August 2018

Vol. 46, No. 4

Musings of the Blind Birder: By Any Other Name

Martha Steele

Northern Harrier. Photograph by Shawn P. Carey.

My husband Bob and I were recently birding when he quickly brought his binoculars up, and casually said, "What a beautiful gray ghost." "Gray ghost? What is that?" I asked. "Northern Harrier," he replied. I conjured up my memory of watching these sleek, silent birds drifting and teetering with their wings forming a V low over marshes or meadows, the male strikingly beautiful with its steel gray coloring contrasting with a white patch at the base of its tail. I could easily see why these magnificent birds were called gray ghosts.

I wondered what other colloquial names have been given to birds. In some cases, names appear to have been assigned by hunters to more easily identify their targets. In other cases, names were given by ornithologists or other observers of birds, sometimes in ways that may or may not make sense.

The following paragraphs contain some additional colloquial or fun names for specific bird species. To make things more interesting, I wrote the name for the bird along with a brief description for you, the reader, to guess what species the name refers to. The first eleven names below were highlighted in a blog for the American Birding Association by George Armistead, dated June 20, 2012. The identities of the birds corresponding to the names are revealed near the end of this column.

1) Forty Quarts of Soup. Perhaps the name is related to this wader's voluminous whitewash on boat docks or other man-made structures.

2) The Preacher Bird. This bird never seems to stop "preaching," regardless of the time of day. Over here, see me? Here I am. Look at me. See me?

3) Thunder Bumper. Think of the distinctive territorial vocalization of this otherwise secretive bird and you will likely agree with this colloquial name.

4) Fool's Hen. Although I do not like to think of the spectacular male of this highly desirable species of the boreal forest as a fool, it may deserve this name given how tame and tolerant it is of absurdly close views.

5) Cut-throat. This name does not make much sense to me, as it normally can be a non-flattering description of someone's behavior. For this bird, however, it appears to have been devised based on the bold black and white pattern of the bird accompanied by a contrasting rose-pink breast.

6) Nine Killer. Sometimes known as the butcherbird, this name was devised by some observers who noted the bird's habit of impaling many, let's say nine, prey on thorns or barbed wire before they might consume one poor victim.

7) Devil Downhead. Also known as tree mouse, this bird is often seen head down on tree trunks. But the origin of the word, devil, for this bird's behavior remains elusive to me.

8) Skunkhead Coot. This name originates from hunters of this duck with its striking head pattern reminiscent of a skunk.

9) Lawyer Bird. I imagine this name for a rare but nearly annual visitor to the Northeast derives from its crisp, formal look, ready to dazzle observers not with closing arguments but rather with its stately and head-turning appearance.

10) Cut-Water. Say no more, this simple description should immediately narrow the possibilities.

11) Silk Tail. This name derives from its Swedish name, "Sidensvans," which refers to the silky look of this nomadic species, which has periodic irruptions into New England.

All of us can also have a lot of fun trying to come up with our own names for our favorite birds. Here are a few of my concoctions:

12) Bubbling Cascade. I can hardly contain myself when I hear this long cascading stream of bubbles and trills coming from such a tiny bird.

13) Nonsense Bird. How else can you describe the noises coming out of this bird of the bushes? I frequently implore the bird to shut up so that I can hear something else, anything else, please.

14) Deep Woods Spirit. If you are alone in the woods with this bird when it sings its haunting song, it can be quite a spiritual experience.

But I am not the only one who has attempted to come up with my own names. Pete Dunne, in his book Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006), has descriptive names for many birds. Here are a few examples:

15) Lawn Plover. This name is tailor made for one of our most recognizable birds on rural or urban lawns.

16) Tiger of the Treetops. This songbird's yellow chest with thin black streaks lends itself well to this descriptive phrase.

17) Zebra Creeper. The word zebra should give this guy away. How many birds might remind you of a zebra?

18) Flash Dancer. This bird is coal black with vivid orange patches on its sides, wings, and tail. It sometimes flashes its wings and tail, showing its striking orange colors.

Answers: (1) Great Blue Heron; (2) Red-eyed Vireo; (3) American Bittern; (4) Spruce Grouse; (5) Rose-breasted Grosbeak; (6) Northern Shrike; (7) White-breasted Nuthatch; (8) Surf Scoter; (9) Black-necked Stilt; (10) Black Skimmer; (11) Bohemian Waxwing; (12) Winter Wren; (13) Gray Catbird; (14) Hermit Thrush; (15) American Robin; (16) Cape May Warbler; (17) Black-and-White Warbler; (18) American Redstart.

Undoubtedly, colorful names exist for many other bird species around the world. These descriptive names add an element of whimsy to our observations and experiences with our birds. Perhaps you have your own nickname for "your" birds. It is just another aspect of our obsession with our avian friends, and why not? We spend a lot of time with our familiar birds and it seems entirely appropriate to show our affection by devising names that convey our perspectives on their behaviors and appearances. So, go ahead, come up with your own names. Your imagination has no limits.

"Lawn Plover" by William E. Davis

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at

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