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More on Colonial Bird Names

One wonders how and why English names of birds change. Some changes occurred because relationships were uncertain when the birds were first named. For others, species were named because of superficial similarities to Old World birds – thrashers were originally called thrushes, and many warblers were called flycatchers. Some species were given more than one name by different writers. It is a complex subject, but let’s just have some fun. A few weeks back I wrote about some interesting bird names I came across from colonial times. Apparently you, my faithful readers, liked that, so I thought I’d add more to this interesting list. Now some of these aren’t too hard. For example, the Swamp Blackbird, Baldpate, Bluebill, Butcherbird and Chewink aren’t hard to figure out as these names are still in use today. I’ll reveal their identity at the end of this column in case they’re not as easy as I suggest. But what of the Burrion or Bay-winged Bunting? The former is a common bird that comes to our feeders and looks a bit like a Purple Finch. Until the early 1980s it was not even present in Ontario but now is widely spread. The other one is a bit trickier. We know that often sparrows and buntings are one and the same (e.g. Europeans call many of our sparrows buntings), but what kind? The only clue we have is that “bay” means rusty coloured. A careful study of fields guides will show that one Ontario sparrow does indeed have a rusty shoulder patch.

Late in the day, when the sun is about to set, we might hear the “peent” of an invisible bird as it flies high overhead. Hard as we try we can’t see it, but our older companion says confidently “that’s a Bull-bat” – really? As we continue our journey, I see a Fly-up-the-creek or Shite-poke as it is sometimes known, and wonder what it can be? Assuredly it likes water and can be found all over North and Central America. A cousin can be found in South America and even Eurasia. It likes to stealthily hunt small fish as it perches streamside.

Right now small numbers of Specklebelly are steaming through. Mostly a western species, this large bird is hunted annually, both on the Prairies and in the Arctic. Here’s a tough one – the South-southerly is an odd duck, so to speak. It used to be called a name that reminds of indigenous people, but in respect of those who were here long before us, its name was changed a few years ago to better reflect its field characteristics. The Snowbird and the Snowflake are two very different birds, but both occur here every winter. The first arrives at our feeders in October and stays until April, adding brightness to our wintry landscapes. Its musical trill is a delight in the spring. The Snowflake is aptly named as it flits over frozen barren fields, like so many snowflakes – often appearing in the thousands. Nearing the coast of an inland lake, I spy a beautiful white bird dancing over the waves and periodically plunging into the water. It seems so small and delicate, and I realize I’m looking at a Sea-swallow. How delightful! Now to finish off this segment, what do all of the following have in common – Black-backed, Cape, Carolinian, Northwestern, Rocky Mountain, San Lucas and Western Robin? They are all names for our familiar American Robin!

Answers: Swamp Blackbird – Red-winged Blackbird; Baldpate – American Wigeon (a duck); Bluebill – Greater or Lesser Scaup (also ducks); Butcherbird – Loggerhead or Northern Shrike; Chewink – Eastern Towhee; Burrion – House Finch; Bay-winged Bunting – Vesper Sparrow; Bull-bat – Common Nighthawk; Fly-up-the-creek/Shite-poke – Green Heron; Specklebelly – White-fronted Goose; South-southerly – Long-tailed Duck; Snowbird – Dark-eyed Junco; Snowflake – Snow Bunting; Sea-swallow – Common Tern.

Now I know that not all of you are birders so even these common names may be new to you. But if you aspire to be birder (and who doesn’t) maybe this will inspire you to look up some of the species you can find hereabouts. Have fun and let’s go birding. Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at and on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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