What’s In a Name

I grew up with the name of a bird. I often wondered if my parents named me “Maggie” with the intention of calling me “Magpie” instead. I never really wondered what the nickname meant or why the bird and I shared it. Little did I know that the bird was named after me. “Mag” is derived from “Margaret” which was often associated with someone who was constantly chattering. That association rings true for me and the bird, me being bossy and loud as a child; the Magpie being known as a constantly chirping nuisance. There are layers of meaning behind the names we casually throw around when we see birds. It’s worth stopping to examine their meaning, where they came from, and how they may relate to us today.

There are two types of bird names: colloquial and scientific. Colloquial, common, names are quite subjective and depend on where you live, what language you speak, and a myriad of other reasons. For example, the Mallard duck is also known as a Canard, Stokente, and many other names across the globe. The name Mallard derives from the Latin word “mallardus” which means a male duck. Other names may derive from their look, home range, or in someone’s honor. Luckily, the scientific names are set in stone and Latin and are the sure way to differentiate between birds.

Eponymous bird names are given in honor of a person, and, today, many of them are named after figures now seen as controversial, reinforcing stereotypes of birding and ornithology as being exclusive, even racist. Hammond’s flycatcher, McCown’s longspur, and Bachman’s warbler are just a few examples. Even the National Audubon Society, the oldest and most recognizable bird organization, is named after a cruel enslaver who plagiarized much of his work. The National Park Service aptly says that “[b]irders of color are reminded that this field is founded by people who would find them lesser than.” In fact, the Audubon Natural Society (independent of National Audubon) recently changed its name to Nature Forward for just this reason.

But most bird names are not racist and controversial, just fascinating and revealing of rich cultural history..

Some birds have clear, common-sense reasoning behind their names, like the Cactus Wren. It nests is cactuses.

The Blue Jay a pretty obvious, given its beautiful blue feathers, but it is also hypothesized that the “jay” is in reference to the sound of its call. Such names, called onomatopoeic, are based on birds calls like those of owls. cuckoos, and jays. Other names come from phrases transliterated from languages other than English such as the penguin most likely named for the Wels phrase “pen gwyn,” meaning white head. But some names are the epitome of English naming. Take the term “albatross” which was first coined by the English Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Albatross derives from the Latin word “albus” which means white.

There is much rich culture and meaning behind bird names that often can go unnoticed. Taking just a little time to delve into the name of that bird you just identified or read about can reveal both interesting and important history, including the roots of racism, even among pioneering ornithologists and scientists, that can help make today’s birding and ornithology more open and inclusive. You might even find a personal connection to a bird name as I have and claim it proudly. Chattering like a magpie is a good thing, right? Just think of it as bird song or loquaciousness.

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Maggie Dees

Maggie Dees co-leads the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder program. She is a sophomore in the honors program at Virginia Tech University majoring in environmental science. She is from Salisbury, NC, and is passionate about environmental justice and conservation.