Beaks and Bills
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and is still active in chapter affairs.He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 140 articles for Whatcom Watch.
On a Washington Ornithological Society field trip in late November, a subject came up during a lunch break that always seems to surface when birdwatchers get together. The subject was bird names — mainly how birds get their names and why a certain woodpecker is called a northern flicker and another one a pileated. It’s obviously the end result of the need that humans have always had to name everything, just to keep the world organized.
In the beginning of the 18th century, when scientists were discovering incomprehensible numbers of new species of plants and animals in new parts of the world, a systematic approach was needed to sort through all the newly discovered species. Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, introduced binomial nomenclature in 1753. This system, using two-part names, was designed to maintain order and minimize confusion.
Linnaeus was faithful to scientific tradition and gave two-part Latin names to all organisms. Prior to his system, ornithologists used long, descriptive, Latin phrases to describe birds. His book, “Systema Naturae,” gave them two-part scientific names which simplified the process and made note-taking in the fields easier and more practical. In this system the genus is capitalized and listed first, followed by the species in lower case, always written in italics. While these names might seem cumbersome to birdwatchers, many scientific papers and journals still use the Latin names, often in combination with the common names.
Utilizing Linnaeus’ system, organizations around the world began to identify and list the names of over 10,000 species of birds. In 1883, the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) was founded and took on the task of listing the names of all the birds in North America — more than 950 species. The AOU published its first Checklist of North American Birds in 1886 and continues to update the list annually. The list, now in its 7th edition (Buteo Books, 1998), is available to download at www.aou.org. This is always considered a work in progress since more than fifty supplements have been added to the original version.
The scientific names for birds are used primarily by professional ornithologists, while the majority of birdwatchers are content to learn and use their common names. This is where the learning process kicks into high gear for most of us. Getting into the etymology of common bird names is an essential part of increasing your knowledge and appreciation of birds. The more you understand about the origins of their names, the more you learn about the birds themselves and natural world they inhabit.
Geography and place names are commonly used to name birds and are often synonymous with where a particular bird was first discovered and documented. As you scan any field guide you will see numerous examples of this method; e.g., Caspian tern, Virginia rail, Canada goose, western tanager, etc. Interestingly enough, quite a few bird names are preceded by northern, eastern, or western while only a handful of mostly obscure species have southern as part of their names.
Many birds came by their names naturally as many of the names derive from their respective calls. Killdeer, northern bobwhites, kiskadees, and phoebes all bear names that are phonetic representations of what you hear, often before you see the bird. Early Hawaiians named their endemic birds by their calls and passed on these names to ornithologists who were first beginning to catalog new species in the Pacific islands. This was a case where the birds seem to have named themselves.
Color plays an important part in bird names. Blackbirds and bluebirds are easy enough to understand, but how do you tell the difference between birds that are similar but not quite the same. Distinguishing characteristics like red wings and yellow heads immediately come to mind for a couple of common blackbirds. With bluebirds, geography is used to separate the western from the eastern and elevation is the key to the mountain bluebird. When all three species congregate in the same location, however, the outward appearance or field marks are utilized to correctly identify the individual species.
Behavior and physical attributes come into play for many bird names. Woodpeckers, flycatchers, creepers, crossbills, and grosbeaks might occupy the same territory but as we observe their actions and physical appearances we employ our field identification toolkit to tell which is which. Downy and hairy woodpeckers are similar but they’re not the same, or are evening and pine grosbeaks. This is the beauty of the learning process.
Many birds bear the names of early naturalists, ornithologists, and explorers who might have been the first to observe and record them. A woodpecker was named after Meriwether Lewis and a nutcracker was named after William Clark. These two western birds had never been recorded before the Corps of Discovery explored the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase between 1804-06. One of our local celebrity birds, the Steller’s jay, bears the name of George Steller, a German naturalist who traveled with Vitus Bering on his voyages of exploration off the coast of what is now Alaska.
We know that a duck is a duck and a goose is a goose, but it’s fun to know what kind of duck or goose you’re observing. The same concept applies to all groups of birds including owls, hawks, and eagles, shorebirds and wading birds, song birds, and the larger family of gulls and terns. The methods might seem awkward at times but it’s well worth the effort to become familiar with bird names. Tracing the evolution of a bird’s name increases your appreciation of the overall process. A day in the field is infinitely more enjoyable when you know what you’re seeing.
Imagine early ornithologists encountering a bird that had never been seen before, much less named. More than likely, exhaustive notes were taken about the bird’s outward appearance, including shape and size as well as color and distinguishing characteristics. The behavior of the bird was noted, along with its song, what the bird was eating, and where it was found. Look at all the potential that exists for a name for a new bird, given all the information that would have been collected. Careful and methodical observation is the same tool that today’s birdwatchers might employ when they see a bird that is new to them. These are the basic skills that make us all better birders and increase our personal data base.
An excellent book to keep on hand, “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” by Ernest A. Choate, (Gambit, 1973) is as entertaining as it is informative. The first section of the book deals with common names; the second delves into understanding the scientific names of each genus and species; and the third part is a comprehensive list with short biographies of early ornithologists and explorers who played important parts in naming many of our bird species. As Roger Tory Peterson said about this book, “No informed birder should be without it.”
Learning the names of birds is a major part of the bird watching experience. Learning the origins of their names adds to our appreciation of a system that first came into use almost 300 years ago. It also connects us with all the birdwatchers that came before. If your enthusiasm borders on passion, you will increase your own knowledge and enjoyment while sharing with others. After a while, it becomes second nature to subliminally name the birds that you see every day, whether at home or in the field, or even if you’re not actually bird watching.