5 Remarkable Bird Songs and the Songs They Inspired

The Thrush family includes Bluebirds, Robins, and Blackbirds. The songs of these birds have inspired poets, songwriters, and birders for centuries. Here are the songs inspired by these birds…

Human songs, like the names we give birds, are a funny thing. Their meaning often remains just out of grasp, at least in part because they change depending on their context.

Take The Beatles’ iconic song “Blackbird.”

To the ears of a new American birder, it’s a strange thing to sing to a blackbird. After all, our continents blackbird’s — notably, the Red-winged Blackbird, but also birds like Common Grackles, Rusty Blackbirds, and Brewer’s Blackbirds — aren’t known songsters. They creak instead of singing (to our ears). Sure, their songs tell you almost all you need to know about the arrival of spring. But they’re not particularly musical.

But the Blackbirds of Europe and Asia, where Paul McCartney may or may not have heard one singing in the dead of night, are. As genus Turdus, members of the True Thrush family, these Blackbirds belong to one of the most renowned families of bird songsters.

According to McCartney, the song wasn’t ornithological, but a coded message to the Civil Rights movement in the US. Even so, the encoding works because Blackbirds are prodigious singers, as Robins are, filling the pre-dawn minutes, sunrise, the morning, the early afternoons, then the dusk again with their songs.

Common Blackbird, a relative of the Robin and a member of the Thrush family.
Common Blackbird (Turdus merula).Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

Thrushes and Everything After

The extended family of thrushes includes birds like the Wood Thrush, about whom Henry David Thoreau wrote,

This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.

Many species of Thrushes can do this. For me, the Veery changes all hours into the long North Woods dusks in which I first heard them.

The Veery’s song is such that the account in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World can’t help but dabbling in poetry. Accounts in Birds of the World are usually restrained. But the Veery’s song is described with a word that is nearly as lovely as the song itself: “mellifluous.” One does not get four sentences into the account of the Veery’s song before reading that the

Ethereal quality of Veery’s song has been celebrated in prose for more than a century. “Their song consist[s] of an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive” (Baird et al. 1874b).

Three Songs Inspired by Thrushes + 1 Bird Formerly Known as a Thrush + 1 Blackbird

Not surprisingly, human songs find inspiration in the songs of Thrushes. Or perhaps it’s somewhat different. We try to embellish our own music by borrowing the magic of theirs. Here are three songs inspired, one way or the other, by Thrushes. And a fourth inspired by a bird formerly known as a Thrush. And fifth from one species of Blackbird — who, unlike the Common Blackbird, is indeed a Blackbird, though you might not know it.

Dan Deacon – “True Thrush”

Sure, Dan Deacon’s “True Thrush” doesn’t mention thrushes. But there’s the common name for genus Turdus, that of the Common Blackbird and the American Robin, right there in the song’s title and in the frenetic video for this even more frenetic song.

Horse Feathers – “Starving Robins”

Staying with genus Turdus. The indie band Horse Feathers’ plaintive song “Starving Robins” is a song about the struggles of seasons, as well as the movement of time. As spring tries to emerge from winter, we’re met with another frost–

Right out of the blue
A frost came to abuse
Down where the deer ate the dying grass
Near where the starving robins asked
Where's the Spring?

I can relate. I suppose that means the local robins can, too. Here in Colorado winter and spring intermingle until late May. We’re never really sure of the change, until it’s too late and the summer’s upon us.

Tallest Man on Earth – “Where Does My Bluebird Fly?”

One hopes that the Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson hasn’t spent his years in Europe looking for these flying bluebirds. As forlorn as this song would be such a search: Bluebirds are Western Hemisphere thrushes, nowhere to be found in Europe (despite an earlier reference to them along the White Cliffs of Dover).

Bluebirds are not nearly the songsters that members of their extended family are. But no thrushes are more certain signs of spring. Though Thoreau was thinking of the Eastern Bluebird when he wrote, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back,” it is the West’s Mountain Bluebird that does this, surely.

A sky blue Mountain Bluebird, a member of the Thrush family.
Mountain Bluebird. Photograph by flickr user Doug Greenberg. Some rights reserved.

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”

According to the venerable Wiki, two European nightingales — the Common Nightingale and the Thrush Nightingale — used to be categorized with Blackbirds and Robins in genus Turdus. Today, both are genus Luscinia and recognized to be Old World Flycatchers.

Lost in the common names? Let’s get loster. Europe’s Robins are also Old World Flycatchers, but to the Europeans who came to the Americas, the New World’s Robins looked enough like the Old World ones to deserve the name.

Europe's Robin is unrelated to the American Robin. The former is a flycatcher, the latter a thrush.
Robin. Photo by Abdul Rehman Khalid on Unsplash

Want to get loster still? In North America, several species of birds carry the folk name “American Nightingale.” One is the Hermit Thrush. The other is the Northern Mockingbird, neither a Thrush nor a flycatcher, but a member of the family Mimidae.

