Bird Names, Redux

Poospiza hypochondria

Let’s face it, birds have funny names. Prothonotary Warbler? Who came up with that? Phainopepla? Chachalaca? Kagu? Bengal Florican? OK, I know all of these common names make a certain amount of sense once you know their origin. Phainopepla, from the Greek, means “shining robe”, a reference to the sleek, glossy plumage of the male bird. Chachalaca is onomatopoetic – the bird was named after the sound it makes. The Northern Cardinal was named after the Catholic Church clerics. Tits were so named because of their small size, the word coming from titr, the Icelandic word for small. Boobies were named for their odd behavior, not for any body parts.

Of course, bird names lend themselves to a certain amount of satire and puns.

How about the Great Tit? Don’t say that in front of a group of sixth-graders. Or Cock-of-the-Rock. Or Dickcissel, Blue-footed Booby, Woodcock, Shag, Potoo, Goatsucker, or the Red-billed Oxpecker.

Either I or my ornithology students, usually both, would go on about seeing a hawk and saying “Isn’t he a buteo?” “Can you accipiter that?” Someone then says “I can’t believe what I am heron.” “I have no egrets.” One of my students asked “What bird is afraid of the dark?” the answer: the Black Phobie.” I made a comment one day on a field trip about seeing a Pied-eyed Grebe and I never heard the end of it. Then there was the time I handed out a list of birds, including the Worm-eating Warbler, only it got misspelled as Worpicating Warbler and that’s what it was all semester.

It’s hard to tell which funny bird names are real. How about the Black-billed Gnatsnatcher? Mustached Puffbird? The Spangled Drongo? Zitting Cisticola? Brown Trembler? Sandy Gallito? Ningbing False Antechinus? Bearded Mountaineer? Strange-tailed Tyrant? Black-throated Huet-huet? Agile Tit-tyrant? Fluffly-backed Tit-babbler? Which are real? Actually, all of them are real except the Black-billed Gnatsnatcher which is fictitious and the Ningbing False Antechinus which is real but is actually a marsupial mammal.

Some scientific names are a bit laughable as well. How about Turdus migratorius? The migrating thrush (American Robin) is what it means. Then there is Bugeranus carunculatus, the “ox crane with a piece of flesh”; it’s actually the Wattled Crane. Arses insularis is the Ochre-collared monarch, named for Arses, an ancient King of Persia. The Rufous-sided Warbling Finch, an endangered bird, is saddled with the scientific name of Poospiza hypochondria. Poo is actually from poa, meaning grass, and spiza, finch. The hypochondria name doesn’t mean that the bird has constant complaints about its health; hypochondria literally means under the ribs, where the bird has attractive red markings.

And my favorite, the Hoopoe, whose scientific name is Upupa epops and belongs to the family Upupidae and the order Upupiformes.

Hoopoe

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