Aves mexicanus

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 May 2019

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 (here), and an odd misnomer (here). Since 1850 dozens of books and papers have been published about the English and Latin names of birds (see list here). And a new book by Stephen Moss Mrs Moreau’s Warbler provides some delightful insights into the origins of many odd common names.

The scientific names of birds have attracted less interest, in part, I assume, because those names are regulated by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). The ICZN governs the designation of type specimens, the choice of scientific names and the rules of priority.  The code’s Principle of Priority mandates that taxon names (species, genus, family, etc) are always the ones that appeared first in print. All of these taxon names can only change when taxa are lumped or split but the rule still applies to newly designated taxa. Hugh Strickland proposed that first rule in his 1842 report to the British Association that established the ICZN. Thus scientific names are not really open for discussion or change unless a mistake has been made.

Quite a few of the scientific (Latin) species names of birds come from country names. This is largely due to European explorers collecting and describing a species for the first time and naming the species after the country where the first specimen was collected. According to the current IOC World List [1], australis is the most common species epithet that looks like a country name, used for 22 extant bird species in 22 different genera (by necessity) and 10 orders of birds. But australis means ‘southern’, and not ‘Australia’, and only 8 of those species occur in Australia, the rest being found in New Zealand (3), Africa (6), south Pacific (3). south Atlantic (1), and the USA (1).

Thus the most popular country name used for species is americanus/americana with 17 extant species but here again the authors were often referring to the Americas and not specifically to the USA or even North America. I have not checked to see where the type specimens were collected but 4 of those species do not occur in the USA and 2 do not occur in North America.

Species unequivocally named after a country include indicus (17), mexicanus (14), peruvianus/peruanus (12), canadensis (8), sinica/sinensis (7), brasiliensis/brasilianus (6), portoricensis (4), and  colombianus/colombica (3) [2]. Species named after a continent include africanus/africanoides (11) and asiaticus (7). Interestingly, few species were named after European regions where those very explorers came from:  euopaeus (2), germana (1), scotica (1), brit- (0), espan- (0), ital- (0), norv- (0), and sver- (0)..

All of the species named indicus appear to occur in India, but 3 of the species named mexicanus are not really Mexican [3], and two do not even occur in Mexico—the Puerto Rican Tody (Todus mexicanus) being endemic, not surprisingly, to Puerto Rico, and the Oriole Blackbird (Gymnomystax mexicanus) which lives in northern South America.

Birds with species name mexicanus

About a month ago, Tom Sherry (Tulane University) wrote to ask if I knew anything about the history of the species name mexicanus for the Puerto Rican Tody. I didn’t, but his query prompted this post. It has taken me a couple of weeks to explore this question and it has so absorbed me that I had no time to post anything [4] on the past two Mondays as I usually do.

The scientific name of the Puerto Rican Tody dates from 1838 when the bird was described (see below) by René Primevère Lesson in a paper he wrote about some todies new to science. Lesson called the species Le Todier vert, rose et bleue and noted that it was from Puerto Rico (L’île Porto-Rico). His footnote #2 says that this is Todus portoricensis and attributed this name to Adolphe Lesson, his brother (who was a botanist). His footnote #1 refers to the previous species (probably the Jamaican Tody) on that page Le Todier vert et jaune that he calls Todus viridis or Todus mexicanus, also discovered and reported by his brother Adolphe, from Veracruz in Mexico.

First description of Puerto Rican Tody (Lesson 1838)

Now, I am by no means an expert on the rules of nomenclature but it seems to me that it is a mistake to call the Puerto Rican Tody Todus mexicanus, and that Todus portoricensis is both correct and appropriate. Dr Sherry tells me that some birders that he met on his trip to Puerto Rico wondered how the apparently mistaken scientific name came to be. Maybe it is a real mistake and there would be a case to have the scientific name changed. By any name, this is a beautiful little bird.

Puerto Rican Tody (Kevin Loughlin PHOTO)


  • Lesson RP (1838) Mémoire descriptif d’espèces ou de genres d’oiseaux nouveaux ou imparfaitement décrits. Annales des Sciences Naturelles 2(9): 166-176
  • Moss S (2019) Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names. New York: Faber & Faber.


  1. IOC World List: I used v 9.1 available here
  2. country or continent names: the names listed here include feminine and neutral variants (e.g. both asiaticus and asiatica). I have listed all the names that I could find that had >2 examples.
  3. not really Mexican: the Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) breeds and winters in northern Mexico but 9/10 of its range is in the USA
  4. no time to post anything: not to mention attending the funerals of two colleagues, marking 48 final term papers in my history and philosophy of biology course, and trying to meet the Canadian income tax deadline

IMAGES: mexicanus species from Handbook of Birds of the World online; excerpt from Lesson’s paper from Biodiversity Heritage Library; Tody photo courtesy Kevin Loughlin (via Tom Sherry)

A Whiskey-Jack by Any Other Name

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 4 June 2018

Canada Jay, Algonquin Park, 1968

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 from Ottawa, 4 from Toronto, and 5 from Montreal. The park now gets more than a million visitors a year, concentrated mainly along the highway that runs east-west across its southern edge. At the time, I had birded and bird-banded only in southwestern Ontario, so this was a chance to see some boreal species on their breeding grounds, species that I had only seen previously on migration or in winter, if at all—Common Loons, White-throated Sparrows, Saw-whet Owls, Pine Grosbeaks, Red Crossbills, Ravens, Three-toed Woodpeckers, and Gray Canada Jays.

Because I was no longer in school, I started work at Algonquin two months earlier than the other half dozen seasonal naturalists, mainly to get the museum’s [2] specimen collections in order and to prepare for the onslaught of summer visitors. Seasonal naturalists were hired to interact with the visitors who flooded the park in July and August during the public schools’ summer vacation. I arrived at Algonquin at the end of April where I met Russell J. Rutter, the only full-time park naturalist, who lived near the small town of Huntsville, a half hour west of the park. Rutter was a crusty old guy but we got on well and he often took me out birding, botanizing, hiking the trails where we would lead nature walks, and howling for wolves [3].

One day, as we walked along some abandoned railway tracks, 3 Canada Jays appeared at the edge of the woods. Russ made a whispery-squeaky sound and all three birds flew right up to us, one landing on Russ’s hand to get some food that he had brought with him just for that purpose. Two of those jays had colour-bands (WR, and YORL [4]), and this was a family group, Russ said. Russ told me he had decided a few years earlier to start studying Canada Jays so that he could follow individuals through their lives. He had already discovered that they often travel in family groups, hoard food for the winter, and occupy year-round territories. I was enthralled—I had no idea that the birds I had watched breeding in southern Ontario were not doing what all birds did.

Russ was also furious with the AOU for changing the bird’s common name from Canada Jay to Gray Jay in its 1957 checklist. I must admit I was not really even aware of this as my field guide—the 3rd edition of Peterson, published in 1947—called them Canada Jays and that’s what I would have called them but I had never seen one before. That summer, we naturalists often told the park visitors about the name change but also that the Native Algonquins had once called them whisky-jacks, which made for a good story.

from the AOU Checklist 1957

One of the seasonal naturalists that year was Dan Strickland, who had been an Algonquin Park naturalist the previous summer or two and was now studying Canada Jays (‘Geais Gris’) for his MSc thesis at the Université de Montréal. Dan was conducting his research in la réserve faunique de La Vérendrye in Québec, inspired by Rutter’s work in Algonquin. Dan’s focus was on their social behaviours and their food-caching strategies. He stayed at Algonquin as Park Naturalist for the rest of his career, and has continued to work on the Canada Jay for the past half century, one of the longest continuous studies of a bird species worldwide. Not surprisingly, Strickland was instrumental in the recent official change of the species’ name back to Canada Jay just last month. The popular press in Canada is all abuzz about this change, in part because calling them ‘Canada Jays’ may enhance the possibility that this species will now be recognized as Canada’s national bird.

