Names are critical parts of our identities and the world around us. Parents choose names for their children for relatives, trends, and individuality. Businesses choose names for distinctiveness and to inspire confidence and customer loyalty. Sports teams choose names for local flair and to demonstrate strength and prowess, and communities choose names for schools, streets, and parks to honor local history, culture, and heroes. But how are birds named?
Why Bird Names Matter
While birds don’t know the names we give them, their names do represent their distinctiveness. But whatever the bird’s name may be, it matters to ornithological research to be sure the bird’s identity is properly communicated. This is essential not only for birders keeping a life list, but also for population surveys, record-keeping, and conservation efforts. By understanding how birds get their names, it is easier to recognize the importance of those names and how proper names can help protect birds.
How Birds Are Named
Birds are named whenever a new species is discovered. While most of today’s birds have been named in the past 350 years through the work of different ornithologists and naturalists, there are still new species discovered nearly every year. Remote regions continue to be explored, leading to new bird discoveries. Sometimes, DNA research indicates that certain species must be split into separate groups. When a new bird is named, its name might include a number of distinguishing traits.
Many birds are named to indicate their range. The eastern bluebird, for example, is the easternmost blue thrush in North America. Similarly, the American avocet is the only avocet found in North America. The species is found nowhere else, making its name a great indication of its overall range.
See also: How to Attract Bluebirds
A difficulty with range-based names, however, is that bird ranges can change over time. Eventually, the name may no longer be as representative of the bird’s location. The Eurasian collared-dove, for example, originated in Europe and Asia, but has become an established species throughout North America. The species was imported to the southeastern United States decades ago. Its name does still indicate its initial origins, but is less accurate overall.
Many bird names refer to distinctive colors or field marks, particularly when those markings may help identify the species. The ruby-crowned kinglet, red-eyed vireo, blue jay, and white-throated sparrow, for example, are all aptly named for their distinctive features or prominent colors.
The problem with appearance-oriented names is that birds may look different in different seasons when their plumage changes. The American goldfinch, for example, is indeed brightly gold during the breeding season. But its dull, olive-colored plumage is far from gold during the winter months. Furthermore, when male and female birds look differently, the name will make less sense. The red-winged blackbird, for example, is well-named for the male’s red shoulders and glossy black plumage. But, the more camouflaged female does not show those markings as distinctively.
When a bird has a very noticeable, remarkable shape, its name may indicate that distinctiveness. The swallow-tailed kite, for example, is well named for its deeply forked tail and elegant, gliding behavior. The great horned owl’s most distinctive feature is not only its great size, but also its long, easily visible feather tufts that look like horns.
Shape isn’t always visible on birds, however, especially as their posture and poses change. When a scissor-tailed flycatcher is perched, for example, its distinctive tail is folded and does not show a scissor-like shape. How a birder is positioned can also affect whether or not they can see a bird’s shape well. Viewing angles can make a great difference in how a bird looks.
Some birds have very distinguishing behaviors, and naming them for those behaviors is a great way to distinguish the species. The acorn woodpecker is a perfect example, as these birds are well known for their fondness for acorns. They create tremendous granary trees, storing hundreds or thousands of carefully placed nuts. The greater roadrunner is another bird named for its behavior. These birds are adept runners and often follow roadways and paths as they move about.
Behavior-based names are helpful for bird identification when the birds are seen exhibiting that distinctive behavior. A black skimmer, for example, is immediately recognizable when it is skimming along the waves to fish. It can be much more confusing when it is simply standing on a sandy dune.
One distinctive behavior many birds have is their voice and the calls and songs they make. Those vocalizations can be part of birds’ names, such as the mourning dove and its soft, mournful cooing. Whistling ducks are also named for the whistle notes in their calls. Some birds call their own names, like the black-capped chickadee with its “chik-a-dee-dee-dee” call. In a bit of a voice name twist, the mute swan is named for not having a voice at all, as these birds rarely vocalize as adults.
Naming birds for their preferred habitats can help birders recognize which birds are found in different areas. The wood duck, for example, is named in part because it can thrive in forests. The canyon wren is found primarily in rocky canyons, and the mountain chickadee is a bird of western mountain regions. Even artificial habitats can be part of birds’ names, such as the chimney swift that often nests in chimneys and smokestacks.
Yet bird habitats don’t always remain the same. Some birds will visit different habitats in different seasons, making habitat-based names less applicable at different times of year. The palm warbler, for example, is well known in its southern winter range, but is far from palms in its Canadian breeding range during the summer.
Some birds aren’t named for their own distinctiveness at all, but are instead named to honor famous birders, naturalists, and ornithologists. The Clark’s grebe, Franklin’s gull, Audubon’s shearwater, Steller’s jay, and Cassin’s finch are just a few birds named in honor of those who have made remarkable contributions to birds and birding. These names may not help identify bird species or indicate what makes each species distinct, but they are a rich part of birding history nonetheless.
When Bird Names Change
Though birds are carefully named, those names don’t always stay the same. As new studies are completed and bird species may be split or lumped into different distinct species, their names may be changed. For example, the western scrub-jay was split in 2016 into the California scrub-jay and Woodhouse’s scrub-jay to better indicate the different species. Similarly, the Canada jay was renamed in 2018 to better honor its northern heritage, whereas its former name – gray jay – was less distinct.
Birds are named in many different ways, but their names are as distinct and meaningful as anyone’s name. By understanding how birds are named, birders can better appreciate each species’ individuality and learn to more quickly identify each bird with the clues its name gives.