Back to the Nightingale. One of Europe’s most famous songsters, the bird has inspired songs on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the early standards is the love song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Written in France in 1939 about a romantic encounter in a London park, the song’s been often covered, especially by American crooners (Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin).

Fleet Foxes – “Meadowlarks”

The Common Blackbird looks like a blackbird, but isn’t. Meadowlarks borrow the name of the Lark family, but don’t belong to them. With their straw-brown back giving way to a bright yellow chest, Meadowlarks doesn’t like they’re at home with among blackbirds. But like Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, and Orioles, Meadowlarks are members of the Icteridae family.

A singing Meadowlark.
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

The three species of meadowlarks that nest in the U.S. are remarkable singers. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Western Meadowlarks have a repertoire of about a ten songs. Their eastern counterparts have 5-10 times that. Despite the prodigiousness of the Eastern Meadowlark, it’s the Western that’s garnered more attention. Six states honor it as their state bird: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Like other blackbirds, the Meadowlark’s song is one of the surest signs of spring.

The Fleet Foxes’ “Meadowlark” is a lovely homage to this grassland bird.

Can ChatGPT Get Anything Right about Birds?

I asked ChatGPT to create a list of 5 birds named after their songs. The chatbot went 0 for 5. What went wrong?

Photo of a Northern Cardinal, who does not sing his name.
Northern Cardinal. He does not sing his name. Photo by Ahmer Kalam on Unsplash

Worried about ChatGpt? Not me. (At least not yet.) I previously asked the popular chatbot to explain the Whip-poor-will’s name, and it made the same mistakes of 18th century ornithologists. Now, I’ve asked ChatGPT to “Write a blog post about 5 U.S. birds who are named after their song or call.” It offered me this list of birds who definitely don’t sing their name.

Five Remarkable Birds Who Sing Their Names, according to ChatGPT.

Birds are one of nature’s most beautiful and melodious creatures. From their brightly colored feathers to their sweet songs, they are a delight to watch and listen to. In the United States, many species of birds are named after their distinctive songs or calls, making it easier for us to identify them. Here are five such birds and their fascinating stories.

  1. Eastern Bluebird: This beautiful blue bird is known for its cheerful “cheer, cheer, cheer” song. It is a common bird in the eastern United States and is often seen perched on fence posts or trees. Eastern Bluebirds are a symbol of happiness and hope, and their sweet songs can brighten up even the dreariest of days.
  2. Wood Thrush: This bird is easily recognizable by its beautiful, flute-like song that echoes through the woods. The Wood Thrush’s song is considered one of the most beautiful in North America and is often described as a rich and melodious “ee-oh-lay”. These birds are found in deciduous forests across the eastern United States and migrate to Central America for the winter.
  3. Northern Cardinal: The Northern Cardinal is one of the most recognizable birds in the United States, with its distinctive red feathers and sweet whistle-like song. The male cardinal’s song is a series of clear, sharp “cheer-cheer-cheer” notes, which can be heard year-round. This bird is a common sight in gardens, parks, and woodlands across the eastern United States and is a popular bird with birdwatchers.
  4. Tufted Titmouse: This small, acrobatic bird is known for its unmistakable “peter-peter-peter” call. The Tufted Titmouse is a common bird in deciduous forests in the eastern United States and is easily recognizable by its distinctive crest of feathers on its head. These birds are often seen flitting about in the treetops, diving into bushes, and hanging upside down in search of food.
  5. American Robin: The American Robin is one of the first birds to arrive in the spring, signaling the arrival of warm weather. These birds are known for their cheerful “cheer up, cheerily” song and are easily recognizable by their distinctive reddish-orange breast. American Robins are found across North America and are a common sight in gardens, parks, and woodlands.
Photo of an American Robin, a bird who sings his name according to ChatGPT. The robin doesn't.
American Robin, who also doesn’t sing his name. Photo by Trac Vu on Unsplash

In conclusion, these five U.S. birds are a testament to the beauty and diversity of nature. From the Eastern Bluebird’s cheerful call to the Wood Thrush’s flute-like song, these birds remind us of the magic of the great outdoors. So next time you’re out on a hike or in your backyard, take a moment to listen for these birds and enjoy their enchanting melodies.

What Went Wrong?

We got off to a good start. The chatbot recognizes that there are indeed birds named for their songs.

Unfortunately, the list offers only the most popular and common eastern U.S. birds. Four of the five have well-known songs that can be translated into English — either with words, “Cheer up, cheerily,” or through approximation, “ee-oh-lay.” But clearly none of these birds is named after their song. The Wood Thrush does not sing “Wood Thrush.” The Norther Cardinal doesn’t call “Car-din-al.” The chatbot entirely missed the distinction between having a song that can be translated into words and those whose name is a translation of their song.

