Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What's in a Name?

The other morning I was standing in my front yard, thinking of all the things left to do in the garden before winter comes, when a little bird flew to one of the locust trees and started climbing up the tree, its long, curved bill probing the bark.

A brown creeper. It is a common bird in New Jersey but I usually see them at this autumnal time of year either while hiking or raking leaves.

The brown creeper is aptly named because it is brown and creeps up the tree. Unlike the nuthatch, which walks up and down trees, the creeper only goes up. When done in one tree it flies to the bottom of the next and starts creeping up again.

Watching the creeper at its business I started thinking of the names of other birds I see regularly.

The chickadee, for instance, named for its chick-a-dee-dee-dee call. Or the cardinal, in its red robes. Or the towhee, so named because that is what it calls out when alarmed.

The phoebe calls its name, a thin fib-BIT. But the tufted titmouse also has a call where it sounds like it is calling phee-BEE, and another call where it says a rough dee-dee-dee like a chickadee. I knew I was getting somewhere as a birder when I learned to tell the raucous call of the titmouse from the calmer call of the chickadee.

Then there’s the redbellied woodpecker. The first time one of these came to my friend’s feeder she told me she had seen a redheaded woodpecker. If you saw the redbellied woodpecker you’d notice the fine red that runs along the head and down the back of the neck, too. But there already is a redheaded woodpecker whose entire head is red and whose body is solid black and white. Since the redbellied has a bit of pink on its belly, that became its name.

Black-throated blue, black-throated green and yellow warblers are aptly named for their plumage but warblers generally don’t warble. Palm warblers don’t live in palms, prairie warblers don’t stay in the prairie and the Cape May, Tennessee, Nashville and Kentucky warblers are more likely to be seen in New Hampshire than the states where they were allegedly first seen.

The harlequin duck is one of my favorites, unique in its clownlike coloring. But how did the duck now known as the longtailed duck get its first name of "old squaw?"

There’s the bluebird and louder and larger jay, which is also blue and usually called a blue jay. According to Diana Wells’ “100 Birds and How They Got Their Names,” jay comes from the old French word “jai” and likely refers to the bird’s “gay” plumage.

The catbird has a mewing call that can sound like a cat while its cousin the mockingbird uses the calls of other birds as though to mock them. (One can listen to a mockingbird and get an idea of what other birds are in the neighborhood.)

All very interesting, albeit confusing. The sad part is, most of the time a birder could care less about the bird‘s name and how it got there as long as he or she can put a check next to it on a life list.

It took a brown creeper to remind me to not only look at the bird but think about it, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment