Thursday, September 18, 2014

Let's Give Some Birds Their Dignity Back

Let's face it, the names of some birds are better than others.  In fact, one could argue (that one being me, perhaps, after a cocktail or two) that MOST common names of birds are pretty lame.  I'd put the common names of birds into eleven categories, ranked here from best to worst:

  • Originals: These are one-word English names unique to a single species.  Killdeer.  Whimbrel.  Anhinga.  Bufflehead.  Like humans with single names - your Madonnas and your Bonos - these guys are clearly the coolest.  No sharing.  No confusion.  When you look them up in the index, they are a single line, not indented and listed with their cousins under a family name. (Note: before Rick Wright corrects me, I get that a lot of these names were probably descriptive somewhere back in their etymological past, but I'm only concerned with modern English [er, not Modern English, though I do like that song, I mean the actual modern usage of the English language]).

  • People Birds: These are birds named after people.  Townsend's Warbler.  Ross's Goose.  Blackburnian Warbler (which I did not know were People Birds). These are close to something original, because the human name has nothing actually to do with the species.  I like these.

  • Description-Positive: These are birds that have a descriptive first name (first name? Is that the correct term?), but it's at least a positive description.  There are not many of these, unfortunately.  Magnificent Hummingbird.  King Eider. I am also including in this category birds that are named after colors OTHER than primary colors (I'm going with black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, and gray) because they're often cool words that people don't get to use very often, unless you work at a paint story or at Crayola.  Roseate Spoonbill. Cerulean Warbler. Dusky Flycatcher. Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

  • Location-Specific: These are birds named after geographic locations no higher than state-level.  Mississippi Kite.  Baltimore Oriole.  Savannah Sparrow.   They have a broad appeal but they aren't sellouts.  The Baltimore Oriole is like Natty Boh (ie cool), while an American Crow is like Bud Light (accessible and, frankly, very tasty [and I'm not going to get into an argument about it right now] but not "cool" no matter what their commercials try to say).

  • Song Birds: Birds named after the noises they make typically end up with cool names, so I'm going to list them separate.  Good on them.  Whooper Swan.  Song Sparrow.  Mourning Dove.

  • Diet and Habitat: We're getting into the lame ones now.  These are birds that are just named after something they eat or a specific type of habitat they live in.  There is at least some thought put into the specific species, unlike some of the ones below.  Snail Kite.  Sedge Wren. Wood Duck.

  • Description-Neutral: Most birds are in here, I'd say.  These are either birds named after primary colors (I'll do one for each of the colors I listed: Black Scoter; Gray Flycatcher; Yellow Warbler; Red Crossbill; Green Heron; Blue Jay; Brown Booby; White Ibis), or primary-colored body parts (Black-headed Grosbeak; Gray-crowned Rosy-finch; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; Red-tailed Hawk; Green-winged Teal; Blue-crowned Parakeet; Brown-headed Nuthatch; White-winged Scoter).  This also includes birds named after some physical feature, such as Crested Auklet, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel; Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, or Tufted Puffin.  These are just descriptions, nothing more, nothing less.

  • Location-General: Birds named after countries, regions, oceans and cardinal directions.  Snoozefest, am I right? American Crow. Boring. Western Tanager. Boring. Atlantic Puffin. Boring. Northern Hawk-owl. Boring.  Let's put a bit more imagination into it, no?

  • Comparative-Positive: These are birds named in relation to other birds.  Their identity only exists in relation to something else.  However, at least they came out on top.  It's mostly birds with "greater" in their name, as I include "kings" in the Description-Positive group because kings are important. Greater Roadrunner.  Greater-prairie Chicken.

  • Commoners: All birds called "common" somethings are just awful.  You know that feeling when you're on a bird walk and some novice birder sees a bird and gets excited and asks what it is and you're like "it's a common yellowthroat" and they're like "oh, just some common bird?"  Well that feeling sucks, for both of you.  I hate "common" birds.  Common Grackle.  Common Raven.