Martinet’s etching of Canada Jay in Brisson (1760)

The Canada Jay was first described for science in 1760 as ‘Le Geay brun de Canada’ (Garrulus Canadensis fuscus) by the French zoologist  Mathurin Jacques Brisson in his Ornthologie, with a remarkably good illustration by François Nicolas Martinet. An English translation of Brisson’s common name might be the ‘Canada Brown Jay’ [5]. This description, and the illustration, were based on a specimen in the collection of René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, as neither Brisson nor Martinet had seen the bird in the wild. de Réaumur was primarily an entomologist but he had an extensive  private museum where he employed Brisson as what we would today call a ‘curator’.  Brisson’s description was the basis for Linnaeus presenting the bird’s  ‘official’ scientific name as Corvus canadensis, in 1766, but Linnaeus did not suggest a common name, as that was not the purpose of his work.

Thomas Pennant was probably the first to publish an English common name—Cinereous Crow [6]— for this species, in his Arctic Zoology of 1784. Pennant had never seen the bird alive either, relying instead on Samuel Hearne’s description [7]. Hearne joined the British Navy at the age of 11 and then the Hudson’s Bay Company at 21, stationed first at Fort Prince of Wales (now Churchill) in Manitoba. While there, he made 3 major expeditions into the interior of present-day Nunavut, in 1771 reaching the mouth of the Coppermine River where it drains into the Arctic Ocean. Hearne’s Journey, published posthumously in 1795, contains detailed species accounts of at least 50 bird species that he encountered on his expeditions, with remarkable insights into their behaviours and ecologies. Hearne called this jay the ‘Cinereous Crow (Perisoreus canadensis)’, noting in his account that “..it is called by the Southern Indians [presumably Cree], Whisk-e-jonish, by the English Whiskey-Jack, and by the Northern Indians [presumably Chipewyan] Gee-za…” [8]

Then, in 1829, John Richardson called this bird ‘The Whiskey-Jack (Garrulus canadensis)’ in his comprehensive Fauna Boreali-Americana, coauthored with William Swainson. Richardson had explored northern Canada with the Franklin Expeditions of 1819-22 and 1825-27, and would have had first hand experience with this species. A half-century later, with the publication of the first AOU checklist in 1886, the official names became Canada Jay and Perisoreus canadensis, and would remain that way until 1957.

from the AOU checklist 1886

During the Washington AOU conference in 2016, Dan Strickland mined the AOU archives at the Smithsonian to figure out how and why the common name of this species was changed by the AOU in 1957. Based on that information, he made a very compelling case to have the name changed back to Canada Jay. The details are complex but nicely outlined by Strickland here and here.

While the scientific names of birds (and all plants and animals) are assigned following some strict rules, there are no such rules for common names. Attempts to make some rules for common names have not been successful (see here for example), and for good reason, I think. Common names say something—not always useful (see here)—about appearance, vocalizations, habitat, and localities, as well honouring people—not always logically (see here)—and their contributions to science or discovery. Common names are what most of us use when we talk about birds and ‘official’ common names should probably, like all language, reflect usage rather than some esoteric rules. No amount of rule-making will stop duck hunters from using the names ‘whistler’, ‘sprig’, ‘greenhead’, ‘bluebill’, spoonbill’ or ‘skunkhead coot’ [9], nor the visitors to Algonquin Park from calling their favourite bird the ‘whiskey-jack’.


  • American Ornithologists’ Union (1886) The code of nomenclature and check-list of North American birds. New York: American Ornithologists’ Union.
  • American Ornithologists’ Union (1957) Check-list of North American birds. Ithaca, N.Y.: American Ornithologists’ Union.
  • Brisson M-J, Martinet FN (1760) Ornithologie, ou, Méthode contenant la division des oiseaux en ordres, sections, genres, especes & leurs variétés (t.2 ). Parisiis: Ad Ripam Augustinorum, apud Cl. Joannem-Baptistam Bauche, bibliopolam, ad Insigne S. Genovesae, & S. Joannis in Deserto.
  • Hearne S (1795) A journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. London: Strahan and Cadell.
  • Houston CS, Ball T, Houston M (2003) Eighteenth-century Naturalists of Hudson Bay. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Linné CV (1766) Caroli a Linné. Systema naturae : per regna tria natura, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis / (t.1, pt. 1 (Regnum animale)), 12th edition. Holmiae :Impensis direct. Laurentii Salvii.
  • Pennant T (1784-85) Arctic Zoology, 2 vols. London: Henry Hughs
  • Rutter, R.J. 1969. A contribution to the biology of the Gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis). Canadian Field-Naturalist 83: 300-316.
  • Strickland D (1969) Écologie, comportement social et nidification du Geai Gris (Perisoreus canadensis). Master’s Thesis, Univ. Montréal, Montréal.
  • Strickland D (2017) How the Canada Jay lost its name and why it matters. Ontario Birds 35: 2-16.
  • Swainson W, Richardson J (1831) Fauna boreali-americana, or, The zoology of the northern parts of British America: containing descriptions of the objects of natural history collected on the late northern land expeditions, under command of Captain Sir John Franklin, R.N. Part second, the birds. London: John Murray.


  1. Canadian provincial parks: Queen Victoria Park at Niagara Falls was Canada’ first provincial park, established in 1885 in part to clean up the area around the falls and reduce the incidence of crime
  2. Algonquin park museum: in those days was on the shore of Found Lake but now is a spectacular Visitor Centre 30 km east of the old museum
  3. howling for wolves: the Algonquin Wolf Howl, held in August every year, attracts more than a thousand visitors who gather at the roadside at sunset, hoping to hear the wolves respond to the park naturalists’ attempts to imitate the howls. Those howl imitations are so good that one year the naturalists mistakenly called back and forth to each other, each group assuming that they were hearing real wolves.
  4. colour-bands: the letters refer to the colours, usually left-leg top and bottom, then right-leg top and bottom. So these birds were white on the left, red on the right, and yellow over orange on the left and red over light-blue on the right. Researchers like band combos that they can pronounce so these birds were ‘whir’ and ‘yorel’ to Rutter.
  5. Canada Brown Jay: in Brisson’s day, ‘Canada’ referred to the French colony that we now call Québec.
  6. Cinereous Crow: ‘cinereous’ means ‘ashy-grey’ which correctly describes the bird’s colour but we can be grateful that this name was never used after the middle of the 19th century. I have little doubt that early explorers to Canada in the 16th and 17th centuries will have said something about this species but I cannot find an earlier reference than Brisson (1760)
  7. Samuel Hearne’s description: we know that Hearne gave Pennant a copy of his observations while Hearne was in England during the winter of 1782-83 (Houston et al. 2003)
  8. quotation about Native names: from Hearne (1795, page 374)
  9. hunter’s names for ducks: officially (AOU checklist) these are Common Goldeneye, Norther Pintail, Mallard, Lesser (or Greater) Scaup, Northern Shoveler, and Surf Scoter, respectively

IMAGES: Canada Jay photo by the author; pages from AOU checklists and Brisson are in the public domain

George Ord’s warbler

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 21 May 2018

Cape May Warbler (Wilson 1812, part of Plate LIV)

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 that it was really a misnomer—the species was originally collected on Cape May, NJ, he said, but had hardly ever been seen there since.

