Another Mammal Robbing Our Feeders

Not the expected kind of mammal.


I have never seen them do this before; maybe they have been doing it at night?


Last year I tried to deal with the squirrels by first adding some cayenne pepper to the seed mix. It worked… for about ten minutes. The first mammal visitors took one sniff and scampered away angrily. But they came back and acquired a taste for it.

So I added more.

And they came back and ate it anyway.

Eventually our little arms race escalated to the point that I was dumping Tabasco sauce on the seeds. And they were still eating them.

That is when I finally gave up.

Don’t let anyone tell you that capsaicin will keep the little mammals out of your bird feeders.

Update: Today he was back and brought a friend.

DSCN9406 (2)



I wonder what deer think of cayenne pepper…

Colombia, December 2019

We started our third Colombian birding expedition in Yopal, a small city in Casanare, lying just off the foothills of the easternmost of the three forks of the Andes. During the five hour drive to Hato la Aurora, a reserve in the center of the Llanos, specialties like these Sharp-tailed Ibis popped up:

Sharp-tailed Ibis

Another target that brought us out here was the duck-like and distinctive Orinoco Goose, denizen of just a few locales in South America:

Orinoco Goose

Hato la Aurora isn’t so much a pure birding destination – it caters more to wildlife enthusiasts in general, with safaris and horseback riding being offered. Jaguars can be found here, although we saw none. We did get a look at a Tayra, which looks like a cross between a small bear and a weasel, as well as this unforgettable creature:

Giant Anteater

The Llanos are a hot, savannah-like expanse dotted with rivers and shallow lakes. In riparian areas we found Hoatzins and Sunbitterns.


But along these heavily wooded corridors, where there is relief from the sun, we also found plenty of less desireable wildlife, in the form of voracious ticks of various sizes. The most problematic, as always, being the tiny ones that almost escape eyesight, and appear like slowly-moving dust specks on you pant leg. Permethrin-treated clothing saved the day fo us once again. Claire got just one bite, and I got none.

Yellow Oriole

Lots of yellows out here. Oriole Blackbirds, Yellow Orioles, Yellow-crowned Parrots…

Yellow-crowned Parrot

… and a chance to compare and contrast Saffron Finches and Orange-fronted Yellow-Finches. When we studied up for this trip we learned to look at the extent of orange in the male’s cap, which is significant for the Saffron Finch…

Saffron Finch

… but which terminates abruptly above the eye for the other finch:

Orange-fronted Yellow-Finch

Another target, whose range is restricted to the Colombian Llanos and western Venezuela, is the dapper little Pale-headed Jacamar. These were common and easy to find in trees along the rivers.

Pale-headed Jacamar

The same range holds the taxonomically messy Two-banded Puffbird, which eBird/Clements still considers to be a subspecies of the Russet-throated.

Depending on your choice of taxonomy, a Russet-throated or a Two-banded Puffbird

And here is another denizen of the same restricted area, the White-bearded Flycatcher, potentially confusable with Rusty-margined and Social versions of the genus Myiozetetes. We found a pair that were calling, removing any doubt that we got our final Llanos target.

White-bearded Flycatcher

After two days in the plains we headed back to Yopal, then flew on to Pereira, a small city in Risaralda, lying on the Cauca valley side of the central Andres range. Pereira provides the nearest airport for access to the Parque Nacional Tatamá, which is located on the westernmost of the three parallel mountain chains.

Gray-breasted Wood Wren

Access to Tatamá is best gained via Camino Montezuma, with accomodation at Montezuma Rainforest Ecolodge, about three hours by car from Pereira.

Male Green Honeycreeper. Green? Well, the female is green. A rare case where the female inspires the name.

