For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Name Pronunciations

Original Air Date: Sept. 23, 1997

How do you say “Pileated”? (Date verified)

Audio missing


A couple of months ago, the American Ornithologists’ Union released a preview of the upcoming seventh edition of the AOU Check-list of North American Birds. The AOU checklist is much more than a simple card listing the birds we are likely to see. The Sixth Edition, published in 1983, is an 877-page volume listing the common and scientific names of each species, its habitat, distribution, when and where the first specimen was collected, and who first named the species.

The two most interesting, and controversial, elements of the AOU checklist are the names of the species and the order in which they are placed. When the sixth edition was released, birdwatchers grumbled that the Green Heron was changed to the Green-backed Heron, snarled that the Common Gallinule got changed to the Common Moorhen, and may never forgive whoever it was who changed the Baltimore Oriole to the Northern Oriole. This time, they’re griping more about taxonomic issues, like how vultures are no longer considered raptors but storks, and how nighthawks and whippoorwills are classified in the same order as owls.

Taxonomists make these decisions based on the best scientific evidence available, but birdwatchers seldom keep up with scientific literature, so they are mystified about the rationales behind these decisions. Everyone complains about it, but like the weather, no one can do anything about it. Taxonomists get to lay down the ornithological law when it comes to certain elements of bird names, and no matter how much birders grouse and snipe about it, they never really question their authority. When it comes to certain elements of bird names, taxonomists rule, and birdwatchers drool.

But when it comes to actually pronouncing those bird names, no one is in charge. Two birders can debate endlessly about how to say the names of their favorite birds without some strange taxonomist bossing them around. What do you call that cute little warbler—a Pare-uh-la or a Paroola? Do you say plover as in clover, or plover as in lover? I wish the AOU Checklist would start to include pronunciations so birders could finally come to some consensus about bird names. Whenever two birders get to talking about the birds they’ve seen, the probability is high that they will pronounce at least one bird name in different ways, and we can end up with debate scenarios like this:

C: Hey—I just saw a Pileated Woodpecker!

L: A Pileated Woodpecker? Cool.

C: Yes. Pileated Woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds.

L: 1 agree-you just can’t beat a Pileated Woodpecker for its jaunty ways.

C: The Pileated Woodpecker takes....

(Gunshot) (Thud) (Blowing to cool down the pistol)

So we can see why taxonomists really should start taking their responsibilities more seriously, to prevent terrible tragedies like this.