There are only three other North American birds named after such a small region of the continent [2], and the others are also misnomers in the sense that they do not represent anything useful about the bird’s range, habitat, appearance or song [3]. While there are rules about priority in the assigning of scientific names to species, common names are largely at the whim of the first person to describe the species, and, in North America, the later machinations of the AOU Check-list committee (now AOS’s North American Classification Committee).

That ‘first’ Cape May Warbler was a male collected by George Ord on a collecting trip with Alexander Wilson on Cape May in May 1812 [4]:

THIS new and beautiful little species was discovered in a maple swamp, in Cape May county, not far from the coast, by Mr. George Ord of this city, who accompanied me on a shooting excursion to that quarter in the month of May last…The same swamp that furnished us with this elegant little stranger, and indeed several miles around it, were ransacked by us both for another specimen of the same; but without success. Fortunately it proved to be a male, and being in excellent plumage, enabled me to preserve a faithful portrait of the original. [5]

Wilson described the bird, painted it (see above), and called it the Cape May Warbler Sylvia maritima in Volume 6 (page 99) of his American Ornithology, published in 1812. It was not seen again on Cape May until September 1920 when Witmer Stone found it there but it has been increasingly recorded—and is now regularly seen—on Cape May during migration ever since [6].

Unbeknownst to Wilson, the bird had already been described  as Motacilla tigrina in 1789 in Johann Friedrich Gmelin’s edition of Linaeus’s Systema naturae:

top of page 985 in Gmelin (1789) describing Motacilla tigrina

But wait, Gmelin says that this is the same species as Brisson’s Ficedula canadensis fusca and F. dominicensis, Buffon’s ‘Figuier tacheté de jaune,’ Edwards’s ‘Spotted Yellow Flycatcher,’ and Pennant’s (1874) ’Spotted Yellow Warbler.’ OK, Buffon, Edwards and Pennant did not give it a scientific name, and Brisson’s F. canadensis is the Chestnut-sided Warbler and his F. dominicensis is the Mangrove Warbler. So Gmelin is considered to be the scientific naming authority for this species, and the species name he gave it, tigrina, is official. He also correctly identified the habitat as ‘Canada’, presumably based on Pennant who said “Inhabits also Canada, which may be its place of summer residence and breeding.” [7]

But how did Gmelin (and the others) who wrote in 1789 even know about this species if the ‘first’ specimen was the one collected by George Ord on Cape May in 1812? The short answer is that Wilson was mistaken, as was Charles Lucien Bonaparte who later wrote about Wilson’s nomenclature [8] and edited editions of Wilson’s American Ornithology after Wilson died in 1813. Since Gmelin, Brisson, Buffon and Pennant were all referring to Edwards’s specimens, Gorge Ord’s warbler was actually the third specimen of what we now call the Cape May Warbler.

Edward’s (1758) Spotted Yellow Fly-catcher (L) and Yellow-tailed Flycatcher (R)

The first specimen of what we now call the Cape May Warbler was actually collected on 1 November 1751 when a male and female landed on a boat about 56 km off the coast of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. George Edwards obtained the specimens and published his painting of the male in 1758 on a plate with an American Redstart (shown to the right). In the plate caption [9], Edwards says these “undescribed small Birds” were collected by Thomas Stack “in a voyage from London to Jamaica.” Of the  female, Edwards says: “the breast in the hen was of a dirty yellow white spotted with dusky, and something less bright on the back; otherwise they are marked very much alike. These birds I believe have never been figured or described until now.” [10]

I have actually always liked the name ‘Cape May Warbler.’ Even though that moniker does not tell us anything useful about the bird, the name has an interesting history, in the same way as the name ‘Lady Ross’s Turaco’ that I wrote about in a previous post. And it’s much better than Boat-off-the-coast-of-Hispaniola Warbler, or Spotted Yellow Fly-catcher.


  • Bonaparte CL (1826) Observations on the Nomenclature of Wilson’s Ornithology. Philadelphia: Anthony Finley.
  • Brisson M-J, Martinet FN (1760) Ornithologie, ou, Méthode contenant la division des oiseaux en ordres, sections, genres, especes & leurs variétés (t.1 (1760)). Parisiis :Ad Ripam Augustinorum, apud Cl. Joannem-Baptistam Bauche, bibliopolam, ad Insigne S. Genovesae, & S. Joannis in Deserto.
  • Burtt Jr EH, Davis Jr WE (2013) Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Edwards, G (1758) Gleanings of Natural History. Part I. London: Printed for author at the Royal College of Physicians.
  • Gmelin JF (1789) Caroli a Linné. Systema naturae per regna tria naturae : secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. (Tom. 1 Pars. 2). Lipsiae: impensis Georg. Emanuel. Beer.
  • Pennant T (1784) Arctic Zoology, 2 vols. London: Henry Hughs.
  • Wilson A (1908-1914) American Ornithology; or, the natural history of the birds of the United States. Vols I-IX. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep. Available here.


  1. Rarity of Cape May Warbler in eastern Ontario: ebird says I am not alone as almost all sightings within 100 km of where I live in Kingston, Ontario, are of 1 bird on a given day.
  2. Area of Cape May: depending on how you measure it, Cape May is no more than 50 km2
  3. Three other North American bird misnomers: Nashville Warbler also named by Wilson in 1811 based on a specimen he collected on migration near Nashville—the bird breeds in the boreal forest of eastern Canada and northeastern USA, as well as in the mountains from BC to California; Philadelphia Vireo named in 1851 by John Cassin based on a bird collected on migration in Bingham’s Woods near Philadelphia where he lived and worked—the bird breeds mainly in Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland; and the Key West Quail-dove which did once breed in the Florida Keys (including Key West) but is now just a vagrant in Florida having been extirpated as a breeder there in the 1800s—the bird was described by Charles Bonaparte in 1855 based on a specimen from Key West but that was even then the very northern tip of its breeding range that encompasses the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas.
  4. Collected in 1812: since Wilson was writing in the summer of 1812, Burtt and Davies (2013) interpret ‘May last’ as meaning May 1812, but Ord later claimed that the bird was shot in May 1811, possibly as an attempt to show that his bird was collected before a bird that Audubon thought might be the same species. Audubon collected his bird in Kentucky in May 1811, and called it the Carbonated Warbler. See Burtt and Davies (2013 page 341) for further information on this.
  5. Quotation from Wilson: 1812 (vol 6), page 99
  6. Sightings on Cape May: ebird, for example, shows more than 100 sightings since 2011.
  7. Quotation from Pennant: 1784 page 407. Pennant actually called it the Spotted Warbler and not the Spotted Yellow Warbler as Gmelin claimed.
  8. Bonaparte’s nomenclature: see Bonaparte 1824, page 14
  9. Edwards’s plate: is numbered ‘257 and appears between pages 100 and 101 in Edwards (1758)
  10. Quotation from Edwards: 1758 page 102

IMAGES: all from digital copies of the books in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, in the public domain

The Peculiar Etymologies of Ross’s Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 19 March 2018

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 a nice touch, maybe honouring those early naturalists who had either discovered those birds or studied them in some detail.  It seems that bird names must be generally interesting to birders and ornithologists as there are more than a dozen books and papers on the origins of English (common) bird names dating back into the 1800s [1].

Ross’s Geese (painting by Angus Shortt 1948)

Recently, while putting together some material on the history of Arctic ornithology, I discovered, somewhat to my dismay, that the naming of birds after people was not nearly as rational or commemorative as I had once thought. I had assumed, for example, that the lovely Ross’s Goose had been named after Admiral Sir John Ross, the Scotsman who explored the Canadian Arctic in the early 1800s in search of a Northwest Passage with William Parry. Or maybe even after Captain Sir James Clark Ross, John’s nephew, who also explored the Canadian Arctic, but is more famous for his Antarctic exploits. Indeed, James Ross was maybe the more likely candidate as he was something of a naturalist where John Ross was not. Many famous early explorers were also naturalists who contributed immensely to our early knowledge of Arctic birds, so it seemed to me that it was reasonable to have immortalized them in the common (and scientific) names of birds.

