from North American Bird Folknames and Names by James K. Sayre

Copyright 1996. All Rights Reserved.


North American Bird Name Origins


Bird names that were created by the colonial immigrants from England had linguistic roots that came from English bird names, Native American names, Spanish names, Portuguese names, French-canadian names, bird calls, bird habits, and bird colors. The following is a listing of common American bird names, with etymology enclosed within brackets. Scientific names and roots are italicized. These species were the first ones to be encountered by the English colonists settling in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. When possible, individual species referred to by the generic name are listed. If many birds have the same root name, then an example is selected. The scientific names, root words, word of the same meaning in other languages amd cognates are all shown in italics. All spelling variations for the italicized root words are listed. With the exception of Scandinavian words with umlauts, diacritical marks for pronunciation have been omitted for ease of reading. Alternative etymologies are listed within parentheses.

albatross - refers to Black-footed Albatross, Diomedea nigripes, or Laysan Albatross, Diomedea immutabilis. [Latin albus, white, + Early Modern English alcatras, alcatraz, frigate-bird, pelican, Portuguese algratross, alcatra, Portuguese akatraz, cormorant, albatross, (from Portuguese alcatraz, bucket, water jar, alcatruz, bucket of a water wheel), Spanish alcatraz, alcatra, pelican, Arabic al-qadus, machine for drawing water, jar, pitcher, Arabic al, the + ghattas, a sea eagle, Greek kados, jar, water vessel, Hebrew kad, kadh, water jar, bucket, named for the size and shape of the bird's pouch, based on the old tale that the pelican carried water to its young in its pouch].

ani - refers to Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophaga ani, or Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris. [South American Spanish ani, Portuguese, Brazilian, Tupi ani].

avocet - refers to American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana. [avocet, avoset, French avocette, Italian avocetta, avosetta, Ferrarese avosetta, avocetta, literally, "graceful bird," diminutive, Latin avis, bird, unknown origin].

bobolink - refers to Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus. [boblincoln, Bob Lincoln, Bob o' Lincoln, bob-a-lincum, named after its call].

cardinal - refers to Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis. [Middle English, Old French cardinal, Italian cardinale, Medieval Latin Cardinalis, a cardinal, Late Latin cardinalis, a cardinal, Latin cardinalis, principal, essential, chief, Latin cardo, a door hinge, axis, named for red color, similar to color of church official's robes].

cuckoo - refers to Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus, or Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus. [Early Modern English cuckow, Middle English cuccu, coccou, cukkow, Old English coccou, cuccu, cukkow, cocow, cuckow, Old French coucou, cucu, Latin cuculus, Greek kokkux, kokkyx, Sanskrit kokilas, kokila, from the bird's cry].

flamingo - refers to American Flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber. [Portuguese flamengo, flamingo, Portuguese flamma, flame, Spanish flamenco, a Fleming, flamingo, Spanish Fleming, Old Provencal flamenc, flamingo,Old Provencal flama, flame, Latin flamma, flame, + Germanic suffix -ing, named for its bright colors].

flicker - refers to Common Flicker, Colaptes auratus. [flicker Middle English flikeren, behave frivolously, trifle, Old English flicorian, flycerian, flicerian, to flutter, compare: Old Norse flokrea; may be named for its motion flying from tree to tree, showing white wing spots, which present a flickering effect].

goatsucker - folkname for Common Night Hawk. [goat: Middle English got, geat, gote, goot, gat, Old English gat, she-goat + suck Middle English suche, suken, to draw into the mouth, Old English sucan, sugan, swilc, swelc + -er, Old English -ere, suffix, from myth that birds suckled from a goat, and thereby made the goat go blind].

gull - example: Herring Gull, Larus argentatus. [Middle English gull, of Celtic origin, Cornish gullan, guilan, gwilan, gull, (Old English gul, yellow, literally, a yellow bird, from prominent yellowness of gull chicks, compare: Icelandic gulr, yellow, Danish gul, gaul, yellow;) compare: Welsh gwylan, seagull, gilbin, to weep, wail, Breton gwelan, goelann, gull, Old Norse gulr, Cornish gullan, gull; named for its cry].

hawk - example: Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis. [Middle English hauk, hauek, havek, havec, Old English hafoc, heafoc, heafuc, habuc, hebuc, Old Norse haukr, compare: Swedish hök, Danish høg, Middle Low German havec, Middle Dutch havik, Dutch havik, Old High German habuh, German Habicht, hawk;].

hummingbird - refers to Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris. [hum Middle English hommen, hummen, of echoic origin + -ing Old English -ing, -ung, suffix, + bird Middle English bird, brid , Old English bridd, bird, young bird, name from sound bird's wings make during flight].

ibis - example: Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus. [Middle English ibin, ybyn, Latin ibis, Greek ibis, ibis, Egyptian hb, hbj, heb, hib, hab, a sacred bird of Egypt + Greek suffix -is].

jay - refers to Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata. [Middle English jay, Old French jay, gai, geai, iay, gay, jay, (possibly from Old French gai, gay, so called from its gay plumage), Late Latin gaius, a jay, Vulgar Latin gaius, Latin Gaius, a proper name, Latin root name imitative of bird's call].

magpie - refers to Black-billed Magpie, Pica pica. or Yellow-billed Magpie, Pica nutalli. [magpie, Middle English magpye, magot, magot pie (from bird's habit of picking maggots from the backs of sheep), mag, nickname of Margaret, French Margot, a magpie, diminutive of French Marguerite, Latin margarita, a pearl + pie Middle English pie, Old French pie, Latin pica, magpie].