  • Comparative-Negative: But at least "common" isn't a straight up insult.  Comparative-Negative birds only exist in relation to something else, and that something else is better.  It was a jerk move by our birding ancestors to name these guys they way they did.  Least Sandpiper.  Lesser Goldfinch. Lesser Scaup. [Note: some birds - Elf Owl and Little Gull - can be named after their small size without being insulted.  I put these birds in the Description-Neutral category].
So, those are the categories.  It's not an exact science, but it's pretty inclusive in the end.  But I'm not just here today to break up bird names, I'm here to help.  I feel bad for all the birds in the Commoners and Comparative-Negative categories, and I want to fix them up right.  There are plenty of words that can get the same ideas across without being insulting - or at least without copying the first name of another bird.  Let's give it a shot.  Here's a list of formerly "common" species with new names that I found in some online thesaurus.  There may be SOME repeats, but there are a lot of commons out there (I'm not going to do rare ABA birds like Common Sandpiper).
  • Frequent Eider
  • Everyday Gallinule
  • Customary Goldeneye
  • Prevalent Grackle
  • Casual Ground-dove
  • Natural Loon
  • Conventional Merganser
  • Probable Murre
  • Daily Nighthawk (I like the irony in that one)
  • General Raven
  • Stock Redpoll
  • Accepted Tern
  • Familiar Yellowthroat
Aren't those better?  They're all unique names, without betraying the idea that they are abundant.  Let's be the change we want to see in ourselves.

Here are some for Lesser and Least birds, trying to give them some damn dignity back.  I'm ditching the whole "comparative" angle here when I can and just giving them names based on their small size.
  • Wee Bittern
  • Toy Flycatcher
  • Dinky Grebe (still kind of an insult, but wouldn't you want to see the Dinky Grebe?)
  • Mini Sandpiper
  • Bantam Tern
  • Scant Black-backed Gull
  • Elfin Goldfinch
  • Peanut Nighthawk
  • Petite Prairie-chicken
  • Minute Scaup
  • Snub Yellowlegs
I wish all those birds were real so I could go find them.  They're all turned from losers into hipster winners.  Let's make it happen.


Greg M. said...

I'm glad to see that my favorite bird name, Dickcissel, fits into your top category.

Also, how about Bohemian Waxwing? Named after both a location and/or behavior as well as a physical characteristic, but stylistically cool on both counts?

NickL said...


Yes, Dickcissel is on the short list of fantastic bird names.

Ah, Bohemian Waxwing is a tough one. First, let's get this straight - it's a good name. That type of gut reaction is helpful for tough names like this. Say what you will about bohemians, but I'd put this in the Description-Positive category.

Rick Wright said...

Minute Scaup: a recipe from the Quik N EZ cookbook.
[winking symbol]

Alex MacKenzie said...

My favorite bird name is Wandering Tattler. Coolest one out there, if you ask me.

I'm also fond of the ones who get to have middle names -- American White Pelicans kind of override the boring, general description by snagging two at a time.

I'd love to see a Dinky Grebe!

Laurence Butler said...

Nice, wry and insightful as always.

On a side note, another nice (very nice) synonym for the everyday birds is "quotidian."

The Quotidian Redshank--now there's a bird for which I would kill another man and stand on his corpse to see (to be fair, that holds true for any Redshank).

amr said...

1. Don't forget inapt location.
Connecticut, Nashville, Tennessee, and Cape May Warblers.

2. Maybe any introduced species with "European" or "Eurasian" in its name should have "Invasive" instead. Or even if not those words.
Invasive Starling
Invasive Collared-Dove
Invasive Pigeon
Invasive Sparrow
Invasive Tree-Sparrow

amr said...

3. In Britain, any "common" or "Eurasian" lacks that descriptor. So: Starling, Swallow (Barn Sw. to Americans), Bittern, Eider, Redpoll, Goosander (not Merganser for some reason), Robin, Raven, etc. That solves one problem but introduces confusion.

4. One problem is when other species in different parts of the world have the same name, so distinction is required.
The Gray Catbird could just be the Catbird in North America,
Northern Cardinals could be just Cardinals,
Northern Hawk-Owl could be the Hawk-Owl (which looks wonderful with the hyphen, much less without).

NickL said...

Thanks Amr. I respectfully disagree with your point about inapt locations. I LOVE birds that are named after random locations and can, after a cocktail or two, forcefully argue that in some cases these birds should be the state bird for their representative locations.

And don't get me started on UK bird names. It's imperialism!

Andrew Durso said...

I was trying to decide whether 'Mallard' belonged in the first category; it meets the linguistic criteria, if not the gut reaction one.

Also, re: the Invasive comment, those birds would have to go by that name in their native range as well, which doesn't make sense.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

i like the name brown booby

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