We form most bird names in the same way we do it for people: with a first name and a last name. Something specific, to differentiate from the more general. Burrowing Owl. Yellow Warbler. Mountain Chickadee. It’s always appreciated when the name tells you something about the bird, be it behavior, appearance, or habitat. Sometimes you get multiple clues: for example, Malaysian Pied-Fantail tells you a lot – where it lives, something about color, and a physical feature.
If only all birds were named so well. The moniker “Sharpe’s Akalat” just does not describe much, does it?
The Clements taxonomy used by eBird was recently updated for 2019, and it now includes 10,721 species. It seemed like a good time to go through them all and to revel in the nerdiness that lies at the intersection of birding nomenclature, classification, and logophilia. So I have been writing up some Python scripts to parse the latest downloadable spreadsheets fand look at the results. I find this sort of thing so much fun that I figure everyone else must as well. Perhaps that is too optimistic. In any case, I’m making this post, and several that will follow, into a trivia quiz. Answers are at the bottom.
Getting back to bird (and people) names, we’ll start with the mononyms, those odd cases where an individual has just a single name. With humans, these are generally entertainers and such, so I tend not to know much about them: Sting, Pele, Shakira, Ichiro, etc.
With birds, having a mononym is equally rare. If we include bird names with a hyphen, such as Jacky-winter or Chuck-will’s-widow, there are 166 to consider. This is about 1.5% of all species. The number of mononyms that have no hyphens is 146.
If less than 2% are mononyms, how many birds go with two-word names, such as “Northern Cardinal”? The overwhelming majority. I counted 9821, or just under 92%.
And then there are names with even more parts, but as is becoming clear, there cannot be very many along the lines of Great Blue Heron; after all, we’ve already accounted for 166+9,821=9,987 having names comprised of just one or two words.
Just as with human names, we expect that certain avian “surnames” will be more common. There are far more Johnsons and Smiths, for example, than there are Jungs or Salingers. So if we consider all bird names, beyond the odd monosyllabic ones, we get to our first multiple choice entry:
Which is the most common “surname” for a bird? (This is not the same as asking which family is the largest, because many families have members with different “last names.” For example, both Tufted Duck and Lesser Scaup are in the same taxonomic family, but only one would go by Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Duck at the office. Also note that in this case, I am treating a name with a hyphen as unique. In other words, an Ant-tanager is different from a Tanager.)
Now, the assumption here was that single words could include a hyphen, so that Ant-Tanager and Tanager are two different “surnames.” I don’t like hyphens; they really muck things up, as they are not applied consistently. For example, there are White-eyes, and then there is the Silvereye. There are Thick-Knees, but also Broadbills. How about Bee-eaters, but Flycatchers? Or Ant-Tanagers as opposed to Antwrens. That last one is particularly egregious. I don’t get it. Can someone explain this to me? Is it because we do not want to have two or more of the same letters in a row, was we would in Anttanager, Whiteeye, Thickknee, or Beeeater? Maybe I could buy that, but then why do we have Cuckoo-Doves, versus Cuckooshrikes?
Would it make much of a difference if we just replaced the hyphen with white space? (What happens if we were to say that Mr. Sage-Grouse should go by the name of Mr. Sage Grouse? Would the answers to the above question change?)
Repeat of #5, but after making hyphens into whitespace (or is it white-space?) Which is the most common name?
#1: The shortest bird name will obviously be a mononym. What is it?
Ou. Hawaiian, critically endangered, possibly extinct.
#2: Of the 146 pure mononymic bird names, how many have just one syllable?
Fully six birds have monosyllabic names….
#3: How many of these monosyllabic species can you name?
Brant, Smew, Ruff, Mao, Rook, Twite. I cannot say that I have ever heard anyone use the name “Ou” but if I am not mistaken, it has two syllables.
#4: The longest bird name(s) consist of how many words? Three? Four? Five? More?
No species has a name consisting of more than FOUR parts. And there are not very many of them. Here they are:
Rio de Janeiro Antbird
Rio de Janeiro Antwren
Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch
Santa Cruz Ground Dove
Caroline Islands Ground Dove
St. Lucia Black Finch
Von der Decken’s Hornbill
Sri Lanka Gray Hornbill
North Island Brown Kiwi
Large St. Helena Petrel
Small St. Helena Petrel
New Guinea Flightless Rail
New Zealand King Shag
Abd al Kuri Sparrow
Serra do Mar Tyrannulet
Serra do Mar Tyrant-Manakin
Cape Verde Swamp Warbler
Southern Marquesan Reed Warbler
Henderson Island Reed Warbler
Cook Islands Reed Warbler
Society Islands Reed Warbler
Northern Marquesan Reed Warbler
Dja River Swamp Warbler
West Himalayan Bush Warbler
Sri Lanka Bush Warbler
So the breakout for three- and four-word names is:
709 three-word names (about 6%)
25 four-word names (well under 1%)
#5: Which is the most common “surname” for a bird?
The correct answer is (a) Warbler. Thanks to the Old and New World versions, there are 292. Here are the top 10 most common bird “surnames”:
#6: Repeat of #5, but after making hyphens into whitespace (or is it white-space?) Which is the most common name?
The correct answer is still (a) Warbler. Bracken-warblers, Rush-warblers, Grasshopper-warblers, Brush-warblers, and many others… they are all Warblers except for that damn hyphen!
Here are the top 10:
#7: What is the largest number that appears in a bird name?
Seven; and only for the Seven-colored Tanager
#8: What is the smallest?
One; and only for the One-colored Becard
#9: What is the most common number that appears in bird names?
Three. There are 14 such birds:
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker
The number of names featuring numbers breaks out as:
#10: Not realted to numbers, but to form… There are two bird “surnames” that are palindromes. Can you name them?
Tit and Oo. Sadly not one of the mononyns is a palindrome.
Finally, a list of the 146 pure mononyms of the (Clements) bird world. Hyphens not welcome here!