Be Your Own Birder

You’re Saying It Wrong – Or Are You?

Pronunciation can be a fickle thing, and it is interesting to see – or rather, hear – the different pronunciations birders give to different species. Thus begins a new series here on Be Your Own Birder as we explore all types of bird name pronunciations and their subtleties.

Dictionary Page
Dictionary Page – Photo by Carol VanHook

Why Do Pronunciations Matter?

Think of your name, even if it’s a simple, unmistakable name, and how you may have heard it mispronounced in different ways. I’ve had both my first name and last name mangled, as well as my maiden name years ago. When it happens frequently, you can get resigned to it, and may even stop correcting the error, particularly from someone whom you aren’t likely to interact with again and who won’t be using your name often. If it’s a crazy error, you may be a bit incredulous that anyone could be so far off (I’ve had two extra syllables added to my 6-letter last name, with the addition of letters that aren’t in its spelling at all). If it’s someone whom you’ve corrected before, or who has known you a long time, or who was introduced to you with the correct pronunciation, you may even get a bit frustrated. Your name is a key part of your identity, and to have it mispronounced means it is no longer yours, no longer accurate to that identity.

It’s true that birds don’t know the names we give them, and don’t attach sentimental or emotional value to the proper pronunciation of those names. As birders, however, the names we use for birds are part of our personal experiences and birding expertise. We share those names with others as we teach them about birds, and we record those names in our own birding journals and life lists. We rely on names to share sightings, research birding trips, and label photos. While all these uses of names may not be spoken (and thus pronunciation is less critical), we do “speak” them in our mind’s voices all the same. We place value on those names, and that value relates to the worth we feel in our own birding.

If You Say It Wrong

Now, take that worth away. Imagine if you’ve used the word “spur-OOO” for years, every time you discuss certain small, brown birds with streaky plumage and distinguishing head patterns. You’ve enjoyed the birds, studied them, chased after some rare species, reported a few sightings, and delighted when they arrive at your feeders. You’re eager to share your enjoyment and excitement with others, but as soon as you mention the “spur-OOO” you like best, you get quizzical looks from other birders. There are confused expressions, maybe even a few titters after a moment’s thought. Then someone – hopefully politely – lets you know the bird is a “SPARE-oh” and you’ve been pronouncing its name incorrectly all along.

You feel ashamed and humiliated. You start to question other things you thought you knew and understood about birds. You may not want to associate with other birders again for fear of similar misunderstandings, and you may even lose your passion for the birds you previously enjoyed, and what a terrible shame that would be.

Why Pronunciation Doesn’t Matter After All
(But We’re Still Going to Talk About It)

Just as Be Your Own Birder encourages everyone to enjoy birds in their own way, I truly believe pronunciations don’t matter, provided you can get your point across about which bird you are referencing. We are all different, and the different ways we talk about birds brings even more richness to the diverse and beautiful world of birding. But it is interesting to see the different pronunciations birders give to different species, and why those differences exist. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to explore bird name pronunciations and their variations, plus those few names that really do have correct and incorrect options (and why even those aren’t such a big deal in the end). Along the way we’ll learn more about the diversity of birds as well as the diversity of birders, and enjoy birds in ways that bind us all in a large and brilliant flock.

Don’t miss the pronunciations we’ve already discussed!

Do you have a bird name you’ve always wondered about how to pronounce? Leave a comment with the name below and it will be one we explore and discuss in this educational series!

14 thoughts on “You’re Saying It Wrong – Or Are You?

  1. Margaret Tesch

    I know that there are several birds whose names I have heard pronounced more than one way, but the only one I can think of right now is Grosbeak. Is it grahss-beck, gross-beck, grahss-beak, or gross-beak . . .or something else?

  2. Heidi Babb

    The two that I’ve heard pronounced in different ways are “Roseate” as in Tern or Spoonbill and of course, “Pileated Woodpecker.”

    1. Mayntz Post author

      Great suggestions; I’d forgotten about “roseate” and that’s a good one! Thanks! (And I’ve already bookmarked the link – more resources are always great!)

  3. Karen

    Towhee. I listen to The Casual Birder podcast and she says toe-ee. I’ve never heard anything but toe-hee but all of a sudden someone popped up with tau-he on a bird walk. I’ve also heard tau-ee now, too.

  4. Karen

    There’s also Bewick’s which is pronounced like soft version of Buick according to the granddaughter of the guy who the wren was named for!

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