Spring is on the horizon and birds are starting to trickle back to Canada to breed. I always get a bit antsy this time of year so I try to amuse myself, to while away the time.
I came across a fascinating compilation of obsolete bird names. Over the centuries, birds have been named by various ornithologists, bird fanciers, and publishers, who try to reflect their appearance or behaviour. Sometimes these names persist for centuries, others last only months or years. As we learn more about birds and their inter-relationships, the bird names become more useful, but not always.
Here is a sampling of some birds, occurring in our area, which once sported names quite different than what we might call them today. I will introduce each one at the start of the article then identify it for you at the end, to give you some time to try to figure it out. Don’t just Google the answer. That’s too easy.
The Bogsucker is a unique bird, who will arrive here any day now. It favours a diet of worms and will probe for them with its long beak. It has a comical walk that makes it look like its feet are stuck to the ground, and with each step must break free of the soil.
The Golden-crowned Thrush likes similar habitats and is a unique little bird that isn’t even a thrush, but rather a warbler who thinks it is a thrush. It makes a unique covered nest deep in the darkest forest.
The Wax-chatterer is an uncommon bird, most years, but sometimes comes through in huge numbers in the winter. This year many stayed in North Durham to feed on berries.
The Yellow Redpoll cannot be found here in winter, like its namesakes, but it certainly will pass through in large numbers later this spring, on its way to the north. It doesn’t like palms but has something in common with them.
The Black Woodcock is a large forest bird, which is not a woodcock at all. Its long pointed beak and cacophonous call ring out through the dense forest as it calls to its mate.
The Tell-tale can only be seen in migration, as it nests in the Canadian Arctic in trees. To see it or its smaller cousin we should look on the mudflats by our lagoons.
Now here’s a tough one; the Bartramian Tattler is a field bird, who likes fence posts and whistles like a wolf to attract its mate. Its numbers are plummeting in our area, but there are some strongholds where we can still find good numbers of them.
The White-bellied Swallow is one of the first to come back and is soon joined by its cousin the Eave Swallow; and yes, they are swallows.
This species in decline is the Mexican Starling, which is becoming rarer as we gobble up its habitat to build houses and intensively farm. Its melodic song is a joy to hear on a spring day.
The Phillip Sparrow is not native to North America and isn’t really a true sparrow at all, yet it is a common sight in our urban areas.
The Red-breasted Snipe is a beautiful bird of our shores and lagoons, but can only be seen in migration, on its way to Hudson Bay. It has a cousin who is very similar and they are often hard to tell apart. Similarly, the Grass Snipe is a transient, which will breed in the far north, and like its cousin isn’t a snipe at all, but rather another type of sandpiper, but what kind?
So there you have it – 13 oddly named birds that once made sense to those who studied them. I guess our names will also look odd to birders in the future. So how did you do naming them?
Here are the answers: Bogsucker – American Woodcock; Golden-crowned Thrush – Ovenbird; Wax-chatterer – Bohemian Waxwing; Yellow Red-poll – Palm Warbler; Black Woodcock – Pileated Woodpecker; Tell-tale – Greater Yellowlegs; Bartramian Tattler – Upland Sandpiper; White-bellied Swallow – Tree Swallow; Eave Swallow – Cliff Swallow; Mexican Starling – Eastern Meadowlark; Phillip Sparrow – House Sparrow; Red-breasted Snipe – Short-billed Dowitcher; Grass Snipe – Pectoral Sandpiper.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
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Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.