Bird Names 101

Bird Names 101

European robin. Photo taken with Bird Buddy Smart Bird Feeder

With at least 10,000 known bird species in the world, there are an awful lot of different names out there, often for the same bird. In today’s blog, we look at how bird naming has developed over time and how knowing where the bird is from affects its name, and whether you need to follow suit, or just stick with what you know.

Naming bird names

Taxonomy, derived from the Greek words "taxis" (arrangement) and "nomos" (law), is the science of classification. Like all organisms, birds are classified hierarchically, with the highest level being the kingdom Animalia, followed by the phylum Chordata, the class Aves, and subsequently various orders, families, genera, and then species.

This systematic arrangement enables scientists and birders to understand the relationships between different bird species.

European goldfinch or Carduelis carduelis. Photo taken with Bird Buddy

Scientific bird names have followed the same binomial or two-word structure for centuries, but for some, the Latin and Greek can be a little off-putting and intimidating, and the last thing we want to do is scare away potential birders. There’s a lot to be said about learning scientific bird names, as it can give you incredible insight into their history and behavior, but on the whole there is no necessity to know them.

In order to familiarize ourselves with all the different bird species we may encounter, many of us use the English ‘common names’. Folkloric bird names can be heard in every country and will vary hugely across those countries, but it is generally understood and accepted that their common names unifies everyone.

Kea. Courtesy of Makalu, Unsplash

Common bird names don’t adhere to the scientific two-word structure, and there is no regulatory body that decrees how long a bird name can be, which is why on the one hand you can have a Kea, a type of New Zealand parrot, and on the other hand, the East Indian Wandering Whistling Duck. What we can tell from this latter name is at least where the duck lives, and that it probably wanders, and whistles as it does so.

Where in the world

Nowadays, particularly with the rise in birding interest across the globe as more of us are turning our focus back to nature, people are noting that a bird they once simply knew as, for example, a crow, can actually be something different to someone else.

Due to the spectacular advances in artificially intelligent ID apps like Merlin and BirdNet now widely available across the planet, it is increasingly common to encounter birds referred to as Eurasian, European, or American. These designations provide crucial information about the geographic origins or distributions of bird species.

Eurasian jay. Photo taken with Bird Buddy

The term "Eurasian" is used to describe bird species that inhabit the vast landmass spanning Europe and Asia like the Eurasian magpie, Eurasian sparrowhawk, and Eurasian blackbird, all found in ecosystems as diverse as the frozen tundra of Siberia to the lush Mediterranean landscapes of southern Europe.

Similarly, "European" species will be those primarily found within the political boundaries of Europe. The European robin is a perfect example of how New and Old Worlds collide and confuse. When Bird Buddy was first launched on Kickstarter at the end of 2020, the image of a European robin was used in promotional social media materials, but the label simply said robin. This is because the creators of the feeder are from Europe, and robin is the default name there.

European robin. Photo taken with Bird Buddy

Despite their famously avant-garde stereotypes, Europeans don’t tend to go around saying “the from-here bird”. But a US Facebook user pointed out — rightly, to them – that it wasn’t a robin at all, and what did Bird Buddy think they were doing releasing a bird feeder if they didn’t even know their birds?

But this posed a perfect learning opportunity – once clarified, by the end of the discussion everyone on the thread knew the teeny round Old World member of the flycatcher family in Europe gave its name to the upright and significantly larger thrush, on account of their red breasts, which reminded the European settlers of their little Christmas card bird back home.

On the other side of the Atlantic, bird species on the continents of North and South America bear a similar prefix. As well as the American robin, we also find the American crow, American kestrel, and the American goldfinch, all species who have a name-equivalent in Europe or Asia but are completely different birds.

American robin. Photo taken with Bird Buddy

Then there are the birds who are everywhere, and where you are determines what you can call them. Take the starling, a highly sociable, sometimes black, sometimes iridescent purple and green but always characterful bird. This highly successful species now dominates much of the world, beginning as native to Europe and across the Palearctic region all the way to the east in Mongolia, but is now found in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa and Fiji. In 1758 Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, described it as Sturnus vulgaris, where the Latin sturnus and Old English staer means of the stars and vulgaris means common.

So, in its native range, it is referred to as either the common starling, or simply starling in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but in North America it is often referred to as the European starling, to indicate that’s where it was originally from; using this name also imparts the unsaid information that it is in fact an invasive species.

European starling. Photo taken with Bird Buddy

You do you

The global interest in birds has soared high especially since the pandemic, which means there is a vast range of knowledge and experience out there among our fellow birders, the majority of whom are most likely to be casual birders with a couple of feeders in their backyard simply taking in all that avian beauty. For this reason, the bird names need to be accessible for all, to fit with all the different perspectives and learning styles out there. There is no strict requirement to have your Latin or Greek binomial glossary fully stocked to know which bird it is on your feeder – if you know it as a white and black pointy thing, perfect; if you know it’s a nuthatch, also perfect.

If you know it as a white-breasted nuthatch, again, equally perfect, and if you know it as a devil-downhead then kudos to you for your folk name knowledge. Knowing it is also called Sitta carolinensis is useful if you are writing a research paper about it and want to research its origins but just using the name you are happy with is a great place to start, and if your interest develops further then you can make way for the scientific bird names and begin a fascinating journey into the intricate web of avian diversity.

White-breasted nuthatch. Photo taken with Bird Buddy

The power of bird names

The birds, of course, don’t know or care what you call them; but of course it isn’t about that. Being able to talk to each other about our favorite subject is what matters, and whether we choose to use their common name or a shortened version of that name like robin or sparrow or starling is a personal choice, and each choice deserves equal respect. Some see using the full common name as an educational tool, or others use a certain name as that’s all they’ve known, it just comes out in the same way we’d say the word dog when pointing at a Labrador or a Shih Tzu. After all, even if we’re just talking about birds, that’s amazing enough, and the more we can learn about them through their many and varied bird names, the better chance they stand of being cared about and conserved for everyone’s benefit.

House sparrow. Photo taken with Bird Buddy

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