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Birdwatching 101: What’s In a Name?

Text and photos by Maia Tanedo

For this issue, I’d like to share an article I wrote for my personal blog featuring some scientific names of birds I’ve encountered. I’m a teacher by profession and the world of ornithology and the “technicality” of taxonomy was an interesting but mysterious field when I started out birding. It still is an interesting and mysterious field for me but when I stumbled upon this book, suddenly scientific names made a lot more sense to me! I hope it’s as interesting for you as it is for me. Enjoy! 

Birding hasn’t been on my agenda for quite a long time now and I’ve been missing being out in the wilderness. The next best thing for me was to turn to my bookshelf and give in to my inner nerd. I finally finished the book I borrowed from my friend Jon J. some months back.

Yes, Latin for Bird Lovers by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr. I learned more than I expected to learn in the book and it was awesome! I took down some notes to make sure I would remember the bits of information I read. Here are most of my notes:So, there were words that I was already familiar with, such as:

– Greek for “duck”
as in Anas luzonica or Philippine Duck


– meaning “bald”
as in Sarcops calvus or Coleto

There were also lots of other gems of information that I learned while going through the book. I do hope I remember all of them!

– means “to take, grasp, receive”, used for raptors
as in Accipiter virgatus or Besra


– means “white”
– as in Motacilla alba or White Wagtail
– other forms of the word are albi– , albus, etc
 – Greek words batracho meaning “frog” and stoma meaning “mouth”
as in Batrachostomus septimus
or Philippine Frogmouth


– Cista meaning “wooden basket” and colo meaning “dwell” to describe the nests typical of cisticolas
– Greek words erythros meaning “red” and gaster meaning “belly”
as in Pitta erythrogaster or Red-bellied Pitta


– Falcis meaning “curved blade or sickle”
– as in Falco peregrinus or Peregrine Falcon
– Galli meaning “chicken” and rallus meaning “rail or thin”
as in Gallirallus torquatus or Barred Rail


– pronounced ger-IH-gon-ee
– Greek words goryo meaning “sound” and gone meaning “born of; offspring”
– as in Gerygone sulphurea or Golden-bellied Gerygone, which loves to sing!
– Greek for kingfisher
as in Halcyon smyrnensis

or White-throated Kingfisher


– means “butcher”
– as in Lanius cristatus or Brown Shrike, which is known as a “butcher bird”
– Greek words musca meaning “fly” and capio meaning “capture”
as in Muscicapa ferruginea

or Ferruginous Flycatcher


– Greek words nyx meaning “night” and corax meaning “raven”
as in Nycticorax nycticorax

or Black-crowned Night-Heron


– means “small bird” in East India
– as in Pitta sordida or Hooded Pitta
– Greek words pychnos meaning “strong or thick” and notos meaning “back”
as in Pycnonotus goiavier or Yellow-vented Bulbul


– Greek word rhabdotos meaning “striped”
– as in  Rhabdornis mysticalis
or Stripe-headed Rhabdornis

– Green words zoster meaning girdle and ops meaning “eye” describing the white eye ring
as in Zosterops meyeni or Lowland White-eye

There were also other words that don’t really have any Greek or special background:

– used based on the call of different owl species
– which the book says has unknown derivations
Like this would-be lifer for me, it is unknown

if it is a Northern or Chocolate Boobook

The book also taught me about the people some birds are named after, like:

  • Anna’s Hummingbird was named after Princess Anna d’Essling, Duchess of Rivoli. I’ve always been curious who Anna was =)
  • Gould’s Bronze Cuckoo was named after John Gould, taxidermist of Charles Darwin, artist, and author.
  • Everetti, as in Zosterops everetti or Everett’s White-eye, is after British collector Alfred Everett.
  • Jefferyi, as in Pithecophaga jefferyi or Philippine Eagle, is after Jeffery Whitehead, father of John Whitehead who was an English explorer and naturalist.
  • Kochi, as in Erythtropitta kochi or Whiskered Pitta, is after after Gottleib von Koch who was a German collector and taxidermist. It’s pronounced KOCK-eye.
  • Steerii, as in Pitta steerii or Steere’s Pitta, is after American ornithologist, Joseph Steere.

This one was really interesting to me, because it is a more folklore-ish background of naming a bird rather than based on field marks, plus I also like cuckoos:

– Greek words caco– meaning “bad omen” and mantis meaning “seer or prophet”
as in Cacomantis sepulcralis

or Rusty-breasted Cuckoo

I can finally return the book to Jon! Yay! There was much more I learned on top of what I have included here and I really hope I remember everything… or, maybe I’ll just have to get myself a copy of the book 😉

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