We spent three nights at the ecolodge and were fortunate to have Michelle Tapasco as our guide. She has been birding this diverse and bird-rich area for some thirty years, and got us plenty of endemics and other treasures with seemingly little effort, working the elevational changes with ease. A few of the striking tanager specialties included Black-chinned Mountain Tanager…

Black-chinned Mountain Tanager

… Gold-Ringed Tanger (where, exactly, is the ‘ring,’ though?)…

Gold-ringed Tanager

… and relatively tame Black-and-gold Tangers:

Black-and-gold Tanager

It is always a happy event when a target species is ubiquitous. In this case it was the stunning Velvet-purple Coronet, which was at all of the many feeders throughout the elevational range of Montezuma Road:

Velvet-purple Coronet

The Obligatory Mammal Mention for Montezuma would be the Central American Agouti:

Central American Agouti, like a big, tailless squirrel, slumming under the birdfeeders

Michelle also introduced us to a flowering plant, whose name she could not recall, that had the most delicious, heavenly fragrance I have ever encountered. Almost like a mix of mango and vanilla. I wandered around for some time, oblivious to the birds, with one of the flowers pressed up to my nose and mouth as if I was a poor drug addict huffing spraypaint from a paper bag.

What is this called?! This has to be the best-smelling flower on the planet.

Winner of the Highest-Color-Variety-Bird-of-the-Trip Award was the Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia:

Male Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia, whose messy berry snack marred an otherwise fine photo opportunity

Runner-up: Red-headed Barbet:

Red-headed Barbet

After Montezuma, we did a six-hour, bumpy trip up to the lovely little town of Jardín, Antioquia. Here we would meet up with one of the finest bird guides we’ve worked with yet, Guillermo Nagy of Aramacao Tours.

Jardín, a lovely little town with serious birding clout

He also does coffee-related tours, which seems like the second-best thing one could do, after birding, of course.

In a local shop. “Coffee helps those that sleep little and dream a lot.”

Walking distance from the center of Jardín is a splendid Andean Cock-of-theRock lek, and that is where we headed first, primarily to get Colombian endemic Red-bellied Grackle; but we had to make a stop for the main attraction as well.

The bizzare Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, working the lek

Guillermo sensed the unique opportunity to take a photo of us with matching hat and bird species:

Here we are with three Cocks-of-theRock behind us, and one on my hat.

The bigger birding draw near Jardín is not the lek, but the neighboring slopes that hold a population of endangered Yellow-eared Parrots. We were treated to a very close encounter with a small flock of these striking birds, which use the wax palms in this area to nest.

Yellow-eared Parrot

Then we rounded a corner and interrupted a private moment between this pair:

Cattle, Cattle Egret, wondering if you have a problem with their relationship

Guillermo also took us to a secluded site where several antpittas were being fed. We found two of them, including a Chestnut-naped, who goes by the name of Belleza

Chestnut-naped Antpitta,

… a Rufous, known as Linda

Rufous Antpitta

… and a male Green-and-black Fruiteater, Freddie, that has developed a worm-eating habit:

Green-and-black Fruiteater

Up the road we had fried trout for lunch at a nameless home/restaurant supplied with feeders and copious hummingbirds. This afforded us with a first in our birding adventures: hand-feeding a variety of hummers using a small, flat bottle of sugar water with a flower pattern on top:

Claire hand-feeding a Tourmaline Sunangel

A frequently encountered, then often ignored, and even sometimes disparged bird that we’ve seen all over Central and South America is the Rufous-collared Sparrow. Its towhee-like “drink-your-tea” call is an ever-present part of birding these parts. For some reason, even as it competed with the spectacular hummingbirds teeming all over this area, it was as if I noticed with fresh eyes just how detailed and pretty this little sparrow is. It seems that we overlook common birds too often and forget how much they offer.

Rufous-collared Sparrow

Colombian landscapes are lovely, even when the light isn’t great. I wanted to capture the eight or nine different shades of blue that made up this series of rolling mountain/hills. But I’m not a photographer and could not even get a decent approximation of it.

