A Thorough Resource on Bird Names
March 16, 2022
A review by Frank Izaguirre
Bird is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds, by Gary H. Meiter
McDonald & Woodward Publishing, 2020
438 pages, softcover
Birders love discussing bird names: whether they’re accurate, whether they’re useful, what an unusual word means, who did the naming, whom the names honor, and whether they should honor anyone at all. Bird name buffs of all types will enjoy and benefit from Gary H. Meiter’s Bird is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds, a thorough and entertaining reference to the names of North American birds. “North American,” in this book’s usage, denotes the continental U.S. and Canada, so Hawaii and countries south of the U.S.’s southern border are excluded—in essence it is the old ABA Area. Code 3 birds seem well represented, so there are entries for birds like Tufted Duck and Ruff.
Each species entry opens with a bird’s standardized common name, followed by its scientific name. Beneath that, there is a phonetic spelling of the scientific name, including indication of stresses. Occasionally, a relevant and typically old quote from an ornithologist appears—these aren’t present with each entry, but they do often enliven those species which have them with expressive statements about the bird. Next is a one or two sentence explanation of the standardized common name. These mini-intros can focus on people, etymology, or basic bird body structure—whichever aspect of the bird’s common name the author found most relevant to write about. Then the genus and species name are explained in more detail.
Finally, French, Spanish, and other colloquial English names appear. There is always only one French name, presumably the Québécois name; one wonders how different Haitian bird names are for the species that appear in both places. Typically, between one and three Spanish names appear, although some species have many more names than that in circulation throughout Latin America. The places in which the included Spanish names are used are not listed—for instance, Cuba and northern Mexico. The colloquial English common names are more comprehensive and a significant draw of the book. Some species have just a few alternate English colloquial names, while others have a paragraph’s worth! Inuit names are occasionally listed.
As stated in the book’s subtitle, this reference text is in large part a history book, which is evident in various ways, from the quoted early ornithologists to the illustrations. Illustrations are abundant in the book—readers won’t have to flip more than one or two pages to come across a beautiful bird painting. These illustrations are mostly from Louis Agassiz Fuertes and John James Audubon, with a few entries also from Allen C. Brooks.
The bird name entries are further enlivened with interesting sidebars that appear every ten pages or so. Some of these are just a small paragraph, while others come closer to a two-page spread. They share stories about the history of naming our birds and the many intrigues of that now fairly long history. You can learn a lot just by reading these.
As with many such references, the appendices are some of the most fun aspects of the book. The first appendix provides a list of collective nouns for birds. Birders may think they know these well, or at least better than the average person, but many will appear unfamiliar to many. Did you know a group of knots is a cluster? And that a group of toucans is a durante? How about a mob of emus or a trimmering of finches? Some birds have multiple collective nouns, such as hummingbirds, which can apparently be a charm, chattering, or drum! The second appendix is a glossary of terms, and the third appendix is a sizeable series of biographies on the naturalists mentioned in the book.
The introduction also contains a wealth of engaging knowledge, for instance explaining terms like tautology or the classical influences on bird names. Another interesting section groups colloquial names into types, such as “alleged stupidity,” as fool hen for Spruce Grouse and gooney bird for Laysan Albatross, and “weather prophets,” as call-up-a-storm for Common Loon and rain crow for Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The sections of the book that focus on the quirkiest aspects of bird names are the most absorbing.
Similar books as Bird is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds have been published previously with different strengths and emphases. Bird is the Word scores highest with its extensive lists of the different English colloquial names for ABA Area birds, some ranging into the dozens. The entertaining sidebars and appendices are other highlights of this thoroughly researched and fun resource.
Frank Izaguirre serves alongside Ted Floyd and Michael Retter as Birding magazine editor. Frank is also book and media reviews editor for Birding and a doctoral candidate in English at West Virginia University, where he is dissertating on how field guides have influenced environmental thinking.