ChatGPT also attributed the Cardinal’s song to the Bluebird. Bluebirds are famous for singing. We can thank Disney for this. But bluebirds are not, from the human perspective, remarkable singers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes their song like this and not as “cheer, cheer, cheer”:

a fairly low-pitched, warbling song made up of several phrases, each consisting of 1-3 short notes. Harsher chattering notes may be interspersed with the whistles. 

5 More Remarkable Birds Named After Their Songs

Let’s try again, but with a human writer.

Photo of a Black-capped Chickadee.
A Black-capped Chickadee, who indeed sings their name. Photo by Bryan Hanson on Unsplash
  1. Chickadees. Chickadees are remarkably intelligent, social, and vocal birds. Often, they don’t vocalize their names. So it can be easy to forget that chickadees take their name from their “chick-a-dee” call. Research suggests that they vary the call, encoding messages in it. Remarkably, their messages convey information about predators, such as the size or speed of the threat.
  2. Eastern Towhee. Not all towhees call their name. But the Eastern Towhee is said to. The Eastern Towhee’s song has been translated into English as both “drink-your-teeaaa” and “to-wheeeee.” Only one of those is suited for a bird name, I suppose. The Eastern Towhee has also been given a name after their call: “Chewink.”
  3. Eastern Phoebe. Not all phoebes call their name. (Are you sensing a pattern? As European naturalists first encountered eastern North American birds, the continents other birds received hand-me-down names.) A common bird around homes and other structures, Eastern Phoebes indeed seem to rasp Phoebe’s name.
  4. Bobwhite. No longer widely known by U.S. Americans, Northern Bobwhites were once a staple of popular culture, known for their ability to whistle the English name, “Bob White.” Apparently, everyone knew the bird. Or at least this is what Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby banked on when they sang, “Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight).”
  5. The Wills. Four Northern American Nightjars are said to sing the name “Will“: the Eastern and Western Whip-poor-wills, Chuck Will’s Widow, and the Common Poorwill. Odd thing that these birds would all learn the name of an Englishman. But they did, and all through North America our summer nights fill with Wills.

Featured Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash

5 Remarkable Spanish Bird Names Every Birder Should Know

Our names for birds reveal how we think about them. We can see ever more when we look across languages.

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”

Eastern Meadowlark, or "Pradero Tortillaconchile"
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

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”

Spotted Towhees, or "Rascador Moteado"
Photo by John Duncan on Unsplash

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

House Finch, or Pinzón Mexicano, common birds across North America, were once limited to Mexico and the US west.
Photo by Jeremy Stanley on Unsplash

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

Loggerhead Shrike, or Verdugo Americano
Loggerhead Shrike by flickr user cuatrok77

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 

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.

On Birds, ChatGPT is Stuck in the 18th-century.

Three hundred years ago, naturalists couldn’t tell the difference between two iconic species of birds. Today, ChatGPT is making the same mistakes.

I recently asked ChatGPT an easy question: “Why a Whip-poor-will is named a Whip-poor-will?” The popular chatbot muddled its way through an answer, making some of the same mistakes as 18th century naturalists. Not satisfied with its errors, ChatGPT introduced new ones!

Wilson “Discovers” the Whip-poor-will

In the first decades of the 1800s, the Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote his nine volume book, American Ornithology. Wilson’s text remains one of North America’s most important book of ornithology. Indeed, many consider Wilson the continent’s first ornithologist.

One of the many achievements of American Ornithology was to finally and definitively describe the Whip-poor-will, a common but reclusive bird of North America’s east coast. Before Wilson, early naturalists confused the Whip-poor-will with a related and more conspicuous bird, the Common Nighthawk. Confronting this confusion, Wilson writes that the Whip-poor-will has “never been described by any writer whose work I am acquainted.”

A photograph of a Whip-poor-will, which ChatGPT confused with the Common Nighthawk.
Whip-poor-will by flickr user Tom Murray. Some rights reserved.

It wasn’t that the Whip-poor-will wasn’t known to early European naturalists who visited the US. The bird’s name dates to the early 1700s, after all. What Wilson shows, over the course of 2.5 pages on the species, is something else. Early naturalists regularly confused the Whip-poor-will with other North American Nightjars, especially the Nighthawk. Illustrations of Whip-poor-wills often combined both birds’ features. This plate that appeared in Mark Catesby’s studies of North American birds is illustrative. The drawing combines the long, lanky shape of a Nighthawk with the bristles of a Whip-poor-will.

Catesby’s Nighthawk-Whip-Poor-Will Hybrid

Audubon, a professional rival of Wilson, downplayed Wilson’s effort. In his influential book, The Birds of America, Audubon writes.