The Ross’s Goose was actually named, in 1861, after Bernard Rogan Ross, a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk and chief trader at various settlements (forts) owned by the company in what was called, in those pre-Canada days, The North-Western Territory and Rupert’s Land [2]. Ross was a keen naturalist who sent hundreds of specimens to the Smithsonian in Washington and the British Museum (Natural History) in London, along with excellent notes on the habitats and nesting habits of each species that he collected. He also published on mammals, birds, and ethnographic topics in 1861 and 1862 [3].

The Ross’s Goose was actually ‘discovered’ almost a century earlier, in the 1760s, and given the English name ‘Horned Wavey’ in 1795, by the great Arctic explorer and naturalist Samuel Hearne, who wrote:

HORNED WAVEY. This delicate and diminutive species of the Goose is not much larger than the Mallard Duck. Its plumage is delicately white, except the quill-feathers, which are black. The bill is not more than an inch long, and at the base is studded round with little knobs about the size of peas, but more remarkably so in the males…about two or three hundred miles to the North West of Churchill, I have seen them in as large flocks as the Common Wavey, or Snow Goose. The flesh of this bird is exceedingly delicate; but they are so small, that when I was on my journey to the North I eat two of them one night for supper. I do not find this bird described by my worthy friend Mr. Pennant in his Arctic Zoology. Probably a specimen of it was not sent home [4]

Despite the fact that Hearne had shot (and eaten!) this bird, there were no specimens, and no attempt to give it a scientific name for quite some time. In 1859, Robert Kennicott sent a head, wings, tail and head of a Ross’s Goose plus a nearly complete skin (that he had obtained from Bernard Ross) to the Smithsonian [5]. The species was then formally described in 1861 as Chen rossii by John Cassin, ornithologist at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. I don’t really have a problem with Bernard Ross being recognized in this bird’s scientific name, for he did collect the first specimen to be preserved in a museum. But it would be fitting for the common name to be Hearne’s Goose, as Hearne actually was the first to recognize it as distinctive, and he made huge contributions to Arctic ornithology.

Ross’s Gull (Nelson 1887)

The Ross’s Gull, on the other hand, is named after James Clark Ross, but even that troubles me a bit. Ross (or a member of his party) collected the first specimens of this beautiful gull in Foxe Basin off the east coast of Nunavut’s Melville Peninsula in June 1823. Ross really did little more than send the specimens of two odd-looking gulls back to England. William Macgillivray mentioned these specimens in a 1824 in a footnote to a paper on gulls, where he says that the name Larus roseus is: “The name given pro tempore to a new species of gull, discovered by the Arctic expedition, but which is to receive its proper designation from Dr Richardson.” [6]  The ‘Dr Richardson’ that he refers to here is the great Arctic naturalist John Richardson who identified the bird as a distinct species and described it—as the Cuneate-tailed Gull Larus Rossii—in 1824 in his appendix to Parry’s journal of his second voyage.  Richardson, rather than Ross, should really have been immortalized in this species’ common name. Richardson loses doubly on this one because the rules of zoological nomenclature require that Macgillivray be listed after the scientific name because he was the first to publish—by only a few months— that name even though he was just vaguely referring to Richardson. Moreover, Macgillivray referred to the bird as Larus roseus and not Larus Rossii that Richardson seem to prefer.

RTstampThere is one other bird named Ross—the Lady Ross’s Turaco—which has, like the other Ross’s birds, what seems to me to be an inappropriate common name. Lady Eliza Solomon Ross was the wife of Major General Sir Patrick Ross [7], the governor of St Helena from 1846-1850. St Helena is a tiny tropical island in the mid-Atlantic about 2000 km west of Namibia. It became a British Crown Colony in 1836 after being ‘owned’ by the East India Company for more than 150 years. The St Helena Rosses were not, as far as I can tell. closely related to the James, John or Bernard Ross mentioned above.

Lady Ross must have kept a small menagerie or aviary on St Helena that included a turaco brought there from the west coast of Africa [8]. On a visit to England she gave two feathers and a drawing (by a Lieutenant J. R. Stack) of her bird to John Gould, presumably wondering what species it was. Based on that material, Gould described this individual as a new species at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London in 1851 [9].

In my opinion, either John Gould—or nobody—should have been immortalized in the common name of that turaco, and certainly not Lady Ross.

The naming of birds has a long and checkered—and interesting—history that continues even today. I see, for example, that the AOS checklist committee is currently wrestling with some proposed changes to the common names of North American birds, to right some perceived wrongs (Gray Jay to Canada Jay, and Rock Pigeon to Rock Dove), harmonize names between Europe and the Americas (Common Moorhen to Eurasian Moorhen, and Common Gallinule to American Moorhen), and to indicate the correct taxonomic affinities (Red-breasted Blackbird to Red-breasted Meadowlark).

It is perhaps rather ironic that four of the ornithologists directly involved in what I consider to be the misnaming of the three Ross’s birds have all been immortalized—and rightly so—in the common names of other birds—Cassin’s Auklet, Townsend’s Warbler, Gouldian Finch, Macgillivray’s Warbler, for example. While I consider the Ross’s birds to be misnamed—or at least inappropriately named—I would not suggest changing those names as they are well established. The origins of those common names also provides an interesting window on the state of ornithology in the 1800s. As Macgillivray said in the paper where he first listed the scientific name of the Ross’s Gull: “With regard to the outcry against change of names, I have only to observe, that names, as well as descriptions, must continue to fluctuate until they be rendered of such a nature as to be harmonized with common sense and sound judgment.” [10]


  • Baird SF, Brewer TM, Ridgway R (1884) The Water Birds of North America. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

  • Cassin J ( 1861). Permission being given, Mr. Cassin made the following communication in reference to a new species of Goose from Arctic America. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 13: 72-72

  • Grant CHB (1915) On a collection of birds from British East Africa aid Uganda, presented to the British Museum by Capt. G. P. Cosens.-Part 111. Colii-Pici.  Ibis 57: 400-473
  • Hearne S (1795) A Journey From Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. London: Strahan and Cadell.
  • Macgillivray W (1824) Descriptions, characters, and synonyms of the different species of the genus Larus, with critical and explanatory remarks. Memoirs of the Wernerian Natural History Society 5: 247-276
  • Nelson EW (1887) Report upon Natural History Collections Made in Alaska Between the Years 1877 and 1884. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office
  • Parry WE (1824) Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; performed in the years 1821-22-23, in His Majesty’s ships Fury and Hecla, under the orders of Captain William Edward Parry. London: John Murray.

  • Pennant T (1784) Arctic Zoology, 2 vols. London: Henry Hughs.

  • Ross BR (1862) List of mammals, birds, and eggs observed on the Mackenzie River District, with notices. Canadian Naturalist 7:137-155

  • Swainson C (1885) Provincial names and folk lore of British birds. London: English Dialect Society.

  • Whitman CH (1898) The birds of Old English literature. The Journal of [English and] Germanic Philology 2:149–198.


