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Location, location, location… what’s in a name?

Editor's Note: The ABA Blog welcomes Jeff Bouton as a regular contributor.  Jeff is Marketing Manager for Leica Sports Optics and lives in Port Charlotte, Florida. 



Palm Warbler, FL

Note the blurred tail in this early AM shot, caused by the Palm Warbler's incessant and characteristic tail-wagging behavior

I photographed the Palm Warbler above in a palm tree the other day and thought, "Ah, as it should be". 

If only birding were this simple though. For beginning birders this image may not seem odd at all, but those who've been around the block a bit longer realize Palm Warblers are rarely found in palms and, despite the name, one wouldn't really look for them here first. They are only in "palm country" in the winter months and even then, seem to prefer to feed on or near the ground in weedy patches and are much more likely on a low shrub or similar. 

Warblers who feed by gleaning are much more commonly found in palm trees, searching the nooks and crannies for spiders and other morsels. The Yellow-throated Warbler would have been a much more appropriate "Palm Warbler" as they occur year round here in Florida – and other subtropical to tropical locales – and love feeding in palms.


Cape May Warbler… in Florida

Despite being digiscoped in a Coconut Palm, the bird above is NOT a Palm Warbler either. It's a Cape May Warbler and as you may have guessed from the habitat, this individual is a long way from Cape May, NJ. I digiscoped this one in the parking lot of The Florida Keys Hawkwatch in Marathon, FL in October '1).

As an early birder, I expected I'd see my first Cape May Warbler on my first trip to Cape May. Imagine my surprise when I checked the range map and realized this species neither breeds nor winters anywhere near Cape May and is only expected here during the migration months. Oh yeah, and Virginia's Warbler is named for a lady not the states sharing the same name!

Confused?!?… well if not it's only because you've birded long enough to come to the realization that bird names should always be taken with a grain of salt. However, when you stop and reconsider it you can see how these inaccuracies make birding a lot more challenging than it perhaps should be. 

28 RNDU pr 022507

Ring-necked Duck pair digiscoped in Port Aransas, TX, Feb 2007

While not related to geographic anomoly, the Ring-necked Duck has always topped my "poorly-named birds" list!

How about you, anyone want to rant about the WORST bird names in American birding? How about some of the best?

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Jeff Bouton

Jeff Bouton

Jeff Bouton began working as "binoculars for hire" as a teenager, working countless seasonal field research positions for varying state & federal agencies and non-for-profit organizations across the country. After a decade of the bird bum life, he decided he preferred sharing his passion for the outdoors with others and began guiding trips professionally; mostly in Alaska where he was living at the time. While guiding trips at the ABA convention in McAllen, Texas (May 2004), Jeff accepted the position as the birding naturalist rep for Leica Sport Optics, USA and now works as the Marketing Manager here. Over the past decade, Jeff has written more than 50 articles and had hundreds of his digiscoped wildlife images published in major birding magazines. He is a contributing author on past ABA Birdfinding guides to Alaska & Florida respectively, and the Houghton Mifflin title "Good Birder's Don't Wear White".
  • William von Herff

    The best: Roseate Spoonbill, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-billed Loon, Black Vulture. Pretty much any that have accurate color names

    The worst: Connecticut Warbler, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Roseate Tern, and Ring-necked Duck are the worst. After that, maybe stuff like Bald Eagle, Philadelphia Vireo, and, as you said, Palm Warbler.

    Great post, by the way!

  • Tennessee and Nashville Warbler can be added to the worst.

  • Good stuff Jeff! Awesome to see you on here.

    My fav bad bird name… Olive Warbler. Not Olive, not a warbler.

  • Thanks William & George and thanks ABA for letting me join this prestigious team!

  • Really any name with a state or locale that doesn’t fully describe the birds name is bad.

  • Should have proofread…

    What I meant to say is any bird name with a state or locale that doesn’t fully describe the birds range is bad.

  • Nice to see a new face blogging here! Here are some of the most ridiculous, IMO (in addition the ones you already listed, Jeff).

