What's in a Bird Name: Sparrow
Updated: Nov 28, 2018
By Jeremy Schwartz
What exactly does the word "sparrow" mean, anyway?
That's what I wanted to explore in this entry into the Bird Nerd's semi-regular series "What's In a Bird Name?" Last time, I explored the name origins of five common feeder birds. I wanted to tackle sparrows in general next, since there are just so many of them.
How many? Well, sparrows (specifically American sparrows) can be found in nearly every part of North America, which hosts at least 35 species.They’re best known for the variety of songs they sing, often within the same species. Shades of brown, white, and gray in varying patterns are their most common colors. Some, though, have striking facial patterns that include black, white, and yellow.
In Backyard Birding, you can attract three birds called "sparrow," to your Yard:
I say "called" because we've included two other birds that are technically sparrows but are not named as such. These birds are the orange-and-black Spotted Towhee and the handsome, black-hooded Dark-eyed Junco. For the fun of it, I'll also talk about the word origin of "towhee," in this piece, though why a junco is called a junco was discussed in the Bird Nerd article linked above.
The Word Sparrow
This one article would be long indeed if I sought to explain the name origins of all 35 North American species of sparrow. Here I'll focus on the word “sparrow” itself and talk a little about each of the sparrows featured in Backyard Birding.
According to James Rising in his Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada, the English word “sparrow” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “spearwa.” This term literally means “flutterer,” an apt description for this active song bird.
A little bit about the sparrows we in the U.S. and Canada call native. The sparrows of North America are not related to the “old world” sparrows of Europe and Eurasia, which were the original bearers of this name. North American sparrows are more closely related to a type of bird called a bunting. The only sparrow in North America that can trace its lineage back to Europe is the House Sparrow, an introduced species.
The White-crowned Sparrow (which just happens to be Backyard Birding's semi-official mascot) was first officially described by the Polish naturalist J.R. Forster in the mid-1700s. The bird's common name comes directly from its scientific name Zonotrichia leucophrys (yeah, that's a little hard for me to pronounce, too).
According to the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, "zonotrichia" comes from the Greek words for "hair" and "band," while the "leucophrys" comes from the Greek for "white eyebrow." The zebra-like head feathers of the White-crowned Sparrow make it one of the easiest small birds to identify at feeders or in urban parks.
The Golden-crowned Sparrow is closely related to the White-crowned, even sharing the same genus Zonotrichia (the first term in the standard two-term scientific naming convention). First described in 1789 by a German naturalist named Johann Gmelin, the Golden-crowned Sparrow's scientific name Zonotrichia atricapilla oddly doesn't reference the yellow feathers adorning the heads of males. "Atricapilla", again thanks to the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, comes from the Latin words for "black-haired."
Though a first recorded mention of the bird's common name was hard to pin down, the treasure trove of bird information that is AllAboutBirds.org tells us that early-1900s gold miners in the Yukon nicknamed the bird "weary Willie" because of its plaintive song. It apparently sounded to them like "I'm so tired," but I don't really hear it. No matter what you think this sparrow is saying, look for it hopping among bushes and shrubs in the late fall and winter in the Pacific Northwest.
The scientific name of the Song Sparrow is pretty clear about what makes this bird special. Melospiza melodia basically means "singing song-finch" and fits perfectly with the bird's common name.
The Song Sparrow was first described in the early 1800s by Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson, considered by some pretty smart people to be the father of American ornithology. This white-and-brown streaky bird is best known for a multi-part song that lasts 2-6 seconds, consists of varied notes, and most often ends in a buzz or trill.
Somewhat frustratingly, Song Sparrows have varied songs depending on where they're found across North America. It's a safe bet, though, that any small, brownish bird spotted in the field singing its heart out for seconds at a time will be a Song Sparrow.
Last but not least comes the Spotted Towhee, the largest of the sparrows I've talked about here. The towhee is unique among the birds in this article in that it's the only one whose names is an attempt to describe the sound it makes. This is referred to as "onomatopoeic," and is likely most familiar for giving the chickadee its name.
The Spotted Towhee's scientific name Pipilo maculatus comes from the Latin word "pipilare" meaning to chirp or peep, and the Latin word "maculatus," meaning "spotted." The word "towhee" is meant to be imitative of the bird's two-note call. I've always thought this call sounded more like the unhappy meow of a cat, but no one asked me for my opinion when they were naming this bird. The towhee can be found quickly hopping backward under bushes to kick up food.
Digging into the name origins of birds combines two of my favorite things: word history and birds. If you've got a favorite bird whose name you'd like me to look into, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.