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.

4. Connecticut Warbler

4. Connecticut Warbler
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Judging from its name, one would expect the Nutmeg State to be overrun with this gray-hooded songbird. In reality, though, at best a couple of migrating stragglers make landfall there each year. Want to see a Connecticut Warbler? Make sure to avoid Connecticut and head to Manitoba or Ontario instead.

Tennessee, Nashville, and Cape May Warblers likewise have inappropriate geographical monikers, since they don’t nest or winter anywhere near those respective locations (though they do migrate through). The fault lies with Alexander Wilson, the so-called father of American ornithology, who in the early 1800s named all four of these species after the places where specimens were first collected.

Other ornithologists, not Wilson, can be blamed for the Palm Warbler (no proclivity for palm trees) and the Olive Warbler (not really olive colored or a warbler). Yet it was once again Wilson who misnamed the Magnolia Warbler, generally found nowhere near magnolia trees, and the Prairie Warbler, which doesn’t live on the prairie. His blunder would reverberate in Hollywood nearly two centuries later, when the makers of the Oscar-winning Western “Unforgiven,” starring Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, naively slipped a Prairie Warbler song into the soundtrack.

“Apparently, the people who were doing the movie, instead of just grabbing the most exotic bird song they could find, like kookaburra or loon — which you hear all the time in movies — they actually went through the trouble of looking at bird names and trying to find something that seemed appropriate,” Chesser laughs. “But they didn’t find out whether the name was accurate or not.”

Photo by Glenn Bartley


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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