Clellie Lynch: The naming of birds


EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — In sweeps March, windy and cold. The sun, rising a little bit earlier each day, glistens blindingly off the snow. But the spring-fevered birds are not deterred: chickadees and titmice sing their mates alluring songs. Bluebirds burble as they perch atop the box in the field. Woodpeckers thrum messages to any female in the vicinity. Spring is a`comin' in.

We all recognize these familiar species and more or less know how their names were bestowed upon them. Chickadee is onomatopoeic, titmouse is derived from its British counterpart, a bluebird is, well, a bird that is very blue and a woodpecker's name reflects its behavior. Seem simple? It isn't! Think about other familiar bird names and you'll be mystified. Why is that tiny bird called a nuthatch? What does the word, lapwing, actually mean?

The English ornithologist, Stephen Moss, takes us through the fascinating history of avian taxonomy in his new book, "Mrs. Moreau's Warbler, or How Birds got their Names" (Guardian Faber, 2018). The naming of birds began long before Linnaeus popularized the Latin binomial system for all living flora and fauna. Many examples in the book refer to British bird names and derivation, not American, but then much of our bird taxonomy comes directly from the English, misnomers included. The robin in England is nothing like the American robin save having a similar-colored breast. Our robin, Turdus migratorius, is a thrush and looks in shape very like the British blackbird, Turdus merula.


Moss begins with the earliest origins of bird names when humans finally had enough time to observe nature rather than fear and tame their surroundings. The first names given to birds were transliterations of their songs and sounds, such as gowk or cuckoo. Both refer to the same species. In Old English, yek or geac, similar to the current Swedish word for cuckoo, g k reflects the harsher call, gowk. The more familiar, cuckoo, comes from the French, cucu, itself derived from the Latin, cuculus. Tranliterations were bastardized over the years. Who knew that rail, quail, kite, smew, bittern and knot were originally written forms of bird sounds?

Color figures large in nomenclature: Blackbird, whitethroat, redwing, grey heron, golden eagle. Why was the British blackbird (Turdus merula) called a blackbird when there were many other black birds — crows, ravens, jackdaws, rooks — flying around at the same time, often in noticeable flocks. The word, "bird." very early on, referred to a little bird, a nestling or fledgling, and the blackbird was the one of that color that was small. "Bird," of course has since become the mainstay word for any avian creature.

When explorers brought back beautifully feathered specimens to be identified, primary colors were no longer useful. Birds with reddish feathers fell into subtler categories: reddish-yellow was fulvous; rusty-red was ferruginous; somewhat reddish became rufescent. Soon observation and categorization of new and different species gave rise to placing the avian in a similar family and genus and then using habit or behavior as the defining factor: marsh hawk, wood pigeon, barn owl, burrowing owl, cackling goose.

Stir into this a wide variety of folk names from different locales, counties, countries and you have a mishmash of names for many different birds: land rail, fern owl, water hen, butterbump, peewit respectively: corncrake, nightjar, moorhen, bittern, lapwing. Lapwing has a surprising derivation: From Old English: "hl apewince" (1050), "lhapwynche" (1390), lapwyng (1430), lapwing (1591). "Hl apewince" was appropriate for this species for it meant "moveable crest" which this bird does have. Many old-timers still call the lapwing, the peewit, an onomatopoeic name that was passed down from one birder to another, from one book to another.

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Include in your naming a myth or two and you have even more misnomers: Did people really believe that nighthawks refreshed themselves on suckling goats? Or that barnacle geese hatched from barnacles?

Language is a blending of words from various linguistic groups and English in particular absorbed words from its invaders: the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the French. The French gave us words for the following avians: mallard, wigeon, pheasant, partridge, merlin, eagle. Why certain foreign words were adopted and used more frequently than others could be an intriguing PhD thesis.

Various scholars and ornithologists attempted over the years to classify not only British birds (600+) but also birds of the world (now 10,000+). In 1544, the religious `heretic" and scientist, William Turner, complied the Avium Praeciparum, a classification and categorization of all Greek, Latin, English and German terms for birds. Without leaving England, a retired doctor, John Latham, spent his retirement (40 +) years naming the birds of the world in the "Index Ornithologicus," published in 1790, having studied thousands of specimens.

With the publication of "The Ornithological Dictionary" in 1802 the science of bird taxonomy advanced even further. George Montague described for each entry, the appearance, plumage, habits, habitat and other points of interest for each species including alternative names of birds found in Britain. Some taxonomists and explorers were rewarded by having a species named after them: Latham's snipe, Montague's harrier, Cooper's hawk, Bullock's oriole.


Stephen Moss ventures into the present and describes the current state of the "nomenclature fray." Many dislike the singular names given to British birds as perhaps a little "arrogant, insular and jingoistic." Birds such as "The" swallow (Hirundo rustica) in Britain is the same species as our barn swallow, or `The wren" (Troglodytes troglodytes) is the same as our winter wren oops, this species has now become two, pacific wren and winter wren.

Lastly, Moss mentions that Sibley et al, in 1990, dropped a "metaphorical bomb under, until then, the stable and predictive world of taxonomy." The phylogenic reorganization of families and genera is evident in the "Field Guides" he developed after studying DNA and DNA hybridization. Moss does not question the DNA studies, but does question the necessity of absolute and definitive classification that will eventually eliminate the incredible variation of names. In many ways I agree with Moss, that "the diversity in bird names is not an inconvenience, but a wonder!"

So our small "devil-down-head" was once called a "nutjobber,"from the Old English "job" meaning peck or jab, for the bird does hammer a nut into a split in the bark and then peck away at it. So nutjob became nuthack (another word for peck), then eventually nuthatch. This is a delightful read!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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