View from the mountains above Jardín

Finally we headed off to Medellín, with a single stop aimed at getting the Stile’s Tapaculo (heard, recorded, and therefore ticked) and the Yellow-headed Manakin. Guillermo delivered again, with a spectacular and cooperative male:

Yellow-headed Manakin

And that was it, and we headed to the hotel near the airport. As it was December 30th, the locals were well into their preparations for New Year’s Eve, which, in parts of Latin America, involves the ritual creation and destruction, by fire, of various figures and effigies. Often these are a variation of an elderly man, representing the ‘old’ year about to expire. Sometimes they are more specific, though:

Politicians ready for New Year’s Eve in Medellín

The clown in the center needs no introduction, and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, who seems to be universally (and justifiably) despised throughout South American, should not need one either. On the left is former Bogotá mayor and failed presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, whom I had never heard of before.  Probably some interesting stories there, but after thinking about one or two of the politicians I already know about, I don’t want to learn about any others. Not right now, at least.

Thanks for reading!

Guatemala, November 2019

Our extended Thanksgiving weekend of birding in Guatemala looked to start out in a less than optimal manner: the first big, ugly snowstorm of the year lined up perfectly with our planned flight out of Minneapolis. Happily, the airline allowed us to fly out a day early to Atlanta in order to avoid the likely delay or cancellation of the first leg. So, needing no birds in northern Georgia, we spent our extra day studying up on our Central American targets and planning where we would bird during a free afternoon in Antigua, Guatemala, that we would have when we arrived at 1:00 pm the next day.

Black-headed Saltator at Los Tarrales Reserve

We worked with Martsam Travel to set up our trip and guiding. Even though it was not part of the tour, they sent me an email while we were in Atlanta, offering to take us to a couple of local spots near Guatemala City and Antigua right after our arrival the next day. Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. Too perfectly, that is….

The following day, we flew direct, Atlanta to Guatemala City … er, no we didn’t. About an hour before the anticipated landing, the pilot informed the happy passengers that we would not be going to Guatemala City, but to San Salvador instead. Why? Because there was a hole in the runway of our intended airport. No planes were departing or arriving at GUA. One imagined some massive sinkhole or bomb crater had wiped out the tarmac. Well, no…

The monstrous hole that shut down GUA for four hours

So, we landed in San Salvador, taxied to a holding position beyond the airport, and were told to shut the windows to avoid the mid-day sun from making the plane too miserable, and to wait for news. We sat there for over two and half hours. Here is the lovely view that was presented when one dared to slide the window-shade up:

Where not to go birding in El Salvador

Once we finally learned that the hole had been filled, the plane headed back out, and we tried to see something, anything, in the dry grassy areas around the tarmac or on the buildings, but saw only unidentifiable swallows and other various passerines. Not even one Rock Pigeon. But I submitted our findings to eBird anyway – it has to be the most pathetic eBird list imaginable, and I think, the first ever, for the San Salvadore airport – X swallow sp., X passerine sp.

A hotspot, it is not.

Needless to say, that first afternoon of birding around Antigua didn’t happen at all. By the time we landed, it was already sunset.

Once we finally got to bird, we picked up a few nice specialties,  such as Pink-headed Warbler and the absolutely tiny Wine-throated Hummingbird:

Wine-throated Hummingbird

We dipped on our two Motmot targets (Blue-throated and Tody), but saw plenty of Lesson’s:

Lesson’s Motmot

A long-time nemesis-bird, the Tropical Pewee, finally gave itself up. We’d never seen this species even though we’ve had at least half a dozen trips in its range.

