2012 June – It’s a mystery to me! (Part I)

Male Phainopepla

Male Phainopepla


  • Phainopepla (pronounced fay-no-PEP-la) is Greek for “shining robe,” referring to the shiny black plumage of the males. This bird is often referred to as the black cardinal.
  • Northern Cardinal – named for the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, who wear distinctive red robes and caps.
  • Dodo Bird (now extinct) – named for the Portuguese word doudo meaning foolish person (because of the bird’s trusting and unafraid nature).
  • Eagle – The modern English name of the bird is derived from the Latin term aquila by way of the French aigle. The Latin aquila may derive from the word aquilus, meaning dark-colored, swarthy, or blackish, as a description of the eagle’s plumage.
  • Cormorant – comes via the Old French cormaran from medieval Latin corvus marinus, meaning sea-raven.
  • Merganser – a diving goose, from mergere, to dive and anser, a goose.
  • Peregrine – the wanderer from abroad, the foreigner – originally the person or animal who has traveled “per agrum” – through the fields.
  • Avocet – French avocette, Italian avocetta, meaning literally, “graceful bird.”
  • Vulture – Middle English vulture, vultur, voltur, Anglo-Norman vultur, Old French voultour, Latin vulturius, vultur, meaning “a tearer.”
  • Pelican – Old English pellican, pellicane, Latin pelicanus, Greek pelekan or pelekus, meaning “axe,” reflecting the bird’s bill shape.
  • Oriole – clearly linked to Latin aureus, or golden. The Baltimore Oriole sports the colors of one Lord Baltimore.
  • Canary – named after the Canary Islands, so called because, in olden times, one of the islands was noted for breeding large dogs (canis in Latin).
  • Harris’ Hawk – named by John J. Audubon for his friend and financial supporter, Edward Harris.
  • Loon – from a Scandinavian word lom, meaning “clumsy” because these birds are built for swimming but very awkward on land.
  • Grosbeak – from the French word grosbec, which means “large beak.”

Some names come from the noises the birds make, such as the pipit, hoopoe, kittiwake, cuckoo, and chickadee (although imagination may be required to recognize some of these names in the sound).

Others are named for their behavior or habitat: burrowing owl, thrasher (stirring up the ground looking for insects), American dipper (constant body dipping in streams), wood duck (they nest in tree cavities), and juniper titmouse.

Flicker – may be named for its motion flying from tree to tree, showing white wing spots, which present a flickering effect.

Sometimes color says it all: vermillion flycatcher, yellow warbler and mountain bluebird.

A few names are more mysterious or just don’t figure. The red-bellied woodpecker of the eastern U.S. has a red head or nape and only a pinkish wash to its belly. The nighthawk is not a hawk at all, and is most common at dusk.

More next month…

Cornell Lab, Sibley guides, Webster’s Dictionary, Wikipedia, Birds of Britain, and various internet sites

1 Comment

One Response to 2012 June – It’s a mystery to me! (Part I)

  1. Art Smith says:

    As usual Claudia, a very informative article. Thank you……Art

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>