What’s In a Bird’s Name?

Mimus polyglottos

Mimus polyglottos

 What’s in a name?  that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare

Georg W. Steller huddled down in the crowded makeshift hut as the bitter cold wind whistled through the cracks.  In addition to the hunger and frostbite, many of the crew were also showing early signs of scurvy.  Captain Bering had already succumbed, and others were sure to follow.  If they could just make it until spring, perhaps the agile survivors could construct a boat to carry them back to Kamchatka.

German-born Steller met Danish navigator and explorer Vitus J. Bering in spring of 1741 and signed onto the ship St. Peter as a naturalist.  Bering planned to map a northern sea route from the east coast of Russia to North America, but in November the expedition stalled in the frigid treacherous seas.  The battered ship finally broke up at anchor off Bering Island and only a few made it to shore.  Some, including Steller did survive and eventually returned to Kamchatka in the spring of 1742.

During this ordeal, as hard as it is to imagine, Steller functioned as a naturalist and birder, recording several animals previously unknown to science.  This included the Steller’s sea cow, soon thereafter hunted to extinction, and the Steller’s Jay, still gracing the western skies.  Steller died four years later trying to return overland to St. Petersburg through Siberia.

Steller's Jay

Seller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Turdus migratorius

Turdus migratorius

Some bird names are visual no-brainers–Northern Cardinal, Glossy Ibis, Red-winged Blackbird, etc.  Other names are a little more subtle, describing birds song or behavior–Chickadee, Kiskadee, Towhee, Flycatcher, etc.  The latin genus and species designations occasionally suggest a hint of humor in the high priests of bird namers–Mimus polyglottos for a Northern Mockingbird, or Turdus migratorius for an American Robin.  But the bird names that intrigue me the most are those bearing someone’s proper name.  Who were these people and how do they rate having a bird bear their name?

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Of the roughly 10,000 bird species about 1,400 have people’s names, and some lucky people are associated with multiple birds.  As I tracked down the life stories of these people, it became obvious that it is an impressive list of primarily 18th and 19th century naturalists and ornithologists, sometimes going to life-threatening lengths to find new species.  Some named the birds after themselves and others were honored by others.  Let me give a few examples.

Bonaparte’s Gull, Wilson’s storm-petrel, Cooper’s Hawk– The gull is not named after Napoleon Bonaparte, but rather his nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857).  Charles was active in both the birding and political spheres in America and Europe.  In 1822, on a voyage to America with his new wife he discovered a new storm-petrel, later named after Alexander Wilson, not himself. He also named the mid-sized Accipiter after William Cooper who first collected a specimen of this hawk in 1828.  Later he unsuccessfully tried to get his fellow countryman, John James Audubon into the American Academy of Natural Sciences.  In 1827 he convinced the birding world to create a new genus for the Mourning Dove and similar birds, and named the genus “Zenaida” after his wife.  Politics was also in his blood and after moving to Italy, he was elected to the Assembly and helped create the Roman Republic, later defending it from an attack from his French brother Louis Napoleon in 1849.

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Anna’s Hummingbird– I’m not aware of another bird named with a given name.  Anna Massena (1802-1887) was the Italian Duchess of Rivoli and was forever linked to this beautiful bird by Rene Primevere Lesson, a French Naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars and subsequent world-wide traveler and naturalist.  The nature of his relationship with Anna seems unclear???  He was the first European to see the Bird-of-Paradise in New Guinea and published a book of hummingbirds, including Anna’s.

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

Clark’s Nutcracker–  William Clark (1770-1838) is an American hero, a child of the frontier West, educated at home, and partner of Merriweather Lewis in their famous exploration of the Louisiana Purchase from 1803 to 1806.  He probably cannot be called a naturalist but did identify the nutcracker as a new bird on his trek to the Pacific Northwest.  He later became Superintendent of Indian Affairs and Governor of the Missouri Territory.

Wilson’s storm-petrel, plover, phalarope, snipe, and warbler-  Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) is rightly considered the “Father of American Ornithology”.  Born in Scotland, Wilson was a weaver and poet in his early life, emigrating to Pennsylvania in 1794.  Inspired by naturalist William Bartram he became the most prolific painter and ornithologist prior to Audubon.  The 9-volume American Ornithology is his culminating classic showing 268 bird species, 26 of which had never been painted or described.

Cassin’s auklet, kingbird, vireo, sparrow, and finch–John Cassin (1813-1869), a Pennsylvanian Quaker and taxonomist pushed the North American birding frontier westward naming 198 new western birds not previously seen or described by Wilson or Audubon.  His engravings were published in his Birds of California.  Cassin died from arsenic poisioning resulting from his preservation of bird skins.

Similar accounts could go on and on, but you get the point.  The 18th and 19th centuries were the epitome of exciting exploration and classification.  There seemed to be new lands, animals, and birds over every horizon, just waiting to be discovered by the adventurous few who are rightly memorialized in the birds’  names.  Today, new bird discoveries are rare and the names seem set, but if you ever do run across a new bird, just remember that “Brigham’s woodpecker” or “Mimus brighami” have a nice ring to them.

After penning this post I came across a wonderful and entertaining reference, Whose Bird, by Bo Beolens and Michael Watkins.  They have researched and compiled a mini-biography of the 1400 people whose name is associated with a bird.  Life has been made easier–the hard work has already been done.

8 thoughts on “What’s In a Bird’s Name?

  1. I never thought about bird names in this way and also had no idea that people names were so many. This is really a great post. It gives us birders some hope that one day behind our lenses will be a bird we can name.


  2. I have been seeing attributions to bird authorities that give a name and a year (date) that seems to imply when the bird was given a Latin Name and by whom. Know anything about that? Example: American Kestrel (Falco sparverius Linnaeus, 1758)

    Liked by 1 person

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