Much has been said respecting the difference existing between the Whip-poor-will and the Night Hawk, for the purpose of shewing them to be distinct species. On this subject I shall only say, that I have known both birds from my early youth, and I have seldom seen a farmer or even a boy in the United States, who did not know the difference between them. 

A Common Nighthawk, which ChatGPT confused for a Whip-poor-will.
Common Nighthawk. Photo by flickr user Brandon Trentler. Some Rights Reserved.

ChatGPT’s Effort

I suppose that Audubon and his unnamed farmers and boys would be bemused at ChatGPT, which appears stuck in the late-1700s on Whip-poor-wills. When I asked it to explain how Whip-poor-wills got their name, the chatbot opened with a muddled collection of errors. It also offered a word, hwipporu, that doesn’t seem to exist.

The bird species known as the Common Nighthawk, which is also known as the Whip-poor-will, is named for its call, which sounds like “whip-poor-will.” The species’ scientific name, Chordeiles minor, also refers to this call. The name is thought to be a derivation of the Old English word “hwipporu,” meaning “to make a noise.” The bird species is known for its distinctive nocturnal song which is usually heard at dusk and dawn. They are named after the call of the male bird which is a repetitive phrase, “whip-poor-will” which is sung as a territorial call or as a courtship call by males.

Here’s a list of errors that I’ve noticed.

  • The Common Nighthawk hasn’t been known as the Whip-poor-will since the late eighteenth century.
  • The scientific name of the Common Nighthawk is indeed Chordeiles minor. However, this doesn’t refer to the call of “whip-poor-will.” I cover the meaning of this name in my post about the Nighthawk.
  • I’ve not yet read that the name Whip-poor-will is thought to be a derivation of “hwipporu.” I’m curious to know more, but neither Google, Google Scholar, nor Google Books returns a single reference to this “Old English” word.
  • We indeed known Whip-poor-wills are indeed known song, which they give at dusk and dawn. This makes the call crepuscular, not nocturnal. (Of all the mistakes, this one is minor.)

That this account reflects understandings of birds from colonial America is stupefying. But it gives me some satisfaction and hope that artificial intelligence has not yet mastered what is obscure among us. Much of what is important to know falls into this category. After all, what remains obscure to us, and to the technologies we create, is simply that which we do not know well.

Find the obscure, the weird, the forgotten, and you will find something that the algorithms don’t yet care for. Such is the life of the Whip-poor-will, calling still from the rotten woods of our forest floors.

For more on ChatGPT’s struggles will birds, see my recent post on the chatbot’s effort to create a list of birds named after their song.

The Wrong Duck: Folk Names in Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger

A character in Cormac McCarthy’s book The Passengers calls the Common Eider by the folkname Bridal Duck. But who is the real Bridal Duck?

Speaking of ducks, Geoff Stacks — friend, fellow birder, and fellow faculty at the University of Denver — sent me a puzzling passage from The Passenger, one of Cormac McCarthy’s two new novels. In the passage, one of the novel’s characters refers to the Common Eider correctly by its scientific name (Somateria mollissima) and incorrectly by a long-forgotten common name: the Bridal Duck.

The passage is puzzling because neither Geoff nor I had heard the name “Bridal Duck.” It’s also puzzling because it does not seem like that common name refers to the Eider. Rather, Geoff and I both found that the “Bridal Duck” was once a name that the Wood Duck was known by.

The scientific name of the Wood Duck — Aix sponsa — bears traces of this meaning. Sponsa apparently refers to a bride or betrothed woman. Other sources claim the name refers to the beauty of the male duck’s breeding plumage, taking “sponsa” to refer to the bridal dress of the bird’s plumage. Both meanings are referenced in Chester A. Reed’s early 20th century reference text, Birds of Eastern North America.

Wood Duck in Charles A. Reed's Field Guide
Reed – Birds of Eastern North America

A Duck By Any Other Name…

We have also known the Wood Duck by other names: Summer Duck, Woody, Squealer, Widgeon, or Acorn Duck.

We know Wood Ducks as Wood Ducks (and apparently “Woody”) because they nest in the cavities of trees. (I hope to not soon forget encountering Wood Duck parents perched in trees near the Mississippi River — or leading groups of downy young through those woods.)

We’ve called Wood Ducks “Squealers” for their dramatic screeches when flushed. Wood Ducks have often struck me as especially nervous around approaching humans, and I wonder if they still carry with them the hard won lessons of survival among humans with guns.

“Acorn Duck” refers to the fact that Wood Ducks consume the fruit of oak and other trees, invasive Russian Olives especially. I have seen Mallards feed beneath trees, too, gobbling down acorns from a landscaping tree at a local park.

