Thursday, February 25, 2021

What’s all the fuss about Bird Names?

 Since the dawn of language, humans have been pointing at birds and giving them names. In 1735 a Swedish botanist/naturalist and explorer, Carolus Linnaeus, published a manuscript titled Systema Naturae (The System of Nature), which organized living things into a standardized system of “binomial nomenclature”. This consists of a genus and species name, based on Latin or Greek (or “Latinized”). His manuscript also established higher levels of classification including Kingdom, Classes, and Orders. As subsequent scientists adopted and used this system, it became an excellent tool to indicate evolutionary relationships, and additional levels were added; Phylum was added under Kingdom and Family was added under Order. These so-called “scientific names” for organisms still form the basis for standardizing names, including bird names, around the world to this day, although there is still a LOT of flux in these names too.

The use of English names is not as well organized. Sticking just to birds, more than a century ago both the American Ornithologists Union (AOU, but now the American Ornithological Society – AOS) and the British Ornithological Union (BOU) took a stab at creating “standardized English names” for their respective regions. This resulted in the species known by the scientific name of Gavia immer being given the English name of Great Northern Diver by the BOU, and Common Loon by the AOS! Additionally, beginning in the 1900s, the BOU also began establishing standardized French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese names (and perhaps others), while the AOS also began establishing standardized French names in 1998 and Spanish names after that. In the 1970s and 1980s, world bird lists were published that attempted to resolve regional differences in English names, and this effort continues to this day with plenty of contentious debates.

A less scientific, but still important question is, do the names of birds make sense? Yellow-billed Cuckoos used to be called “rain crows” because they often vocalize right before it rains. But while this behavior seems to be accurate, they are not closely related to crows. Worm-eating Warblers feed mostly on grasshoppers found in clumps of dead leaves near the ground, very rarely on worms. Have you ever seen the sharp shins on a Sharp-shinned Hawk? Tennessee and Nashville Warblers don’t breed or winter in that state or city. Connecticut Warblers are very rare spring and rare fall migrants in their namesake state. I have seen Cape May Warblers in magnolia trees more often than I have seen Magnolia Warblers there, and have never seen either one at Cape May!

Bird names change all the time; scientific names being most important of course. English names have always been a topic of controversy, and every time there is a change there is a wave of complaints from birders. I recall some name changes back in the 1970s that changed Marsh Hawk to Northern Harrier, Duck Hawk to Peregrine Falcon, and Pigeon Hawk to Merlin, among many others. We all wondered, how will we ever learn these new bird names? Change is hard. But now, decades on, do we even give these “new” names a second thought? In general, we get over it and move on. One source of a lot of old “colloquial” names for birds in my personal library is Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson (Doubleday, 1936). While some are confusing, and others are charming, it is jaw-dropping how many offensive, sexist, and racist names have been given to our birds over the past 250 years.

A recent English name change involved a species found breeding across Canada, northern Europe, northern Asia, and Alaska, with the stable over time scientific name of Clangula hyemalis. The English name for this species given by the BOU is Long-tailed Duck, which was established long before it was discovered to be in the New World. But in North America, it was given the name Oldsquaw. The etymology (story behind the name) has had a variety of explanations, ranging from the idea that it was derived from a rough transcription of the bird’s calls (ow-owe-let), to various comparisons to female Native Americans that were known to be both racist and sexist, but the name was kept in place regardless. When the AOS changed the name, only at the beginning of the current century, the rationale was to be consistent with other regions of the world. If we are truly wanting to be consistent, we’d also call our Loons Divers. Changing this name was also encouraged in order to help with the Long-tailed Duck’s conservation because much of its breeding range in the New World occurs on the lands of native peoples, and it was thought that it would be difficult to enlist their help if the name of the bird was offensive to them. While most white people can understand how the name Oldsquaw would be offensive, based on our sanitized version of history (and old Western movies), actually asking native women about this name reveals that the meaning of that name is even more offensive, and even more vulgar; I won’t go into details here. Even today, a very few birders complain that we should still be using that old name. It is always important to ask the person who is offended how they feel, if we truly want to understand the effect that these names have on them, and if we want to expand birding to a more diverse population that will better help us conserve birds.

