What’s in a name? Vernacular designations for some birds lack imagination

I took part in a Christmas Bird Count last month. These annual mid-December surveys of bird populations are not quite as exciting as counts held during the spring or fall migration periods each year, but they can produce some interesting results. One exciting post-count activity after taking part in a CBC is getting together to compile the results tallied by the various participating groups and individuals. The results are usually compiled on field checklists for birds of Tennessee. These checklists, which are produced by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Ornithological Society, feature a listing of the common name of every bird species likely to be encountered in the state.

AmKestrel-Flight

Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

The compiler generally reads out the various names on the checklist, which lists all the local birds, beginning with black-bellied whistling duck and ending with house sparrow, and the spokespersons for the various parties respond as each bird’s name is called with the number of birds seen for each species. Over the years, some of the common names of birds featured on the list have changed, as has the position on the list for some of the species. For instance, the American kestrel and other falcons are no longer listed on the card in a grouping with the other raptors found in the state. This doesn’t make much sense to me. But, as I understand it, the falcons have been re-classified for scientific reasons, changing their relationship with the other birds listed on the checklists.

The falcons are not the only birds demoted from the grouping of raptors. The two native vultures — turkey vulture and black vulture — are now listed with herons and ibises instead of raptors. The falcons are now listed between the groupings of woodpeckers and flycatchers.

MaleTowhee-PIC

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance.

At least no expert has suggested a name change for any of the falcons. I dislike name changes, especially when we lose a descriptive name for a mundane one. That’s how we got relatively bland names like Eastern towhee instead of rufous-sided towhee and Northern flicker in place of yellow-shafted flicker. In fact, the American kestrel was once known as the sparrow hawk. The merlin and peregrine falcon, larger relatives of the kestrel, were once known as the pigeon hawk and duck hawk, respectively.

Common names are also known as “vernacular” names. Vernacular can be defined as the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people, which contrasts with the scientific names for species of birds that are usually only recognized by ornithologists or other experts. However, just like dialects, there can be a great deal of variety among common names for the same birds. Many of the common names for some of our favorite birds lack any vivid descriptiveness.

IMG_4080

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and cardinal grosbeak.

For instance, let’s take a look at the Northern cardinal, which has been known by such common names as cardinal bird, cardinal grosbeak, crested redbird, Kentucky cardinal, redbird, Virginia redbird and Virginia nightingale. The first thing that irritates me about the common name of this bird is that there is no Southern cardinal. So, why is this bird the “Northern” cardinal? The only other birds in the Cardinalis genus are the desert cardinal, also known as the pyrrhuloxia, and the vermilion cardinal. Both these relatives have arguably more interesting and descriptive names than their relative, which is a favorite of many birders and arguably better known to many people.

I can understand why Kentucky cardinal and Virginia redbird are not inclusive names since the Northern cardinal ranges far beyond the borders of these two states. On the other hand, cardinal grosbeak with its reference to the cardinal’s large beak, as well as crested redbird, are both more descriptive and creative than the rather nondescript Northern cardinal.

Of course, a literary great summed up the confusing attitude toward common names. “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare had Juliet ponder. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”800px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

I think The Bard was on to something. Whether we call a cardinal a redbird or a Virginia nightingale, it’s song will sound as sweet to our ears. The appearance of one of these birds on a gloomy day will elevate our mood whether we know the bird as cardinal grosbeak, Kentucky cardinal or, in scientific terminology, Cardinalis cardinalis.

 

BRISTOL HUMMERS DEPART

As promised, here’s an update on the hummingbirds that proved dutiful daily visitors to a sugar water feeder at the Bristol home of Ralph Beamer through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Early in the new year, Ralph notified me that the hummingbirds departed ahead of 2018’s arrival.

“We had a surprise on New Year’s Day,” Ralph wrote in an email. “The hummingbirds were gone. I am glad they left ahead of the extreme cold we have had the last few days.”

Ralph noted that he had a wonderful time watching them for the past three months. He is hopeful they will come back in the future, but figured that is probably wishful thinking.

Actually, some of these winter hummingbirds, which often turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, have proven quite faithful to favorite locations. Bird banders have recaptured some individual hummingbirds year after year in the same yards. During the stay of his visitors, Ralph shared photographs and videos with me of their visits to his feeders. I enjoyed receiving his periodic updates about them.

I emailed Ralph back and told him that these hummingbirds seem to also have a knack for knowing when to leave and suggested he keep an eye out for them again next fall.

••••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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