Be Your Own Birder

How Birds Get Their Names

Parents name children, proprietors name businesses, communities name schools, companies name products… But how do birds get their names? Understanding how bird names are chosen can provide clues to a bird’s behavior, field marks, range, and other traits to help birders properly identify and enjoy each species.

American Avocet - Photo by Ryan Moehring/USFWS
American Avocet – Photo by Ryan Moehring/USFWS

When Birds Get Named

Birds are named when they are discovered or identified as a new species. Most of the familiar birds around the world were initially named in the last 350 years, when naturalists had vast territories to explore and were able to examine birds closely, often after shooting them – a common practice that allowed close study of birds long before environmentalism and conservation were serious concerns. The individual who first found a new bird typically had the honor of naming the species, and those names were chosen in several ways. Today, fewer birds are getting named, but there are still new species being discovered and new names being announced.

How Birds Are Named

Birds are often named for a distinct feature that makes that species stand out, but those names aren’t always as clear as they may seem. The most common ways birds get their names are related to:

  • Geography: A bird’s range can determine its name. The eastern bluebird, for example, is the easternmost blue thrush in North America and is seen extensively throughout the eastern part of the continent. The American avocet is the only avocet species found in the Americas, and is found nowhere else. The Mandarin duck is named for its native range in China, and the northern cardinal is the northernmost cardinal species in North America. Ranges can change, however, and directional names can be confusing because they are not perceived the same to every birder – a northern cardinal may seem northern to someone living in Georgia, for example, but it’s a southern species to a Canadian birder.
  • Plumage: Appearance can be a bird’s most prominent field mark, and hundreds of species are named for their plumage features, either colors or distinct markings. The green jay, for example, is named for its bold color, while the cedar waxwing is named for the waxy tips to its secondary feathers. The ruby-crowned kinglet is named for its boldly-colored crown, the black oystercatcher for its overall dark plumage, and the white-eyed vireo for its pale eyes. Because plumage can vary between breeding and non-breeding seasons, however, plumage-oriented names are not always accurate. At times, these names aren’t very obvious, such as the red-belled woodpecker – the bird does have a red wash on the belly, but it can be hard to see unless you have the bird in hand (which few birders have the opportunity to do). Dimorphic birds also present naming problems – the red-winged blackbird is aptly named for the male’s distinct red epaulettes, but the female lacks that mark.
Chestnut-Sided Warbler - Photo by Dan Pancamo
Chestnut-Sided Warbler – Photo by Dan Pancamo
  • Shape: When a bird has a distinct silhouette or unique shape that stands out even if colorful details cannot be seen, that shape can become part of its name. The tufted titmouse, for example, is named for its perky crest, while the broad-winged hawk is named for its wing shape and the swallow-tailed kite is named for its deeply forked tail. Those shapes can vary based on the bird’s behavior and posture, however, and the viewing angle can distort or hide shapes and make identification more difficult.
  • Behavior: Many birds have unique behaviors that can be excellent identification clues, and when that behavior is very common and easy to see, the bird may be named for it. The acorn woodpecker, for example, is named for its favored food source and how it caches hundreds or thousands of nuts every year, and the black skimmer is named for its amazing skimming behavior as it forages for fish at the water’s surface. If the birds are not observed performing those behaviors, though, the names make less sense.
  • Voice: Birds with easy-to-hear songs and calls may be named for their familiar voices. The name may create a simple representation of the bird’s call, such as the black-capped chickadee with its chick-a-dee-dee-dee call, or whistling-ducks whose key vocalizations are a series of clear, bold whistles. If birds are more easily seen than heard, however, sound-based names are less useful, and not every birder will have the opportunity to hear a bird sing its own name.

Many birds are also named with a combination of these characteristics – the Eurasian collared-dove, for example, is a native to Europe and Asia and has a distinct black collar on the back of its neck. Multiple clues in a bird’s name give birders even more identification tips.

Famous Names

Not all birds have descriptive names, and many are named after naturalists, conservationists, and ornithologists who have contributed a great deal to the science of birds and expanding the popularity of birding. The Brewer’s blackbird, for example, was named after American naturalist Thomas Mayo Brewer (1814-1880), the Steller’s Jay after German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), and the Clark’s nutcracker after explorer William Clark (1770-1838) of Lewis and Clark fame. Each of these men not only discovered new birds, but helped pave the way for ornithologists and birders to enjoy many new species for generations to come.

Steller's Jay - Photo by Sandy Hill :-)
Steller’s Jay – Photo by Sandy Hill πŸ™‚

Name Changes

Birds don’t always keep the same names. As scientific studies examine birds’ genetic structures and more clearly determine what birds are related and what birds are more distinct than originally believed, splits and lumps change what birds are considered individual species. As those species change, names must change as well. For example, the rufous-sided towhee (plumage name) was split into two towhee species – the eastern towhee (geographic name) and the spotted towhee (plumage name).

Bird names not only give great clues about the bird, but also about the history of ornithology and birding. The more bird trivia birders learn, the better they can appreciate and identify all the birds they see.

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