Why do we name birds after people anyway? Who were Lucy and Virginia? Does anyone know anything about Swainson, Hammond, Upcher, Boehm, Snethlage, Pelzeln, Jelski, Taczanowski, or Mrs. Moreau? Birds are named after all these people, and more. What do these names tell us about the bird? Nothing. And the form they take is typically in the possessive (i.e., Swainson’s Thrush), which is just weird from a biological perspective. Most often, these names are to honor someone, and it is considered a great honor to have a bird named after you. In 2013, the Striolated Puffbird from South America was split into two species and the Western Striolated-Puffbird was given the scientific name of Nystalus obamai, in honor of President Barack Obama.

In some cases birds have been named after donors to the expeditions on which they were discovered. In 1991, in a somewhat controversial action, the discoverer of a new species decided to auction the scientific name to the highest bidder in order to raise money for conservation of the bird's habitat. It was named Vireo masteri (Choco Vireo) after the winner Dr. Bernard Master, whose bid was accepted for USD $75,000, and his donation created the Pangan ProAves Reserve in Colombia, the first ProAves bird preserve in Colombia. In other cases, they were simply named after people that the person doing the naming admired for some reason. Bonaparte’s Gull and Bonaparte’s Nightjar were not named after the French dictator, and the scientific species name of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma castro) is likewise not named after the Cuban dictator. But if there were birds named after dictators, wouldn’t there be calls to change them?

Among the ~350 species of hummingbird (Trochilidae), only 9 have been named after people. With such a colorful family, it is easy to come up with English names that are more descriptive of the appearance or behavior of the species. Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae) are more challenging, with more than ~420 species of mostly nondescript and similar-appearing birds making it more difficult to come up with descriptive names. There are 29 species of Tyrant Flycatcher named after people. Worldwide, there are hundreds of birds named after people.

Just a quick diversion away from birds, just this month (January 2021) it has been determined that a population in the Gulf of Mexico thought to be Bryde’s Whales (Balaenoptera edeni) (named after TWO people…Bryde and Eden), is actually a separate and endangered species, with a population of less than 100. The new species is Rice’s Whale (Balaenoptera ricei), named after the researcher who determined it was a separate species. So, naming new species after people continues by taxonomists in many fields of zoology, and is likely to continue. Entomologists sometimes have more fun with names, with flies having Genus names like Aha, and Ono.

Over the past few decades, the AOS has considered changing all English names of birds named after people on occasion (scientific names also contain names of people, but are likely not being considered for change), but World bird lists have not yet addressed this. Prior positions of the AOS were that “political correctness” was not sufficient grounds to change an English name. But this politically-charged term is sometimes mis-used by those who are being called out for being overtly offensive.

In 2020, following months of protests against racism, the Bird Names for Birds campaign ( was created to urge the American Ornithological Society to address the issue of eponyms and honorific bird names with derogatory or oppressive implications. There are 149 other bird names within the AOS region (Greenland to Panama) that they consider equally problematic. The average birder, a large percentage of whom are white, has no idea who many of the people are that these birds are named after. The Audubon organization is now reckoning with the grave-robbing andother offenses against Native Americans done by its namesake ornithologist, and other conservation organizations are facing the complicated truth about their founders who may have done great conservation work, but also may have done racist and other offensive things during their lives.

The most recent name AOS change to be confirmed is McCown’s Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). Proposed and rejected in 2018, but in 2020 it was changed to Thick-billed Longspur. Personally, I think that a better name could have been selected given that all the longspurs have thick bills, but I will limit my complaining about this change while realizing that Sharp-shinned Hawk is just as bad. Thick-billed is apparently a literal translation of the Genus name. It would have been worse to just use the Genus name, as we have done with other species…what exactly is a Phainopepla? Translation: shining robe.

