” by Ernest A. Choate, Harvard Common Press, 1985. This handy volume is a perfect companion to peruse on days when you’re waiting in a ferry line or stuck inside your vehicle on those frequent foul-weather days in the Pacific Northwest. This book contains all of the common and scientific names as well as an index that features biographies of ornithologists, naturalists, and honorees, from Abert (Abert’s towhee) to Zenaide (Zenaida dove). To further confuse us, the Zanaida dove was named after the wife of Charles Lucien Bonaparte (Bonaparte’s gull). Intriguing, isn’t it? Learning the names of birds is a fulfilling achievement, and delving into the origins of their names makes for fascinating research.

Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 170 columns for Whatcom Watch.

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