mallard - refers to Mallard, Anas platyrnchos. This is the ancestor of the domesticated white duck. [Middle English malarde, Old French mallart, malart, a wild drake, Old French male, male, Flemish maskelaar].

man-o'-war bird - refers to Man-o'-war Bird, Magnificant Frigatebird, Fregata magnificens. man-o'-war [man-of-war Late Middle English, a fighting man, a heavily armed warship, bird named because of its large size, superior navigating, and flying ability, as well as its predatory habits].

meadowlark - refers to Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna. [meadow Middle English medewe, medow, medwe, medoue, Old English mædwe, mæd, meadow (mowed land) + lark Middle English lark, laverke, laverock, Old English laferce, læwerce, lauricæ, lawerce, lark, unknown origin].

mockingbird - refers to Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos. [mock Middle English mokken, mokke, mocque, Middle French mocquer, Old French mocquer, moquer, to mock, Greek mokos, a mocker + bird Middle English bird, brid, Old English bridd, bird, young bird].

owl - example: Screech Owl, Otus asio. [Middle English ule, owle, oule, Old English ule, compare: Dutch uil, Old High German uwila, Middle High German iuwel, iule, Old Saxon uwila, German eule, Danish ugle, Old Norse ugla, Latin ulula, screech owl, Latin ululare, to howl, the owl's call was considered similar to a wolf's howl; reflective of bird's call,].

pelican - refers to White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, or Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis. [pelican, pelecan Middle English pelican, pellican, Old English pellican, pellicane, Old French pelican, Late Latin pelicanus, Latin pelicanus, pelecanus, pelican, Greek pelekan, Greek pelekus, pelekys, axe, Sanskrit parasus, axe, Assyro-Babylonian piliqqu, axe, Sumerian balaq, name reflecting bird's bill shape].

roadrunner - refers to Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus. [road Middle English rode, rade, a riding, Old English rade, rad, a ride, a passing or travelling on horseback, a way, a road, from ridan, to ride, Scottish raid, a riding, especially hostile + run Middle English runnen, rinnen, rennen, renne, runen, irnen, Old English rinnan, eornan, earnan, irnan, compare: Old Norse rinna, Old Frisian renna, rinna, runna, to run, to flow, Frisian rinne, to walk, to flow; + -er, Old English -ere, suffix, named for habit of running, often along roads ].

robin - refers to Robin, Turdus migratorius. [from Middle English Robin Redbreast, Middle English Robin, Old French Robin, a nickname from Robert, a proper name, Old High German Hruodperht, Robert, fame-bright, bright with glory, from hruod-, ruod-, fame, glory + berahr, bright].

sapsucker, refers to Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius. [sap Middle English sap, zep, Old English saep, sæp, + suck Middle English suken, souken, Old English sucan + -er, Old English -ere, suffix, from its habits of drilling holes in trees for the sap and insects attracted to sapflow].

shrike - refers to Northern Shrike, Lanius excubitor, or Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicanus.[Old English scric, screc, thrush or shrike, compare: Middle Low German schrik, corncrake, Swedish shrika, jay, Icelandic skrikja, shrike, Icelandic skrikja, the shrike, to titter, Norwegian shrike, jay; from bird's cry].

sparrow - example: House Sparrow, Passer domesticus, or Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia. [Middle English sparowe, sparwa, sparewe, sparwe, Old English spearwa, sparrow, compare: Middle High German sparwe, Old High German sparo, German sperling, Gothic sparwa, Old Norse spörr, Danish spurv, spurre, Frisian sparreg;].

titmouse - refers to Tufted Titmouse, Parus bicolor. [tit- shortened form of titmouse, Middle English tit, Icelandic tittr, a bird or literally, anything small, Old Norse titlingr, little bird + mose Middle English mose, Old English mase, titmouse, or any small bird].

vulture - example: Black Vulture, Coraagyps atratus, or Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura. [Middle English vulture, vultur, voltur, voltor, Anglo-Norman vultur, Old French voultour, voltour, vautour, voltor, Latin vulturius, vultur, a vulture, Old Latin uolturus, a tearer].

warbler - example: Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia. [warble Middle English werble, werblen, werbelen, werbeln, werblen, Norman French werbler, werble,to sing, trill, play on a musical instrument, Middle High German werbelen, wirbeln, to warble, to roll, to rotate, to turn, compare: Old Frankish wirbil, whirlwind;].

waxwing - refers to Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum. [wax Middle English wax, wex, Old English wæx, weax, beeswax, wax, compare: Old Frisian wax, Frisian waaks, wax, Dutch was, German wachs, Old High German wahs, Old Norse vax, Swedish vax, Danish vox; + wing Middle English winge, wenge, whing, weng, Old Norse vængir, vængr, a wing, compare: Dutch wagien, to fly, to blow; named for red spots resembling flattened tips of red sealing wax on wings].

woodpecker - example: Hairy Woodpecker, Dendrocopos villosus. [wood Middle English wode, wude, Old English wudu, wude, widu, wiodu, wood, forest, compare: Old High German wit, Old Norse vithr, Danish ved, wood, Swedish ved, wood, Gaelic fiodh, Old Irish fid, Welsh gwydd, trees, shrubs; + peck Middle English pecken, a variant of picken, pick, Old English pycan, to pick or peck, Middle Low German pekken, to peck with beak + -er, Old English -ere, suffix].


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