How 5 Common Birds Got Their Names
Updated: Oct 27, 2018
By Jeremy Schwartz
Bird names can be weird.
This thought came to me more than a few times as Backyard Birding worked its way through development. The more some of our featured birds' names were repeated, the more I wondered where they might have come from.
House Finch. Black-capped Chickadee. Dark-eyed Junco. Hummingbirds. Red-breasted Nuthatch. The walls of my living room have heard these bird names frequently over the last year. Fortunately, none of them have quite reached the weird-sounding point some words reach when you say them 15 or 20 times in a row.
Just the same, hearing them as often as I have recently has me made wonder where exactly these words and terms come from. Some are more obvious than others; “hummingbird,” for example. But what does the word “finch” mean, exactly?
I wanted to find out, so I did some digging (really, internet searching) so you wouldn’t have to.
Let’s start with the name that really got my mind pondering on the topic: the House Finch. House Finches are one of North America’s most common birds. They’re most easily identified by their melodic, wandering song and the male’s red-orange heads. Chances are if you have a bird feeder anywhere in the continental U.S. (especially on the West Coast), you’ve seen them.
As near as I could find, the word “finch” comes from the Old English word “finc,” or the German word “fink. Though the first application of this word to this type of bird is hard to pin down, the German meaning might offer some clue as to how it got attached to this species.
A “fink” in German and other European languages can refer to a lively or cheerful person, a description that certainly fits this active and gregarious song bird. The descriptor “house” most likely refers to the bird’s tendency to hang around human dwellings.
The Black-capped Chickadee is one of the most likely birds to be found at feeders. These energetic, acrobatic birds are often the first to explore new feeders and may even contribute to a feeling of safety among other species. If chickadees are visiting, chances are the spot is safe.
Chickadees are small, social song birds with a tendency to investigate humans that may be watching them. Their black-and-white heads make them easy to tell from the other birds you're likely to see visiting your backyard.
I thought I had the origin of the word “chickadee” pegged before I started doing any research, and I was pleased to learn I was partially right. Anyone who has heard these inquisitive little birds will likely have no trouble imaging where their name comes from. They seem to say “chicka-dee-dee-dee” as the hop from branch to branch.
Turns out this was not lost on the white people that “officially” named the bird in North America nor the native tribes that were here before. Multiple sources cite the Cherokee word for this little bird “tsigili’i” as the Cherokee also attempting to ascribe a name to the bird imitative of its sound. While the Cherokee name was recorded in texts before the English term was, it’s unknown if the English word was an Anglicization of the native name or if the two words were coined independently to describe the same distinctive sound.
Besides chickadees with their smart black-and-white heads, Dark-eyed Juncos are perhaps the easiest common feeder bird to pick out by eye.
Though their markings vary, the different varieties all share a stark contrast between light lower parts and dark upper parts. The “Oregon” subspecies, which we have all over my home state of Washington, is characterized by a dark hood of feathers covering its head combined with a uniformly brown body.
The accepted origin for the name “junco” seems to be the Spanish word “junco,” from the Latin “iuncus,” which both reference a type of water plant called a "rush." As Diana Wells writes in 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, this was likely a reference to some European cousins of juncos called buntings living among reeds near water. It’s a bit of a misnomer in the junco’s case, though, as these birds prefer dry, woody habitats.
How thrilling is it to see one of these little wonders of nature dart over to a feeder or flowering plant, take a drink and dart off again in barely any time at all? My backyard has been fortunate enough to play host to both the green-and-iridescent-pink Anna’s Hummingbird and the orange-tinted Rufous Hummingbird.
In terms of research, this one was pretty easy. Hummingbirds get their name from the sound of the unbelievably fast beat of their wings. This means of locomotion allows them to hover, change directions in the blink of an eye and even fly backward.
The amber-colored Rufous Hummingbird's name comes from its color. "Rufous" in the birding world is the most common way to describe a reddish orange hue. The Anna’s Hummingbird is named for the French Princess Anna de Belle Massena, according to the birding podcast BirdNote.
Married to a French prince and amateur ornithologist, Princess Anna apparently caught the eye of naturalist René-Primevère Lesson, who named the hummingbird in her honor. I wonder how the Prince felt about that. Interestingly, it seems the princess's namesake hummingbird is her most significant claim to fame. All searches I did of her name resulted in only information about the Anna's Hummingbird. I wonder if René-Primevère Lesson ever imagined he would single-handedly be cementing Princess Anna's name in history.
Most feeders up long enough will get nuthatches coming to call eventually. Red-breasted Nuthatches are sparrow-sized birds that frequent feeders for seeds and, well, nuts.
They have a few unique and somewhat peculiar behavioral traits that make them stand out among other common feeder birds. For one, they can often be seen clinging to the sides of tree trunks and have the ability to move up, down and sideways along the bark. I often see them beak pointed toward roots, tail pointed toward sky as they hop their way down the large tree in my backyard.
Their name comes from another unique trait of theirs: that of lodging nuts and large seeds in the crevices of tree bark for eating later. When they want a snack, they will literally hack the nuts out with their stout, pointed bills. “Hatch” is an archaic synonym for “hack,” hence the term “nuthatch.”
I've hoped you enjoyed this stroll through the naming history of five of the more common birds you're likely to see in your own backyard. As you play through Backyard Birding, keep a lookout for these birds appearing in the Flock and consider sharing where their names come from with your friends. Stay tuned for future blog posts exploring the name origins of more of the 38 species featured in the game.
Happy backyard birding!
A version of this post originally appeared on my Medium page.