10 great birds with bad names

Most bird names make perfect sense. The Acorn Woodpecker really does love acorns. The Red-winged Blackbird is literally a red-winged black bird. And the California Towhee resides almost exclusively in its namesake state (plus Baja California in Mexico).

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Some bird names, however, stand out for their sheer inanity. Whether inaccurate, misleading, vaguely vulgar, or just plain goofy, they beg the question: “What were people thinking when they named these birds?”

“There’s nothing sillier than real bird names,” says British birder Patrick Baglee, “the irony being that any bird name someone makes up off the cuff (very often along the lines of ‘lesser spotted babbler’) is rarely as silly as some of the actual names we use day in and day out.”

Here are 10 of the lousiest North American bird names, as selected by a panel of experts, including BirdWatching columnists.

1. Ring-necked Duck

1. Ring-necked Duck
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Birders who score a close-up view of a male in ideal light — and squint intensely — might notice a cinnamon band around the neck of this diving duck. That said, this unremarkable little collar is just about worthless as a field mark. All the more confounding: Both sexes have an obvious and diagnostic field mark mere inches away — a white ring near the tip of the bill.

“Like just about everyone, I’d change the Ring-necked Duck to either the Ring-billed Duck or the Subtly-purple-ring-around-the-neck Duck,” says radio personality and author Laura Erickson, who writes the Attracting Birds column for this magazine.

Hunters already refer to the bird as the “Ringbill.” Yet the American Ornithological Society, which publishes the official North American checklist, has declined to get on board. Just two years ago, its North American classification committee unanimously rejected a proposal to change the Ring-necked Duck’s name, citing its policy of retaining well-established monikers — even when not precisely accurate or appropriate — for the sake of nomenclature consistency.

“If we started from scratch, we would all vote that Ring-billed Duck is a better name,” says Terry Chesser, who chairs the classification committee. “But in general, we don’t just change names because we can think of a better one.” He adds that if they started doing so, “it would be a cascade, it would never end, and it would be permanent instability in bird names…and that’s what we try to avoid.”

Photo by vagabond54/Shutterstock


Bad bird names around the world

If anything, birds on the other six continents have even more ludicrous names than their North American counterparts. Here’s a small sampling that our experts came up with.

1. Smew

“The Big Year” co-stars Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson reputedly fell over laughing when they heard the name of this Eurasian duck, a close relative of the mergansers.

2. Tinkling Cisticola

As Ken Chaya, a tree and bird whiz who recently visited South Africa, notes, this name “sounds like a refreshing soft drink.” Other cisticola names are just as odd and colorful. “In Africa, the cisticolas are ridiculous,” says Noah Strycker, who in 2015 smashed a world record by seeing 6,042 bird species in a single year. “How can anyone keep the Winding, Wailing, Zitting, Singing, Whistling, Trilling, Bubbling, Rattling, Churring, Siffling, Tinkling, Chirping, and Croaking Cisticolas straight?”

3. Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler

“Is there a sillier name?” Audubon’s Geoff LeBaron asks of this brown songbird, which inhabits lowland forests in Southeast Asia.

4. Tropical Boubou

“Be sure to clean it and put on a Band-Aid,” Chaya jokes of this black-and-white African species, a member of the bushshrike family.

5. Kentish Plover

Baglee laments this name’s lack of ambition. Moreover, as he points out, “for British birders it’s a sadly accurate way of describing the species. It’s barely an annual occurrence in Kent these days (having once been a breeding bird in the county), so you could argue it is not truly a bird of Kent — just Kent-ish.”

Have other suggestions for bad bird names? Send them to [email protected].

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Jesse Greenspan

Jesse Greenspan is a Berkeley-based freelance journalist who writes about history and the environment. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Audubon, the History Channel, and other outlets.

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