Given that John P. McCown was a Confederate general (, who almost nobody has ever heard of, or could pick out in a lineup, it seems like this change should be a no-brainer. With all the issues this creates for African American birders, I am very happy that this name has been changed. There will be (and have been) complaints from a very few white birders who do not think this is a problem, and that we should ignore the racism inherent in many of our bird names. I strongly disagree, and I look forward to the interesting and creative English bird names that the AOS comes up with to replace these names that are offensive to too many of our fellow, and future-fellow birders. It will be difficult for us to learn the new names at first, but just as Merlin, Peregrine, and Harrier are second nature to us now, so will these new names be before too long.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

2020 Hummingbird banding report uploaded

 The 2020 hummingbird banding report has now been uploaded. It may surprise some that this report is annually completed later than the fall songbird banding report. But there is a post-season for hummingbird banding that occurs beginning in October and continuing until the last "wintering" hummingbird has departed. These last departures are typically in late December or early January. This year's last hummingbird in the region was an Anna's Hummingbird (on the report cover) that lingered until February 5, 2021. To view this report, click on the Banding Reports link above, or the report can be accessed directly by clicking this link.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

2020 Fall Bird Banding Report uploaded

The fall 2020 bird banding season was completed in early November, and the full report has now been uploaded. It can be viewed along with all other banding reports back to 2004 by clicking on the Bird Banding Reports (2004-present) link above, or you can go directly to the Fall 2020 Banding Report by clicking here.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

2020 Fall Bird Banding Results

Thanks to the flexibility of several experienced banding volunteers, fall bird banding was conducted at Lake St. Clair Metropark, Macomb County, Michigan, on 26 days between 8 August and 8 November 2020. A total of 1297 birds of 73 species was banded. Here is an accounting of the overall totals. Details of the banding days can be found by clicking on the link for the "Bird Banding Blog" above. A full report is being compiled and will be available sometime later this winter. 

Banding this fall simply could not have been done without the able assistance of the following volunteers:

April Campbell, Mike Charlebois, Guadalupe Cummins, Tamika Jaja, Ryan Jaja, Harry Lau, Rose Lau, Edie Schmitz, Blanche Wicke, and Sue Wright.

The number in brackets is the number of returning birds from previous seasons or previous years, and the numbers in parentheses is the standardized capture rate (i.e., number of individuals per 100 net hours).

