I find bird names fascinating – almost as much as with the birds themselves. I’m also interested in the statistical distributions of bird names: What percentage of birds are named for a color? What are the shortest and longest names? How many are named after people? Or after specific physical features? Or where they occur? Or their behavior? Or their calls? Or something else?
The Clements taxonomy used by eBird was last updated in August of 2019, and currently 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 and 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, instead of just stating what I find when I parse the lists, I’m making this all into a trivia quiz. Many of the questions are tough. But I hope they are all interesting.
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 very simplest kind of name is the mononym. Just as with people, these odd cases, where an individual has just a single name, are not common. With humans, these are generally entertainers and such, so I tend not to know much about them: Sting, Pele, Shakira, Ichiro, etc.
If we include bird names with a hyphen, such as Jacky-winter or Chuck-will’s-widow, there are 166 mononyms to consider. This is about 1.5% of all species. The number of mononyms that have no hyphens is 146.
So, here are some questions on this theme of bird names and numbers.
Among geese and ducks, there are nine species names that are mononyms. How many can you name?
These two birds, both with mononyms, might be nicknamed Robert and Richard of the North American prairies. What are they?
A mononymic bird that is the only species to occupy its entire (monotypic) taxonomic order.
Just one bird species has this unique property related to its name: It has a common name that is the same as both its scientific genus name and species name. What is it?
Several taxonomic orders contains only two species; but there is only one order in which both species names are mononyms. What are they?
Do any members of the woodpecker family (Picidae) have a one-word name? If so, what is it (are they)?
Do any members of the owl order (Strigiformes) have a one-word name? If so, what is it (are they)?
There are two hummingbirds with one-word names. What are they?
How many one-word names that include “bird” can you name?
How many one-word names that include “man” can you name?
Enough with the one-word names!
If less than 2% of all bird names are mononyms, about how many birds go with two-word names, such as “Northern Cardinal”?
It isn’t hard to come up with a “three-word name” such as Great Blue Heron. But do any have more words? That is…
Just as with human names, we expect that certain avian “surnames” will be more common. There are far more Joneses and Smiths, for example, than there are Jungs and 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 in terms of name, 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.)
#1: The only North American warbler with a one-word name is…?
#2: Among geese and ducks, there are nine species names that are mononyms. How many can you name?
Brant, Bufflehead, Canvasback, Gadwall, Garganey, Hardhead, Mallard, Redhead, Smew
#3: These two birds, both with mononyms, might be nicknamed Robert and Richard of the North American prairies. What are they?
Bobolink and Dickcissel. Get it?
#4: A mononymic bird that is the only species to occupy its entire (monotypic) taxonomic order.
Hoatzin, of the order Opisthocomiformes (or the Cuckoo-roller, the only bird in order Leptosomiformes).
#5: The shortest bird name will obviously be a mononym. What is it?
In the Clements taxonomy, that would be the Ou (Psittirostra psittacea). Hawaiian, critically endangered, possibly extinct.
#6: Just one bird species has this unique property related to its name: It has a common name that is the same as both its scientific genus name and species name. What is it?
Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)
#7: Several taxonomic orders contains only two species; but there is only one order in which both species names are mononyms. What are they?
The order Eurypygiformes consists solely of the Kagu and the Sunbittern.
#8: Do any members of the woodpecker family (Picidae) have a one-word name? If so, what is it (are they)?
Nope! Not one of them is a mononym.
#9: Do any members of the owl order (Strigiformes) have a one-word name? If so, what is it (are they)?
Yes, just one. The Morepork.
#10: There are two hummingbirds with one-word names. What are they?
Snowcap and Streamertail
#11: How many one-word names that include “bird” can you name?
There are 14 such names:
Apostlebird, Capuchinbird, Dollarbird, Millerbird, Mistletoebird, Morningbird, Oilbird, Ovenbird, Pilotbird, Secretarybird, Silverbird, Spinifexbird, Stitchbird, Surfbird
#12: How many one-word names that include “man” can you name?
There is only one: Rifleman. In fact this is the only bird name, mononym or not, that has a word of the form “____man”.
#13: Of the 146 pure mononymic bird names, how many have just one syllable? What are they?
Fully six birds have monosyllabic names….
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.
#14: If less than 2% of all bird names are mononyms, about how many birds go with two-word names, such as “Northern Cardinal”?
I counted 9821, or just under 92%.
#15: 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%)
#16: 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 5 most common bird “surnames”:
Note that even if we make the hyphens into whitespace, the correct answer is still (a) Warbler. Bracken-warblers, Rush-warblers, Grasshopper-warblers, Brush-warblers, and many others…
Here are the top 5 in that case:
#17: What is the largest number that appears in a bird name?
Seven; and only once – for the Seven-colored Tanager.
#18: What is the smallest?
One; and only once – for the One-colored Becard. (An unwieldy name, one wonders why they didn’t go with “unicolored” which occurs in the names of five species.)
#19: 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:
#20: Not related 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 mononyms is a palindrome.