Eider, Woody, and Mistaken Identity

All of this begs a question — why did McCarthy’s character get the “Bridal Duck” wrong? Is it McCarthy’s error, or does the error reveal something about the character?

Anyone can look up a folk name for birds. But the truth is that many might differ locally or regionally. And sometimes the same name was applied to multiple birds. This could be because two species were sometimes mistaken for each other. Or because different birds seemed to demand similar names.

So it’s hard to say why McCarthy’s character gets this wrong. But it’s also hard to say if a folk name can actually be used incorrectly. After all, they are folk names exactly because they aren’t systematized or formally accepted by birding organizations. So perhaps a Bridal Duck is whoever anyone calls a Bridal Duck.

Common Eider
Common Eider. Photo by Dave Willhite on Unsplash

Featured Photo by Tyler Jamieson Moulton on Unsplash

Bird Words: Do Ducks Duck (Updated)?

Human language and the lives of birds are intricately connected. This is one in a series of postings showing how.

Multiple Choice

Which of the following best explains the origin of the word “duck”?

(1) We call ducks “ducks” because they duck — dabbling and diving in water.

(2) We say someone “ducks” when they indeed duck because they’re ducking like the birds we call “ducks” duck.

(3) Huh?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “duck” originally referred to the swimming birds, particularly those in the genus Anas (e.g., mallards and domestic ducks). This use is documented as early as 967 AD.

By the 15th century, the word’s meaning had broadened. As a verb, the word could mean to “plunge or dive” — as ducks, indeed, do — under water.

By 1530, we no longer limited the action to water. The word now could also contain the act of bending or stooping quickly, whether on water or not. We were now ducking when we, in a sense, plunged or dove down to avoid or dodge something or to hide under things on land.

Perhaps my favorite meaning to the word is a US innovation, dating to the end of the 1800s. Then, the word took on two related meanings: to abscond or to dodge. Apparently, we owe these innovations to George Ade, a writer whose stories focused on life on American streets and used everyday slang to convey that life. Ade’s listed thrice in the OED entry for “duck,” the verb. Here’s one example, from Artie (1896), “He was with a lot o’ them Prairie avenue boys, and purty soon he ducks ’em and comes over an’ touches me for two cases.”

Short story long: the correct answer is (2). We say someone “ducks” when they indeed duck because they’re ducking like the birds we call “ducks” duck.


According to The Bird Name Book: A History of English Bird Names by Susan Myers, the word “duck” may have an origin story that pre-dates the one that the OED tells. “The theoretical Old English word dūce is thought to come from the Old English verb dūcan, “to duck, to dive,” because of the way many species feed by upending or diving,” Myers writes (p. 108). This explanation has the action of ducking being applied to the bird that takes this action in water.

So perhaps the best answer is choice (A) after all!

But the more general point is this — the birds we call “ducks” just seem like “ducks.” And, if you’re like me, you don’t realize you’re alluding to a movement we share with ducks — to duck — when we indeed duck. Follow?

Previous Posts

Featured Photo by Wai Siew on Unsplash

Neither night bird, nor hawk: The Common Nighthawk

I do not know that Common Nighthawks would recognize themselves in the name we’ve given them. Neither hawk nor night bird, the Common Nighthawk is largely crepuscular — most active at dawn and dusk — and rarely, if ever, at night. Nor it is a hawk, belonging, instead, among the Nightjars.

The scientific name of the Nighthawk’s genus — Chordeiles — suits it better. According to Merriam-Webster, the word’s origin refers to the bird’s evening call

New Latin, irregular from Greek chordē string of a lyre or harp + deilē afternoon, evening: from its cry at twilight

Wikipedia offers an even more evocative etymology, evoking both the bird’s calls and their buoyant flights.

The genus name Chordeiles is from Ancient Greek khoreia, a dance with music, and deile, “evening”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the common name “Nighthawk” dates to the early-17th century and to the King James Bible. Then, the phrase likely was a pseudonym for the Eurasian Nightjar. It appears in Leviticus, among a longer list of birds that, for being abominations, shall not be eaten.

And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray,

14 And the vulture, and the kite after his kind;

15 Every raven after his kind;

16 And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,

17 And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl,

18 And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle,

19 And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

In the late-18th century, the name was applied to North America’s Nighthawk. According to OED (again), the earliest published use of the name “nighthawk” was in Jonathan Carver’s 1778 book, Travels through the Interior Parts of North America.

Carver miscategorizes the bird, clustering it with hawks. He writes,

The NIGHT HAWK. This Bird is of the hawk species, its bill being crooked, its wings formed for swiftness, and its shape nearly like that of the common hawk; but in size it is considerably less, and in colour rather darker. It is scarcely ever seen but in the evening, when, at the approach of twilight, it flies about, and darts itself in wanton gambols at the head of the belated traveller. Before a thunder-shower these birds are seen at an amazing height in the air assembled together in great numbers, as swallows are observed to do on the same occasion.

