The Meaning of Bird Names

Bird Names

What’s in a Name?

Wilson's Warbler, (Cardellina pusilla):  The scientific species name of “pusilla”, means “very small”.  Wilson’s Warbler is a New World Warble in the Parulidae Family; the birds are 4 to 4.5 inches long (10 to 12 cm).  Pictured are a male above and female below.  They are migratory, spending winters in Mexico and traveling as far south as Panama.  In the summer they mostly breed in Alaska and Canada, but they also breed in the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific Coast.  The birds are named after Alexander Wilson (1766 – 1813), who was born in Scotland and started out as a weaver and poet.  He often lived in poverty and was arrested several times for his “rebellious” poetry.  In 1794 Wilson emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he became a teacher and friends with naturalist William Bartram, who encourage Wilson to start painting birds. Wilson’s collection of 268 bird paintings, became an inspiration to James Audubon.  Alexander died at age 47 and is buried at the historic Gloria Dei Church (Old Swedes') in Southwark, Philadelphia.  The Wilson's Storm-petrel, Wilson's Plover, Wilson's Phalarope, and Wilson's Snipe are also named after Alexander.

Williamson’s Sapsucker, (Sphyrapicus thyroideus):  The scientific genus name of “Sphyrapicus” combines the Ancient Greek word “sphura” meaning "hammer" and “pikos” meaning "woodpecker".  Williamson’s Sapsucker are in the Picidae Family, also known as the Woodpecker Family and are about 9 inches in length (23 cm).  Pictured is a male; the female is better camouflaged with brown, white, and black striping.   Williamson’s Sapsuckers prefer mountain habitats and breed in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges and the birds winter in the mountains of Mexico.  Williamson’s Sapsuckers are named after Lieutenant Robert Williamson (1825 - 1882), an American soldier and engineer who surveyed for the transcontinental railroad in California and Oregon.  Sapsuckers feed by drilling holes in the bark of trees until the sap starts running.  The birds will feed on the sap, but mostly will feed on the insects that are attracted to the sweet sap.  Robert died at age 57 of tuberculosis in San Francisco and is buried at the Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco. 

Townsend’s Solitaire, (Myadestes townsendi):  This bird is in the Turdidae Family, also known as the Thrush Family; the family includes bluebirds, American Robins, solitaires, and thrushes.  Townsend’s Solitaires are 8 - 9.5 inches in length (20–24 cm).  Male and female Townsend’s Solitaires are identical and have an orange strip in the wing when they fly.  Many birds of this species do not migrate, but some migrate to Canada and Alaska for the breeding season and they can be found as far south as northern Mexico.  The birds are named after John Townsend (1809 - 1851), who was a Quaker from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and who was educated as a physician and pharmacist, but it was nature that drew his attention and he traveled and collected specimens throughout the United States.  He grew up in a well-educated and socially active family.  From Wikipedia:  “His sister Mary wrote a book called, "Life in the Insect World" in 1844 and his sister, Hannah, wrote “The Anti-Slavery Alphabet” in 1846, which was sold at the Anti-Slavery Fair in Philadelphia. His brother Edward was President of the Philadelphia Institution for Instruction of the Blind and helped organize the Philadelphia Dental College.”  John Townsend died of accidental arsenic poisoning at age 41.  Many animals and one other bird are also named after John:  Townsend's Ground Squirrel, Townsend's Chipmunk, Townsend's Mole, Townsend's Vole, Townsend's Pocket Gopher Townsend's Big-eared Bat, White-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii), and Townsend's Warbler.  

Swainson’s Thrush, (Catharus ustulatus):  The genus “Catharus” means "pure" or "clean" in Ancient Greek.  Most thrushes have a beautiful flute like song.  Swainson’s Thrushes are in the Turdidae Family, also known as the Thrush Family; the family includes bluebirds, American Robins, solitaires, and thrushes.  Swainson’s Thrushes are 6 – 8 inches in length (16–20 cm). Male and female Swainson’s Thrushes are identical.  Swainson’s Thrushes migrate great distances, wintering in Mexico, Central and South America, as far south as Argentina.   During the summer breeding season, they travel to locations of the far northern areas of the United States, Canada, and Alaska.  The birds are named after William Swainson (1789 – 1855), an English scientist, naturalist, and illustrator.  Swainson was regularly active in numerous English scientific organizations and traveled and lived in New Zealand and Australia.  Many birds throughout the world are named after William:   Swainson's Warbler, Swainson's Hawk, Swainson's Francolin, Swainson's Sparrow, Swainson's Antcatcher, Swainson's Fire-eye, Swainson's Flycatcher, and Swainson's Toucan.  

