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Pick 6: Origin of Bird Names

American Avocet

The origin of bird names can be a fascinating insight into the history of the bird.   Most bird names are derived from one or more of the following characteristics.

  • Names from other Languages
  • Based on its call or song
  • Descriptive of the bird’s structure
  • Refers to its habitat
  • Referring to its color
  • Refers to actions or habits
  • Refers to it food
  • Named after a person
  • From its geographic locality

Here are 6 birds with interesting names, either common or scientific.  Try to come up with your own list that fits in each of the above categories.

1. American Avocet |The scientific name is Recurvirostra americana.

american avocet

American: There are 4 species of avocets.  This one is found in America.

Avocet: From French and Italian:  French avocette, from Italian avocetta meaning Graceful Bird.

Recurvi | rostra
Recurvi refers to the curved shape of the bill.
Rostra is probably a retracted form of Rostral, which refers to something situated or occurring near the front end of the body, especially in the region of the nose and mouth or Rostrum which is a beaklike projection, especially a stiff snout. Often associated with an insect or crustacean but in this case to the bill of a bird.

2. Northern Mockingbird | Scientific name: Mimus Polyglottos

northern mockingbird

The common name is easy. The scientific name is not too hard if you know what a polyglot is.

Northern: There are several species of mockingbirds.  Most are found south of the united States, thus the Northern designation of this mockingbird species.
Mockingbird: From its habit of mocking or mimicking the calls of other species.

Mimus: Relating to mimicking the songs of other birds.
Polyglottos: From Polyglot – a person how knows several languages.

3. Wood Stork | Scientific name: Mycteria americana

wood stork

Wood; From its habit of nesting in trees.
Stork: From the Old English – storc.

Mycteria: From the Greek mukter, nostril, to sneer, and elephant’s trunk.  Reference to the large bill on this bird.
americana:  From its natural range.

4. Blue Jay  | Scientific name: Cyanocitta cristata

blue jay

Blue: From its color.
Jay: From French geai.  May be an onomatopoeia reference to its call.

Cyanocitta: A dark blue chattering birds. Greek kuanos – dark blue, kitta – a chattering bird.
cristata: From Latin cristatus – with a crest.

5. Wilson’s Plover  | Scientific name: Charadrius wilsonia

wilsons plover

Wilson’s: Named for Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), known as the father of American ornithology.
Plover: From the Latin pulvia for rain.  No one seems to know why this was chosen.

Charadrius: From Greek kharadrios – a yellow bird dwelling in clefts.  Not necessarily the bits fit for this bird that is neither yellow nor does it make a habit of nesting in ravines, gullies or clefts.  It nests on a bare scrape on sandy beaches or sandbars.

wilsonia: Another reference to Alexander Wilson

Can you think of another bird named for Wilson?

6. Cactus Wren | Scientific name: Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

(The common name is much easier to say!)

cactus wren

Cactus: From its habit of nesting in cacti or other thorny shrubs.
Wren: From the Anglo-Saxon wraenna, their name for this type of bird.

Campylorhynchus: Curved beak.  From the Greek kampulos – curved or bent like a bow, and rugkhos, a snout or the beak/bill of a bird.
brunneicapillus: From Latin brunneus, meaning brown, and capillus, meaning hair of the head. References the brown cap on the bird.

If you would like to learn more a great book on the topic is Dictionary of Birds of the United States by Joel Ellis Holloway. It can usually be found on Amazon for less that $10 delivered.



About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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