    Tricolored Heron (more than three colors), Pelagic Cormorant (found close to shore), Black-headed Gull (which has a brown head half the year, and a white head the other half), Inca Dove (which is found nowhere near where the Incas lived), Red-bellied Woodpecker, Prairie Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Summer Tanager, Nashville Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Mountain Plover (a bird of wide open plains), Lesser Black-backed Gull (there are more than 2), Tree Sparrow (a bird of open country most of the year), and perhaps the mother of them all: Brown-capped Rosy-finch, a mostly brown bird with a slaty cap. It’s nearly as bad as if Red-backed Junco had been named Gray-backed Junco.

    Until their names are changed, Slate-throated and Painted redstarts (with their white-patched (not red-patched) tails are on the list. And George hit on a great one: the non-olive, non-warbler Olive Warbler.

    I also get a chuckle out of names like Eared Grebe. As opposed to the grebes that don’t have ears? Yes, it’s named for its contrasting gold plumed over the ears. But Ruddy Duck has contrasting white cheeks and a contrasting blue bill. Why not call it Cheeked Duck or Billed Duck?

  • Good to have you on board, Jeff!!

    How about this one for breaking convention: Hudsonian Godwit (they ain’t Canadian Geese or Gunnisonian Sage-Grouse, are they?)

    And to beat a dead horse, the “newly” minted Winter Wren. C’mon- split the bird, great, but come up with a new name for each of the splitees, please…

  • Sandwich Terns do NOT make good sandwiches, despite the name.

  • They ain’t America Crows or Mexico Chickadees, either… Some consistency would be nice.

  • Morgan Churchill

    Muscovy Ducks…Nothing to do with Russia

  • Nice post JB!

    Michael, you’ve given us a very good supplemental list of some very bad names. But I’m puzzled by how to handle Prairie Warbler, as I think it was named at a time when “prairie” was commonly applied to smaller open areas in the Southeastern U.S., exactly the kind of places where the species commonly breeds to this day. The term is still in use there in a narrower sense, for open spots in otherwise forested swamp lands; e.g., Payne’s Prairie in Florida, or the many prairies in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp.

    It’s analogous to “the Midwest,” a term that made a great deal of sense at one point in US history but doesn’t now. But it’s going to be hard to tell the residents of Ohio and Indiana that they now reside in “the Mideast.” We’d encounter far less resistance to an update of Prairie Warbler, of course. But still, both were pretty good names at one point…do they need updating?

    I suppose it depends on the relative values one places on contemporary accessibility vs. historical continuity. Generally, I’d like to see more emphasis than there has traditionally been on accessibility. Not that it’s more important than continuity, just that accessibility is important, too. And I don’t know if I’m ready to let go of Prairie Warbler. What are you proposing as a replacement? 😉

  • Anything with “common” in the name is awful. A European naming tradition we should not have inherited.

  • Perhaps I’m misunderstanding your definition of prairie, Jeff, but I’ve never come across a Prairie Warbler that bred in a prairie. To me, and to most people, I think, prairie is grassland. But Prairie Warblers don’t breed there: they breed in the scrubby second growth that borders grasslands. Or replaces grasslands. If there are so many small trees I can’t see anymore, I don’t think I’m in a prairie. Prairie Warbler, in Illinois and Indiana anyway, breeds in the same places as Blue-winged Warbler. Would that species be just as accurately called “Prairie Warbler”?

    A replacement…good idea! Hmmmmm. How about Lachrymose Warbler, for the cool black design that drops down out of the eye?

  • Yep, Michael, we’re talking past each other just a bit.

    I’m saying that even though you, in 2012, define “prairie” one way, I’m saying it used to commonly apply not only to treeless grasslands but also to small, semi-open, scrubby, second-growth areas that are exactly the kind of places Prairie Warblers breed. And the term is still in use in the Southeast US, at least in a relic way.

    So, do we update to reflect current usage, or do we main continuity?

    Lachrymose Warbler? Definitely cool. But also *incredibly* obscure. Hands up, how many people who haven’t birded South America know what lachrymose means? Yeah, I thought so.