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri):  Steller’s Jay are in the Corvid Family, also known as the Crow Family, which includes all crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers.  Like most birds in the Corvid Family, Steller’s Jay are omnivores and very smart, compared to most birds.  Steller’s Jays are 12–13 inches in length (30- 34 cm).  Male and Female Steller’s Jay are identical.  Steller’s Jays do not migrate and are resident birds in coniferous forests and mountains of western North America.  Their overall habitat ranges from Alaska to Nicaragua and some birds have adapted to scrub and desert habitats.  The birds are named after Georg Steller (1709 - 1746); no “e” in Georg.   Steller was a German naturalist and physician, who in 1740 joined Captain Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition, (also known as the Great Northern Expedition 1733–1743), which explored the northern coast of Russia and lands that are now part of Alaska.   In 1741 the ship was wrecked on what is now called Bering Island. There the crew was stranded and spent the winter: 28 of the 74 crew members died, including Bering.  In the spring of 1742, the remaining crew built a 40-foot boat from the wreckage and sailed back to Russia. Upon returning to Russia, Steller spent several years exploring the Kamchatka Peninsula and eventually returned to St Petersburg.  In 1746, at the age of 37, Georg died of fever.  There are other animals and one plant named after him:  Steller's Eider, Steller's Sea Eagle, Steller's Sea Cow (now extinct), Steller's Sea Lion, Gumboot Chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), Hoary Mugwort (Artemisia stelleriana).

Say’s Phoebe, (Sayornis saya) is a bird in the Flycatcher Family, also known as the Tyrannidae Family, which includes over 400 species of “Tyrant Flycatchers” worldwide.  The birds are 7.5 inches long, (19 cm).  Male and females are identical.  Say’s Phoebe prefers open areas of arid habitats of western North America. Say’s Phoebe can migrate long distances and breeds as far north as Alaska and winters as far south as southern Mexico. The species is named after Thomas Say (1787 – 1834), an American naturalist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He was a descendant of the prominent Bartram family.  He was well educated and was a professor of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania.  Thomas Say traveled extensively during the early years of American western expansion, documenting over 1,400 animals and insects.  There are numerous animals named after Say (in the scientific name).  Thomas died of Typhoid Fever at age 47.

Lewis’s Woodpecker, (Melanerpes lewis):  The scientific name “Melanerpes” combines the words “melas” meaning "black" with “herpes” meaning "creeper".  The Woodpecker Family is also known as the Picidae Family, which includes woodpeckers, piculets, wrynecks, and sapsuckers.  Lewis’s Woodpeckers are about 10–11 inches in length (25–28 cm), males and females are identical.  The species is mainly found in the United States, west of the continental divide.  Naturalist Alexander Wilson named the species after Meriwether Lewis, of the “Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1803 - 1806”.  Meriwether Lewis (1774 – 1809), was born in Virginia and was an avid outdoors adventurer since his early childhood.  Meriwether died at age 35 of gunshot wounds in Tennessee and there is controversy about the circumstances of his death about whether he committed suicide or was assassinated.  The plant genus Lewisia, which includes 19 plant species in the Montiaceae Family of flowering plants and shrubs is named after Meriwether and a subspecies of the Westslope Cutthroat Trout: Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi, is named after him as well. 

Heermann’s Gull, (Larus heermanni) is a Pacific Coast gull of North America, ranging from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to central Mexico.  The Gull Family is also known as the Laridae Family, which includes gulls, terns, and skimmers.  Heermann’s Gulls are about 19 inches in length (48 cm), and males and females are identical.  The bird is named after Adolphus Heermann (~1821 –1865), who was an American naturalist and explorer from Louisiana and South Carolina. He worked with Robert Williamson (Williamson’s Sapsucker) on the Pacific Railroad Survey and documented birds along the route through California and Oregon.  Adolphus Heermann died at approximately age 43 of a presumed accidental gunshot wound while he was out collecting specimens alone in Texas.  The flora and fauna named after Adolphus:  Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni), Heermann's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys heermanni), Heermann's Tarweed (Holocarpha heermannii).

