Problematic Bird Names

Red-bellied Woodpecker

My year long quest to improve Exxon profitability took me to a wooded condo development in Kennebunk where a Red-headed Woodpecker, a Maine rarity, had been reported this morning.

After few hours and no Red-headed Woodpecker, Ingrid texted wondering “perhaps they saw a ‘Red-bellied Woodpecker’ and were confusing the two birds.”   And as a matter of fact, there had been a large and loud Red-bellied hanging around all morning.

Which brings me to my biggest pet-peeve . . . problematic bird names!!!

The Red-bellied Woodpecker’s red belly is virtually impossible to see unless you are holding the bird in your hand, but it has a bright red cap making it what an average person might call a “Red-capped Woodpecker”.  But with it’s misleading red-bellied moniker, it easy to see why someone would confuse it with the actual Red-headed Woodpecker.

Red-headed Woodpecker

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

The Ring-necked Duck has no discernible ring around its neck . . . there are ornithologist types that say there is a faint cinnamon colored band on some males . . . but one needs superpowers to actually see it.

Ring-necked Duck

The Connecticut Warbler is very rarely ever seen in Connecticut (the same is true about the Nashville and Tennessee Warblers).

The Palm Warbler does not have anything to do with Palm Trees.

There are hundred’s of species named after people . . . for instance Alexander Wilson, the late 18th century Father of American Ornithology, is honored with the Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Plover, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Warbler and Wilson’s Storm-petrel.  I suppose this is fine, but such honorific names don’t tell us much about the bird.  What color is it? What does it eat?  Where does it live?

Plus – problems occurs when one applies modern sensibilities to long dead people with complicated histories.  For instance the McCown’s Longspur, a grassland bird of the west, was named after Captain John Porter McCown, a naturalist who discovered the species in 1851.  Unfortunately, a few years later he became a General in the Confederate Army.  Last year, to rectify this “problem”, the bird was renamed the Thick-billed Longspur.

Even the sainted John James Audubon once owned slaves and there is now pressure to rename Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole.

Non-honorific names can be problematic as well . . . the Long-tailed Duck, was once referred to as the OldSquaw Duck . . . a name that was sexist, racist and ageist, all at the same time.

And then there is Bushtit and Brown Booby . . . which I’ll leave to your imagination.


While I am on the name rant: yesterday I picked up Maine Big Year Bird #312 . . . the Greater White-fronted Goose . . . which naturally does not have a white chest . . . it’s brownish/gray.

Greater White-fronted Goose


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