What’s in a Name?

Prairie Warbler

For a birder, or a person who loves wildflowers, it’s hard enough learning the name and appearance of the bird or flower so you can recognize them in the field. There are so many, and often they tend to resemble each other in many ways. But the actual name of the bird usually doesn’t help at all in identifying the bird.  For example, this Prairie Warbler doesn’t live in the prairie, but can be found in brushy pastures, low pines, and mangroves.  How in the world did these birds receive the names we struggle so to learn?  And why, for heaven’s sake, are they so confusing?

Red-bellied Woodpecker

 The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a classic example of a bird with a misleading name. Most of us only see the black and white back and red on its head.  Where is the red belly it is named for? In the early days of ornithology, say the 1700’s and 1800’s, naturalists had no binoculars or spotting scopes to take into the field.  Instead, they “collected” the birds they wanted to study with a shotgun!  John James Audubon, artist, early ornithologist, and now synonymous with bird conservation, said,I wish I had eight pairs of hands, and another body to shoot the specimens.”  He often shot 50 or more individuals of the same species so he could make comparisons of them.

Red belly visible on Red-bellied Woodpecker

When a dead Red-bellied Woodpecker is laid on its back, the pale wash of red on the belly becomes immediately apparent, but since woodpeckers normally clutch the bark tightly we don’t often get to see their bellies. These early ornithologists were crack shots, and also did their own taxidermy.  Audubon would pin the bird to a board marked with grid lines to pose it in a lifelike position for his drawings. These collectors donated their collections to museums which still have them.  It’s not very attractive though, to me at least, to look at rows of dead birds lying on their backs with their little feet all curled up. 

Lincoln’s Sparrow

The Lincoln’s Sparrow was named by Audubon for his assistant Thomas Lincoln.  He wrote: “But if the view of this favoured spot was pleasing to my eye, how much more to my ear were the sweet notes of this bird as they came thrilling on the sense, surpassing in vigour those of any American Finch with which I was acquainted, and forming a song which seemed a compound of those of the Canary and Wood-lark of Europe. I immediately shouted to my companions, who were not far distant. They came, and we all followed the songster as it flitted from one bush to another to evade our pursuit. No sooner would it alight than it renewed its song, but we found more wildness in this species than in any other inhabiting the same country, and it was with difficulty that we at last procured it. Chance placed my young companion, THOMAS LINCOLN, in a situation where he saw it alight within shot, and with his usually unerring aim, he cut short its career. On seizing it, I found it to be a species which I had not previously seen; and, supposing it to be new, I named it Tom’s Finch, in honour of our friend LINCOLN, who was a great favourite among us. Three cheers were given him, when, proud of the prize, I returned to the vessel to draw it, while my son and his companions continued to search for other specimens. Many were procured during our stay in that country.”
Baltimore Oriole

Those early ornithologists had another problem as they wandered through the American wilderness looking for birds.  They didn’t seem to realize that these birds migrated around the country, so they named the bird for the first place in which it was found. Thus, the Baltimore Oriole, the Kentucky Warbler, or the Nashville Warbler, can be found in many other areas of the country.

Carolina Chickadee

Sometimes we birders get lucky and birds are named for the sounds they make. Chickadees rattle chick-a-dee-dee-dee as they hang upside down on the branches searching for the tastiest bugs. Blue Jays call their harsh jay-jay-jay sound along with other melodic songs, as well as mimicking hawks and other birds. The Northern Mockingbird was named for its ability to mimic just about anything it hears.  Now they can be found singing like cell phones, so some day we may need to rename them! 

During the middle 1800’s, naturalists included many Army officers and doctors who explored the western part of the country.  Gambel named this cute little quail after himself, while Swainson has a thrush and a hawk named for him. Harlan, Baird, and Bewick all have birds named for them. As more new species were found, more and more naturalists recognized the need to classify American birds and what to call them. In the early 1880’s the publication of dueling, and contradictory, bird lists led to the foundation of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1883. By 1886 the first official checklist was published. Gone was the welter of local and colloquial names.  Now someone was in charge of naming the birds, and applying scientific names as well. Modern DNA testing has led to the reclassification of many birds. So when you can’t remember if it’s called the Northern Oriole or the Baltimore Oriole now, since they keep changing the name of this bird, now you know who to complain to! For the current official checklist of North American birds, just click here.
 Naturally yours,