Five funky bird names and the stories or meanings behind them
Ninja'd: The Warbler Name Game
If you've ever heard of Dr. W. T. Tolmie, it's sure not because of his widespread affiliation with any common bird names.
Almost every early, well-known ornithologist, from Nuttall to Townsend, has had his good share in the spotlight when it comes to "first" on bird names. So when the number of warblers, woodpeckers, and corvids that can bear an ornithologist's name without making him seem like a blatant narcissist was exhausted, ornithologists began to pull some lesser-known colleagues on the list.*
Such was the case for birder's favorite little yellow warbler of the West (No, not Yellow Warblers. Yellow Warblers wear down favor after you see and hear them a couple hundred million times). As soon as Townsend discovered the Macgillivray's Warbler, and decided it was another bird that desperately needed a name, he thought twice before slamming his own surname down on the table and put his friend, Dr. W.T. Tolmie, on the line.
Unfortunately for him, Audubon was playing the same game and nabbed the name spot himself. Before Townsend could react, the bright yellow warbler Townsend had discovered was bearing the name "Macgillivray's Warbler" after Audubon's dear ol' friend and fellow ornithologist. Now Tolmie is relegated to the Macgillivray Warbler's scientific name, Geothlypis tolmiei, who noone besides ornithologists ever looks at anyway.
When discussing odd bird names with serious birders, it's almost inevitable that "Northern Beardless Tyrannulet" will pop up in the conversation sooner or later. Or when poring over their bird books, sometime or later a new birder will come upon the poor tyrannulet's name. It's a favorite go-to subject for bored birders.
Unbeknownst to the majority of the population, most insect-eating birds have beards--or, in a more proper way to put it, rictal bristles. Unlike human beards, which are completely arbitrary, rictal bristles are undoubtedly important. Noone quite knows why. The theories about them range from bizarre (food-catching beards??) to boringly logical (tactile or sensory beards???). To compound the issue, a study done in which researchers removed the functions of rictal bristles showed no impact on the efficiency of flycatcher flycatch-ing.
Either way, it's a mystery the Beardless Tyrannulet doesn't have to deal with.
So why do Beardless Tyrannulet have no rictal bristles? Before I pull that science teacher "we'll never know" stuff again, let me theorize that it has something to do with the tyrannulet odd feeding behavior that differentiates it from its fellow boring flycatchers. Although I guess, in the end, I'll never know--and you won't for sure, either.
Ending note: Although, like most small flycatchers, the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet has no social life, someone decided it would be hilarious to name a group of tyrannulets a "shaving."
Someone, somewhere, right now, is laughing their asses off.
A Name Fit For A Duchess
In the good ol' days when female naturalists were far and few, and female naturalists of nobility were even farer and fewer, the Anna's Hummingbird stands as an exception of the ways of the 19th century.
Oh wait, Duchess Anna De Belle Massena wasn't even a naturalist (at least in the field). Her husband was. Apparently, having an Anna's Hummingbird discovered in her husband's collection by another naturalist was enough to land Duchess Anna the name.
Just like how the role of women in society has changed over time,** the Anna's Hummingbird (and its buddy the Allen's Hummingbird) has been rapidly morphing as of late. Thanks to the fancy ol' gardens and exotic flowers of Southwesterners tired of boring old sagebrush, desert, and lawns, the range of both hummingbirds have been expanding like a balloon. Everyone loves hummingbirds anyway so noone's complaining.
Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia: Curious in Latin
Something about unusually colored, crested birds attracts weirdly latin names. Take Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia, for example.
It's time to go back to Latin Class 101, because both of these names can be dissected and understood through some good ol' sleuthing. "Pyrrhuloxia" literally translates to "fire-colored bird," while "phainopepla" translates to shining robe-- so to the 0.0001% of fluent latin speakers on the planet, these two bird names do make plenty of sense.
So what's in a name?
Next time someone says they saw a lifer "Brewer's Duck," or are counting a "Brewer's Duck," take their ABA list with a grain of salt. For, worse than counting Oldsquaws or Chickenhawks (gasp) or even introduced species not approved by the ABA (double gasp) Brewer's Ducks is a hybrid. More specifically, a common hybrid between a Gadwall and a Mallard.
There are scores more hybrid and subspecies names to remember. Olympic and Kumlien's Gulls are a product of the mess that is the genus Larus. Macgillivaray didn't get his namesake just from a warbler, there's a subspecies of seaside sparrow named after him. Which species does the subspecies of Timberline Sparrow come from? Not all birders could tell you. *
What's with a lot of these names anyway? Was Purple Finch named by a colorblind person? Why is the name Rock Pigeon always being changed to Rock Dove and vice versa? Canada Geese aren't nice, so where did they get their name?
The classic answer to all these questions: we may never know.
Next time you meet an unusual or noteworthy bird name, stop and ponder the possibilities and stories behind each word of its title. There's a history in each title. And don't forget, new species of birds are still being discovered once in a while, so don't hesitate to swoop in and try to get a bird named after yourself. Especially if it has a nice ring.
*Or they were being genuinely nice to their friends. One or the other.
** That was deep!!
*** Brewer's Sparrow