Stupid Bird Names

In early May 2009, a variety of different birds migrated through my backyard, including a bird I’d never seen. The Alma College bird guru, whom I shall refer to as BirdNerd, later identified my new bird as a palm warbler. Being in Michigan, I was amazed to see a palm warbler on my pine tree, and wondered why in the world the palm warbler was named a palm warbler when there are no palm trees in Michigan. Why not call it a pine warbler since that’s where I saw it? Is it because the name pine warbler was already taken?

Palm warbler...on a pine tree
Palm warbler...on a pine tree

Then I wondered if maybe the palm warbler was found on palm trees in places where palm trees live, so in late May 2009, when the opportunity arose to visit Mark’s brother in Palm Springs, CA, I went in search of palm warblers. I scanned every single palm tree in Palm Springs in search of palm warblers. Did I find any? No. So I asked BirdNerd, who said the palm warblers had already migrated and were in the summer breeding grounds in northern Canada. When I pointed out that there are no palm trees in northern Canada, either, BirdNerd said that the bird was obviously named by someone hanging around their wintering grounds in the southeastern United States. But why, I asked, name a bird by its location at all? Why did anyone name a bird the Tennessee Warbler when that bird is seen in Michigan? Why not stick with a description of the warbler, like the aptly named black and white warbler? Clearly, everyone knows that a black and white warbler is black and white, whereas the lousy, amateur, part-time birder like me has to look at references to figure out what a Tennessee warbler looks like and figure out why it doesn’t sing in a southern twang.

As I was writing this, a flicker stopped by my feeder. I couldn’t help wonder, who named the flicker? It doesn’t flick anything. In fact, it did everything it could to stuff its beak with suet, and then packed the tip of its beak with a big wad before flying off. Nothing flicked off as it flew.

Northernn flicker
Northern flicker

The flicker is, in fact, a woodpecker. So why not call it the black-spotted, tan woodpecker? Everyone would know what it is and how it’s different from the poorly named downy woodpecker, which looks very much like the hairy woodpecker, only smaller. And why didn’t we name the downy the lesser black-and-white woodpecker and the hairy the greater black-and-white woodpecker?

Because, BirdNerd said, the ladderback is also black and white.

And it looks nothing like a ladder.

And did I mention that the hairy woodpecker doesn’t look hairy? It looks feathery.

BirdNerd and I agree that the northern flicker looks as if it were hand painted, each spot perfectly placed, each wavy line on its back unique, each line of yellow on its shafts precise, the beautiful red crescent behind its head and its black bib just perfect. I know I was amazed when I first saw one, and am still amazed today. So I can only surmise that most people that name birds were either so amazed by what they saw that they chose the first name that came to mind, or they were drunk. Or perhaps both.

I can imagine two drunk biologists sitting outside the porch of their deer camp. Upon seeing a beautiful tan bird with black spots and wavey, yellow lines, a black bib and red smear on it, one of the drunk biologists slurs: “D’you see that birdie?”

The other one looks up slowly. “Ya mean that thing that just flickered away?”

To which the first replies, “That’s a great name for that bird!”

It’s as logical as the name given the palm warbler, sitting on a pine tree in my backyard.

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10 years ago

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