Bird Names That Make You Go – Sorry, What Was That?

Bird Names That Make You Go – Sorry, What Was That?

Funny Bird Names - Dickcissel. Courtesy of Patti McNeal, Wikimedia Commons

You know how it is, you’re casually leafing through your field guide or scrolling through your ID app, and you come across a bird that has the most ridiculous name, you can’t help but wonder about the sanity of the person who bestowed it. In today’s blog we revisit the weird and wonderful world of avian nomenclature.

Many of us know all about tits, boobies, cocks and peckers. You just have to be in the right place at the right time to see the wonders of nature out there, hopefully with your binoculars or a zoom lens on your camera so you can get a really good look at them all.

Coal tit. Courtesy of nottsexminer, Wikimedia Commons

Wait – hold up. Why are you looking so shocked? We’re talking about birds, right? What are you talking about?

It’s no secret there are some frankly daft names for birds out there, and we’ve already taken a look at some right howlers in a previous post, here. But bird nomenclature is the gift that keeps on giving, so we’re back for another look at seven more choice names for our feathered friends.


Launching right in and keeping with the smut theme, the dickcissel is in fact a chunky bunting who inhabits the grasslands of the North American prairies. Males like to perch atop fences, posts, and shrubby trees, belting out their buzzing song, “dik-dik-ceessa-ceessa” – lending this bird its name, of course. It’s a short song, but hard to miss, and the same can be said for their flock sizes as fall migration approaches, coming together in their thousands – even millions – before heading off to wintering grounds in South America.

Dickcissel. Courtesy of Christopher King,

Drab seedeater

This well-named bird is endemic to Ecuador and Peru, places whose very names evoke mystery, adventure, color and pizazz. Not so for this little bird. Survival is foremost on any bird’s mind, and this one may well have scored big time with its plumage choice, blending in perfectly as it does with its environment. Classed as Least Concern and having an extensive range, indeed, its numbers are thought to be on the increase.

Drab Seedeater. Courtesy of Tony Castro, Wikimedia Commons

Pale and neutral buffs, whites and browns help this subtropical scrubland dweller thrive, hidden in plain sight, and despite its overall uninspiring coloring, distinctive white wing bars and a formidably chunky pink bill can help you identify the males of this species.

Great and Little Bustards

Two for the price of one, we present to you, the bustards. Not named for their lack of wedded parentage, bustards are large birds who inhabit grasslands of the Old World, making their nests directly on the dry ground leaving them quite open to predation. However, those that do make it from the fledgling stage have a wealth of resources to choose from – they are opportunistic generalists, feeding on just about anything they can get their beaks on. They are quite dramatic birds with flamboyant mating displays, but when not showing off, they prefer to walk or run rather than fly. The lazy bustards.

Little Bustards. Courtesy of Francesco Veronesi, Wikiedia Commons

Screaming cowbird

This name would not be out of place in an episode of Batman, circa 1966, shouted at Adam West by Burt Ward as the caped crusaders realize the extent of yet another of Penguin’s schemes to rule the world. However, in reality, the screaming cowbird is not an expression of dismay, but an actual species of bird with mildly iridescent black plumage who lives in the pasturelands of South America, living happily among the grazing ruminants there, hence “cowbird”.

These birds are brood parasites, i.e. they will place their eggs in another species nest for raising. The first part of their name comes from their propensity to shriek explosively and piercingly with rasp-like calls whenever they feel like it. Thankfully, even they may have some idea of just how startling they sound, as they usually only hang out in pairs.

Screaming cowbird. Courtesy of Cláudio Dias Timm, Wikimedia Commons

Satanic nightjar

A must for any etymology list, this devil in feather-form is of course anything but. Folklore has a lot to answer for, and ascribing acts of evil to frankly ponderous and somewhat shy birds is a bit harsh. Granted, nightjars are remarkably queer birds to look at, with their distinctive greyish brown-black striped and barred bodies and strangely flattened eyes and heads.

But that shouldn’t warrant a tarring of the family name. The Satanism here is thought to be attributed because of a peculiar noise this species makes when flying – a sort of plopping noise, which someone along the way decided sounded like the plucking of eyeballs from sockets. As you do. Taxonomists have elected to retain the name as it actually brings more attention to the bird, which in terms of conservation, is a good thing.

A pair of Satanic Nightjars. Courtesy of William Stephens, Wikimedia Commons


Did you see that perfect alley-oop! That was hard in the paint, a slam-dunk like that deserves all the boomshakalakas. Oh, what was that? A chachalaca?

Chachalacas are in fact heavy-bodied ground-feeding birds that wouldn’t be seen anywhere near a basketball hoop. Instead, they live out their lives roaming the wooded habitats of southern US, Mexico, and Central and South America.

Hanging out in packs of six to twelve individuals, they make an absurd amount of noise as they try to satiate their ravenous appetites for all things yummy – known as being agricultural pests, they can ravage your average yard in minutes as they forage for tomatoes, melons, beans, and radishes, all the while jabbering away to each other – chachalaca is a Nahuatl verb meaning to chatter.

Chachalaca. Courtesy of Bernard Dupont, Wikimedia Commons

Oleaginous hemispingus

All aboard the Hogwarts Express for the new school term, where your first steps into the Dark Arts will begin. Among other valuable lessons will be the very useful knowledge of how to get all that oleaginous hemispingus out of your cloak.

Sphenopsis frontalis or Oleaginous hemispingus. Courtesy of thibaudaronson, Wikimedia Commons

OK, rewind – not an oily smearing of fetid matter from some shadowland, the oleaginous hemispingus is in fact a species of tanager with a call that’s a bit like rubbing small balls of polystyrene together in a plastic bag. It has almost admirably dull yellow plumage with no discerning field marks whatsoever, except in some regions of its range among the dense forests of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, where a lighter yellow eyebrow could lead to it being mistaken for a Citrine warbler were it not for the chunkier body shape and stout bill. The oleaginous part of the name simply refers to the olive-coloured feathers, i.e. having the appearance of oil, and the hemispingus comes from the Greek for half, hemi, and finch, spingus – these tanagers look like finches; oily half-finches.

We hope you’ve enjoyed yet another installment of Men Who Were Bored with Naming Birds So Just Went for It, and if you can think of any other peculiar or eyebrow-raising names you think we’d like to hear, let us know!

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