  1.  old books about bird names: see, for example, Swainson (1885) and Whitman (1898)
  2. North-Western Territory and Rupert’s Land: Ross was employed from 1843-1862 at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts at Norway House and York Factory in present-day Manitoba, as well as Fort Simpson, Fort Norman, and Fort Resolution in the present-day Northwest Territories
  3. Bernard Ross publications: e.g. Ross (1862); see here for a listing
  4. quotation: from Hearne 1795, page 412; Hearne wrote that passage long after he returned to England and was presumably surprised to learn that there were no specimens in Pennant’s book, published in 1784; Hearne died in 1793 and his Journey was published posthumously
  5. Ross’s Goose specimens: Kennicott also collected “a large number of individuals of this species” (Baird et al. 1884, page 446)) at Fort Resolution in 1860, and I am surprised that Cassin did not honour him in the scientific name of this species
  6. quotation from footnote on Ross’s Gull: Macgillivray 1824, page 249
  7. Lady Eliza Solomon Ross : some sources incorrectly identify this Lady Ross as Sir James Ross’s wife.
  8. west coast of Africa: possibly Angola, see Grant 1915 page 413
  9. turaco described by Gould: presumably Lady Ross later gave the turaco to Gould because it is now a specimen in the BM(NH) “the type, which is a worn and faded caged bird” (Grant 1915, page 413)
  10. quotation on changing bird names: Macgillivray 1824, page 276

Four Calling Birds

BY BOB MONTGOMERIE Queen’s University | 25 December 2017

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 about drunkenness and merrymaking sandwiched between two religious feasts, and the gifts were mainly birds. In mediaeval England, those 12 days were presided over by the Lord of Misrule and in Scotland by the Abbott of Unreason, both titles that I would be proud to bear.

539CB97A-5718-4636-9089-6B55DC48E5DFThe words to this Christmas song were first published in English in the late 1700s as a rhyme in a book called Mirth without Mischief, likely derived from a much older French song of similar sturcture and content, Les Douze Mois. The now familiar tune was not written until 1905 by the English composer Frederic Austin who adapted it from a traditional English folk melody.

As you will recall—for by now it’s an ear worm that you can’t stop humming—the 12 days begin on Christams Day with the partridge. On 5 or 6 of the following days, the gifts are birds, interrupted musically, thematically and enigmatically by those 5 golden rings. I have no idea why the first 7 gifts are birds, but I expect there are traditional and psychological reasons that have been claimed for this. There have also been many Christian interpretations of this song but really no evidence to support any of them. I find the secular interpretations to be far more interesting and valid.

In the 237 years since the rhyme was first published in English, there have been at least 20 different versions of the words, especially with respect to the birds. Some of these variants are undoubtedly Mondegreens [2], but they were often probably just attempts to make the words more relevant to a contemporary audience.


  • The PARTRIDGE—on the first day of Christmas— was always a partridge, except in Scott’s 1892 version where it was a “very pretty peacock.”  Some authors claim that the 00C5A274-B6A5-4084-833D-F9F36C0381D0partridge was the Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) a very popular game bird that had just been successfully introduced to England from France in about 1770, and much more likely to perch in trees than the native and abundant Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). But what about that pear tree, which again has been often claimed to have religious connotations. The French poem that may have been the basis for the English rhyme has a partridge representing the first month “Un’ Perdix Sole’, and says that the bird flies in the woods (‘qui vol dans les bois’). The Perdix is the Grey Partridge, which in Old French was spelt ‘perdrix’ or ‘pertriz’, pronounced something very close to ‘pear tree’. I wonder if the English rhyme was originally ‘partridge and a perdrix’, though that would be two birds for day one. Nonetheless it seems to me quite likely that the pear tree was actually the perdrix, and had nothing at all to do with pears or trees.

On day 2 the TURTLE DOVES were French hens in one 1877 version, and the FRENCH HENS on day 3 were once ‘fat hens’ in 1864, and turtle doves in 1877. There’s a theme here as the first 3 birds were highly prized for the table, an excellent start to a period of feasting.

The CALLING BIRDS of day 4 are the most intersting to me as the original said ‘colly birds’ and subsequent variants said the birds were ‘canary’, ‘collie’, ‘colley’, ‘colour’d’, ‘curley’, ‘coloured’, ‘corley’, and finally ‘calling’ by Austin in 1909 published with his new tune. I am surprised no one ever suggested ‘collared’. The original ‘colly bird’ was the European Blackbird (Turdus merula) as ‘colly’ meant ‘black’ as in ‘coaly’, and is why border collies bear that name. The subsequent versions are undoubtedly the result of mis-hearings and misinterpretations.

4DCC5D2F-5748-47F6-9849-9FF94DE1ED78.jpegThe gift for day 5 in the original and modern version is ‘golden rings’ but several sources claim—correctly I think—that these are birds too, probably European Goldfinches, which were called goldspinks in the 1700s. Others have argued that these were Ring-necked Pheasants which have been claimed to have golden rings around their neck (but they don’t). The pheasant interpretation matches the culinary theme of the other 6 birds in the song, but the goldfinch was a popular cage bird in the 18th century. The melodic break in the song suggests a change of theme but the melody was added more than a century after the words.

The birds of days 6 and 7—the geese and the swans—round out the culinary theme before the song turns to dance providing some exercise after all that feasting, and chores that may have been neglected,

I am spending the holidays in the north woods just west of Algonquin Park where the colly birds (and the only birds really calling) are Ravens, and the only ‘partridge’ is the Spruce Grouse, as all the geese, swans, doves, and goldfinches have departed for much warmer winter quarters. Counting the 5 golden rings there are 28 birds in The Twelve Days of Christmas but I will be lucky to see even 28 individual birds on a day out in the winter woods here. That will not stop the 75 or more people who gather here for the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 30 December where they will probably record fewer than 28 species in a hard day’s work on foot, skis and snowshoes. This will be the 44th consecutive CBC for Algonquin Park and the 118th CBC since Frank Chapman started the count in 1900.

During the 19th century the Christmas Side Hunt was a popular competition to gather game for the table during the 12 days of Christmas. Chapman, however, was a conservationist who saw great value in watching rather than hunting birds. That first CBC Involved only 27 birdwatchers at 25 sites from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California, laying the foundations for what we now call citizen science.


1. While not actually about birds, my favourite song that refers to birds is The Edge of Seventeen originally performed by Fleetwood Mac but here in a fairly stunning and recent performance by Stevie Nicks accompanied by Waddy Wachtel. It’s also hard to beat Lori Anderson’s Excellent Birds

2.  Jimi Hendrix created a classic ‘Mondegreen’ when he sang (at least to my ears) “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in his song ‘Purple Haze’, first released as a single in 1967. Rock lyrics are a rich source of Mondegreens—words or phrases that are misheard—as Sylvia Wright, who coined the term, did when she heard a Scottish ballad say “Lady Mondegreen” when it actually said  “laid him on the green”.

Callow Youth

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 December 2017

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, the resolution of these controversies often settles somewhere in the middle because, in fact, both sides were correct to some extent [1]. Usually scientific controversies churn away towards some resolution with some degree of civility, at least in public forums. But not always…

I can still remember my first experience with a less-than-polite public argument among ornithologists. This occurred during a talk at an AOU meeting in the 1970s when two prominent systematists got into a shouting match during the question period after a graduate student’s talk. The issue was whether the approach taken by the student was correct, and the argument seemed to be between the cladists and the pheneticists.

I learned later that these clashes among systematists were commonplace in the 1960s and early 70s, during a period that was later referred to as the ‘Systematics Wars’ [2]. I was doubly surprised at such ad hominem attacks because the systematists that I knew from my years as a young volunteer and employee at the Royal Ontario Museum—L.L. Snyder, Jim Baillie, Jon Barlow, Jim Rising, and Allan Baker—seemed like the kindest of men. My own field of behavioural ecology, while often dealing in controversy, does not seem to have descended into the sort of personal attacks that characterized those arguments about systematics in the mid 1900s.

