Naming animal species is a traditional practice that dates back to ancient times. Today, it is a scientific process called taxonomy, a modern method of biological classification. Scientists and ornithologists classify birds based on closeness to their ancestral relationships.
Species are named using the taxonomic classification system which gives them scientific names based on their species and genus. Geographical location, behaviour, appearance and plumage, and distinct markings can are all used to give birds their common names.
Ornithologists make scientific estimations based on various factors, such as anatomy, biochemistry, geographical location, markings, and behavioural traits. Birds with a single species usually have similar appearance and functional abilities. However, they are also genetically identical.
In some cases, birds look similar but have different genetic makeups, creating arguments and debates among ornithologists to classify and name those species.
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You may know about birds with fantastic and enticing names. For example, the Long-billed Dowitcher and Black-throated blue Warbler have names describing their bodies’ appearance. Likewise, some names showcase the geographical location or habitat of the bird. These include American Avocet, Eastern Phoebe, and Northern Cardinal.
Some birds have names that describe their behaviour, such as Brown Creeper and Ruddy Turnstone. In this article, I will answer some of your questions about where birds get their names, including why some species are named after people, while others have birds based on their markings, behaviour, and habitat.
How Did Birds Get Their Name?
Common bird names create a lot of confusion among birds enthusiasts. For instance, some people call a house finch a Linnet and an American Goldfinch a Wild canary. Birds’ names vary from state to state in America.
However, names also vary from country to country. For example, people call two birds robins, but their species may differ. Scientists and ornithologists have created a sophisticated system to mitigate the confusion and provide each bird species with a scientific name.
The naming system focuses on genus and species, two words derived from ancient Greek and Latin languages. According to the American Ornithologists Union, giving one common name to each bird is crucial.
While this system is not feasible for naming birds in other countries, it is possible in the U.S because it has around 800 bird species.
Bear in mind that this naming system may not work for other creatures, such as plants, because the U.S has thousands of species. Research shows over 6,000 plant species in California alone.
Sometimes, ornithologists change birds’ names abruptly for unknown reasons. For example, a gallinule becomes moorhen, and a marsh hawk is called Northern Harrier.
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Why Do Some Birds Have Peoples Names?
Many birds in the United States got their common names a few centuries ago and are named after the person that discovered them.
Everyone knows about Cooper’s hawk, but few people know how this bird got its name? William Cooper was one of the most famous naturalists who played a substantial role in giving birds common names in the early 19th century.
Charles Lucien Bonaparte
Prince Charles in Lucien Bonaparte was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, a famous historical personality, emperor, and worrier in France. From a very young age, Charles took an interest in discovering and studying birds.
Unlike his emperor uncle, who conquered territories, Charles focused on ornithology. Charles was an intelligent person who discovered American Species before travelling to the United States. Some birds named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte are Bonaparte’s gull, Bonaparte’s parakeet, and Bonaparte’s nightjar.
You may have heard of Wilson’s Warbler, Wilson’s snipe, Wilson’s phalarope, Wilson’s Plover, and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. All these birds are named after Alexander Wilson, the father of American Ornithology.
John Porter McCown
Major-General Joh Porter McCown was in the Confederate Army who shot a bird near his home. The general shot an odd bird on the grassland. That’s why people call it McCown’s Longspur.
Robert Stockton Williamson
Robert Stockton Williamson was a lieutenant and had an enormous affection toward birds. Williamson surveyed northern Californian regions in the 19th century and discovered woodpeckers with colourful bodies. “Williamson’s Sapsucker” is named after Robert Stockton Williamson.
Meriwether Lewis was a 19th-century western explorer who first collected Montana’s bird species in 1805. It was a woodpecker later named in honour of Meriwether Lewis. The bird is commonly known as “Lewi’s Woodpecker.”
Princess Anna D’Essling
Although many birds are named after men, some birds were also named after women. For example, Princess Anna D’Essling was the duchess of Rivoli, and her husband collected the first specimen of a bird later named Anna’s Hummingbird.
Lucy Hunter Baird
Lucy’s Warbler got its name after Lucy Hunter Baird, the daughter of Spencer Fullerton Baird, a famous ornithologist who also has a few birds named after him, such as a sandpiper and a sparrow.
Bird Names based on Habitat, Markings, and Behavior
Birds are animals identified using numerous factors, such as beaks, wings, feathers, and laying eggs with hard shells. Research highlights over 9,000 bird species exist in the world.
Some species, such as hummingbirds, are the tiniest, with a length of no more than two inches. On the other hand, ostriches are flightless bird species with an average height of nine feet, making them the largest bird species on earth.
All birds belong to Aves (Animal Class) and Chordata (Phylum). Scientists classify birds as warm-blooded vertebrates with two legs, wings, feathers, and bills. While some species are named after the person who discovered them, others have names based on habitat, markings, and behaviour.
Hummingbirds got their name from the beautiful sound their wings make. Hummingbirds’ wings flap up to 80 times a second. Not only are hummingbirds the smallest bird species, but they also have a unique appearance: the bright iridescent colours on their chests and throats.
The word pigeon comes from the old French “Pijon,” which means “young bird.” The English name pigeon is derived from the French Pijon. Today, the pigeon is a common name used worldwide for the rock dove.
People commonly call this species bluebird because of its blue-coloured feathers. Bluebirds are beautiful birds and can be found in many gardens, with many gardeners in the U.S and other countries trying to attract these species.
The Northern Cardinal
Because this bird species’ habitat is North American woodlands and gardens, people call them the northern cardinal. However, people sometimes call this species the “redbird” because the male cardinal has red plumage around its bill.
The American Robin is one of the most abundantly found species in North America, hence called American robins. These are songbirds with a beautiful appearance, with a brownish-orange chest. However, American robins are different in appearance from European ones.
American Goldfinch is a small bird that got its name due to its yellow plumage. Keep in mind that plumage becomes more vibrant during the summer season. American Goldfinches migrate from Central America to North American regions during summer, including the U.S and Canada. However, most species return to Mexico to spend the winter.
The cuckoo is a beautiful bird with over 54 species worldwide. There are only two cuckoo species in Europe, while most live in Asia, Africa, and Australia. Research shows that the name “cuckoo” is poetic and taken from the sound this bird makes.
Lovebirds are a famous example of a name given to these species based on their behaviour. You will usually see lovebirds snuggling up on the perch giving them their unusual name.