Brace yourself. Get ready for a stiff shot of truth. I’m going to give it to you straight, no chaser.
The name of a bird will not tell you what it looks like.
“But wait,” you say, “Isn’t a red-winged blackbird a black bird with red wings? Doesn’t a red-headed woodpecker have a red head?”
Yes, I have to admit they do, but the curmudgeon in me is compelled to point out that those wings are mostly black with red epaulets and that those red epaulets usually have yellow borders that almost always go unnoticed. But I concede. Those are both good descriptive names.
But the truth remains. For every bird name that keeps its promise, a dozen others will leave you confused. For every winner, such as red-headed woodpecker, applied to a black and white woodpecker with a distinctive red head, there is a loser, such as ring-necked duck, Red-bellied woodpecker and Orange-crowned Warbler — species you could observe a thousand times and never see the features for which they are named.
Other names, while technically descriptive, are too general to be helpful. Five of the seven species of chickadee have black caps but only one is correctly called black-capped chickadee.
It would be good to say that bird names are misleading with respect to appearance only, but it isn’t so. Where would you go to have the best chance of finding a Tennessee warbler, a Philadelphia vireo, or a Connecticut warbler? The answers: not Tennessee, not Philadelphia, and not Connecticut.
There is another way bird names can confuse you, and it is probably the most insidious. In North America we have an orange-breasted bird most often seen in neighborhood yards. We call it the American robin. In England, they also have an orange-breasted yard bird that they call a robin. You might assume that these two robins would be related, but they are not. They are no closer to each other than a brown thrasher is to a wren.
The English do have a close cousin of the American robin. It’s called the blackbird and it’s famous for singing in the dead of night.
In North America we have a bunch of blackbirds: Yellow-headed blackbirds, rusty blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and Brewer’s blackbirds. Not one of them is biologically close to the English blackbird. But our blackbirds do have some close relatives that might surprise you. The orchard oriole that weaves a nest in neighborhood trees — it’s just a blackbird with lots of orange on it. Those meadowlarks you see sitting on pasture fences — all blackbirds. But the starlings on the wires around the square — noisy, aggressive, gregarious, and mostly black — aren’t blackbirds at all. They are related to the myna bird you can buy at the pet store.
If you are still reading, you are probably wondering why bird names are so bad. Why don’t the bird-namers make it easy to learn birds, not hard? Good question.
Most birds were named by museum scientists holding a museum specimen in their hands, not by observers in the field. And things that seem distinctive when a bird is in your hand are often invisible when it is in a bush. So red-bellied woodpeckers do have reddish bellies but you can’t see them because woodpeckers perch with their bellies against tree trunks. Ring-necked ducks do have subtle iridescent maroon neck rings but I have never seen one. The museum origin of bird names also explains the use of arcane anatomical oddities in them. Semipalmated sandpiper is a good example; in hand partially webbed, or semipalmate, toes are the best means for identifying the bird. But have you ever had a close look at a bird’s toes in the field?
What about the Philadelphia vireo? Often a bird name identifies the place where the first specimen was collected, and sometimes that may not be the place where the species is numerous or frequently seen.
As for orange blackbirds and unrelated robins, such problems are usually the result of the human desire to relate new things in new places to familiar things from back home.
If you want to understand precise biological affinities, use scientific names which make relationships clear. But for all their inaccuracies, don’t abandon common names. Enjoy their history and poetry; just don’t ask more of them than they can provide.
Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him at email@example.com.