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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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…