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THE TOP 10: Best Colloquial Bird Names

10.       Chukoloskee Chicken

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White Ibis at Kiptopeke State Park, VA; May. (Photo by G. Armistead)

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.

 

7.         Nine-killer

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

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White-breasted Nuthatch in Linwood, NJ; October. (Photo by G. Armistead)

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

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Long-tailed Duck at Barrow, AK; June. (Photo by G. Armistead)

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.

 

3.         Thunder-pumper

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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

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Gray Jay in Denali National Park, AK; June. (Photo by G. Armistead)

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

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American Woodcock at Cape May, NJ; January. (Photo by Tom Johnson)

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

 

Acknowledgements:

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.

 

Sources:

 Banks, R. C. 1988. Obsolete English names of North American birds and their modern equivalents. Resource Publication 174, USFWS. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/research/pubs/banks/obsall.htm

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.

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George Armistead

George Armistead

George Armistead is a lifelong birder and since April 2012 is the events coordinator for the ABA. George spent the prior decade organizing and leading birding tours for Field Guides Inc. He has guided trips on all seven continents, and enjoys vast open country habitats and seabirds most of all. Based in Philadelphia, he is an associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and spends much of his free time birding the coast between Cape May, NJ and Cape Hatteras, NC.