Onomatopoeia is not the only tool in our bird-naming toolkit, however. Appearance, behavior or habitat can also inspire the name of a bird. Spoonbills are named after the shape of their bill. Woodpeckers peck away at trees (although their name may also refer to their habitat). Sapsuckers go after sap in trees to get the insects that come with it. Nuthatches wedge a nut or seed inside a crevice and then hack away at it with their bill to get to the tasty kernel (the dictionary tells us that “hatch” is related to the word “hack”).
The descriptive words added to identify a species can themselves further describe appearance, habitat or behavior, or they can be the name of the scientist who identified the species. Townsend’s warbler is named after John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851), who first described that warbler; Bonaparte’s gull is named after French naturalist Charles Bonaparte (1803-1857), who lived most of his life in the United States and whose uncle was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. (Incidentally, names of bird species in scientific papers and field guides are normally capitalized; in these essays, we follow The Associated Press Stylebook and only capitalize proper names.)
Most bird names, however, don’t seem to describe those birds in any obvious way. What are we to make of names like owl, merganser, hawk, cormorant or sparrow, for example? Those are not words that we can readily take apart.
Language history to the rescue! If you go back in time, you’ll find that many of those words also described the sound, appearance or behavior of that bird. Owl goes back to an ancient word that was imitative of a wail and related to the word “ululate.” Merganser combines two Latin words that together mean “diving goose.” Hawk is related to an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to seize” and to the word “havoc” (long story). Cormorant is made up of two Latin words meaning “sea crow.” Finally, the Anglo-Saxon word ancestor of sparrow meant “flutterer” and was used to describe any small bird.
There are still many bird names whose origins are unclear. Linguists have several theories about the origin of swallow or heron, for example. Swallow may be related to a word describing the bird’s forked tail, and an older form of heron may ultimately be imitative of the heron’s croaky call, but linguists cannot say for certain. Word archeology doesn’t always unlock the secrets of languages and dialects of the past.
A delightful resource on the subject, if you can find a copy, is Ernest A. Choate’s “The Dictionary of American Bird Names,” first published in 1973 and revised in 1985 by Raymond Paynter Jr.
Words and birds: Life doesn’t get much better than that!
Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist and avid birder. He lives on Herron Island.