Despite identifying the Nighthawk as a hawk, Carver’s observations are consistent with my own. I have stood amid Nighthawks making “wanton gambols at the head of the belated” birder. (I wrote about this for the Center for Humans and Nature. You can read that essay, “The Nighthawk’s Trajectory,” here: https://humansandnature.org/the-nighthawks-trajectory/.)

I have also seen great flocks of Nighthawks amid thunderstorms. Sometimes, they arrive as signs of incoming storms. Other times, they chase them. Presumably, the association of birds and storms carries another association — that the water leads to hatches of the bird’s prey (perhaps flying ants) or else causes prey to congregate in areas where Nighthawks might fetch them. I hope to not soon forget the dozens upon dozens of Nighthawks a friend and I saw feed amid a southern Colorado dry thunder storm.

Accordingly, I wrote a haiku for the birds.

dry thunder
a spray
of nighthawks

The meaning of the word “nighthawk” has become ever more expansive over the years. It carries shades of human meanings — to be a predatory person…at night.

The phrase has shed some of its negative connotations, now also simply meaning someone active at night. Though this meaning pre-dates Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting, “Nighthawks,” I suspect we owe the word’s lasting power to Hopper’s singular image.

I’d be remiss not to mention two other peculiar references that this bird’s name, has fed. Tom Wait’s album Nighthawks at the Diner is, no doubt, a nod to Hopper, even if a flock of Nighthawks over a desolate diner would be a site indeed.

And then there is this.

Historically, observers confused the Common Nighthawk with the Eastern Whip-poor-will. More on that in a later post. In the meantime, here’s a post on the Whip-poor-will and the history of its own name:

Featured Photo by vladeb @ https://flic.kr/p/nLR4Lq

Why Whip Poor Will – Part II

Though most of us no longer heard it this way, Whip-poor-will’s name is a sentence, a complete thought: “Whip poor will.” As in, administer a whipping to an unfortunate or impoverished person named Will.

As I noted in my previous post on this sentence, it wasn’t inevitable that we should start calling these birds-who-sing-their-name by the name they sing — and by this particular name: “Whip poor will.” Sure, the song sounds enough like that. But it also sounds like “Whippoo-will,” as we once called the bird, and “Whipperiwhip,” as the Finish naturalist, Pehr Kalm, described the bird’s song.

But the sentence was compelling, at least in part, because whipping, as a form of punishment, had long been a taken-for-granted feature of English (and, so, colonial) life.

This naming had consequences, and this blog post is about one of those consequences: Poets, musicians, and educators incorporated the Whip-poor-will’s names into lessons, particularly those for children. The bird became, in other words, part and parcel of America’s morality tales. To encounter it was not just to encounter the bird — a remarkable encounter, indeed — but to also encounter the country’s sense of propriety, justice, and punishment.

This is most fully realized in George Pope Morris’s poem, from the 1840s, The Whip-poor-will. But before I get to Morris’s lyric, a few other references, just to demonstrate that whipping Will was a rather pervasive way of evoking the bird. I’m sharing two that come from educational materials for children, since these suggest that some of the earliest knowledge Americans would have with the bird would be caught up with whipping.

The first image comes from a music book, Progressive Music (1875), intended for use in public schools.

The second image comes from a book, The See and Say Series (1914), which appears to be something like a reading workbook for children.

It’s George Pope Morris’s poem, The Whip-poor-will, that got me thinking about the relationships between 19th and early 20th century understandings of Whip-poor-wills, punishments, and the moral order.

Partly, it’s because of the lol quality of the engravings that appeared with an 1846 edition of Morris’s poem. The image that opens this blog might be my favorite of a Nightjar. Here he is, standing like a human (the Will, of course), and cloaked. The image illustrates this brutal verse:

Still “Whip poor Will!”–Art thou a sprite,
From unknown regions sent
To wander in the gloom of night,
And ask for punishment?

I met Morris (a week ago or so) with this poem, so what I’m about to say about the man comes straight from Wikipedia: he was an influential newspaper editor, a writer of popular song, and apparently admired by Edgar Allen Poe (for those songs).

The poem explores the cause of Will’s whipping. Perhaps it’s poverty (the “poor” in Whip-poor-will)? In his verse raising this possibility, Morris demands that joy itself be driven from Will’s heart.

If poverty’s his crime, let mirth
From his heart be driven:
That is the deadliest sin on earth,
And never is forgiven!

The poem continues on like this, exploring the reasons a bird might demand that Will — or is the bird condemning himself, Morris wonders — be whipped. Morris wanders through Will’s failures in love and friendship and the self-guilt that might lead a Whip-poor-will to demand punishment.