Green Heron - 1 (0.05)
Northern Saw-whet Owl - 1 (0.05)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - 73 (3.72)
Downy Woodpecker - 13 [3] (0.66)
Hairy Woodpecker - 2 (0.10)
Northern Flicker - 6 (0.31)
Eastern Wood-Pewee - 3 (0.15)
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - 3 (0.15)
Alder Flycatcher - 2 (0.10)
Willow Flycatcher - 2 (0.10)
"Traill's" Flycatcher - 5 (0.25)
Least Flycatcher - 8 (0.41)
Eastern Phoebe - 5 (0.25)
Great Crested Flycatcher - 1 (0.05)
Blue-headed Vireo - 3 (0.15)
Warbling Vireo - 15 [3] (0.76)
Philadelphia Vireo - 11 (0.56)
Red-eyed Vireo - 18 (0.92)
Blue Jay - 5 (0.25)
Black-capped Chickadee - 26 [4] (1.32)
Tufted Titmouse - 7 [2] (0.36)
Red-breasted Nuthatch - 1 (0.05)
White-breasted Nuthatch - 4 (0.20)
Brown Creeper - 11 (0.56)
House Wren - 4 [1] (0.20)
Winter Wren - 10 (0.51)
Marsh Wren - 25 [1] (1.27)
Golden-crowned Kinglet - 44 (2.24)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 44 (2.24)
Veery - 7 (0.36)
Gray-cheeked Thrush - 27 (1.38)
Swainson's Thrush - 168 (8.56)
Hermit Thrush - 147 (7.49)
Wood Thrush - 4 (0.20)
American Robin - 38 [1] (1.94)
Gray Catbird - 15 [1] (0.76)
Brown Thrasher - 1 (0.05)
Cedar Waxwing - 2 (0.10)
Blue-winged Warbler - 1 (0.05)
Tennessee Warbler - 7 (0.36)
Nashville Warbler - 21 (1.07)
Northern Parula - 4 (0.20)
Yellow Warbler - 4 [1] (0.20)
Chestnut-sided Warbler - 2 (0.10)
Magnolia Warbler - 34 (1.73)
Cape May Warbler - 1 (0.05)
Black-throated Blue Warbler - 16 (0.82)
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 10 (0.51)
Black-throated Green Warbler - 2 (0.10)
Palm Warbler - 13 (0.66)
Bay-breasted Warbler - 7 (0.36)
Blackpoll Warbler - 18 (0.92)
Black-and-white Warbler - 5 (0.25)
American Redstart - 50 (2.55)
Ovenbird - 8 (0.41)
Northern Waterthrush - 20 (1.02)
Mourning Warbler - 1 (0.05)
Common Yellowthroat - 9 (0.46)
Wilson's Warbler - 10 (0.51)
Canada Warbler - 4 (0.20)
Scarlet Tanager - 1 (0.05)
Northern Cardinal - 9 [4] (0.46)
Eastern Towhee - 1 (0.05)
American Tree Sparrow - 3 (0.15)
Fox Sparrow - 1 (0.05)
Song Sparrow - 34 [2] (1.73)
Lincoln's Sparrow - 2 (0.10)
Swamp Sparrow - 15 (0.76)
White-throated Sparrow - 42 (2.14)
White-crowned Sparrow - 4 (0.20)
Dark-eyed Junco - 4 (0.20)
Baltimore Oriole - 11 (0.56)
House Finch - 5 (0.25)
American Goldfinch - 155 [17] (7.90)
House Sparrow - 1 (0.05)

Friday, November 20, 2020

First Black-chinned Hummingbird in Ohio

On Saturday, November 14, Cheryl Bater noticed a hummingbird at her feeder in Galloway, Franklin County, Ohio, and later that day Jennifer Allen was able to obtain some photos. It was a dull, overcast day and the photos did not show colors very well, but it was clear that it was not the more expected (but still quite rare) Rufous or Allen's Hummingbird, but was either a Ruby-throated or Black-chinned. The shape of the outermost primary wing feather is diagnostic for each species, but Jen's photos didn't quite let me see which species it might be. The next day, the lighting was better, and Jen once again went over to Cheryl's and got better photos. A couple photos appeared to show is the curved, broad, blunt-tipped wing characteristic of Black-chinned...the bird obligingly raised up its wings a couple of times. Thanks to Jennifer Allen for allowing me to use a couple of her photos here.

Immature male Black-chinned Hummingbird.
Photo by Jennifer Allen

A couple of Jen's photos showed that the single dark feather on the bird's lower throat was actually blue-purple, not ruby-red, making a very good case for this being Ohio's first ever Black-chinned Hummingbird!

Immature male Black-chinned Hummingbird.
Photo by Jennifer Allen


Cheryl allowed me to come out the next morning , November 16, to try to band the bird and confirm what was apparently visible in Jen's photos. The bird had been at the feeder about 10 minutes prior to my arrival at 9:30 a.m. It reappeared almost immediately and was seen every 10 minutes until I set up my trap at 9:50. I captured the bird almost immediately when it returned to the yard at 9:51. This was surprising since Cheryl had said that the bird was rather skittish.

In-hand, it was easy to confirm all the diagnostic characteristics of this immature (hatch-year) male Black-chinned Hummingbird. The presence of grooves or "corrugations" on 90% of its bill confirmed that it was a hatch-year. It turned out that he had not one, but two iridescent purple (amethyst) throat feathers. 

Hatch-year male Black-chinned Hummingbird
Photo by Allen T. Chartier

The lighting conditions made it difficult for me to get a good photo showing the color of these gorget feathers, but once again Jennifer came to the rescue and got the photo below showing this beautiful color.

