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.
When comedians mock birders, they inevitably invoke this medium-sized woodpecker. On “The Beverly Hillbillies,” for example, the character Jane Hathaway constantly searches for the bird around the mansion — never mind that in real life it almost never strays to southern California. And on “The Honeymooners,” the character Ed Norton observes one in New York City’s Central Park (while erroneously stating that sapsuckers are not supposed to be within 3,000 miles of there).
Even as many birders bristle at the jokes, which generally portray them as socially awkward nerds, they admit that the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does have comic potential. “[It] sounds like a name you’re calling someone when you make fun of them,” says Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director.
Besides being silly, the name is also inaccurate. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers’ underparts are typically more off-white, or at best yellow-tinged, than truly yellow. Moreover, although they eat sap, they lap it up with their tongues rather than sucking it.Photo by Frode Jacobsen/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.
“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].