A-well-a ev’rybody’s heard about the bird
B-b-b-bird, b-birdd’s a word
— from Surfin’ Bird, by the Trashmen (1963)
What’s in a bird name? Lots of facts and history.
Names might commemorate historically significant people, or refer to places, anatomical features, or perceptions of intellect or behavior. Sometimes bird monikers are onomatopoeias: written derivations of the sounds that they make. And I finally got to use that word in a column.
For decades, the bible for bird nomenclature was “The Dictionary of American Bird Names,” by Ernest Choate. A slender volume released in 1973 and updated in 1985, it spanned 226 pages and was a favorite of birders.
Thirty-five years on, Choate’s book has been surpassed on an epic scale.
Author Gary H. Meiter has created an elegantly presented treatise on bird nomenclature that is the new standard. He treats more than 900 species in “Bird is the Word” — almost every species found in North America north of Mexico.
The starting point to learning birds — or nearly anything — is learning names. From there, knowledge can be linked into ecology, behavior, identification and history. And it’s the latter that “Bird is the Word” so artfully deals with.
A brief introduction describes the book’s layout, including an interesting summary of notable American ornithologists. Meiter concisely describes the science of naming things, and the history of how common and scientific names came to be. The reader will learn interesting trivia, such as what a tautonym is (there are 16 North American bird species with tautonymic names).
The pages are punctuated with beautiful illustrations by some of America’s most accomplished avian artists. It’s a visual delight to turn a page and face a rendering of a pair of pileated woodpeckers by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, or a magnificent frigatebird in full swoop from the hand of John James Audubon. The inclusion of artwork is a nice touch, and one that reinforces this book’s attention to detail.
Interesting sidebars are peppered throughout the accounts. There are 42, and they serve as intellectual nuggets breaking up the main text. Sidebars cover all manner of intriguing trivia, as suggested by headers such as “Bird of Fire,” “The Trickster of the North Woods” and “Birds as Weather Prophets.”
Each bird family is prefaced with an introductory description. Perhaps you have wondered why whip-poor-wills are known as goatsuckers. You will find the answer here.
The purpose of “Bird is the Word” is the species accounts. Each species begins with a well-crafted description of how the bird’s common name came to be. Meiter often includes fascinating historical nuggets, and the reader quickly gains a sense of how much research must have gone into these accounts.
Species accounts include the meanings of the scientific name, French and Spanish names, and one of my favorite sections, “Other Names.”
Bird lore is rife with fanciful colloquial names, and this book seems to have them all. For instance, a woodpecker common in Ohio, the northern flicker, has about 160 nicknames. These include cotton-rump, high-hole, and yellowhammer. A wonderful sobriquet for the American bittern is belcher-squelcher, but if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, Meiter lists dozens of other nicknames for this heron.
Learning a bird’s name is just the start of getting to know it. “Bird is the Word” will decode that name and in the process expand your knowledge of the species. Anyone who enjoys the feathered crowd should have a copy of this book. To order, visit: mwpubco.com.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.