Bird names aren’t always what they seem to be


Anyone who has ever perused a field guide to birds has no doubt wondered how some of the names originated.
By convention, the person who first describes a species gets to name it. The stories behind the scientific names are complex and steeped in Latin and Greek.

Accurate names

Common names are another story. Some are obviously and accurately descriptive. Red-headed woodpecker, red-winged blackbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, and eastern bluebird come to mind.

Others are onomatopoeic, that is, they sound like the voice of the bird. Chickadees, towhees, bobwhite, bobolink, whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow are all onomatopoeic names.

Many bird names are less obviously descriptive, and some are downright misleading. The red-bellied woodpecker, for example, does not have a red belly. At best, its belly is bathed in a pale rosy wash.

Speak Greek

Often understanding common names requires some familiarity with other languages. Pileated woodpecker, for example, refers to the bird’s large red crest. In Latin, pilleatus means wearing a pilleus, a felt cap that indicated a slave’s status.

The names of two other common woodpeckers, downy and hairy, often perplex beginning birders. The reference is to the bristles that cover the nostrils. A downy’s bristles are shorter and appear softer than a hairy’s.

Nuthatches derive their name from the Middle English notehache, which refers to their habit of wedging a nut in tree bark and then hammering it with the bill until it cracks.

The peregrine falcon derives its name from the Latin falx, a sharp, curved agricultural tool like a scythe or sickle. It refers to the bird’s strongly hooked talons.

Peregrinus is Latin meaning foreign, exotic, or not native. It refers to the wide roaming habits of peregrines. Great horned owl references the bird’s large size and the tufts of feathers on the head that resemble horns.

Owl comes from the Anglo-Saxon ule (owl) and the Latin ululo, meaning to cry out. Both words are onomatopoeic of the owl’s voice.
Though parrots are found around the world, parrot is from the French perrot, a diminutive form of Pierre (Peter), a pet name for these birds.

And New World trogons are named for their bill. The Greek trogo, meaning to gnaw or nibble, refers to the tooth-like edges on a trogon’s bill.


Names of many waterfowl have simple origins. Duck, for example, is from the Anglo-Saxon duce, meaning to duck or dive. Mallard comes from the old French maslard, meaning a wild drake and Anglicized to mallard. And goose comes from the Anglo-Saxon gos.

Still other common names pay tribute to people. Sometimes these people are those who first collected or described the bird. Others are named to honor friends or relatives.

Named after people

Here are just a few of 92 species of North America birds whose common names honor people.

Wilson’s storm petrel, Wilson’s plover, Wilson’s snipe, Wilson’s phalarope, and Wilson’s warbler honor Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), father of America ornithology.

Cassin’s auklet, Cassin’s kingbird, Cassin’s vireo, Cassin’s sparrow and Cassin’s finch were named for John Cassin (1813-18-69), a Philadelphia ornithologist.

A hawk, a thrush, and a warbler bear the name of William Swainson (1789-1855), a British naturalist and artist.
Audubon’s shearwater and Audubon’s oriole honor John James Audubon (1785-1851), naturalist and artist, the best known painter of American birds.

Harris’s hawk and Harris’s sparrow were named for Edward Harris (1799-1863), a patron of J.J. Audubon. Clark’s grebe and Clark’s nutcracker honor two different men.

The grebe honors J.H. Clark (1830-?) an American surveyor and naturalist. Clarks’ nutcracker honors William Clark (1770-1838), of Lewis and Clark fame.

Lewis’s woodpecker was named by Alexander Wilson to honor Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), who collected the first specimen on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Some bird names have strictly personal origins. Lucy’s warbler honors Lucy Hunter Baird (1848-1913) daughter of Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), a secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Virginia’s warbler was named for Mary Virginia Anderson, the wife of William Wallace Anderson (1824-1911), a Confederate Army surgeon. Anderson collected the first specimen and asked Spenser Fullerton Baird to name the bird after his wife.

For another time

The origins of many other common names such as loon, grebe, heron, vireo, and tanager, are less obvious and perhaps fodder for a future column.

(Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by e-mail via my Web site,


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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