The wacky explanations behind bizarre bird names
8th December 2018

This October, a Mandarin duck became one of New York’s biggest celebrities, as locals and tourists flocked to Central Park to spot the brightly colored fowl. One enterprising New Yorker even went so far as to invent a Twitter handle for him — @NYCmandarinduck.

It wasn’t the first time the bird has caused a sensation — and gained a nickname. In the 17th century, English merchants arriving in China were struck by the multicolored feathers of a male duck unlike any of the breeds they knew back home. The plumage reminded them of the ceremonial robes of high-ranking officials in the imperial Chinese government. And so the yuanyang, as it was known in China, became the Mandarin duck.

“Because of its beautiful feathers, they thought it was superior to other ducks,” says Stephen Moss, a British natural historian and author of “Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names” (Faber & Faber), out now. The book, rooted in Moss’ lifelong love of bird watching, lives up to its title, describing various ways English-speaking ornithologists have christened birds through the centuries.

The Mandarin duck is one of several birds whose appearance has inspired names based on religious or noble figures. The bright red feathers of one common songbird, for example, were thought to resemble the robes and caps of Roman Catholic cardinals, while the emperor penguin gets its name from its tremendous stature compared to other members of its species.

Birds have always had local folk names. In some places, the goldfinch was also known as the red cap, the thistle finch, the proud tailor, or King Harry (a comparison between the bird’s bright feathers and Henry VIII’s flashy wardrobe).

Names are also given to birds based on their distinctive personal characteristics. The vampire ground finch, which lives on just two islands in the Galapagos, gets its moniker from its habit of pecking at other birds and then drinking the blood from their wounds.

American and British birdwatchers still have some disputes. Tell someone in England you spotted a loon, and they’ll wonder what the crazy person did. They won’t know you saw a bird unless you call it a great northern diver.

For the most part, though, as the study of birds became more disciplined in the 18th century, ornithologists recognized the need for universally accepted names. Like their ancestors, they often took inspiration from a bird’s physical characteristics. Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) helped standardize the names of many birds, such as the white-fronted goose and the spotted flycatcher, with this approach.

Not all of Pennant’s suggestions were successful. He once tried to rename the stone curlew the “Norfolk plover,” then took a closer look at its legs and dubbed it the “thick-kneed bustard.” (Neither name took.)

Eventually, a system developed. As new species were identified, they were given official names in scientific journals, and it became common to name birds after their discoverers or other scientists. Politeness dictated you shouldn’t name a bird after yourself, so if you found a new species, you gave it a friend’s name — John James Audubon did that a lot, and the favor was reciprocated more than once.

This honor code has survived to the present. Thus, in 1938, Reginald Moreau, a civil servant in Africa who spent much of his free time bird watching in the wild, wrote a dispatch to the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, christening a newly discovered warbler after his wife, Winifred.

Ornithologists continue to find, and name, new birds. In 2010, researchers in Africa discovered a new dark-feathered species of boubou and named it after David Willard, then the collections manager at Chicago’s Field Museum. It was a “great honor,” he recalled recently via e-mail, but one he never expected. “I knew that colleagues were describing a new species but never asked what they were proposing as a name. They kept the secret well.” It wasn’t until friends showed up at the museum to throw him a party that he learned about Willard’s sooty boubou.

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