Gambel’s Quail, (Callipepla gambelii), are a small ground-bird in the Odontophoridae Family, also known as New World Quails.  The genus “Callipepla” is from the Greek word “kallipeplos” meaning "beautifully adorned" which combines the words “kalos” meaning "beautiful" and “peplos” refers to "a ceremonial robe”.  The word “quail' (as a verb) means to feel or show fear or apprehension, “to wince”, or to “draw back in pain”:  Quail are very shy birds.  Pictured is a female on the left and male on the right, the sexes are dimorphic in color and shape.  Gambel’s Quail prefer the arid habitat of the American Southwest.  The average length is 11 inches (28 cm) and they feed primarily on plants and seeds.  The female typically lays 10–12 eggs in a simple scrape on the ground.  The birds are named after William Gambel (1823 – 1849), who was an American naturalist and physician from Philadelphia.  At age 15 Gambel became an apprentice for Thomas Nuttall, an English zoologist working at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  At age 18 Gambel began a four-year journey, during which he visited Mexico, Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Peru, and Chile.  At age 22 Gambel entered medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.  In 1849, after receiving his medical degree, Gambel set off for California during the Gold Rush, to set up a new practice.  Shortly after crossing into California, William stopped at a mining camp, where typhoid was circulating and while he was treating others, William contracted typhoid and died at age 26.  A genus of lizards, “Gambelia”, is named in his honor. 

Franklin’s Gull, (Leucophaeus pipixcan) is a small gull that migrates long distances.  Franklin’s Gulls breed in central Canada and winter along the west coast of South America. The birds are 12 - 14 inches in length (32–36 cm). Male and females are identical (monomorphic). The genus name “Leucophaeus” is from the Ancient Greek “leukos” meaning “white”, and “phaios” meaning "dusky".  The Gull Family is also known as the Laridae Family, which includes gulls, terns, and skimmers.  The birds are named after Sir John Franklin (1786 – 1847), a British Royal Navy officer and explorer of the Arctic who is known for the tragic 1845 Northwest Passage Expedition, also known as Franklin's Lost Expedition.  The expedition had two boats, the Erebus and Terror, which were well fitted for Arctic winter conditions.  Shortly after reaching Canada in 1845, both ships became icebound in the Victoria Strait near King William Island, with 134 souls aboard.  It is presumed that many men survived for at least two years after that, with some even living up to three years, but no survivors were ever found.  In 1850, with the help of local Inuits, the first evidence of the ship’s approximate location was determined.  During the subsequent 170 years of numerous search expeditions, artifacts and gravesites were found on nearby islands.  A note found on one of the islands, stated that John Franklin survived for two-years and died in 1847 at age 61.  Search expeditions from 2014 - 2016, were able to locate both ships sitting on the ocean floor. The area is now a Canadian National Heritage Site for ongoing research.

Clark’s Nutcracker, (Nucifraga columbiana):  The genus “Nucifraga” is a variation of the German word “Nussbrecher”, meaning "nut-breaker".  Nutcrackers are in the Corvid Family, also known as the Crow Family, which includes all crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers.  Like most birds in the Corvid Family, Nutcrackers are omnivores, although they prefer pine nuts.  They are known for seed caching and aiding in the distribution of Limber and Bristlecone Pines.  They are very smart and adaptable compared to most birds.  Clark’s Nutcrackers are 11 inches in length (28 cm).  Male and female Clark’s Nutcrackers are identical and do not migrate; they are resident birds in coniferous forests and mountains of western North America, as far south as the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico.  The species is named after William Clark, of the “Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1803 - 1806”.  Clark (1770 – 1838), was raised in Virginia and did not have a formal education.  He joined the military at a young age and worked for the U.S. government for most of his life.  Clark died at age 68 and is buried at the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.  The plant genus Clarkia, which contains 43 species in the Evening Primrose Family (Onagraceae), is named after him and the Westslope Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarki), as well.  Special note:  Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) is named after John Henry Clark, a 19th-century American surveyor who was also a naturalist. 

Cassin’s Auklet, (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) is a small seabird of the northern Pacific Ocean.  Auklets, also known as Auks or Alcids are in the Alcidae Family, which includes murres, guillemots, auklets, puffins, and murrelets. The word “auk” is from the Icelandic and Old Norse word “álka”, meaning a type of seabird.  Although not closely related to Penguins, auks are notable for their similar ability to "fly" underwater.  Cassin’s Auklets feed on large zooplankton, especially krill.  The birds are 9 inches in length (22 cm).  Male and females are identical (monomorphic) and nest in burrows on small islands by either digging a hole or using natural crevices, both parents care for the single chick.  The birds are named for John Cassin, (1813 – 1869), an American ornithologist and businessman from Pennsylvania.  Cassin was a talented taxonomist and described 198 birds not mentioned in the works of his predecessors Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon.  His collection of 4,300 birds was purchased by John Jenks for Brown University's Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1871.  Unfortunately, due to a fire in 1906 and low attendance, the museum closed in 1915 and most of the collection was eventually lost.  John died in 1869 at age 56, most likely from long term exposure to arsenic, which he used in the preservation of bird skins.  He is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.  Birds and one insect are named for John:  Cassin's Auklet, Cassin's Kingbird, Cassin's Vireo, Cassin's Sparrow, Cassin's Finch, and the 17-year Cicada, (Magicicada Cassini).

