We form most bird names in the same way we name people. A first name, 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.
If only all birds were named so well. Sharpe’s Akalat just does not describe much, does it?
The Clements taxonomy 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 nomenclature, classification, and general nerdiness that lies at the intersection of birding and logophilia. So I have been writing up some Python scripts to parse the latest downloadable spreadsheets from eBird 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, I’m making this post, and several that will follow, into a 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.
So how many birds go with two-word names, such as “Northern Cardinal”? The overwhelming majority: 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: the Johnsons and Smiths, for example.
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 duck family, but only one goes by Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Duck at the office.)
As stated above, the assumption here was that words could include a hyphen. I don’t like hyphens; they muck things up. They are not applied consistently. For example, there are White-eyes, and then there is the Silvereye. Thick-Knees and Broadbills. Bee-eaters and Flycatchers. Cuckoo-Doves and Cuckooshrikes. Ant-Tanagers and Antwrens. That last one is particularly egregious. I don’t get it. Can someone explain this to me?
So what happens if we were to say that Catherine Zeta-Jones fully belongs to the Jones clan? That Mr. Sage-Grouse should go by the name of Mr. Grouse?
Repeat of #4, but after making hyphens into whitespace (or is it white-space?)
#1: Fully six birds have monosyllabic names….
#2: And they are: Brant, Smew, Ruff, Mao, Rook, Twite
#3: 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 0.6%)
25 four-word names (well under 0.1%)
#4: 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”:
#5: The correct answer is still (a) Warbler. Bracken-warblers, Rush-warblers, Grasshopper-warblers, Brush-warblers, and many others… all Warblers except for that damn hyphen!
Here are the top 10:
Finally, a list of the 146 pure mononyms of the bird world. Hyphens not welcome here!