    I agree that the marking under the eye is the key to naming this bird as it’s not duplicated by any other warbler. But how to refer to it? It’s not exactly tear-shaped. It has always reminded me of the anti-glare make up or tape American football players wear under their eyes.

    Eye-black Warbler, anyone?

  • Ah, I see what you mean. I thought you meant the grasslands were just really small. Not that the prairies were not grasslands. How about Discolored Warbler? 😉 Seriously, though, “Bridled Warbler”?

  • anonymous

    Yay, an opportunity to rant! The worst bird names are the ones not descriptive of plumage or vocalization. Especially bad are common names that refer to people/ornithologists. Attach your damn name to the latin where no one cares about it.

  • Everybody has read the absolutely withering 1947 reductio ad absurdum by Ludlow Griscom, right?

    “No ‘simple and logical principles’ for vernacular nomenclature can be formulated. There are far too many birds; their variations, relationships, and ranges are not simple or logical.”

    (And I think that the spelling “lachyrmose” is historically a precious hypercorrection for “lacrimose,” though I’d love getting to shout out that name, however spelled.)

  • The main point to be made here is that names are not words.

    They are the arbitrariest of arbitrary signifiers, and there would be nothing wrong at all with naming that mascara-marked tail-wagging chromatic scaler of cedar-choked fields “green-backed woodclimber” if we wanted to.

    “Accuracy” is an irrelevant criterion in naming.

  • OK, I’ll bite.

    I’m pretty sure I follow your 3 points above, Rick. But even if I allow that “accuracy” is an irrelevant criterion in naming, I’m left with a pretty firm conviction that their are some really great names and some really bad ones.

    So I’m wondering what you would list as relevant criteria in naming?

  • A good name has a unique referent and it is fixed to that referent. Thus, “my other brother Daryl” is a bad name, as it has two referents (if distant memories of television serve), and “Mary Anne Evans” is a bad name, as its (best-known) referent assumed another. I wouldn’t give either of those names to a biological taxon.

    But “klapunfler” is a perfectly good name if I assign it uniquely and permanently to, say, a medium-large ground-feeding white-bellied gray sparrow that visits suburban New Jersey back yards on cold winter days. So would be “snowbird,” “white-tail,” “pink-bill,” or even “junco,” but none of those names would be b e t t e r than “klapunfler” or “rhea” or “onetwothreediddledeedee” for that same object.

    Accuracy is irrelevant because names don’t describe, they simply denote. We get exercised about names like “purple finch” once we mistake them for words.

    PS: Do you have a citation for that meaning of “prairie” you advanced? I know the sense of “thickly vegetated marshy plot,” but hadn’t heard the one you bring up, and don’t own DARE.

  • Oh, and to play the game in the spirit in which it was set, what about “Swamp Sparrow”?

  • Rick, following your logic, “Yellow Warbler” is no better a name for Setophaga petechia than “Pink-headed Goose” is. I’m sorry, but that’s absurd.

  • I always see Prairie Warblers nesting in pines down here, so maybe Pine Warbler?

    Wait… you mean… never mind.

  • Rick,

    Well, the “easier” one first. I don’t have a citation on the use of prairie to denote smaller, brushier open patches of habitat in the SE US (as opposed to the stuff farther West that everyone agrees is prairie). It’s just something I’ve heard said, and there are obvious pitfalls there.

    However, just a bit of Googling did turn up a Southeastern Prairie Symposium that took place earlier this year in Mississippi:

    So it would appear that there are open grassy habitats in that region that at least some people still refer to as prairies. Now, whether Prairie Warblers would occupy the heart of those habitats or the edges, I don’t know though I would guess the latter. That’s the best I got–hearsay and a web site.

    Now on the “klapunfler” front, I do see your point and how it tracks with what Griscom has to say in the piece you linked.

