Nomenclature in Birding

How do birds get their names? Why is a Roseate Spoonbill called a Roseate Spoonbill…and not a Pink Ladle-bird? Nomenclature is the term used to describe the process of naming things. But how do birds get their names?
Roseate Spoonbill

Pileated Woodpecker. The word, “pileate,” means to have a crest extending from the bill to the nape, as some birds. Why not just “Crested Woodpecker?”

White-throated Sparrow. Most bird names are descriptive, but they can lead to confusion. For example, the first thing I notice on a White-Throated Sparrow is the white cap and speck of yellow–not the white throat. But, of course, there is also the White-crowned Sparrow.

White-throated Sparrow

Northern Oriole. In the ever-changing taxonomy, two species of orioles–Baltimore and Bullock’s–were determined to be the same species, and they became known as Northern Orioles. But–alas. The Northern Oriole is no more–the two are considered separate species once more.

The way we look at birds and classify them is ever changing as new advances in studying DNA brings surprising results. The Red Crossbill could be eight or more different species based on differences in flight calls and bill shapes. Some western gull species could be lumped together in the near future.

No matter how they change over time, bird names effect birding and give us a look into history.

3 thoughts on “Nomenclature in Birding

  1. One thing I always tell new birders is that many birds are named by what they look like in the hand (Ring-necked Duck) or by locations where the first specimens were found (Cape May Warbler, Nashville Warbler, etc.). This helps them get over that initial confusion when looking at a field guide.

  2. The place-name birds, like you mentioned, are often the funniest. One would assume that Cape May, NJ would be the best place to find their warbler mascot, but nope! Perhaps the worst of all named birds, and something we didn’t mention are all the “Common” or “Lesser” species.

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