While scouring some older literature, we recently discovered [3] that the ‘Systematics Wars’ period was not the first time that avian systematists had engaged in rather nasty exchanges. During the 1830s, for example, two young  brothers—Charles Thorold Wood and Neville Wood, tried to change the rules about naming birds in a way that involved heated debate, vitriol, and ad hominem attacks in their publications.

The Wood boys were wealthy, aristocratic, well-educated, and precocious. In 1835, when he was only 18, Charles published a quirky book—The Ornithological Guide—comprising 236 pages of poetry about birds, a compendium of ornithological books, each briefly reviewed, and a catalog (list) of the birds of Britain. Not to be outdone by his older brother, Neville published two books the next year, when he turned 18—British Song Birds and Ornithologists’ Text-book. British Song Birds alone ran to 400 pages, and, though it appeared not to include any novel observations, summarized much of what was then known about each species. Notably, none of the Woods’ publications included any illustrations.

The Woods felt that the names of birds—both scientific and English—were in a chaotic state and needed rules to make them more ‘scientific’. They were right. Even though Linnaeus had proposed his binomial system almost a century earlier [4], rules for zoological nomenclature that would provide some consistent structure and process were just beginning to be proposed in the 1830s [5].

Female and male European Bullfinches, by John Gould 1837 in his Birds of Europe

The English names were more confusing and disorganized. In England, some birds were even given different English names in different parts of the country. In the 1800s, for example the European Bullfinch was variously called: Bull Flinch (Yorks), Bull Head, Bulldog, Bull Spink, Bully (Yorks), Thick Bill (Lancs), Alpe, Hoop, Hope (SW), Tope, Hoof, Cock Hoop (Hereford), Olf (E Suffolk), Nope (Staffs/Shrops), Mwope (Dorset), Mawp (Lancs), Pope (Dorset), Red Hoop (m, Dorset), Blood Olp (m, Surrey/Norfolk), Tawny (f, Somerset), Tony Hoop, Tonnihood (f, Somerset), Black Cap (Lincs), Billy Black Cap, Black Nob (Shrops), Monk, Bud Bird, Bud Finch, Bud Picker (Devon), Budding Bird (Hereford), Plum Bird, and Lum Budder (Shrops) [6].

The Woods were sure that some logic and rules for the structure of English names were needed if ornithology was to develop as a science. As Neville said in one paper ”“If the proper English generic names were applied to every bird, how greatly would the acquisition of this fascinating study be facilitated! . . . By using the names which I have given above, this [confusion] is remedied, and all becomes plain and easy to understand.” [7] Their solution, for English names, was to make every bird within a genus have the same ’surname’, just as every genus had the same first name in the Linnaean system of Latin names. Thus, for example, Neville proposed:


It was also suggested  at the time [8] that English names be cleansed of modifiers that indicate size, abundance, location, or honorific. Thus present-day names like Little Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, Moluccan Cuckoo, and Klaas’s Cuckoo would all have to be changed in the Cuculidae alone. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, as Hugh Strickland argued that common names were “consecrated by usage as much as any other part of the English language”. As he noted “the science of ornithology does not suffer by this incorrect application of English names, because those familiar appellations have no real or necessary connection with science”. Despite his admonition, the English names of birds are still in a state of flux today and may always be.

The Woods’ proposals were well reasoned, if sometimes seeming to be a little bizarre today. But their suggestions were often presented in such a way that demeaned those who had different points of view. In the Preface to his Bird Song Birds, Neville says: “while I agree with my predecessors in many points, I have found much to correct, and still more to add, to the meagre and unsatisfactory accounts of most of our British Ornithologists.” Ouch!

Neville’s review of Eleazar Albin’s Natural History of Birds claimed that it was “of no use in the present day” and of Jennings Ornithologia that he ”never had the misfortune to meet with a book so full of errors . . . We should have considered such a work beneath our notice, as it is impossible it can have the smallest connection with the advancement of Ornithology”. [9] Their writings are sprinkled with derogatory epithets and harsh criticism that even today strikes me as ungentlemanly, possibly simply the result of the Woods being callow youth [10].

Possibly because they gained few converts, and appear not have been well liked, both Charles and Neville drifted off to other pursuits before their 35th birthdays, never again to write about birds or to heap opprobrium on their fellow ornithologists. Charles published his last paper on birds (again on nomenclature) when he was 19 and then seems to have vanished from the public record; Neville trained as a doctor, and at the age of 26 moved to London where he practiced the new medical system called ‘homeopathy’ for the rest of his life. At least if he had stayed with birds he would have done something potentially useful.

Stebbins ended his 1982 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science [11] by saying that: “My final hope is that evolutionists having different backgrounds and viewpoints will reduce their rivalry and collaborate increasingly in zealous research toward finding answers to these and other questions of major significance.” This was a noble sentiment but ignored those ineluctable human (or at least male) foibles of ego, ambition, and competitiveness. I would argue that controversies are are valuable part of scientific progress, and I have certainly enjoyed watching the systematics wars from the sidelines. We should always try to maintain civility but the controversies that arise from different points of view often move a field forward faster and more profitably than would the absence of skepticism about published research.


  • Albin E (1731) A Natural History of Birds : Illustrated With a Hundred and One Copper Plates, Curiously Engraven From the Life. Vol I. London: Printed for the author and sold by William Innys in St. Paul’s Church yard, John Clarke under the Royal-Exchange, Cornhill, and John Brindley at the King’s Arms in New Bond-Street. <available here>

  • Anonymous “N. F.” (1835) Remarks on vernacular and scientific ornithological literature. The Analyst 2: 305–307.

  • Birkhead TR, Montgomerie R (2016) A vile passion for altering names: the contributions of Charles Thorold Wood jun. and Neville Wood to ornithology in the 1830s. Archives of Natural History 43:221–236.

  • Greenoak F (1997) British Birds: their folklore, names, and literature. London: Christopher Helm.

  • Jennings J (1829) Ornithologia, or, the Birds: A Poem, in Two Parts : With an Introduction to Their Natural History; and Copious Notes. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper. <available here>

  • Stebbins GL. (1982a). Modal themes: a new framework for evolutionary synthesis. in Milkman R (Ed.), Perspectives on Evolution (pp. 12-14). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.
  • Stebbins GL (1982b) Perspectives in evolutionary theory. Evolution 36:1109–1118.
  • Sterner B, Lidgard S (2017) Moving past the Systematics Wars. Journal of the History of Biology https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-017-9471-1
  • Wood CT (1835) The ornithological guide: in which are discussed several interesting points in ornithology. London Whittaker. <available here>
  • Wood N (1836a) British song birds: being popular descriptions and anecdotes of the choristers of the groves. London: John W. Parker. <available here>
  • WOOD N (1836b) The ornithologists’ text-book: being reviews of ornithological works on various topics of interest. London: John W. Parker. <available here>


  1. Stebbins (1982a) argued that modal themes were often the correct resolution of these conflicts, as has proven to be more-or-less the case in all the controversies listed here, with the notable exception that group selection is still controversial (and mistaken in my opinion)
  2. see, for example, Sterner and Lidgard (2017) for an overview
  3. Tim Birkhead made this discovery while researching for the project on Francis Willughby that he wrote here about a few weeks ago
  4. Linnaeus Systema Naturae had built on Willughby and Ray’s attempt at organizing and logically giving each species a scientific name (Ray (1678), but in the subsequent century there were many attempts to apply Linnaeus system to the birds with each author claiming authority and none of today’s rules about priority, coordination or homonymy.
  5. The International Zoological Congresses of 1889 and 1892 saw the first discussions about some universal rules in zoology but the International Rules on Zoological Nomenclature were not published until 1905.  Earlier, the ornithologist Hugh Strickland had published a set of 22 rules for the formulation of scientific names that formed some of the basis for this later code.
  6. the sex that was so named,  and the county or general area where each name was used, are shown in brackets, from Greenoak (1997).
  7. quotation from Wood 1835a: 238
  8. this was proposed in a paper in The Analyst signed simply N.F. (Anonymous 1835), who I think may well have been Neville Wood based on what N.F. says and the style of writing.
  9. see Birkhead and Montgomerie (2016) for some other gems. The paper is behind a paywall but send me an email if you cannot get it and would like a copy.
  10. ‘callow’ seems to me to be a particularly good adjective to describe these young men, as it refers to someone who is “inexperienced and immature”,  but in the 17th century the term was applied to birds, and meant ‘without feathers’ or immature and not ready to fly.
  11. presented on 7 Jan 1982, at a AAAS symposium marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Charles Darwin; quotation from Stebbins (1982b)

Bird names then and now

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 6 Nov 2017

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 (real or imagined).

