THE TOP 10: Best Colloquial Bird Names
10. Chukoloskee Chicken
Also known as the Spanish Curlew, the White Ibis with its striking white plumage, pink legs, and pink sickle-bill has earned it a couple of colorful names.
9. 40 Quarts of Soup
Known in parts of its range as Ol’ Cranky, the Great Blue Heron is famous not only for having a cantankerous disposition and call, but also for the large volume of “whitewash” it leaves behind on boat docks, and other man-made structures. Despite this, they are surely one of the most well-known and popular birds in North America. They are more widely referred to as blue cranes, a name that connotes a little more affection than the others mentioned above.
8. English Parrot
The 2012 ABA Bird of the year, the Evening Grosbeak, is known among some circles as the English Parrot for its heavy bill, striking plumage, and perhaps due to its frugivorous feeding habits too.
This name and butcherbird are used at times for both of our shrikes, but nine-killer seems more often associated with Northern Shrike. Their gruesome habit of impaling their prey (e.g. songbirds, rodents, and large insects) on thorns and barbed wire led some observers to say that they’d kill nine animals before eating just one.
6. Holstein Pheasant
This alternative for the Black-billed Magpie is surely one of the most fitting colloquial names.
5. Devil Downhead
Known among some circles as the Tree Mouse, the conspicuous movements and behavior of the White-breasted Nuthatch have led it to this colorful name.
4. Callithumpian Duck
Also known as the butterfly coot, South Southerly, Old Wife, and Cockawee, most of us wistfully remember this bird as the Oldsquaw. It officially became Long-tailed Duck a few years ago; the same name used in Europe for decades. Apparently, it was believed among some Native American groups that when a squaw died her spirit went into a “coot”. Others believe that the name “Oldsquaw" was derived from the “constant chatter” of these loquacious waterfowl. For years, birders half-joked how Oldsquaw was the only ageist, sexist, and racist bird name. While the name-change brought that issue to an end, it also marked the loss of a name many people held dear. The name Callithumpian Duck came about for its noisy manner. A Callithumpian is like a shivaree, or a mock serenade in which noise-makers bang on pots and pans as a discordant band of rabble-rousers that take up during elections, town meetings, or to celebrate a wedding.
American Bittern in Dorchester County, MD; November. (Photo by Bill Hubick/www.billhubick.com)
Also known as the bog bull, stake driver, Indian hen, or dunk-a-doo, the distinctive and atmospheric sound produced by a territorial American Bittern has led to a proliferation of cool colloquial names.
2. Whiskey Jack
A charismatic species of the north country, the curious and mischievous nature of the Gray Jay, and its palpable intelligence led its being known by a variety of names including camp-robber, venison heron, Grease-bird, meat-bird, and Gorby. The name Whiskey Jack appears a corruption of “Wisakedjak” which was the name of a trickster god of the Algonquin.
1. Labrador Twister
Many folks will cry foul here, as this bird is more commonly known as the timberdoodle, but to me Labrador Twister resonates best of all. This species also goes by bogsucker and night partridge.
A few honorable mentions:
American Coot = Blue Peter, Crow duck
American Dipper = Water Ouzel
American Goldfinch = Thistlebird
Anhinga = snakebird, water turkey
Atlantic Puffin = Sea parrot
Black-capped Petrel = Diablotin
Black-necked Stilt = Lawyer
Black Guillemot = Sea pigeon
Black Scoter = Smutty-nosed Coot, Sleigh-bell Duck
Black Skimmer = cutwater, scissorbill
Bobolink = ortolan, reedbird, ricebird
Bohemian Waxwing = silktail
Bufflehead = butterball, little dipper
Chuck-wills-widow = hollerin’ boys, twixt-hell-and-the-white-oak
Clapper Rail = mud hen
Common Nighthawk = bullbat
Cory’s Shearwater = tuna duck
cuckoos = rain crows
Dark-eyed Junco = Snowbird
Dovekie = Sea Dove, Greenland Dove, Icebird, Nunchie
Great Black-backed Gull = saddleback, coffin-carrier
goldeneye = clubhead, whistler
Glaucous Gull = Burgomaster
Great Skua = bonxie, Sea Hen, Grand Goose
Greater White-fronted Goose = specklebelly
Greater Yellowlegs = tell-tale, Aunt Sarah, Twillick
Harlequin Duck = Squeaker
Hooded Merganser= French pheasant, Hairy head
Horned Grebe = Spirit-duck
Lapland Longspur = glider
Least Sandpiper = oxeye
Least Tern = Little Striker
murrelets = foglarks
Northern Cardinal = Virginia Redbird
orioles = hang-nests
Parasitic Jaeger = teaser, dung bird
Phalarope = sea snipe, sea goose
Pied-billed Grebe = waterwitch, hell-diver
Razorbill = Tinker
Red-eyed Vireo =The Preacher
Red-throated Loon = Water Witch
Rose-breasted Grosbeak = Throat-cut
Ruddy Duck = Goddamn
Ruddy Turnstone = calico-back, Fat Oxen
Scaled Quail = cottontop
Scarlet Tanager = pocketbird
Seaside Sparrow = Meadow Chippy
Sora = Ortolan
Spruce Grouse = fool hen
Summer Tanager = Smooth-headed Redbird
Surf Scoter = skunkhead
Swamp Sparrow = Red Grass-bird
Willet = Humility
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel = Mother Carey’s Chicken,
Wood Stork = flinthead, Colorado Turkey
My gratitude and thanks to Henry T. Armistead, Louis Bevier, and Ted Floyd for their thoughtful insights and commentary on colloquial bird names. Also thanks to Jeff Gordon and Alvaro Jaramillo for their input, and to photographers Bill Hubick and Tom Johnson for contributing photos.
Banks, R. C. 1988. Obsolete English names of North American birds and
their modern equivalents. Resource Publication 174, USFWS.
Choate, E. A. 1973. The Dictionary of American Bird Names. Harvard Common Press.
McAtee, W. L. 1957. Folk-names of Canadian bird (Bulletin of the
National Museum of Canada #149).
McIlhenny, E.A. 1897. A list of the species of Anseres, Paludicolae, and Limicolae occurring in Louisiana. The Auk 14: 285-289.