Name That Bird (Taxonomy)

Photo Group
White Throated Sparrow (top) and Green Heron (bottom)
Photo by: 
Jenna Garr and Paul Ruehle

When I first got into birding, one of the things that fascinated me was the diversity of names. I had no idea what a warbler was, who the heck was Bewick and the only cuckoo I knew of popped its head out of a clock every hour. The more I learned, the more bird names intrigued me.

I learned that many of these names are quite old, while others are not. Where do these names come from? Most of the older names originate from the early naturalist that explored this continent and “discovered” them. The name John James Audubon should be familiar to everyone and it is no surprise that he named a great number of our birds. Names like woodpecker, nutcracker, sparrow and finch were used because they reminded him of those birds he was familiar with in England. The first names can be based on a physical feature (White-throated Sparrow), a geographic location where it was first discovered (Tennessee Warbler) or a person of honor (the person who discovered it or even a friend of the person who discovered it).

To make things even more confusing for birders, names can and do change. A group known as the American Ornithological Union makes naming decisions based on proposals sent into them by scientists. Many name changes have to do with resolving a name conflict with another bird somewhere else on the planet (American Kestral). Other possible reasons for a name change include removing a potentially offensive name (Long-tailed Ducks use to be called Oldsquaws) and species splits (Solitary Vireos were split into three different species and had to have three new names). Among the most confusing of name changes for me are the ones that occured long ago to align the bird with its song (Bobolinks and Dickcissels).

In an effort to entertain, not to confuse, you should look up some of the “local” names that birds have. A couple of my personal favorites have always been the Fly Up The Creek Bird (Green Heron) and Stump Knocker (Pileated Woodpecker) but there are many more.

Names can be confusing, but they are fun. The next time you are flipping through your field guide, pick out a bird with a name that you don’t recognize and put your reasoning skills to the test. What would you have named it?

By Mark McKellar

SUMMER 2010