Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Pondering the Origin of Bird Names
August 22, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     The weather has been so hot and humid lately that it is sometimes better to stay in the A/C and relax with a good book. The Dictionary of American Bird Names is one book on my shelves that I like to leaf through from time to time. It explains the origin of the names of many our wild birds. It includes some fascinating name derivations, which I thought I would share again with you:

     It is easy to figure how many birds got their name from their calls or the sounds that they make. Our state bird, the chickadee, says its name “chick-a-dee, dee, dee”. Of course our chickadee is the black-capped chickadee, so named from the black coloration on the head.

     The repetitious call of the whip-poor-will provides its name, as does the raspy “fee-bee” of the phoebe. The hummingbird was named for the sound of its wings and the catbird’s occasional “mew” sound provided its name. The mockingbird does imitate or “mock” other birds and sounds. Owl was shortened Cockney for “howl” which described these birds’ sounds. (Does this mean a different owl might be called an “oot”?)

     The call of the loon is said to sound like the wild laugh of a demented person or lunatic and such people are referred to as “loony.” The name may also be derived from the Shetland loom which means “lame” for the way the bird walks awkwardly on land.

     Many birds named for their coloration are also easily discerned. Blackbirds are usually mostly, or all, black (with exceptions like the meadowlark and bobolink which are also blackbirds). The bluebird is named for its predominant color. The yellowthroat has, indeed, a yellow throat and the yellowlegs has, indeed, yellow legs. Vireo is from the Latin viridos which means green, referring to the green coloration of many birds of this family.

     Cardinal is Latin, cardinalis, for important. The cardinal eventually became the name for one of the more important church figures who wore red robes. Thus cardinal referred to such red color and our red bird became known as the cardinal. (A cardinal is certainly an important visitor to any feeder!)

     The English named any bird with a russet breast a robin. Since the American robin resembled the English robin in this way, it was so named. However the bluebird was also called robin in the past. The towhee was once referred to as the ground robin, the Baltimore oriole was the golden robin, the waxwing was the Canadian robin and the red-breasted merganser was the sea robin. The towhee was renamed for its call; the oriole renamed for the European golden oriole which it resembled; the waxwing renamed from its red shaft tips on its wing feathers that resembles sealing wax, and merganser comes from the Latin mergus to dive and anser or goose, thus giving us a diving goose. Now we just have one robin – the American robin.

     Nuthatch got its name from its habit of wedging nuts in crevices of trees and “hacking” at them to open and eat them. “Nuthack” became “nuthatch.”

     The kingbird perhaps got its name for the red feathers on its crown (which are often concealed) or, more likely, from its aggressive behavior. You might remember the nesting kingbird that was attacking joggers and other pedestrians on Hale Street many years ago in Newburyport? He made front page news. He certainly thought that he was king of Hale Street!

     Hawk comes from the Anglo-Saxon hafoc or to have, in the sense of grasp or seize, which all hawks do extremely well. Harrier is a British name for hawks that fly low over the ground to hunt, thus our marsh hawk was renamed to harrier.

     Our sparrow hawk is now called the American kestrel. Kestrel is from the French crecelle for noisy bell. Kestrels used to be put in dove houses to keep away other larger hawks with their “ringing call”, thus comforting the doves to mate. That doesn’t sound very comforting to me!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
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Newburyport, MA 01950
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