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) and males and females are identical.  The species is mainly found in the United States, west of the continental divide.  Ornithologist 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).

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. 

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).