Tropical Pewee

Similar to the Evening Grosbeak, the lovely Hooded Grosbeak was challenging to find, but our guides eventually put us right on one:

Immature Hooded Grosbeak

We also got two of our three tanager targets, including Yellow-winged Tanager:

Yellow-winged Tanager

… and another long-time nemesis-bird, the White-winged Tanager, which we had dipped on at least four times:

White-winged Tanager

Our last day involved a climb up the San Pedro volcano near Lake Atitlan – probably the most grueling, ankle-twisting hike we have ever done on any birding trip – all for a chance at Horned Guans. But they didn’t get the memo that they were supposed show up, though it would have required considerably less effort on their part. However, we lucked out by getting a view of four Singing Quail, as well as a Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo and the stunning Garnet-throated Hummingbird:

Garnet-throated Hummingbird

So, a mixed bag of a trip, to be sure, given the short length. Overall, the location I’d like to visit again the most would have to be Los Tarrales Natural Reserve. We didn’t have nearly enough time to explore it. The guides, drivers, and support from Martsam were all good, and they worked very hard for us.

Mato Grosso, Brazil, October 2019

Just returned from eight days of birding (and mammaling?) in the Pantanal and Chapada regions of Mato Grosso, both adjacent to the city of Cuiabá. This is very close to the geometric center of the South American continent. Apparently there are some markers or monuments that capture this fact, but, as is often the case, we don’t bother seeking out such sites, because birds.

Black-collared Hawk, seen everywhere

It was a bit involved getting there: Minneapolis to Dallas, then overnight (10 hours) Dallas to Sao Paulo, then a long (full day) wait in the airport, and then backtracking two hours to Cuiabá, which we flew over on the flight from Dallas. While we were at the Saó Paulo airport we wandered around outside for a bit, pushing our luggage on a cart, staring up into the scarce trees at Saffron Finches and House Wrens, of all things, while the locals looked at us as if we were from Mars.

Also seen everywhere are these small Caimans

Our guide Johnny picked us up Saturday morning and we then drove south to the Pantanal. Our first destination was the Aymara Lodge. This friendly and comfy hotel lies just inside the northern boundary of the Pantanal wetland and was good for various woodcreepers, among other birds.

Buff-throated Woodcreeper

I was also happy to see my first wild Coati there. My maternal grandfather actually had one of these as a pet in the late 4o’s (and she was named Suzy). Seems like a terrible idea.

Poor nighttime photo of one of Suzy’s relatives

October in the Pantanal is hot; we experienced upwards of 40 C / 100 F. Unsurprisingly, not much wildlife is to be seen during midday, but at daybreak a host of otherwise invisible birds suddenly appear, such as this currasow:

Female Bare-faced Currasow

Rainy season still being a few weeks away, the little bit of water that remains was very popular with birds and mammals alike. No surprise why this is the busy season, as the wildlife is fairly concentrated and easy to find.

Marsh Deer at Aymara

No shortage of Greater Rheas here. We were treated to several, including a huge male tending his brood.

Male Greater Rhea taking care of a few chicks – the little grey blobs in front of him.

After two nights in the northern Pantanal, we went south to Porto Jofre, where the road ends at at the Cuiabá River. Only about 120 km, but it was a good four hours of dirt road and sketchy bridges.  We stayed at the Hotel Pantanal Norte.

On the Cuiabá River

Dozens of boats cruise this stretch of river, principally looking for big cats, but there is plenty of bird-life also.

Capped Heron

But even a couple of hardcore birders like us had to be awed by the felines patrolling the river.

One of six different Jaguars we saw over two days on the river

Also being cat-owners, we are quite familiar with facial expressions like this one:

When our cats get this look, it means: ‘Where is my food, human?”

Here is a nice prospective dinner for a hungry jaguar:

Capybara and Wattled Jacanas – immature and adult
Another easy find in the Pantanal are the largest of the Macaws, the Hyacinth:


Hyacinth Macaws getting their Daily Allowance of minerals

Other denizens of the river include plenty of the bizarre Sunbitterns:


… and the even stranger Great Potoo:

Great Potoo

Because of the extreme heat, the schedules here start nice and early, with breakfast at 5AM. I love hotels that keep birder’s hours.