Bonaparte’s Gull, (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) is a gull found throughout most of northern North America. The Gull Family is also known as the Laridae Family, which includes gulls, terns, and skimmers.  Bonaparte’s Gulls are the third smallest gull species in the world and the birds are 11 to 15 inches in length (28 to 38 cm).  Males and females are identical.  The bird is named after Charles Bonaparte, (1803 - 1857), who was a French biologist and a nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.  Charles Bonaparte was raised in Italy and traveled extensively.  He lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from 1822 – 1826, where he was active, both socially and scientifically, in the Philadelphia community.  He returned to Rome in 1828 and in 1849 he helped create the Roman Republic.  From Wikipedia: “He participated in the defense of Rome against the 40,000 French troops sent by his cousin Louis Napoleon. He left Rome after the Roman Republican army was defeated in July 1849. He landed at Marseilles, France, but was ordered to leave the country by Louis Napoleon”.  He was allowed to return to Paris in 1850, where he lived the rest of his life until his death at age 54.   Throughout his life, Charles Bonaparte never lost his love for nature and is credited for describing 165 genera, 203 species and 262 subspecies. Birds named after Charles:  Bonaparte's Gull, Bonaparte's Nightjar, Bonaparte's Parakeet, Highland Tinamou (Nothocercus bonapartei).

Baird’s Sandpiper, (Calidris bairdii):  Sandpipers, collectively called “peeps”, are in the Scolopacidae Family of waders and shorebirds.  The genus “Calidris” is from the Ancient Greek “kalidris” or “skalidris”, which was used by Aristotle to describe grey-colored shore birds.  Baird’s Sandpipers are 7–7.6 inches in length (18–19 cm).  Male and females are identical (monomorphic).  They eat insects and small crustaceans by foraging mudflats and picking up food by sight.  Baird's sandpipers breed in the northern tundra from eastern Siberia to western Greenland and winter in South America.  They are a long-distance migrant; most individuals travel at least 3,700 miles between their breeding and winter grounds.  Some travel as far as Tierra del Fuego, a 9,700 journey, which they can complete in less than 5-weeks.  The birds are named after Spencer Baird (1823 – 1887), an American self-taught naturalist from Reading, Pennsylvania.  Baird was the first curator at the Smithsonian Institution, where he worked from 1850 – 1887 in various lead roles during his career.  In 1871, Ulysses S. Grant appointed Spencer as the first Commissioner of the United States Fish Commission, which in 1940 became the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  Spencer Baird died at age 64 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.  John Wesley Powell spoke at his funeral.  Spencer named Lucy's Warbler (Leiothlypis luciae), after his daughter.  Lucy's Warbler is closely related to Virginia's Warbler (named after the state of Virginia).  Spencer named Grace's Warbler (Setophaga graciae) after one of his friend’s daughter.  Baird's Sparrow, (Ammodramus bairdii), is named after Spencer. 

Anna’s Hummingbird, (Calypte anna), “Calypte” is a genus of hummingbirds which contains only two hummingbirds, Anna’s and Costa’s.  Both birds are in the Trochilinae Family (meaning "typical" hummingbirds), which contains 294 species.  All hummingbirds belong to the order “Apodiformes”, meaning, "unfooted” or “footless” in Greek.  Their legs are small and have limited function aside from perching.  There are three families in this order: Trochilidae (typical hummingbirds and hermit hummingbirds), Hemiprocnidae (tree swifts), and Apodidae (swifts).  Anna’s Hummingbirds range from British Columbia to Mexico.  They are 4 inches in length (10 cm).  Anna's Hummingbird is the official bird of the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where it is a year-round resident.  Many hummingbird species do not migrate and of those that do, the Rufous Hummingbird can travel up to 3,900 miles each way.    Most hummingbird species are polygynous (males will mate with more than one female).  Males are almost always extremely colorful, while the females are better camouflaged.  Pictured is a female above and a male below.  The female makes the nest and raises the chicks without helped from the male.  The smallest of all bird species is the Bee Hummingbird, 2 inches long (5 cm).  Hummingbirds are native only to the western hemisphere.  Many banded hummingbirds have recorded life spans up to 11 years, but the average lifespan for a hummingbird is probably closer to 5 – 7 years.  Speeds of 34 mph (54 km/h) have been recorded in wind tunnels and some species can dive at speeds up to 49 mph (79 km/h).  Anna’s Hummingbird is named after Anna Masséna (1802 - 1887), a French courtier and Duchess of Rivoli.  She was married to Francois Masséna, who was a friend of Ornithologist René Lesson, who named the bird after her.