Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Audubon Called The Birds

No character in history, with the possible exception of Roger Tory Peterson, has had such a profound impact on America's perception of birds as John James Audubon.  However, when looking through his works, a few things stand out as being, well, a little "different" from what the modern birder is accustomed to.  For the life of me, I cannot figure out what the hell the Carbonated Swamp-Warbler or the Washington's Eagle even are.  Some birds' names have been changed completely - leaving behind their colorful colloquial roots to occupy a more utilitarian space in our 21st century language.  This is a shame - Audubon probably had a lot more fun identifying birds by these "antiquated" names than we ever will by our modern, AOU-certified ones.  Let's explore some of my personal favorites from Audubon's extensive repertoire:

Aquatic Wood-Wagtail - Now known as Louisiana Waterthrush

I can't think of a more fascinating name for one of my favorite birds.  A Wood-Wagtail?  It sounds so exotic.  Let's face it - Louisiana Waterthrushes have hardly anything to do with Louisiana.  They do, however, wag their tails emphatically, live along wooded streams, and enjoy water.  Sure, it makes you think of those pipit-like Eurasian birds, but technically it's not a "thrush" either.  So I propose we return to our ancestral American roots and change the common name back to AWWA.

Red Palarope - Now known as Red Phalarope

I know this is just a misspelling, but it made me laugh.  If any bird would be your pal, it would be the Red Palarope.
They just look friendly, don't they?  Like lil' buddies.
Hyperborean Phalarope - Now known as Red-necked Phalarope

"Hyperborean" comes from the Greek word for a mythical people that lived beyond the North Wind, a fitting (and mysterious) name for a bird that breeds in the Arctic and migrates offshore.  Come on y'all - this is so cool.  "Red-necked" just makes me think of muddin' and Jeff Foxworthy.  We could make this name even better by calling it the Hyperborean Palarope instead.  
Some Hyperborean Palaropes the Birder's Conundrum team saw off Cape Hatteras.

Foolish Guillemot - Now known as Common Murre

Back before I was a birder, I went on a puffin-watching trip in Newfoundland.  On the way to the breeding colony, the captain of our boat pointed out a few chunky seabirds desperately trying to take off.  He told us that they were Murres who had eaten too much, and thus couldn't fly.  That's pretty foolish.  I think "Foolish Guillemot" is an excellent name that should be reinstated.

Scolopaceous Courlan - Now known as Limpkin

This has to be my favorite of these names, if only because of the sheer ridiculousness of the first word.  "Scolopaceous" means "woodcock-like" (remember Scolopax is the genus that Woodcocks fall under).  Why an adjective would be created to mean something so specific as "woodcock-like", I have no idea.  "Limpkin" sounds like something I don't really want to look up on Urban Dictionary.  So Scolopaceous Courlan is definitely preferred here.
Scolopaceous Courlan - Barra del Colorado, Costa Rica

Tell-tale Godwit  - Now known as Greater Yellowlegs

"Tell-tale" makes me think of Edgar Allen Poe, so this name automatically gets bonus points.  The name "tell-tale" actually refers to their noisy call, which would often give away a hunter's position before he could approach a flock of shorebirds (I'm sure this has happened to birders too).  Greater Yellowlegs is a fitting name, but Tell-tale Godwit is more poetic, don't you think?
Illustrations from


  1. Love this post, and just added you to my blogroll. I agree about bringing back some of the more colorful names. And perhaps those in charge can stop changing names as well. After all, how am I supposed to keep straight whether it's a Green-backed, Little Green, or Green Heron?

    1. Thanks! Luckily, the (Little) Green(-backed) Heron Conundrum predates my birding experience.

  2. Funny post! Y'all should do a second installment...I'm sure there are more. Glad to see y'all joining the blogosphere

    1. Thanks, Scott. I think we only scratched the surface here - it'll be easy to dig up more in the near future...