Aves mexicanus

One of the curious traits shared by birders and professional ornithologists is an abiding interest in bird names, both common and scientific. With respect to common (English) names, I have previously highlighted attempts at standardization in the 1830s (here), one recognizing a woman (here), one that is obscure and obsolete (here), a recent name change …

A Whiskey-Jack by Any Other Name

The year I turned 21, I got my dream job: seasonal naturalist at Algonquin Provincial Park. Algonquin, established in 1893, was only the second provincial park to be created in Canada, and the first to be designated to protect a natural environment [1].  This vast ‘wilderness’ area (7653 km2) is only 3 hours by car …

George Ord’s Warbler

I have always liked the Cape May Warbler. The male in spring is a handsome bird, but scarce enough here in eastern Ontario that I see only one or two every spring [1]. When I first saw one on migration at Long Point Bird Observatory in the 1960s, my friend and mentor David Hussell said …

The Peculiar Etymologies of Ross’s Birds

When I was first starting to learn about birds, I was particularly intrigued (and delighted) with the peculiar names that had come from old English (dunlin, cormorant) and other languages (guillemot, eider), and those that were onomatopoeic (cuckoo, chickadeee). I also assumed that those birds named after people (Audubon’s Warbler, Temminck’s Stint, Townsend’s Warbler) were …

Four Calling Birds

As this will be posted on Christmas day, I thought a post about my favourite Christmas song—and my second favourite song about birds [1]—would be in order. I particularly like The Twelve Days of Christmas because the words are secular, it originated in an 18th century memory game, the period celebrated is (or was) all …

Callow Youth

In science, controversies often arise over complex issues when researchers approach a problem from different points of view, backgrounds, and philosophies—think, for example, of the debates over nature vs nurture, selection vs drift, group vs kin vs individual selection, gradualism vs punctuated equilibria, and mechanisms of sexual selection. As Ledyard Stebbins pointed out in 1982, …

Bird Names Then and Now

Where did the English names for birds come from (and where are they going)? I discussed a few weeks ago some of the onomatopoeic bird names (cuckoo, for example), but many of the common bird names currently in use derived from other sources indicating some aspect of the bird’s appearance, place of discovery, or habits …

The First Penguins

While preparing a talk [1] last week about the early history of ornithology in North America, I wondered who might have been the first to describe and identify a bird on this continent. As far as I can tell, that was Jacques Cartier when he wrote, in 1534, about the ‘Apponat‘ (originally in French but …

What’s in a (Bird’s) Name?

My old friend and mentor Jim Baillie [1] used to delight in the fact that many of the birds we’d see in our birding trips around southern Ontario would say their name: killdeer, curlew, godwit, whip-poor-will, owl, crow, raven, flicker, phoebe, pewee, chickadee, (jay; but see below), veery, pipit, towhee, and bobolink. Jim sometimes gave …