    But it all seems a tad theoretical to me. In practice it’s much easier for people to latch onto something at least partly familiar than something entirely unfamiliar. And we want names to call to mind what they signify, right? Otherwise, why not just number everything, like they do with the galaxies and nebulae? And even then, “Andromeda Galaxy” is a lot easier to retain than “M31,” which is easier than “NGC 224,” even though they’re all names for the same thing.

    In many respects, I think names like Yellow-eyed Junco and Gray Vireo are the best compromise. Including as they do both the Genus, which should, ahem, be relatively unvarying and denote actual, close phylogenetic relationships, as well as an English component that simply tells one a bit about that particular vireo of junco and makes it nice and “sticky” in the sense of easy to remember. Nobody seems to have much trouble with names like these, whereas scientific names are up there with taxes and public speaking as things most people find unpleasant to terrifying and are desperate to avoid.

  • Many of the ones I had in mind have been covered. The warblers are pretty egregious and speaking as someone who lives on the west coast and has yet to see most of them, the inexplicable names make it really hard to keep them all straight.

    I’ll throw in any family that uses a similar family name for every species except one. Clapper Rail, Virginia Rail, King Rail, Yellow Rail, Black Rail….Sora? Peregrine Falcon, Prairie Falcon, Gyrfalcon (which also slightly breaks convention, admittedly), and Merlin? Veery fits in there as well as well as many more I can’t think of at the moment.

    I also wish they would redo some of the names that imply familial relationship where non exists. Grosbeaks, Buntings, etc.

    Finally, I nominate Eastern Kingbird. Here in Western Washington we’ve had EAKI’s breeding in a saltwater estuary for half a decade or so. They’re common just a couple hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean.

  • Hey, look what I started this is fun! Thanks all for the welcomes as well. I’d stay and write more but gonna bird a bit before work here. Goldfinches are flying over here in Florida, this is my year to add a Pine Siskin to the yard list! Good birding all.

  • You’re gettin’ all Realist on us, Michael! Your parents could have named you Michael, Bill, George, or Sue, and any of those names (or Pink-headed Goose) would have been just as good. The link between the name and the named is purely arbitrary and conventional, no?, and the name “warbler” incorporates no essential warbleriness.

    Jeff, I’m not in favor of our switching to those daunting scientific names (including such scary examples as junco, vireo, phainopepla, and parula), but I would point out that there are plenty of amateur ornithological communities that do use them. It’s just an accident of history that we in the US settled on contrived official English names instead.

    As to “latching on to the familiar,” none of us imbibed bird names with mother’s milk. We have had to learn them, and it’s no more difficult to learn, say, an AOU number (remember those?) than it is to internalize a ‘word’ like pyrrhuloxia. Indeed, I think most of us have had the experience of birding with expert guides whose English was shaky — but who could identify their birds by plate and figure number in the field guide of reference.

    It’s amusing to complain about names that we think don’t fit, but my point is that that is the very nature of names: there is no such thing as a “fit” (apart from the ones I throw myself about names I don’t like, of course).

  • Thank you, Jeff, for starting a great discussion! I’m glad you’re writing here.

  • Jesse Ellis

    Of nearly ALL species with “habitat” names, the true Pine Warbler is the best named. I’ve rarely seen a Pine Warbler in a tree other than a Pine.

  • Andy KRatter

    How about the ABA Bird of the year, Evening Grosbeak? Other then it’s scientific name (vespertinus) evoking evening (vesper prayers are said in the evening), what does this species have to do with dusk or night? The BNA account said that when it was given the name vespertinus, it was mistakenly thought to sing only at night. That is wrong of course and has been known to be wrong since the earliest days of American ornithology. Why have we continued this travesty?

  • Jesse Ellis

    An awesome name? Certainly standing above many of the other “habitat” named bird. It’s only if you’re very strict in your definition of “swamp” (which the lay-person is generally not), that this one gets inaccurate.

  • “Evening” commemorates two of the earliest encounters with the species, both of which took place, coincidentally, towards dusk. In that sense, this name is just like that of, for example, the Cape May Warbler. Here’s a link to some interesting reading, if you haven’t already followed up on it:

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