Just for the birds: Bird Names Across the Hemisphere — Part II – Idaho Press

Spangled cotinga by Mathias Appel.
Blue finch by Hector Bottai.
Violet-crowned hummingbird by Bettina Arrigoni.
Green-headed tanager by Nick Athanas.
Gray-fronted quail-dove by John Mangold.

Spangled cotinga by Mathias Appel.
Blue finch by Hector Bottai.
Violet-crowned hummingbird by Bettina Arrigoni.
Green-headed tanager by Nick Athanas.
Gray-fronted quail-dove by John Mangold.


This is the second column on the words used to name the 4,600 or so species of birds in the Western Hemisphere. As I pointed out in Part I, some color names are used often while others are rare. In fact, many good adjectives have never been used. The reasons for the choices early explorers, collectors and taxonomists made when describing new species of birds are not always obvious. But their focus was on scientific accuracy, not creative writing.
Continuing with some more colors, it’s not just shades of brown — rufous, buffy, brown, chestnut — that cause problems when trying to memorize names before a trip. I’ve also had trouble remembering whether the correct name included gray, slaty, dusky, or sooty, together used 178 times to describe birds with that subtle noncolor.
But for some of our taxonomists, even those terms weren’t unexciting enough. How else would we get “mouse-colored” (mouse-colored tapaculo) and “drab” (drab seedeater), not just once but four times each!? With this group, you get the double bonus of color names which aren’t useful to describe colors that are nondescript. And, while we’re at it, many tapaculos (65 species) are mouse-colored.
You may have noticed by now I have not yet addressed some major colors. Many of us memorized the order of colors in the visible spectrum by way of the old mnemonic Roy G. Biv — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. So, we’ve covered red and yellow. The other major colors have also been used, but not in frequencies matching black, white and yellow. These are: “orange” (34 times), “green” (58), “blue” (76), “indigo” (five) and “violet” (13). Check out the orange-throated tanager, green jay, blue finch, indigo bunting and violet-crowned hummingbird.
So, where do we find No. 4, rufous? It’s not in there because it’s not a color of light, it’s a pigment — different phenomenon. Pigment colors are much messier than spectrum colors, with the latter’s nice linear sequence of wavelengths. The color spectrum was worked out by Isaac Newton in 1671. Pigments weren’t organized and named for use in describing nature until Robert Ridgway came along. His 1912 publication, “Color Standards and Color Nomenclature,” has the subtitle, “With 53 Colored Plates and Eleven Hundred and Fifteen Named Colors.” 1,115 colors? Wow!
It’s probably just as well Ridgway wasn’t involved in naming many bird species. He was not satisfied with brown or buff. Rather, he described “brownish drab,” “brownish olive,” “brownish vinaceous,” and three others, including “buffy brown.” Then there is “buff-pink,” “buffy citrine,” “buffy olive” and “buff-yellow,” to name a few.
While we currently have 31 “dusky” somethings in the world of birds, Ridgway identified 28 different colors with “dusky” as the leading adjective, including “dusky dull bluish green.” I love the creativity in these color names, but had they been applied to birds, the memorization game would surely be much harder.
I also give Ridgway great credit for some color descriptors we need. I don’t know how you could describe quail doves without “light violet-plumbeous” or “pale dull glaucous-blue.” I’m pretty sure I would buy a “greenish slate-black” SUV.
Color is only one part of our bird names. Patterns are also fair game for nomenclature. I always thought there were more spotted (24), streaked (10), speckled (seven), lined (six) and variegated (four) birds out there. You don’t have to go too far to find a spotted towhee or even a streak-backed oriole. But a speckled spinetail or variegated flycatcher will cost you a plane ticket.
I’ve touched on color names and patterns, but let’s get back to the parts of the bird most used in bird names. The most important part is the tail. “Tailed” is No. 1 with 176 uses, for example, long-tailed duck and bar-tailed godwit. This strikes me as pretty interesting because, in the field, the tail is often harder to see than other parts.
