How Birds Get Their Names

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I have been watching birds for most of my life and when you learn the name of something it becomes less mysterious.

Common names for birds can create confusion. Some people refer to American goldfinches as wild canaries and house finches as linnets. These names vary not only from state to state but also country to country. For example, two birds are commonly called robins. The one in France is quite different than the one in Virginia.

Scientists however have created a universal system that allows only one scientific name for each organism. These names consist of two words, a Genus and a species, that are usually derived from Latin or Ancient Greek. The European Robin is Erithacus rubecula and the American Robin is Turdus migratorius. Kids love that one... the migrating turd. But actually Turdus is Latin for thrush.

To minimize misunderstanding the American Ornithologists Union decides on exactly one acceptable common name for each bird in our country. This is possible because there are so few species of birds in the United States (only 800 or so). This won’t work with far more numerous plants. In California alone there are more than 6,000 species! Occasionally a common name will suddenly change. A marsh hawk becomes a Northern harrier; a gallinule becomes a common moorhen.

The birds, of course, could not care less what humans call them. They are what they are.


These name changes however aren't arbitrary. When Europeans invaded the New World they usually assumed they were seeing all new bird species and so of course they gave them new names. Many years later ornithologists determined that a gallinule and the moorhen are exactly the same species. And the oldest name has preference. There have to be rules- right?

And sometimes birds that were thought to be different species are discovered to be just different forms. Researchers found that the myrtle warbler of the eastern United States and the Audubon warbler of the west are exactly the same species because they are capable of mating with one another and producing viable offspring. So the two species were lumped into one and both given the same new name -- the yellow-rumped warbler.

So what’s in a name? Quite a bit – if you’re a bird.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist living in Santa Rosa.