For the Birds Radio Program: Silly Bird Names
(Recording of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)
That was the call of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a little, unassuming woodpecker with the distinction of having perhaps the silliest of all bird names. On old reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies, Miss Jane Hathaway can always get a laugh–all she has to say is “Yellow-bellied Sapsucker” and she’s got the laugh track rolling in the aisles. And if the name isn’t silly enough, it’s also singularly inappropriate. Many individual sapsuckers don’t have yellow bellies at all, and of the ones that do, it’s almost impossible to see the belly when the bird is against the trunk of a tree.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is hardly the only bird with a funny or inappropriate name. The Blue-footed Booby is great for a laugh, too. People sometimes ask me if the Hudsonian Godwit, the Ruddy Turnstone, or the Black-legged Kittiwake are real birds–they think maybe somebody just made up the names. A lot of people think there’s no such thing as a snipe, either–they must not pay attention when they are driving along a marsh. The sound of the Common Snipe is a familiar one in Minnesota and Wisconsin wetlands.
(Recording of a Common Snipe)
A lot of bird names really don’t fit. One of the tiniest American birds has the longest name of all–the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. It’s hardly a northern species, either–most of them live in Mexico and Central America, and only a few get up as far as Arizona. Cape May Warblers, Connecticut Warblers, and Tennessee Warblers don’t nest on Cape May, in Connecticut or in Tennessee. Magnolia Warblers nest almost exclusively in evergreens. And Purple Finches must have been named by someone who was color-blind–they are wine or raspberry red–not purple.
Some birds are named for features that you might never have noticed except for the name. The Semipalmated Plover and the Semipalmated Sandpiper are so named because their feet are webbed only half way up the toes. The crests on the Double-crested Cormorant are just about invisible–even if you’re holding the bird in your hand. Few people have an opportunity to ever feel the shins on the Sharp-shinned Hawk– though if they did, they’d agree they are sharp.
Some bird names are simple enough, but people get them wrong anyway. It’s not correct to call Canada Geese “Canadian geese.” Deep water ducks are scoters, not scooters. And our partridge are correctly called Ruffed Grouse–they’re named for the ruff of feathers around the neck–they are definitely not ruffled grouse.
Knowing bird names can help increase your vocabulary. Peregrinate means to wander, and the peregrine falcon received its name from its far-wandering habits. A pileus was a kind of brimless cap worn in ancient Rome–it gave the pileated woodpecker its name. The Berylline Hummingbird, Cerulean Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and Lazuli Bunting all take their names from shades of the color blue. And a prothonotary, in the Roman Catholic Church, is a papal notary who wears a yellow hood– the Prothonotary Warbler got its name from its lemon yellow hood.
And that’s what’s in a name–at least a bird name. This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”
(Recording of a Prothonotary Warbler)