The earliest English bird names mainly came from their native German names in the first millennium CE. Old English was the oldest form of English spoken in England and the southern and eastern reaches of Scotland in the early Middle Ages (400-1000 CE) and many birds can be clearly identified in the texts and glossaries from that period. Some have fairly obvious modern-day equivalents:

  • ganot: gannet—‘ganot’ meant “strong, or masculine” and came from the same Old German root as the word “gander”
  • snĪte: snipe—from the Old English ‘snȳtan’ from the Proto-Germanic ‘snūtijaną’ which meant ‘to blow the nose’, presumably referring to the bird’s call
  • mōrhenn: moorhen
  • swealwe: swallow, and more specifically ‘hūs-swealwe’ for house-martin
  • ceaffinc: chaffinch

But others are no longer in use (in some cases, thankfully, in my opinion):

  • ðisteltwige = goldfinch; literally ‘thistle-tweaker’
  • secgscara = corncrake; literally ‘sedge-scraper’
  • stangella = kestrel; literally ‘stone-yeller’
  • wōrhana or rēodmūða = pheasant, introduced to England and became established probably in the 11th century CE; literally ‘mountain hen’
  • pāwa = peacock, also introduced and established on some English estates by the end of the 11th century CE; possibly onomatopoeic

Harley 7026 f.5
Ring-necked Pheasant (left) and Peacock (right) on illuminated manuscript called the Lovell Lectionary from S. England ca 1400-1410.

 In the 1990s, Peter Kitson (Univ Birmingham) wrote in rich detail about the identity and origins of bird names in the Old English texts. As he points out, those old names came mainly from Germanic names rather than from the Latin where most English plant names originated. He surmises that this might indicate that common folk were more likely to have names for different kinds of common birds than they did for plants. He also notes that in Old English “Words are given for most land birds from about cuckoo-size up, but not so many for water birds, and few distinctions are made among waders, sea birds, or what modern ornithologists call warblers and some despairing amateurs ‘little brown jobs’.” [1]

From those early Middle Ages on, the common names of birds changed—as did the English language—with the expanding population, regional dialects and greater awareness of the distinctions among different species. In the 1880s, Charles Swainson compiled the names of common birds from both folk-lore and regional dialects across England and Scotland, and several books have since been published on the sources of common names in use today.

While not as ancient as Old English, one enigmatic regional English bird name from the 1500s and 1600s is the ‘Spowe’. Alfred Newton’s superb Dictionary of Birds published in 1893-96 says:


But my colleagues Fred Cooke and Tim Birkhead question that interpretation in a recent paper in Archives of Natural History [2]. Briefly, they argued that the evidence points, instead, to the ‘spowe’ being the Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica). In the records [3] of the L’Estrange family estate in Norfolk from the early 17th century, they read that ‘spowe’ were delivered to the L’Estrange estate between September and February, suggesting that they were winter visitors and not passage migrants. At least today, the whimbrel does not winter in Britain.

All of this interest in the common names of birds is largely curiosity driven, but the question about extant bird names comes up time and again among ornithologists and can be quite contentious. I will review some of that tumultuous history in later posts, but today I want to highlight two current concerns about common names.

First, should we agree on standard common (English) names to be used worldwide? This makes sense to me as it provides some consistency across checklists, field guides and scientific publications. But now there are at least 3 world lists of birds (Clements, IOC and the Handbook of Birds of the World) where different common names are sometimes used for the same species. On the IOC World List website they now say “A step towards improved alignment with the Clements/eBird world list is one of the motivations for this change [in revisions]” which is a step in the right direction.

Individuals will often use regional names for birds, but it would be useful to have a universally accepted list of official common names, I feel. My British colleagues will no doubt forever call Uria aalge the Common Guillemot while I call it the Common Murre, no matter which name becomes the official moniker.

Second, how should ‘new’ species be named when they are discovered (increasingly by molecular analysis) to be hiding within already-named species? The North American Classification Committee (NACC)—the AOS committee that produces the AOS Checklist of North and Middle America Birds—apparently has a ‘rule’ that when a species is split, new names have to be found for both of the ‘new’ species. This makes no sense to me, and in fact has been inconsistently applied by the committee. I, for one, like many of the original common names because of their link to history, even when they are technically inappropriate (Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina—a species that was formerly, at least, rarely seen on Cape May) or obscure (Myrtle Warbler Setophaga coronata) rather than descriptive (Yellow-Rumped Warbler, as the Myrtle Warbler is now called).

I don’t think that history has much to tell us about the right answer to these two questions, except possibly that both issues will be contentious and may never be resolved.


  • Cooke F, Birkhead TR (2017) The identity of the bird known locally in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Norfolk, United Kingdom, as the Spowe. Archives of Natural History 44:118–121.
  • Kitson PR (1997) Old English bird‐names. English Studies 78:481–505
  • Kitson PR (1998) Old English bird‐names (II). English Studies 79:2–22.
  • Newton A (1893-96) A Dictionary of Birds. London: A & C Black.
  • Swainson C (1885) Provincial names and folk lore of British birds. London: English Dialect Society.
  • Thompson D’AW (1895) A glossary of Greek birds. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Whitman CH (1898) The birds of Old English literature. The Journal of [English and] Germanic Philology 2:149–198.


  1. Quotation from Kitson 1997: 482
  2. Unfortunately this paper is behind the journal’s paywall so you cannot view any more than the Abstract if you (or your institution) does not have a subscription. If you really want to read it, though, send me an email and I will see if I can get you a copy.
  3. These records are in the ‘Household and Privy Purse Accounts’ of this aristocratic family. Cooke and Birkhead (2017) say these accounts “give a surprisingly complete picture of the daily lives of this family in much of the 16th century, including foods consumed, the activities of the farmlands they administered, and a few details of events in their lives. Of particular interest to ornithologists is the fact that wild-fowlers periodically brought birds shot or occasionally captured alive into the kitchens where they were sold, or given in exchange for rent. ” 

    IMAGES: peacock and pheasant from British Library, in the public domain

The First Penguins

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 23 Oct 2017

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 here in English translation [2]):

whose numbers are so great as to be incredible, unless one has seen them; for although the island is about a league in circumference, it is so exceedingly full of birds that one would think they had been stowed there Some of these birds are as large as geese, being black and white with beak like a crows. They are always in the water, not being able to fly in the air, inasmuch as they have only small wings about the size of half one‘s hand, with which however they move as quickly along the water as the other birds fly through the air. And these birds are so fat that it is marvellous. We call them apponatsand our two longboats were laden with them as with stones in less than half an hour. Of these, each of our ships salted four or five casks, not counting those we were able to eat fresh

Cartier also recorded seeing Margaulx (Gannets) and Godertz (probably Common Murres) but the apponat referred to here is the Great Auk (Puinguinis impennis). “Apponath” was what the local Newfoundland natives (i.e. Beothuks) called this bird. On his second trip to Isle des Oyseaux, a year later, Cartier wrote “The island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without perceiving that any of them had been removed” [2].