Hatch-year male Black-chinned Hummingbird
Photo by Jennifer Allen

The diagnostic curved, broad, blunt-tipped outermost primary was easily seen on its spread wing.


Hatch-year male Black-chinned Hummingbird
Photo by Allen T. Chartier


Here is a photo of the wing of a hatch-year male Ruby-throated Hummingbird for comparison.

Hatch-year male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

There are subtle differences in the tails of Ruby-throated and Black-chinned hummingbirds. The photo below shows the slightly more pointed outermost two tail feathers of this Black-chinned Hummingbird. I do not have a tail photo of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird for comparison.

Hatch-year male Black-chinned Hummingbird.
Photo by Allen T. Chartier


This Black-chinned Hummingbird was banded under Federal permit No. 23156 and Ohio permit No 23-015, and released at 10:02 a.m. The bird had returned to the feeder by about 10:15 a.m. and came in to feed every 10 minutes over the next hour as we discussed strategies for allowing birders to visit. I left the area at 11:00 a.m.

To read a more detailed report on this bird, including measurements, click here.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

October and November 2020 Bird Banding Results

Bird banding was conducted at Lake St. Clair Metropark, Macomb County, Michigan on a total of 9 days in October and 2 days in early November. Results, and photos highlights (more than 50 photos) are included on the bird banding blog, which can be accessed at the Bird Banding Blog link above, or accessed directly by clicking the link below:

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Anna's Hummingbird in Indiana

Indiana's first Anna's Hummingbird, a female, was found in 2010 at a private residence where birders could not visit. On the afternoon of November 2, 2020, I was contacted by a homeowner in Lake County, Indiana about a hummingbird they had at their feeders since October 31. One of their photos is below. It was pretty clear to me that it was an immature (hatch-year) male Anna's Hummingbird. The homeowners contacted a local birder (I live in Michigan) who managed some additional photos before it got dark, and he agreed that it was an Anna's Hummingbird. These generous people then opened up their back yard to visiting birders.

Immature male Anna's Hummingbird



I was also contacted by Don Gorney about the possibility of banding this bird, as I have done with many other rare hummingbirds in Indiana. Discussions about this with the homeowners were brief, as they had attended a hummingbird banding program that I do annually at the Indiana Dunes State Park every August. So I scheduled the banding for a Friday, November 6, when there might not be too many people around (for COVID compliance). When I arrived at 8:30, the bird had just made a brief appearance at 8:20. It returned at about 8:55, and it lingered for about 10 minutes, checking out each of the 4 feeders that were available in the back yard. I did not take any photos of the bird at this time, but Amy Hodson has generously given me permission to include one of her photos here.

Immature male Anna's Hummingbird, photo by Amy Hodson

I set up my trap at 9:15 and waited for about 45 minutes before the bird reappeared, and immediately went in and was captured. Amy Dodson's photo below shows me examining the bird's bill with a 10x magnifier to determine the extent of tiny grooves on the bill that are the main way to determine a hummingbird's age in-hand.

Allen Chartier examining Anna's Hummingbird's bill.

All plumage characteristics confirmed that this bird was indeed a hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird, in fairly advanced molt with a lot of iridescent gorget feathers and an adult-type tail.

Hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird


The hind-crown and cheek had a few blue-purple feathers mixed in with the mostly rose-red ones on the throat and crown. This is not considered a sign of the bird being a hybrid (in this case most likely with Costa's), as hybrids typically have all gorget feathers intermediate in color, not mixed with two colors.

Hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird

Hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird


The shape of the tail feathers, particularly the outers, was completely consistent with Anna's Hummingbird.

Hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird

All measurements that were taken were consistent with male Anna's, and were outside the range for Costa's or hybrids with Costa's. Anyone wishing to read more details about these measurements and the process for eliminating other species and hybrids can download a PDF of my report to the Indiana Bird Records Committee by clicking here.