Saturday, March 22, 2008

Where Do Birds Get Their Names?

Have you ever wondered how and why birds were given the names we know them by today? Thanks to bird watchers before us, common names were given to beautiful creatures as they were discovered in the New World's streams, forests and plains. Regardless of whether the names are appropriate today, the birds are stuck with them.

Over the years, some names have been changed but eventually some birds get their old names again. For instance, for hundreds of years, it was the Baltimore Oriole. Then, for a couple of decades it was the Northern Oriole. Now it's the Baltimore Oriole again.

Color played a significant role in naming the birds of North America. Some were named for their habitat, others for the location of nests. Many were named for size and many for their songs or other characteristics. By far the parts of the birds' bodies were used most often, usually coupled with colors.

Checklists used by birders on walks and daily sightings usually give only the common names while bird guides supply both the Latin and common names.

To head the list, there are house wrens, house sparrows and house finches. Because they are cavity nesters, they became opportunists and took advantage of every nook and cranny about houses and other buildings for nesting. Now we furnish them their own houses but they still like people places.

The songs of the peewee and phoebe named them. The chickadee's call note suggested the name for this little mite and cowbirds and cattle egrets had bovine names attached to them because they pal around with herds of cattle.

A few swallows were named for their nesting habitat choices . . . the barn, bank, cliff and tree to name four. Then there are names because of the habitat the bird has chosen . . . the marsh hawk, often called the northern harrier, because he hunts and nests in marshes. The barn owl because old barns are his favorite haunts. The meadowlark, a blackbird, is usually found in meadows and pastures.

Mammals suggested monikers for some birds. The fox sparrow, for his foxy-red color; the catbird, for one of his calls that sounds like a cat's meow.

Some birds are named for states. The Carolina wren and the Mississippi kite are so named. And then there are the Kentucky and Tennessee warblers. For habitat and speed, who else but the chimney swift, a dark, sooty chimney dweller. Then there are those named for their entire body color . . . the indigo bunting, the cardinal and the blue grosbeak.

For feeding preferences we have gnatcatchers, flycatchers and the worm-eating warbler. Many carry the name of America(n) . . . American bittern, American goldfinch, American kestrel (sparrow hawk), American crow, American robin, American redstart.

Others are named for people. The Bachman's, Harris and the Henslow sparrows, Baltimore Oriole, Wilson's warbler.

The crown or crest suggests the names for the tufted titmouse and the great-crested flycatcher, and the two kinglets . . . golden-crowned and ruby-crowned. Other birds are named for the body, from head to foot. We have the red-headed woodpecker, the red-bellied sapsucker, the brown-headed cowbird, the yellow-rumped warbler. Two vireos are named for the color of their eyes . . . red-eyed and white-eyed.

Those named for the tail and wing are also numerous, but we'll wind up with the red-winged blackbird, the blue-winged warbler, the scissor-tailed flycatcher and the boat-tailed grackle.