Toco Toucan
Jabiru nest
Fuscous Flycatcher
Buff-necked Ibis

After two full days on the river, we headed back north to the edge of the Pantanal, for a day at Pousada Piuval. Looking at the eBird lists while here I noticed that we just missed, by one day, a guide that I had hired for half a day many years ago in Miami. Odd.

Blue-and-yellow Macaw
Capybara with Giant Cowbird
Amazonian Motmot
Tree full of Fork-tailed Flycatchers

Finally we spent our last two nightsat Pousada do Parque in the Chapada dos Guimaraes, a national park north of Cuiabá which sits on the plateaus.

Lettered Aracari
Glittering-bellied Emerald
Small-billed Tinamou

Shortly before we headed back to Cuiabá for our final night in Mato Grosso, I got an unexpected email from Mark Smiles, our guide from the UAE. In another strange coincidence, he was just leaving Cuiabá on his way up to the national park that we were just departing. We probably passed each other on the freeway. How strange is that?

Time For Go To Bed!

Bird Names, Part 3

Good bird names are descriptive. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is a wonderful name; it describes a feature and a behavior. It includes a color, and that is even better; an image comes to mind, it seems, much more readily when one can picture the coloration. A very rough estimate suggests that at least 3,000 or so birds have some kind of color included in their common name (I’m working on an exact count). This can show up in many ways, such as with a general, overall descriptor (“Indigo Bunting”), or as a part of a full name (“Yellowthroat”), or as part of a more specific, descriptive feature (“Red-headed Woodpecker”), or as one of several colors (“Black-and-white Warbler”), or my favorite, one that includes a useless hyphen (such as “Little Green-Pigeon”, an example which seems particularly silly given that there was also a “Spotted Green Pigeon” which was green with yellow spots… so why is hyphen use not consistent?!)

So with all that, here are a few trivia questions related to bird names that include specific colors.

Question # 1:

Which color most commonly shows up in bird names?

(The featured image for this page gives a very sneaky, devious hint. That really wasn’t very nice, but I didn’t want to give the answer away too easily.)

Question # 2:

About how many species include this most common color?

(a) 153

(b) 211

(c) 346

(d) 508

(e) 698

At the other extreme, there are colors which only rarely make it into bird names. The question below features a few examples.

Question #3:

Each of the these colors appear in at least one bird name. But which one occurs just once?

(a) Cerulean

(b) Vermilion

(c) Salmon

(d) Viridian

Question #4:

Consider the birds which include the color black in their name. Which of the choices below is the most common?

(a) Black-throated

(b) Black-headed

(c) Black-bellied

(d) Black-vented

(e) Black-winged

Question #5:

Consider the birds which include the color white in their name. Which of the choices below is the most common?

(a) White-throated

(b) White-headed

(c) White-bellied

(d) White-eye(d)

(e) White-tailed

Question #6:

Consider the birds which include the color blue in their name. Which of the choices below is the most common?

(a) Blue-throated

(b) Blue-tailed

(c) Blue-headed

(d) Blue-breasted

(e) Blue-winged

More colors coming soon….

Tree Swallows


1: The most common color in a bird name is…. white.

2: (e) 698. If you include all names with “White” or “white” you will find 706, but we need to remove the following eight because they are not describing a color, but either a call (“Bobwhite”) or the proper name of the person for which they are named:

Northern Bobwhite, Black-throated Bobwhite, Crested Bobwhite, Whitehead’s Swiftlet, Whitehead’s Trogon, Whitehead’s Broadbill (shown in the featured image for this post), Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, White’s Thrush

Interestingly, of the 698 birds with white in their name, only thirteen are “pure” white, that is, of the form “White X”:

White Eared-Pheasant, White Tern, White Stork, American White Pelican, Great White Pelican, White Ibis, White Hawk, White Woodpecker, White Cockatoo, White Bellbird, White Monjita, White Helmetshrike, White Wagtail

For all of the 685 others, the term “white” describes some feature, such as “white-browed” or “white-throated,” etc.

