I have written several articles on bird names. There are names that don’t describe birds very well, names with obscure historical roots that only make sense once you understand them, names that should be changed because they commemorate bad values and names both useful and interesting. Sometimes it seems that the last group is the rarest.
As you expand your birding travels, especially in Latin America, you begin to encounter another category of nouns. These are names so similar to other names that it’s hard to keep them straight. For example, there is a red-headed anteater, a brown-naped anteater, and a brownish-headed anteater. You may remember studying a red-naped anteater, but that species does not exist.
It’s easy to mix up the different synonyms for “brown” as well as the different kinds of – as Barry Walker calls them – “ant things”. Ants are a big problem in the tropics, and we also have anthills, ants, antvireos, and ant-tanagers.
Bird names have always been assigned according to a set of rules and traditions. And while this was all socially constructed (not handed down from above), one of the considerations wasn’t how easily a birdwatcher in Boise, Idaho could keep the names straight in 2022. When they risked their living in the steaming tropics jungles or freezing forests of the Andes, I’m sure they didn’t know either that thousands of people would eventually follow in their footsteps to see what they had discovered.
My curiosity about bird names led me to look up all the names in the Western Hemisphere – about 4,600 species of birds. But taxonomic updates are regular, so don’t sue me for being let down by a few species when it pops up.
After downloading all names from Avibase (https://avibase.bsc-eoc.org/avibase.jsp), I simply searched for names containing a particular word. For example, “rufous”, or “brown”, or “red”, or “tailed”, or whatever. If you’re familiar with Excel, you know it’s a great tool for this type of survey. Digital exploration, without mosquitoes, intestinal parasites, rain, hostile natives or impending starvation, is quite convenient. In fact, you can eat very well on these expeditions. Wine, anyone?
As we will see, it is not just the shades of brown that contribute to the confusion of birdwatching tourists trying to study the different species before a trip. This is also the part of birds that taxonomists have chosen to focus on. It can be the crown, forehead, neck, back, tail, throat, chest, belly, or any other part that they think is important.
So, let’s calculate some numbers. What are the most common words used to describe 4,600 species in the Western Hemisphere?
It turns out that “black” is the most common color descriptor, used to describe 292 species. What surprises me is that there are only a handful of synonyms. “Dark” is only used 10 times, “jet” twice, and “coal” once. I hope the dark-eyed junco, jet ant, and crested finch feel special.
But why did they drop other great synonyms so quickly? What about ‘ebony’, ‘charcoal’ and ‘obsidian’. “Onyx” is a great word for black, but it only appears in a few scientific names and not a single common name. Once again we see that these early explorers and taxonomists were not trying to be creative. They were just trying to be specific. Imagine if we gave the TikTok generation the ability to name the birds!
Given “black” in first place, you might wonder if “white” is second. Yup – there’s 260 something white. Curiously, “white” is a much more absolute color. Those who described the birds apparently decided that a given part of a bird was white or not. “Snow” or “snow” (snowy owl) is only used 13 times, “Ivory” 4 times (white seagull) and “hoary” three times (flamed poll).
There are so many other options for whiteness. Have you chosen paint yet? A popular paint manufacturer has several dozen “whites”, including “night jasmine”, “silence”, “Amazon breeze”, and “fresh dew”. Where’s my bloodless cotinga? I promise, I remember if I saw this bird or not! Even better, the jasmine bellbird that blooms at night. It’s an instant staple across the planet.
Perhaps “black” and “white” seem obvious now – the absence of any color and the presence of any color. But there are many colors in between. Think of all the red, green, and blue birds you’ve seen. But yellow is the second most common color descriptor (yellow warbler), used 124 times. If we roll “golden” (61 times), this hue completes a third strong (golden-crowned wren). What seems to me to be a common alternative – “lemon” – has only been applied to 4 species (lemon-throated barbet).
In contrast, a beautiful adjective that we rarely hear in our language today – “saffron” – is used a surprising 8 times. What past cultural phenomenon explains this? Was this condiment transported to the jungle to make stale preserves and cookies more exciting than they actually were? And maybe it used to be cheaper.
I guess if you ask 100 people on the street what the color of “saffron” is, you’ll get every color under the sun. Check out the saffron-crowned tanager. I saw it, and I want to see it again.
You can also find “cream” and “sulphur”. But “citreoline” wins my first prize for descriptors in this part of the spectrum. What a wonderful way to say yellow! And the word is not even in the dictionary. The citreoline trogon is the lucky one. Bravo Mr. Gould.
We now come to the disturbing “rufous”, which is in position #4 as a color descriptor, with 129 occurrences (rufous-naped wren). But roux has many synonyms. It is curious that this shade of brown was so popular among early bird names. Can red be reliably distinguished from other shades of brown? Is “brown” (62), “brown” (51) or “buff” (40) objectively different? Give me some colored pencils, without their labels, and coloring pages for the brown woodpecker, the brown cacholote and the buff-browed gleaner, and I can show you.
But I think we could agree that it’s the fifth-place descriptor, “red” (110 uses), that gets us going. Something red on a species kicks it! Black, white, yellow, and red are pretty cool, but they’re relatively boring. Red is probably my favorite color on a bird because red is exciting by definition. Also, you can probably nail the ID, unless you haven’t carefully recorded exactly where the red was, perhaps on a runaway barbet.
Red’s brother, “Reddish”, has only been used 3 times (reddish egret). “Reddish” backs our favorite color to a “sort of” situation – never quite satisfying.
But red can be overdone. The northern cardinals are almost too much. I think the more subtle use of red is much cooler. Consider the great finch and the red-crested cotinga. Touches, not splashes.
There are many other ways to say “red”, but they are not used as often. There are only 18 “scarlet” (scarlet tanager), 8 “fiery” (fire-billed aracari), 3 “vermilion” (vermilion flycatcher), 1 “blood” (blood woodpecker) and 1 “cherry” ( cherry – throated tanager).
Why didn’t anyone choose “burgundy”, “cardinal”, “carmine”, “cherry” or “fuchsia?” The names certainly found more ways to convey redness than whiteness, but they left a lot of play in the field. Perhaps I should count all 8 cardinals as de facto members of the red color group, except, of course, the yellow cardinal. Stay tuned.