Morris concludes the poem by universalizing the whipping (lovely). The message seems to be this: We’re misunderstand the Whip-poor-will if we think the bird sings to demand only that Poor Will be whipping. Rather, the Whip-poor-will sings so that all of us should know we deserve punishment, unless we repent.

But use thee kindly–for my nerves,
Like thine, have penance done:
“Use every man as he deserves,
Who shall ‘scape whipping?”–None!

Farewell, poor Will!–Not valueless
This lesson by thee given:
“Keep thine own counsel, and confess
Thyself alone to Heaven!”

Of course, the Whip-poor-will does not sing “Whip-poor-will,” no matter how many times we emphasize that the bird emphatically chants his name. Nor do Whip-poor-wills exist to teach us lessons about poverty, morality, and justice.

And yet we’ve believed they do. This, perhaps, is the only true lesson of Whip-poor-will’s name: We see in this bird, and in so many other non-human species, what we see in ourselves.

This is the second of two posts about the Whip-poor-will’s name. You can find the first here.

Why Whip Poor Will? – Part I

For birders today, “Whip-poor-will,” the bird’s song and name, may land on our ears as a single, three syllable word. But the phrase is, in fact, a coherent, but brutal, sentence: Whip Poor Will. As in, administer a whipping to an unfortunate person named Will. Why would a night bird carry an association with corporal punishment? And what are the cultural legacies of this naming?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known reference to the “Whip-poor-will” dates to 1709. That year, the English naturalist John Lawson published A New Voyage to the Carolinas, in which he documented the regions many bird species. Of the Whip-poor-will (then “Whippoo-Will”), Lawson wrote

Whippoo-Will, so nam’d, because it makes those Words exactly. They are the Bigness of a Thrush, and call their Note under a Bush, on the Ground, hard to be seen, though you hear them never so plain. They are more plentiful in Virginia, than with us in Carolina;

In truth, Whip-poor-wills don’t make those words exactly. Their English-language name took on the more precise enunciation of “poor,” rather than “poo.” And other spellings exist, which suggest slightly different intonations of the Whip-poor-wills’s song, depending on the native language of the human doing the naming. The OED, for instance, includes “Whipperwill,” “Wipperwill,” and “wippervill.”

Of course, the bird does not utter any of these phrases. They are, instead, approximations of the bird’s songs. Or, more accurately, translations of an animal language into various human ones.

In 1771, the Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm recognized this of the name. In Volume 2 of Travels into North America, Kalm describes the Whip-poor-will at length. In the passage I’ve excerpted below, he reflects on the name and the bird’s song. I’ve bolded key sentences for my purposes here.

The Swedes give the name of Whipperiwill and the English that of Whip-poor- will to a kind of nocturnal bird whose voice is heard in North America almost throughout the whole night. Catesby and Edwards both have described and figured it. Dr Linnæus calls it a variety of the Caprimulgus Europæus of Goat sucker: its shape, colour, size, and other qualities, make it difficult to distinguish them from each other. But the peculiar note of the American one distinguishes it from the European one and from all other birds : it is not found here during winter but returns with the beginning of summer. I heard it to day for the first time and many other people said that they had not heard it before this summer; its English and Swedish name is taken from its note; but accurately speaking it does not call Whipperiwill nor Whip-poor-will but rather Whipperiwhip so that the first and last syllables are accented and the intermediate ones but slightly pronounced. The English change the call of this bird into Whip-poor-will that it may have some kind of signification.

But even Kalm’s Whipperiwhip, which preserves the syllable “whip,” is a stretch. Granted, my ears are among the least musical I know: but I do not think the first syllable of the Whip-poor-will’s song must be “Whip.” (Of course it need not be this word. The Whip-poor-will’s language is not that of the colonizers who met it so many generations after the bird first learned its song.)

Still, Kalm’s insight about English naming practices is critical here. In naming the bird “Whip-poor-will,” the English sought “some kind of signification.” They transformed what they heard the bird sing into a three syllable phrase, and that phrase had a coherence. Out of the bird’s song, they created a sentence and one that describes an act of violence, the whipping of a Will. So we must wonder: why whip poor Will?

On Whipping, Briefly

To answer this question, we have to leave the world of birds for the world of criminology, discipline, and punishment.

Whipping was not unfamiliar to the English, nor, according to the political scientist Darius Rejali, any society in which “humans depended on the strength of animals for transportation and power.”1 The history of whipping, in other words, is one that reflects the relationship of dominance between the human species and non-human species.

