For the Birds Radio Program: Birds with Biblical Names

Original Air Date: Jan. 28, 2003 Rerun Dates: Aug. 26, 2015; Aug. 1, 2011; Aug. 16, 2010; Aug. 7, 2009; Aug. 17, 2006; Oct. 14, 2005; Aug. 23, 2005; Jan. 13, 2005; Feb. 11, 2004

Laura talks about the many bird names rooted in a biblical etymology

Duration: 3′16″


One of the interesting things about birds is how they get their names. I was thinking about this in late January when I was out at Petrel Hall in Brimson. That naturally called to mind the oceanic birds called petrels. They take their name from their habit of pattering their feet on the surface of the water as they fly, reminding someone long ago of the Bible’s St. Peter, who was said to walk on water.

Other bird names have religious underpinnings as well. The Prothonotary Warbler may take its name from the fact that its brilliant golden-yellow plumage is the same as the color of the ecclesiastical robes for a prothonotary, or papal notary, in the Roman Catholic Church. [UPDATE: Laura has never found any evidence that papal notaries have any yellow in their ecclesiastical garb.]

Cardinals, of course, take their name from sharing the color of the robes of Roman Catholic cardinals. The word cardinal originally evolved from the Late Latin cardinalis which meant principal or primary. The cardinals of the church were principal leaders, and the word evolved to also refer to the color red because of the color of the cardinals’ ecclesiastical garb.

The Vesper Sparrow takes its name from the Latin for evening, and particularly from its habit of singing in the evening, which was like the bell tolling for Vespers, the worship service held in the late afternoon or evening in many Western Christian churches.

The Resplendent Quetzal is named for its long flowing upper tail covert feathers that make a genuinely resplendent train—Quetzal comes from quetzalli in an American Spanish dialect, meaning large brilliant tail feather. The bird’s name is inextricably linked with Quetzalcoatl, a god of the Toltecs and Aztecs and one of the manifestations of the sun god Tezcatlipoca, and is represented as a plumed serpent.

The Sacred Ibis of Africa and Asia got its name from the veneration of this species by ancient Egyptians. Brilliant plumage and long tail feathers gave the Birds of Paradise their names by people impressed by the heavenly aspect of these birds of New Guinea. Tropical nunbirds and monklets take their name from their plain attire, reminiscent of the plain habits worn by nuns and monks.

Something about birds—their ethereal flight, lovely plumage, beautiful voices—inspires us. Small wonder that so many birds remind people of religious symbols, and carry our thoughts heavenward, where even angels are depicted with bird wings.