The names we call animals reveal how we think about other species. With birds, they can tell us what we see or hear when we encounter them. These Spanish names might just change how English language birders think about 5 familiar birds.
Eastern Meadowlark, or “Pradero Tortillaconchile”
Meadowlark is a suitable name, at least for poetry of it. But what’s a lark to begin with? And what does our grassland bird have to do with the name’s original holder, Europe’s Skylark?
In truth, the name “Meadowlark” for the Eastern, Western, and the recently “discovered” Chihuahuan Meadowlarks, which was split from the Eastern, doesn’t tell us much. It hints at the birds’ preference for grasslands. But many sparrows–the Lark Bunting, the Lark Sparrow, the Cassin’s Sparrow–all could be fairly called a meadowlark.
And this is why I especially like the name used in Mexico for Eastern Meadowlarks. At first, the name’s not unlike the English language one. “Pradero” translates to “Prairie,” pointing toward the Meadowlarks’ preferred habitats. But the name swerves at Tortillaconchile, an onomatopoeic rendition of their song: “tortilla chile.” As with all onomatopoeic names, it’s both a bit of a stretch and, once heard, a phrase that cannot be unheard.
Spotted Towhees, or “Rascador Moteado”
What’s a “towhee”? A large sparrow. Why’s a towhee called a towhee and not a sparrow? Because towhees make the sound “towhee.” But their call also sounds like “chewink,” another name once applied to the birds. Oh, and this only applies to the bird now called the Eastern Towhee, which gave the rest of the Pipilo genus its common name. (East coast bias…)
Throughout much of the West, the Spotted Towhee is the most common of the towhees. Here in Colorado’s suburbs, the presence of Spotted Towhees is a good indicator of a fairly healthy backyard ecosystem. They like cover, tangled shrubs, and fallen branches. Spotted is an okay descriptive, but Eastern Towhees have a few spots. Western Towhee might have worked, but there are several western towhees. Mew Towhee or Cat Towhee (like Catbird) could honor the species’ feline-like call.
In Mexico, Spotted Towhees are known as Rascador Moteado. Rascador translates to Scratcher, a description of the towhee’s method of gathering food by double-scratching the ground. Moteado means mottled, so not that different from spotted. Still, when combined with “Scratcher,” the name offers a bit more insight into the behavior and appearance of this remarkable towhee.
House Finch, or Pinzón Mexicano
Today, House Finches are among the most common and widespread finch in North America. But this wasn’t always the case. Until the 1940s, House Finches were exclusively western U.S. and Mexican birds. Early in the decade, House Finches were released on Long Island, setting in motion the species’ spread throughout the continent.
The scientific name of House Finches, Haemorhous mexicanus, recalls the bird’s center of gravity in Mexico and lands now part of the US that once belonged to Mexico. (The same is true for the Prairie Falcon, Falco mexicanus.) The name for the House Finch in Mexico, Pinzón Mexicano (the Mexican Finch) reminds us of what borders mean or don’t mean to birds and how our naming practices reflect this.
Loggerhead Shrike, or Verdugo Americano
Birders use the word “loggerhead” unreflexively, without much wonderment about what it means. (A disproportionately large head.) A strange word, indeed, and one that doesn’t mean a whole lot in the field.
Birders also call Loggerhead Shrikes, and Northern Shrikes as well, Butcherbirds, for how brutal these songbirds’ methods of hunting are. This is an old folk name for shrikes that’s now more of a curiosity than a common name for them. Both birds cache food, impaling live prey on thorns and barbed wire. In part, this is to ensure a consistent supply of food, particularly during winter and the breeding season. But the behavior may also be a display behavior, with male shrikes marking territories and advertising their skills in butchering.
In Mexico, the Loggerhead Shrike is known Verdugo American, or American Executioner or American Hangman. Not only is the name more evocative than Loggerhead. It also better suits these birds, whose paths through the world are marked by deaths.
Whip-poor-will, or Tapacaminos Cuerporruín
It wouldn’t be a bird list without a Whip-poor-will. In most languages, the species’ name is a translation of the bird’s song. Cuerporruínm, which is used in both Spain and Mexico, combines two words: “cuerpo” and “ruín.” (I think the addition of an “r” to join the two words is meant to replicate the bird’s trill, which is particularly pronounced in the Mexican Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus arizonae).)
As a translation of the species’ song, “Cuerporruín” is as effective of an imitation as “Whip-poor-will.” The name is also more evocative, translating to Despicable (or Contemptible, or Mean, or Vicious) Body.
But it’s not just Cuerporruín that enriches the Whip-poor-will. Tapacaminos is an alternative to the European and English language names for the Whip-poor-will’s family: Goatsuckers (e.g., Chotacabras, in Spain) and Nightjars. Both names are famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective). But neither is suitable. Goatsuckers is based on folklores around the bird, which had them suckling goats. Nightjar, which conjures the song of Europe’s nightjar, isn’t as suitable to the more melodious North American jars.
In Mexico, the name is used for three other Nightjars that are also present in the US: the Common Poorwill, the Mexican Whip-poor-will, and the Chuck Will’s Widow. The name combines two words: “tapa” and “caminos.” It translates to Trail Topper or Road Topper. A fitting name for the Nightjars like Whip-poor-wills and Poorwills, who will often hunt from the ground at the trail and roadsides that cut through their habitats.