February 9, 2011

The bird is called… a treasury of bird names

All North American birds have both a binomial "two term" Latin name and an English name. For instance the American goldfinch has the binomial name, Carduelis tristis placing it in the genus Carduelis with several other species and as the unique specie tristis. In comparison the English name is reversed with the descriptor American coming before the “family” goldfinch of which there are several other species. For the beginner bird watcher the English name is the most relevant though the Latin name is ultimately how the bird is known internationally.

While most of the American colloquial names  like chickenhawk, greenlit, butterball, and bogsucker (translation Cooper’s hawk, vireo, Bufflehead, and American woodcock) have faded away, the English names of North American birds retain a colorful and evocative lexicon.

There are bird names that are tricolored and painted with all the basic stops on the color wheel: blue, red, yellow, black and white, orange, purple, gray, and green. Then there are luxuriously colored bird names containing scarlet and vermilion, cerulean and indigo, ivory, chestnut, golden, and olive and conditional colors like ashy, glossy, buff, bronzed, slaty, snowy, sooty, dusky, ruddy, rusty, and rose. 

Habitats are represented in names like seaside, tundra, cliff, cave, field, swamp, and marsh. Summer, winter, evening, and mourning (sad if not an early riser) are also found. Proud names like king, great, greater, royal, elegant, and magnificent give way to the strange and reckless like wandering, wild, solitary, bohemian, ancient, and parasitic to the diminutive like little, lesser, least, plain, pygmy, and simply put common.

simply, Brant
 Bird names describe bodies that are sharp, rough, broad, and rhinoceros. In their names birds whistle, whoop, pipe, laugh, warble or are mute. They are mottled, marbled, masked, spotted, eared, capped, crested, smooth or grooved, footed, spectacled, bridled, whiskered, varied, or patriotically bald.

And then there are some birds like Cher or Prince who go without descriptors and are simply the bird known as willet, dunlin, veery or brant.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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