Bird Names

We independently evaluate all recommended products and services. If you click on links we provide, we may receive compensation.

painted image of a bird on a branch

There are a number of species of birds with widespread distributions such as the Peregrine Falcon, Mallard, and European Starling. Each has a designated scientific name, but all of the nearly 11,000 species of birds have an official common English name as well, as established by the International Ornithological Committee. So for every English-speaking country or individual, a common English name is established for each particular bird, eliminating any confusion among species. 

Not everyone speaks English, however, so there are still a variety of common names for one particular bird species in different countries. For example:

English PortugueseGermanRussianHungarian Polish
Barn Swallowandorinha decelerioRauchschwalbederevenskaya lastochkafusti fecskejaskolka stodola
Mallard pato selvgemStockentekryakvavadkaesakrzyzonka
Peregrine Falconfalco peregrineWanderfalkesapsanvandersolyomsokol wedrovny

It is not unusual for the one country to use different common names for the same bird species in that country, often varying with the region. In the U.S., the Northern Pintail is also called “sprig”, short for sprig-tail, a decorative sprig of holly or a sprig of thyme added to soup. The male American Wigeon, with a wide stripe down the center of its head has been called “baldpate.” The Northern Shoveler, with its spatulate bill, has several colloquial monikers such as “spoonbill,” “shoveler,” “daffy duck,” “Hollywood mallard,” and “smiling mallard.” The House Finch in sometimes called a “linnet” and the Northern Flicker a “yellowhammer.” The Gray Jay is a “whiskyjack” and the American Bittern a “thunder-pumper.” The Great Blue Heron in some parts of its range is known as “ol cranky,” the Evening Grosbeak as the English Parrot, the shrike as the “butcherbird,” and the Black-billed Magpie as the “Holstein pheasant,” because of its black and white plumage, like the dairy cattle breed.

In the U.K. the European Goldfinch was once called a “nicker knocker” and the Osprey a “bald buzzard.” What Americans call cormorants New Zealanders call shags.

Every bird in the world has an official common English name but no other major group of living or extinct organisms holds that distinction. (There are over a hundred common names of the perch Perca falviatilis, across the world, for example.) Maybe we should refer to organisms only by their scientific names, as we do with bacteria and slime molds, but pointing out a Melanerpes formicivorus hammering on a tree trunk might be a bit much for the average birdwatcher, so we stick with Acorn Woodpecker.

The convention, although not approved by some style manuals, is for bird-oriented publications to capitalize common English bird names. The practice is followed by the American Ornithological Union, the International Ornithological Committee, the Audubon Society, and many book publishers. Although a few factions continue to use lowercase, they are in the minority and declining. The reason for capitalization is clear: distinguishing the specific from the general. A White-throated Sparrow is a particular species; a white-throated sparrow is a sparrow with a white throat. A long-tailed tit is not necessarily the same as a Long-tailed Tit.

More on bird names next time.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.