Next up are “throated” (used 170 times), “billed” (142), “breasted” (119) and “bellied” (117). These make more sense to me as a birder because they are the parts I often see well. Black-throated sparrow, long-billed curlew, red-breasted merganser and black-bellied plover are all birds we can see around here.
Although “tailed” is the most popular part descriptor, the head has actually drawn the most attention. The problem is, like all the shades of brown taxonomists have chosen to recognize, they’ve also divvied up the head into a lot of parts. If we combine “headed,” “crowned,” “capped,” “crested,” “fronted,” “faced,” “browed,” “hooded” and “tufted,” we get a whopping 542 instances. No apologies needed if you can’t remember which brownish part of which part of the head you saw fleeing into the underbrush. That’s what we birders call fun!
Although we can make fun of taxonomists’ choices of color, pattern and body parts, those details are relatively interesting in comparison to the unfortunate use of boring geographic adjectives. “Eastern” (10), “southern” (14), and “western” (15) seem to have been assigned roughly by chance. It’s curious “northern” is much more common with 30 uses (northern shrike). The problem is these locations are all relative. East of what? North of what? Thanks for nothing. And thanks for giving us no other details about the bird itself. Did it have no color? No pattern? No body parts? Come on. These adjectives are dull (used three times).
More helpful than generic cardinal direction modifiers, are regional place names. “Andean” (26) is most frequent (Andean condor), followed by some form of “American” (23), “Peruvian” (19), “Cuban” (17), “Jamaican” (15) and “Amazonian” (12). Although, I have to point out if you are looking at birds, for example, in the Andes, it doesn’t help much to say some bird is the “Andean X.” Obviously, it is. Well, I exaggerate a little. I assume you could get a Cuban pewee in Jamaica.
I’ll save my last beef for the adjective, “common,” applied to 26 bird species in the Western Hemisphere. Common as compared to what? This is a term that does not belong in the name, but rather in the field guide’s description of how often you will see the bird. Relatives of this term are, “abundant,” “uncommon,” “rare,” “accidental” and a few others. None of these other terms are used in bird names.
The final piece in many of our bird names comes from the taxonomic category itself. Big groups tend to have big numbers, So, there are 184 tanagers (western tanager), 146 finches, 128 flycatchers, 88 woodpeckers and 88 warblers, for example. And while the tanagers are deprived of 27 euphonias (tanager family but not called tanagers) and the flycatchers 25 elaenias, no group gets robbed like the hummingbirds.
Taxonomists came up with a crazy variety of synonyms for this group. They’re all hummingbirds, but they’re not called hummingbirds. We have hermits (32), emeralds (29), woodstars (15), incas (13), sapphires (13), sabrewings (11), coquettes (11), hillstars (six), gems (six), sunbeams (four) and many others. I’ll give them extra credit for seven “starfrontlets.” I’m not kidding. Check out the blue-throated starfrontlet.
Despite the fact humans did all this naming, we didn’t name too many species after our friends. Alexander Wilson and John Cassin each have five species. John Todd Zimmer and Spencer Fullerton Baird garnered four each and John Kirk Townsend, three. Amazingly, John James Audubon was memorialized in only two common bird names in the entire Western Hemisphere — a shearwater and an oriole.
Adelaide, Bendire, Cook, Dinelli, Euler, Forster, Gambel, Hauxwell, Ihering, Johnson, Kaempfer, Leach, Manx, Nava, Olrog, Parodi, Quebracho, Raimondi, Salvin, Thayer, Urich, Vaux, Wied, Xantus, Yapacana and Zapata all have at least one more species named after them than I do. OK, I cheated just a little to get the whole alphabet. Find the one that is not a person.
In the end, the species most likely to occur in the Western Hemisphere, based on the most common color, part, and group of birds, does not exist — the black-tailed tanager. But perhaps this bird is skulking in some interior Andean valley, along with other should-be species, the white-throated finch and the yellow-billed flycatcher. I, for one, will be looking.
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