3: (c) Salmon occurs just once, with the Salmon-crested Cockatoo. There are four cerulean birds, three vermilions, and two viridians.

4: (b) Black-headed, of which there are 45.

5: (d) White-eye(d), and it isn’t even close! There are 120 such birds.

6: (e) Blue-winged, of which there are 13.

Bird Names, Part 2

We continue looking at the 10,721 species names from the updated Clements taxonomy. Well, not all of them at once, but various interesting subsets. Previously we looked at the number of words in bird names, comparing their structure with human names and “surnames.”

A natural step from here is to look at an even more direct intersection: species named after people.

This is a terrible way to name a bird, I think. Honoring the individual that first described a bird is all well and good, and can be done in the latin name, as is often the case. But the common names that birders must commit to memory should be descriptive, and I submit that there is simply nothing descriptive in the name “Ludlow’s Fulvetta,” for example.

Here are some trivia questions to get us thinking about these matters:

Question #1:

Of the 10,721 species, how many are named after people?

(a) 498

(b) 828

(c) 1,333

(d) 203

Question #2:

How many different individuals have birds named after them (with a name of the form “Ludlow’s Fulvetta”)?

(a) 92

(3) 221

(c) 506

(d) 788

Question #3:

Which one individual has the most species named after them?

Question  #4:

Following up to the above question, how many species were named after this person?

When naming a bird after a person, the name is almost always of the form “Wilson’s Warbler”; it uses a possessive adjective. There are, however, 21 species that are named after specific people, but that do not use this form.

Question #5:

Can you give an example of a species named in honor of a specific person, but which does not use an apostrophe in the spelling?

Bonus Question #6:

Provide a species name which references a human name, although the bird is not named specifically for them.

The answer to Question #3 is pictured here. Sadly, he did not work on neotropical birds, and so did not get to have a Tuftedcheek named after him.


1: Of the 10,721 species, how many are named after people?

(b) 828, by my accounting. There are 806 birds in Clements that have an apostrophe, not including the Chuck-will’s-widow, which is not named after someone called Chuck-will. See the answer to number 5 below for the other birds.

2: How many different individuals have birds named after them?

(c) 506 that use the possessive form, see the answer to number 5 for the others.

3: Which one individual has the most species named after them?

The individual with the most species named after him is Edward Blyth (1810-1873)

4: Following up to the above question, how many species were named after this person?

Mr. Blyth has 12 species, per the Clements taxonomy:

Blyth’s Tragopan
Blyth’s Frogmouth
Blyth’s Swift
Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle
Blyth’s Hornbill
Blyth’s Kingfisher
Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler
Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher
Blyth’s Reed Warbler
Blyth’s Leaf Warbler
Blyth’s Pipit
Blyth’s Rosefinch

By the way, the Top Ten, and the number of species they each have, are:

Blyth 12
Cassin 9
Pallas 8
Hume 8
Finsch 8
Jerdon 8
Salvadori 8
Shelley 8
Rüppell 8
Temminck 7

5: Can you give an example of a species named in honor of a specific person, but which does not use an apostrophe in the spelling?

I have found 22 species instances where a species is named in honor of a specific person, but the name is not of the form “Johnson’s Wren.” There are fourteen people involved:

