Who Named That Bird Anyway?



Green Heron                                                click on any photo to zoom

I was standing on a wooden observation deck overlooking a pond in the Florida cypress swamp when an inquisitive new birder asked me the name of the brown bird posed a low branch over the water.  “Oh, that’s a Green Heron.”  A look of confusion came over her face.  “I know”, I added  “someday we’ll figure out who named the bird anyway.”  A more descriptive name might be a Brown or Hunch-backed Heron.  There are other bird names that cause similar confusion.

Take for instance the Ovenbird.  Where did that name come from?  My research fails me.  Why not a sink, refrigerator, or stove bird?  Linnaeus gave it the species name aurocapilla which means “golden-haired” in Latin.  That makes much more sense to me.


Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla), note the golden hair

Then there’s the Veery, a member of the Turdidae or Thrush family.  Don’t you have to be very something, like very big, or very loud, or very good?  Research in this instance did help.  The name is derived from the downward veering sound of its call.  I can live with that.


I have no Veery picture but these are Rufous-bellied Thrush photographed in Buenos Aires.

What about the Tattler?  That was the very worst thing you could be called when I was in elementary school, right up there with stool pigeon.  Yet someone gave this west coast shorebird, a member of the Scolopacidae family, this derogatory name.  Let me know if anyone is aware of the back story here.


Long-billed Dowitcher, a fellow Scolopacidae

Then there are the “P” birds, Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia.  Try pronouncing or spelling these to the new birder in the field.  If you are Greek however, it’s no problem and the names make perfect sense.  Phainopepla is the furthest northern member of the Central American Ptilogonatidae or Silky Flycatcher family.  Phain pepla is from the Greek meaning “shining robe”.  Given the appearance in my shot below this finally makes some sense.

Phainopepla (shining robe)

Phainopepla (shining robe)

Pyrrhuloxia is also from the Greek; pyrrhus meaning red and loxos meaning oblique, and referring to the peculiar short crooked bill of this bird of the southwest desert.  I prefer the sometimes used “desert cardinal”.


Pyrrhuloxia (female, the male would have much more red around the face and breast)

Another puzzler is the Godwit, pictured below.  A little internet research took me to an etymology expert Ted Nesbitt.  He claims this bird’s name first appeared in the European literature in Latin about 1544 as “Godwittam” and later translated into English as “Godwitte”.    “Wit” means “to know” making Godwit, “to know God”.  Still unanswered is how this explains the bird’s saintly name.  As Nesbitt said, “God only knows.”


Marbled Godwit                                            photo by Andy Sternick

Have you ever been called a Booby in the school yard?  That’s right up there with “tattler” on the list of childhood insults.  The bird name comes from the Spanish slang “bobo”, meaning stupid.  Apparently these people-friendly and naive birds would land on the Spanish ships in the Caribbean and were easily captured and served as dinner.

blue footed booby

Blue-footed Boobies                                           photo by Andy Sternick


Masked Booby, perhaps trying to deceive the Spaniards, photo by Andy Sternick

Attachment-1 copy

Bananaquit                                                      photo by Andy Sterrnick

I’ll quit with the Bananaquit, a beautiful bird of the New World tropics first described by Linnaeus in 1758.  They apparently love bananas and once they start eating they just can’t…

12 thoughts on “Who Named That Bird Anyway?

  1. Had a chance to see many of these in Exuma this past February. People there put out feeders with a mix of grits and sugar, and a crowd soon appears! I was surprised to see how well they hover, almost like a hummingbird, jockeying for the best spot at the feeder.


    1. I got to get down there–I may have a lot of free time soon. There’s a good birding blog from Abacco that I follow and it tempts me greatly. Thanks for your comment.


  2. ‘Tattler’ is 1 who tattles or chatters, yet another name for a perceived call, but it does not appear in print until the 19th century. It seems to have arisen in North America, appearing first in John Richardson & William Swainson’s Fauna Boreali-Americana in 1832. It didn’t gain any traction in Australia until the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union’s committee responsible for compiling the second Official Checklist of the Birds of Australia introduced it (RAOU 1926). “Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide”, By Jeannie Gray, Ian Fraser, https://books.google.com/books?id=z6ia8rqTa7EC&printsec


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