I’ve written several columns on bird names. There are names that don’t describe the birds very well, names with obscure historical roots which make sense only once you understand them, names that should be changed because they memorialize bad values, and names that are both helpful and interesting. Sometimes it seems the last group is the rarest.
As you spread your birding trips more widely, especially getting into Latin America, you start running into another category of names. These are names so similar to other names it’s hard to keep them straight. For example, there is a rufous-capped antthrush, a chestnut-naped antpitta, and a brownish-headed antbird. You might recall studying a rufous-naped antbird, but this species does not exist.
It’s easy to mix up the various synonyms for “brown” as well as for the various sorts of – as Barry Walker calls them – “ant things.” Ants are a big deal in the tropics, and we also have antshrikes, antwrens, antvireos, and ant-tanagers.
Bird names have always been assigned based on a set of rules and traditions. And although all of it was socially constructed (not handed down from the heavens), one of the considerations was not about how easily a birder in Boise, Idaho, could keep the names straight in 2022. When they were risking their lives in steaming tropical jungles or freezing Andean woodlands, I’m sure they also had no idea many thousands of people would eventually follow in their tracks to see what they had discovered.
My curiosity about bird names led me to look at all of the names in the Western Hemisphere – about 4,600 species of birds. But taxonomic updates are regular, so don’t sue me for being off by a few species when this appears.
After I downloaded all the names from Avibase (https://avibase.bsc-eoc.org/avibase.jsp), I simply searched for names with a particular word in it. For example, “rufous,” or “chestnut,” or “red,” or “tailed,” or whatever. If you are familiar with Excel, you know this is an excellent tool for this sort of inquiry. Digital exploration, without mosquitos, intestinal parasites, rain, hostile natives, or pending starvation, is pretty convenient. In fact, you can eat very well during these expeditions. Wine, anyone?
As we will see, it’s not only hues of brown that contribute to the confusion for bird tourists trying to study the various species prior to a trip. It’s also about the part of the bird taxonomists chose to focus on. It might be the crown, brow, nape, back, tail, throat, breast, belly, or some other part that struck them as important.
So, let’s crunch some numbers. What are the most common words used to describe 4,600 species in the Western Hemisphere?
It turns out “Black” is the most common color descriptor, used to describe 292 species. What surprises me is there are only a smattering of synonyms. “Dark” is used only 10 times, “jet” twice, and “coal” once. I hope the dark-eyed junco, jet antbird, and coal-crested finch feel special.
But why did they give up so quickly on other great synonyms? What about “ebony,” “charcoal,” and “obsidian.” “Onyx” is a great word for black, but it shows up only in a few scientific names and not a single common name. Once again we see those early explorers and taxonomists were not trying to be creative. They were only trying to be accurate. Imagine if we gave the TikTok generation the chance to name birds!
Given “black” in first place, you might wonder if “white” is second. Yup – there are 260 white somethings. Curiously, “white” is a much more absolute color. Those who described birds apparently decided a given bird part is either white or not. “Snow” or “snowy” (snowy owl) are used only 13 times, “ivory” 4 times (ivory gull), and “hoary” thrice (hoary redpoll).
There are so many other options for whiteness. Have you ever picked out paint? One popular paint maker has many dozens of “whites,” including “night blooming jasmine, “silence,” “Amazon breeze,” and “fresh dew.” Where’s my bloodless cotinga? I promise, I can remember whether or not I saw that bird! Better yet, night blooming jasmine bellbird. It’s an instant must-see across the planet.
Maybe “black” and “white” seem obvious by now – the absence of all color and the presence of all color. But there are a lot of colors in between. Think of all the red, green, and blue birds you’ve seen. But, yellow is the next most common color descriptor (yellow warbler), used 124 times. If we toss in “golden” (61 times), this hue finishes a strong third (golden-crowned kinglet). What strikes me as a common alternative – “lemon” – has been applied to only 4 species (lemon-throated barbet).
In contrast, a lovely adjective we rarely hear in our language today – “saffron” – is used a surprising 8 times. What past cultural phenomenon explains this? Was this condiment carried into the jungle to make tinned meats and stale biscuits seem more exciting than they really were? And maybe it was cheaper in the old days.
I’m guessing if you asked 100 people on the street what color “saffron” is, you’ll get every color under the sun. Check out the saffron-crowned tanager. I’ve seen it, and I want to see it again.
We can also find “cream” and “sulfur.” But “citreoline” takes my top prize for descriptors in this part of the spectrum. What a wonderful way to say yellow! And the word is not even found in the dictionary. The citreoline trogon is the lucky winner. Nicely done Gold.
We now get to the troubling “rufous,” which is in position #4 as a color descriptor, with 129 occurrences (rufous-naped wren). But rufous has many synonyms. It’s curious this shade of brown was so popular among the early namers of birds. Can rufous be reliably distinguished from other shades of brown? Is “chestnut” (62), “brown” (51), or “buff” (40) objectively different? Give me some colored pencils, without their labels, and coloring pages for chestnut woodpecker, brown cacholote, and buff-browed foliage-gleaner, and I can show you.
But I think we might agree it’s the fifth-place descriptor, “red” (110 uses), that gets us going. Something red on a species kicks it way up! Black, white, yellow, and rufous are nice enough, but they are relatively boring. Red is probably my favorite color on a bird because red is exciting by definition. Plus, you can probably nail the ID, unless you didn’t carefully register exactly where the red was, perhaps on a fleeing barbet.
Red’s sibling, “Reddish,” has been used only 3 times (reddish egret). “Reddish” backs our favorite color down to a “sort of” situation – never very satisfying.
But red can be overdone. Northern cardinals are almost too much. I think the more subtle use of red is far cooler. Consider the pileated finch and the red-crested cotinga. Touches, not splashes.
There are many other ways to say “red,” but they aren’t used nearly as often. There are only 18 “scarlet” (scarlet tanager), 8 “fiery” (fiery-billed aracari), 3 “vermilion” (vermilion flycatcher), 1 “blood” (blood-colored woodpecker), and 1 “cherry” (cherry -throated tanager).
Why didn’t anyone choose “burgundy,” “cardinal,” “carmine,” “cerise,” or “fuchsia?” Namers definitely found more ways to convey redness than they did whiteness, but they left a lot of game on the field. Maybe I should count the 8 cardinals as being de facto members of the red color group, except, of course, for the yellow cardinal. Stay tuned.