  • Victoria Crowned-Pigeon (for Queen Victoria, who else? She also has the Victoria‘s Riflebird)
  • Gouldian Finch (for ornithologist John Gould’s wife)
  • Blackburnian Warbler (for the botanist Anna Blackburne)
  • Alexandrine Parakeet (for Alexander the Great)
  • Derbyan Parakeet (for Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby)
  • There are seven “Magellanic” birds: Penguin, Plover, Oystercatcher, Diving-Petrel, Cormorant, Woodpecker, and Tapaculo (for Ferdinand Magellan)
  • Goliath Coucal and Goliath Heron (for the noted gargantuan Philistine and sling-victim)
  • Mikado Pheasant (for the Emperor of Japan)
  • Montezuma Quail and Oropendola (for the Aztec Emperor)
  • Narcissus Flycatcher (for the mythological narcissist)
  • Narina Trogon (name of Francois Levaillant’s mistress)
  • Princess Parrot (for Princess Alexandra of Denmark)
  • Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise (for the Marquis Francis Raggi of Genoa)
  • Zenaida Dove (for Zénaïde Laetitia Julie Bonaparte, wife of the French ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte and niece of Napoleon Bonaparte)

6: Provide a species name which references a human name, although the bird is not named specifically for them.

This happens when the bird name references a place that was named after a person. There are over 48 names in this category:

Baltimore Oriole, Hudsonian Godwit, Colombian Grebe, Bolivian Spinetail, Juan Fernandez Tit-Tyrant, Lord Howe Swamphen (extinct), Santa Marta Warbler, San Andres Vireo, Virginia Rail, St. Lucia Black Finch, Henderson Island Reed Warbler, Bismarck Black Myzomela, Nashville Warbler, Atherton Scrubfowl, Chatham Albatross, Crozet Shag, Geelvink Pygmy-Parrot, Gough Island Finch, Gough Moorhen, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Heard Island Shag, Humboldt Penguin, Isabela Oriole, Isabelline* Shrike, Kimberley Honeyeater, King-of-Saxony Bird-of-Paradise, Macquarie Shag, Magdalena Antbird, Mascarene Coot, Mauritius Blue-Pigeon, Nariño Tapaculo, Nightingale Island Finch, Norfolk Ground Dove, Noronha Elaenia, Pitt Island Shag, Rennell Fantail, Rodrigues Fody, Rondonia Bushbird, Rote Leaf Warbler, Solomons Boobook, St. Helena Crake, St. Lucia Oriole, St. Vincent Parrot, Stephens Island Wren, Stewart Island Shag, Sucre Antpitta, Torresian Crow, Wake Island Rail, Wallacean Drongo, Wonga Pigeon, and Zapata Rail. Two species are named after Esmereldas, the northernmost province of Ecuador:  a Woodstar and an Antbird. This refers to “emeralds” and not the  name of anyone.

*The origin of the color isabelline is not clear. There is a disputed story that it refers to the color of the undergarments of either Isabella I of Castille or Isabella Clara Eugena of Spain. The hue became distinctive because it resulted from the discolored underclothes never being removed from the royal person for months or years due to an ongoing siege.

Bird Names, Part 1

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.

Question #1:

Of these 146 pure mononymic names, how many have just one syllable?

Question #2:

How many monosyllabic species can you name? (Remember, an answer such as “Gull” does not count, as there is no such specific bird.)

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.

Question #3:

The longest bird name(s) consist of how many words? Three? Four? Five? More?

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:

Question #4:

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.)

(a) Warbler

(b) Flycatcher

(c) Bunting

(d) Tanager

(e) Woodpecker

(f) Sparrow

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?

Question #5:

Repeat of #4, but after making hyphens into whitespace (or is it white-space?)

(a) Warbler

(b) Flycatcher

(c) Bunting

(d) Tanager

(e) Woodpecker

(f) Sparrow

That’s all for now. I’ve got some doozies planned for upcoming posts.
Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Tokyo


#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”:

Warbler 292

Flycatcher 232

Woodpecker 175

Tanager 143

Sunbird 129

Thrush 116

Parrot 110

White-eye 108

Honeyeater 98

Sparrow 94

#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:

Warbler 332

Flycatcher 300

Owl 191

Dove 184

Woodpecker 177

Tanager 169

Babbler 161

Thrush 158

Pigeon 152

Parrot 145

Finally, a list of the 146 pure mononyms of the bird world. Hyphens not welcome here!