Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Bird By Any Other Name

I saw my first Junco of the season yesterday. Others have told me the juncos were here, but I hadn't seen them. Whenever I see the junco, I think to myself "why junco?" This is a beautiful little bird better known as a snowbird in my youth (remember Ann Murray's song). How did we get from a pretty name to one that definitely isn't pretty and doesn't even tell the regular person anything about the bird?

Unlike many other fields of biology, ornithologists have been hard-nosed about standardizing bird names. Birds are called by the same name, regardless of where they are found. The American Ornithologist's Union (AOU) is the decisionmaking authority for naming. This has certainly helped ensure there is no confusion about which birds is under discussion (except for the constant back and forth splitting and clumping--but that's another issue). However, it has taken much of the color out of the hobby.

When I was growing up in Indiana, a sparrowhawk was a sharp-shinned hawk. Further south, the sparrowhawk was commonly an American kestrel. So it is easy to see how this could lead to confusion. However, I miss the common names snowbird, bulbat (common nighthawk), rain crow (yellow-billed cuckoo), etc.

So, although I write down "junco," I always think "snowbird."

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