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.

5. Brown Booby

5. Brown Booby
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For the immature minded, it’s amazing how many bird names sound overtly sexual. The widespread tropical seabird Brown Booby arguably tops the list. The descriptor “booby,” however, has nothing to do with breasts. Instead, it’s a reference to the birds’ tameness, possibly based on the Spanish word “bobo,” meaning “fool” or “dunce.” “[Sailors] who were shipwrecked and hungry apparently took to easily nabbing and consuming these poor, unsuspecting birds,” says Lisa Fay Larson, a board member of the Santa Cruz Bird Club in California.

The Tufted Titmouse is another North American bird name sure to elicit giggles. “The tufted part is OK, but…no one wants to say a word with ‘tit’ in it,” Deutsch says. “This may sound silly, but when you are a novice birder, that’s one name you have to force yourself to say.”

On the other hand, the boobies, tits, Hairy Woodpeckers, shags (much funnier in Britain), and Dickcissels of the world do provide birders with much fodder for inside jokes. Larson explains, “At the risk of sounding suggestively crude, I like to say to my male birder friends if they are misbehaving, ‘Don't be such a Dickcissel!’”

Photo by Pascale Gueret/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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