Being a caver as well as a birder, I have the inside scoop on how new discoveries get their names. When my club finds a brand-new cave, we get dibs on naming both the cave and the features in it. We don’t always take the task terribly seriously, particularly after a long beer-enhanced celebration of the new find. For instance, there’s a thin vertical cave entrance I discovered that will be known forevermore as “Bodacious Chimney” because I’d just watched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. A rather ordinary section in another new-found cave is now known – because this time I was in a truly banal mood – as “Quite Nice Chamber.” Don’t expect cavers to take their responsibilities too seriously.
Naturalists, too, have had the job of naming their new finds, and might or might not have given it a lot of thought. Imagine someone wandering across Central America who comes across some new birds. A dreamy sort of fellow in a poetic mood, he calls one a “Sapphire-spangled Emerald” – very nice – while later, in a slightly more prosaic mood, he calls a bird with a white crown a “Snowcap.” Still nice. Meanwhile, someone wandering across North America, who had originally set his heart on accountancy, names one bird a “Black-throated Green Warbler,” and another – he’s on a roll now – a “Black-throated Gray Warbler.” You’ll hardly believe this, but the performance gets repeated a third time with “Black-throated Blue Warbler.” One gasps at the width of imagination. Sure, the latter names are helpful to the beginning birder, but I’d have much preferred it if we’d had more dreamy guys wandering around this part of the world. We might have had something like “Flame of the Canopies” for the Blackburnian Warbler, which would have been much more fun. Even more fun would have come from a bit of robust honesty, such as “Really-wacky-looking Sea Duck” for the Surf Scoter. Those Central American guys managed it, with “Scaly-throated Leaftosser.”
Of course, many names were not given by the person in the field, but by officialdom back in the museum. Thus do we have names like “Sharp-shinned Hawk,” which could only occur to someone cutting their thumb on the corpse rather than seeing the bird in life. A lot of names that are otherwise baffling, like “Bristle-thighed Curlew” (!) and “Hairy” versus “Downy” Woodpecker, are due to the fact that they were named by people fondling a collected (i.e. shot) bird, not looking at the living, breathing, flying, creature. And it was surely not a field birder who came up with “Prothonotary Warbler”. It takes an expensive education to know about the golden-robed Prothonotari of the Byzantine Empire. There’s additional pleasing erudition in “Flammulated Owl” and the various “Ferruginous” characters. The authors of “Falcated Duck” and “Lanceolated Warbler,” though, should have worn their learning a little more lightly.
Some English-language bird names, of course, are based directly on aboriginal terms, which seems entirely fair. “Whiskeyjack,” for instance, is an older and much more interesting name for the Gray Jay, being an Anglicization of the aboriginal Wisakedjak. I’m surprised there’s never been a campaign to bring it back. By contrast “Budgerigar” has never been renamed, though it probably should be. The story of its naming, which is far too good to check, is that a white man in Australia pointed at the bird, asked an aborigine what it was, and was told “Bujjery gar” – “Good to eat.” (Don’t cite this in your PhD thesis. It might be true, though.)
Onomatopoeia is the source of a fair number of worthy names. Whip-poor-Will, Bobolink, Killdeer, Veery, and Chukar are all pretty good. I always thought “Willet” a fine description of the bird’s cry, but wish that some bird said “Won’t it!” so we could have some symmetry. “Potoo” is a bit worrying. Was someone chewing tobacco when somebody said “What the heck do we call this one?”
I might have given the impression in the first paragraph that cavers have no rules for naming caves. That’s not quite so. We aren’t supposed to name caves after people, and exceptions are only made, and even then rarely, if they are recently departed. (There’s a pitch – a deep shaft – in Canada’s second deepest cave called “Pitch Blak”, because Rick Blak met his end there there. Don’t worry, I’m not being insensitive. Rick would have thoroughly approved, and if there is such a thing as a hereafter, continues to chuckle about the name.) Bird people, by contrast, seem to have had no qualms at all about naming birds after people. Alexander Wilson did very well out of it, getting himself a Snipe, Warbler, Phalarope, Plover and Storm-petrel. J.J. Audubon, by contrast, only got himself an Oriole and Shearwater, which shows that you need to get in as early as possible to get immortalized. If you do get a chance at just one name, go for something really flamboyant, like “Middendorff’s Grasshopper-warbler.”
If you’re like me, you might object to the name changing that goes on occasionally. I still tend to use “Marsh Hawk” rather than “Northern Harrier”, and grumbled for quite a while about “Long-tailed Duck” which lacks the flair of “Oldsquaw”. But perhaps name changes to remove sensitivities can be for the best. The Victorians weren’t too comfortable about the name of what we now call the Wheatear, though that old name had a long and distinguished history. It also made a great deal of sense if you saw the bird fly away from you. It was originally called “White-arse”.