The “isle of birds” (Isle des Oyseaux) referred to in that passage above, was called ‘Penguin Island’  in the 1600s and  was ‘officially’ called ‘Funk Island’ by the late 1700s. Cartier was not the first to visit this island, as Gaspar Corte-Real stopped there in 1501, and it is shown on two maps by Pedro Reinel—one in 1504 where he calls it ‘Y Dos Saues’ and the other in 1520 where it is labelled ‘Yihas das Aves’. The map below by John Mason was made around 1617 and clearly shows ‘Penguin Island’ off the northwest coast on Newfoundland. This map was drawn upside down (for some unknown reason), so Penguin Island is on the lower left margin.


There is some debate about where the word ‘penguin’ came from, though we can be certain that it was what Europeans called the Great Auk, centuries before any of the birds that we now call penguins had been ‘discovered’. The three most commonly suggested—but very different—origins for the word ‘penguin’, as applied to the Great Auk, are:

  1. Great_Auk_Thomas_Bewick_1804derived from the Welsh ‘pen gwyn‘, where ‘pen’ is their word for head (or headland) and ‘gwyn’ means white, referring either to the white patch on the bird’s head, or the fact that a headland full of Great Auks looks white. The Welsh (and other Europeans) would have known this bird long before they found it in North America, as it bred (and was slaughtered) across the eastern North Atlantic from Iceland thorough Great Britain and Norway to as far south as Spain. In 1577, Francis Fletcher, a clergyman who travelled with Sir Francis Drake, wrote in his log about the southern hemisphere penguins [3]: “Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.” This seems to me fairly convincing evidence for the word’s origin.
  2. derived from the name ‘pin-winged’, referring to the lack of real wing feathers on this flightless bird. I like this explanation though the consensus seems to be that it is incorrect.
  3. derived from the Latin pinguis, meaning ‘fat’ or ‘plump’

There is quite a good online debate about these origins here, if you are interested, and the several books now published on the Great Auk variously mention and discuss where the word ‘penguin‘ came from.

Probably the first European to see what we now call penguins was the explorer Bartholomeu Diaz, from Portugal, who reached the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) in 1488, but he never mentioned these birds in his notes. The first mention of southern hemisphere penguins is probably in the travel book of Álvaro Velho who rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Vasco da Gama in 1497. He called them ‘otilicarios’ [opticians?] and said that (again in rough translation): “They are as big as ducks, but can’t fly because they have no feathers on their wings. These birds, of which we slaughtered as many as we could, cried like jackass.”

So the Great Auk was the first ‘penguin’. Presumably it seemed logical at the time to call the southern hemisphere flightless oceanic birds ‘penguins‘, as well, because they looked and behaved so much like the Great Auk. Hunted relentlessly, the Great Auk had disappeared from Funk Island by 1800—where the ‘funk’ but not the bird remains to this day. The last individual was killed in Iceland in 1844, leaving its current genus name Puinguinis as the final remnant of its life as the first penguin.


  • Cook R (1993) The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Gaskell J (2001) Who Killed the Great Auk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Grieve S (1885) The great auk, or garefowl (Alca impennis, Linn.): Its history, archaeology, and remains. London: TC Jack. [available here]

  • Thier K (2007) Of Picts and penguins—Celtic languages in the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. pp 246-259 in Tristram HLC (ed.) The Celtic Languages in Contact. Potsdam: Potsdam University Press


  1. On Sat 19 Oct 2017, I gave a talk called ‘Discovering Birds in the Great White North‘ as part of a Bird Festival at the lovely Ruthven Park National Historic Site in the Niagara Region of Ontario. That talk drew material from a chapter I wrote on the History of Ornithology in Nunavut for a forthcoming book on the birds of Nunavut.
  2. This quote is from Cook 1993:xvii
  3. This quote is from Thier 2007:255

What’s in a (bird’s) name?

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 September 2017

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 his own nicknames to birds, reflecting their songs or calls. My favourite was ‘jib-jib’, his name for the English (now House) Sparrow. Even in his field notes he called them ‘jib-jibs’.


Naming birds by the sounds they make seems very natural to me, but how common is it, really? In English-speaking North America (Canada and USA), there are 10 more common birds that can be added to the list above: kittiwake, murre, quail, kiskadee, willet, pauraque, bobwhite, chuck-will’s widow, poorwill, dickcissel.

Such names are often called onomatopoeic because they imitate, if only vaguely, the sound that the bird makes. In North America, it seems obvious, at least to me, that the Blue Jay calls its name “jay, jay, jay” but in fact the origin of that name is probably not onomatopeoic. The Jay, now called the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), was the first bird to be called a jay in English and that name derived from its Old French name “jai” which means ‘gay’ or ‘merry’ possibly referring to the bird’s boisterous antics around humans and predators. Others have suggested that the French word referred to their sparkling plumage colours.

In the UK, there at least 18 onomatopoeic names (excluding the jay): kittiwake, smew, crake, skua, curlew, godwit, whimbrel, quail, owlpipit, cuckoo, gull, crow, raven, chough, rook, twite, and pipit. The bold names were obviouly applied to North American birds by early naturalists and explorers, as there use in Europe predates that in North America.

And in Australia/New Zealand only 7 species have onomatopoeic names: currawong, kiwi, boobook, kookaburra, weka, takahe, kea.

For the rest if the world, however, the English names of birds derived from their vocalizations are surprisingly rare. In a quick(!) survey of the entire world list of 10,000 species (and more than 1000 ‘kinds’ of birds distinguished by their English ‘surnames’), I could find only 8 English names that seem to be onomatopoeic: koel, nene, go-away bird, motmot, coua, potoo, piopio and toucan [2]. Given that at least two-thirds of the world’s birds live in Asia, Africa and the Americas south of the USA, the difference in the incidence if onomatopoeic bird names is striking.

This raises some questions

  1. Is the naming of birds by their sounds a distinctly English-speaking tradition?
  2. Why are such names applied only to a few species, when there are many other common birds that could be named for their sounds? Why no ‘jib-jib’, for example, arguably one of the most familiar birds in England for centuries (though not any more)?
  3. Why didn’t English-speaking explorers and early ornithologists give onomatopoeic English names to new birds that they discovered in foreign lands?

Birds were given English names for lots of other reasons including taste (pitohui), foraging mode (berrypecker), appearance (redshank), vocalizations (screamer), places (Cape May Warbler) and people (King of Saxony Bird of Paradise). Sometimes the names were, in retrospect, misnomers, and potentially misleading. Part of the charm of birds, for me at least, is in the diversity of their common names. The recent trend to change those names to something more descriptive is, I think, unfortunate.


Lockwood WB 1984 The Oxford Book of British Bird Names. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Swainson C 1886 The folk lore and provincial names of British Birds. Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach


  1. jlb
    Jim Baillie

    James L. Baillie (1904-1970) was assistant curator of birds at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for almost 50 years (Cringan 2006)

  2. I am reasonably confident that I have listed most of the onomatopoeic English bird names from the UK, Canada and the USA, but my lists from the rest of the world might not be very complete. Let me know.
Cringan AJ (2006) Once upon a time in American ornithology. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 118: 427-429