What’s in a name? by Ken Sutton, Volunteer Bird Guide

The REGUA bird list continues to increase steadily and even before one arrives, the list fascinates.   Just reading the names whets the appetite.    Where have these names come from and what do they mean?

Perhaps the smartest names are those with classical allusions.   The unobtrusive Xenops seems designed for an enthusiastic scramble player (beginners at the game presumably only manage Ani). In fact the name refers to its nest (xeno meaning strange).   Sirystes (a flycatcher), may sound like a skin complaint but in fact it means piping.   The magnificent nests of the oropendola are quite rightly reflected in its name.

Boat-billed Flycatcher
Boat-billed Flycatcher (©Ken Sutton)

Other birds’ names are onomatopoeic. The Kiskadee bellows out its name repeatedly – and this distinguishes it from the similar Boat-billed Flycatcher (which does not say “boat-billed flycatcher”) and whose bill does not much resemble a boat.

The problem of course is that none of the cuckoos sound remotely like their European cousin (whose call is onomatopoeic) but are lumped with an onomatopoeic name.   The majority of birds are described by reference to physical features and are well named. The Flame-crested Tanager for example, but why is the Southern Beardless Tyrannulet named after a feature it does not possess?    After all there is no “Southern Bearded Tyrannulet” and almost all birds lack beards (except of course the White-bearded Manakin) but none are designated by this deficiency.    The Ruby-crowned Tanager needs carefully to part its hair to show any colour at all.

Sometimes these names preserve words in the language which might otherwise disappear.    You do not generally hear ferruginous (as in pygmy owl) in everyday speak, though it does sound rather splendid.   Fuscous (flycatcher) or rufescent (tiger-heron) are similarly scarce in everyday conversation.

Black-capped Donacobius (© Ken Sutton)
Black-capped Donacobius (© Ken Sutton)

Patronymic names as in Bertoni’s Antbird and Such’s Antthrush commemorate distinguished ornithologists although if a bird is to be so named it may prefer not to have been discovered by Herr Sick (Sick’s Swift).    The Schiffornis, in truth an unexciting species, gets the best of both worlds, being literally Mr Schiff’s bird.

Despite this variety in derivation, one bird, in the modern cliche just what it says on the tin, it’s the excellent Firewood Gatherer.

So what of donacobius, a rather splendid bird?   It’s name means ‘marsh dweller’, and rather appropriate that is too

Ken Sutton