This history also reflects relationships of dominance between people. For a time, the British outfitted their princes with “whipping-boys,” who would suffer the punishment for the offences of the royals.2 Whipping and flogging, meanwhile, were also standard punishments in the British army, navy, and colonies. In another example of the animal world and British violence coinciding, among the British’s most notorious whips was the “cat-o’-nine-tails.”3

USS Constitution Museum, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The English brought these practices with them to the Americas. In Crime and Punishment in American History, the historian Lawrence Friedman describes whipping as “an extremely common punishment throughout the colonies, especially for servants and slaves.”4

Friedman documents whipping for crimes that, by modern standards, hardly seem crimes at all – idle walking on the Sabbath and running away from home, for instance. These were offenses to the moral life of the community or to social order. They were often victimless crimes (if we can call them crimes at all). “The courts,” Friedman writes, “enforced discipline. In a way, it was a crime just to be a bad citizen: not to conform to standards of good virtue and respectability.”5

Corporal punishment, generally, and whipping, more specifically, appear so woven into the social, legal, and cultural fabric of the British colonies that they could imagine a bird singing of it.

In other words, the European encounters with the Whip-poor-will were shaped by the legal and social practices of the time, just as they were shaped by pre-existing assumptions about their continent’s own Goatsucker.

This is the first of two blogs on the “Whip” in “Whip-poor-wills” name. The second addresses cultural legacies of this naming.


  1. Rejali, Darius. Torture and Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2007. p. 270.
  2. “whipping-boy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 11 August 2022.

    “whipping boy.” Useful Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Martin Manser, 1st edition, 2018. Credo Reference. Accessed 11 Aug. 2022.
  3. Rejali, Darius. Torture and Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2007. p. 270.
  4. Friedman, Lawrence Meir. Crime and Punishment In American History.  New York: Basic Books, 1993, page 37.
  5. Friedman, Lawrence Meir. Crime and Punishment In American History.  New York: Basic Books, 1993, page 38.

Why are they called nightjars?

Somehow, most birders can better explain why nightjars, like the Whip-poor-will or Common Poorwill, are called “goatsuckers” than “nightjars.” This is so even though “Nightjar” is the widely accepted term for the birds, at least in the U.S.

Goatsucker, after all, is easy enough: Europeans, like Aristotle, once believed that the European Nightjars suckled goats at nights, blinding the mammals.

The “night” in “nightjar” is easy enough, too. Nightjars and nighthawks are mostly crepuscular and, to a lesser extent, nocturnal birds. They’re most active, singing and feeding, at dawn, dusk, and the hours in between.

But why “jar?” Nightjars have lived under other, similarly confounding names: “eve-jar” and “eve-churr.”

As with much of the symbolism surrounding the bird, the word comes back to their song. The word “jar” (and “churr”) to refers to sounds.1, 2

“Churr” is more narrowly related to sounds bird are credited with making — trilling, most notably. The word itself also has, to my ears, an aural quality. A churr sounds to me like the sound of an animal churring.

“Jar,” however, has all sorts of notes of meaning. It can just refer to a sound. But it can also refer to a “harsh inharmonious” combination of sounds. This description of the Nightjar’s sound makes more sense when applied to the European Nightjar, which sings more like a trilling insect or a haunted door than does the Whip-poor-will (which sings more like a country-folk singer).

“Jar” can also refer to the tick of a clock. It refers, too, to a quivering or grating sound.

And then there are the meanings that carry the human psyche with them. We can find a sound, a movement, another, a disagreement, or the world itself jarring.

As a verb, the word can refer to the act of making a grating sound. It can mean to cause something — our teeth, our nerves — to vibrate, uncomfortably or painfully.

Many of these meanings to “jar” are newer than the name “Nigthjar.” And yet some of the folklore surrounding the bird — their assaults of domestic animals, the omens of death they were understood to bring — are suggestive of the multiple meanings of “jar.”

The “Nightjar” is a jar for the sounds it makes — its trilling song. But the song itself might be jarring, an omen of impending death. Or the song may sound like the tick of a clock — there were some who believed that the number of times the Whip-poor-will repeats its song is a measure of the number of years to the listener’s death.

Even today, when the Nightjar’s song may mean only our lonesomeness or our nostalgia for a lost world, we remain jarred by the jar of a Nightjar.

Another Thought

Birders refer to “owling” to describe the act of going out at night to look for or survey for owls. Far less commonly used is the word “night-jarring.” I’ve never heard a birder use this verb, in fact. And the few written references I’ve seen to it — (in, admittedly, thirty seconds of investigating it) — refer more to the jarring nature of the encounter with night-jars than the act of seeking encounters with nightjars.

Perhaps we ought to bring this word into the field, to mean the act of seeking encounters with or surveying nightjars. And, still, the ambivalence will follow us: we jar the night as we seek its birds, the night jars us, and the nightjars, too, does both.


  1. “jar, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 10 August 2022.
  2. “churr, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 10 August 2022.

Featured Image, an engraving from George Pope Morris’s The Whip-poor-will (1846)

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