What’s in a (Bird) Name? Part 1: The Common American Problem

Steve N. G. Howell

Have you ever seen this scenario: somebody has a great, scope-filling view of a life bird, perhaps even face-on and singing in beautiful light, but they are not quite happy. Why? Because the bird is called, say, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and they can’t see the yellow rump! The same people have no problem with Palm Warblers that are not in palms, or with Virginia’s Warbler – few birders know, or even care, who Virginia was. But they want to see that yellow rump, that handle that makes the identification somehow more solid.

And yes, I subscribe to the view that bird names should be capitalized – they convey information that a species is being talked about. A Yellow Warbler and not just any yellow warbler. Isn’t it odd that some people, whose own individual names are so important that they should be capitalized, do not even allow that a whole species of bird should be denoted by a capital letter? Just ask roger and jennifer what they think…

Bringing up the subject of English bird names can always spark opinions and ideas, take people’s minds off a quiet day’s birding. So, at the risk of offending some people, this three-part essay takes a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek look at the subject of English bird names.

The Common American Problem

If you watch birds in North America, how many Common Snipe or a Common Sandpipers have you seen? It’s actually quite possible you have never seen these “common” species in North America. How about Common Merganser, Common Tern, or Common Grackle? Depends on where you live. After a while you come to learn that “Common” actually appears to be short for “common where some mid-latitude Northern Hemisphere white people lived” but that’s a bit of a mouthful for an English name…: “Hey, I just saw a Common-where-some-mid-latitude Northern-Hemisphere-white-people-lived Grackle.” Rolls right off the tongue.

Where I live, in California, the common merganser is Red-breasted (then Hooded, with “Common” a poor third), the common tern is Forster’s, Caspian, or Elegant (depending on season), and the common grackle is Great-tailed. Or perhaps “common” is actually an acronym for “Creature Of My Mother’s Old Neighborhood” – that would be about as meaningful as how it is presently used.

And how about American Bittern, American Dipper, and American Coot? If you live in South America you won’t find these “American” species, but you will find other bitterns, dippers, and coots. Yet living there you would be saddled with names like South American Painted-snipe (the only painted-snipe in the Americas) and South American Tern. So why not North American Crow and North American Coot? After all, there are six species of coots endemic to South America, any one of which could just as well be called “American Coot” – but that would be as silly as calling “our” North American species simply the American Coot. Oh but wait, that’s what we do…

At least American Kestrels occur throughout the Americas, so that’s a reasonable use of American. More often, however, the myopic use of “American” in bird names is a legacy of geographic and ornithological ignorance and, some might say, arrogance.

Victims of History

As in so many things, when it comes to bird names we are often victims of history. Which is not always a bad thing. For example, in some cases English names commemorate historical persons, a fitting tribute to those who paved the way before us, from Abbott to Zeledon. In other cases, though, one just has to wonder. Clearly the people who came up with English bird names weren’t bothered by how birders might view the names. And the purpose of a name is, in theory, to allow communication, not necessarily to be perfect. After all, if the world were perfect, we humans wouldn’t be in it.

To be fair there are only so many short, descriptive English names one can come up with for birds such as sparrows: finely streaked sparrow, heavily streaked sparrow, black-streaked sparrow, brownish streaked sparrow…. You get the idea. So we might use geographic names (Savannah Sparrow – yes, named for the city in Georgia, not the grassland habitat), or name some after people (Henslow’s Sparrow), or habitats (Saltmarsh Sparrow), and so on.

For the most part it all works fine, at least when you have been birding a while and have learned the common names. Quickly enough, patently unhelpful English names like Song Sparrow (other sparrows don’t sing?!) are used without a second thought.

A photo of two American coots (note the lower case “c”): at back a Red-gartered Coot, and at front a White-winged Coot (note the white wings!). Central Chile, Nov 2011. © Steve N. G. Howell.

A photo of two American coots (note the lower case “c”): at back a Red-gartered Coot, and at front a White-winged Coot (note the white wings!). Central Chile, Nov 2011. © Steve N. G. Howell.

To be accurate, we might call this a Common-where-some-mid-latitude Northern-Hemisphere-white-people-lived Sandpiper. Lesvos, Greece, May 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

To be accurate, we might call this a Common-where-some-mid-latitude Northern-Hemisphere-white-people-lived Sandpiper. Lesvos, Greece, May 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Hey, that sparrow is singing… it must be a Song Sparrow. And in this case, you’d be right! Marin County, California, April 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Hey, that sparrow is singing… it must be a Song Sparrow. And in this case, you’d be right! Marin County, California, April 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

A favorite in the birder’s catalogue of dumb bird names: Note the “obvious” purplish ring on the neck of these Ring-necked Ducks (actually visible here!). And note the golden eyes – are they then goldeneyes? Either way, you certainly wouldn’t want to call them Ring-billed Ducks, that would be too logical and even perhaps helpful in the field. Marin County, California, Dec 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell.

A favorite in the birder’s catalogue of dumb bird names: Note the “obvious” purplish ring on the neck of these Ring-necked Ducks (actually visible here!). And note the golden eyes – are they then goldeneyes? Either way, you certainly wouldn’t want to call them Ring-billed Ducks, that would be too logical and even perhaps helpful in the field. Marin County, California, Dec 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell.