I enjoy making up my own names for birds, especially when I’m not happy with the accepted common names. A case in point is the Northern Cardinal, one of our most common backyard birds. Nearly everyone knows the cardinal and has seen and heard the males singing in the spring … as they are doing right now in my yard.
The name “Cardinal” refers to the color of the male: his bright red coat reminded someone of the bright scarlet red gowns worn by cardinals in the Catholic Church. Now that’s all well and good, but such a name ties the bird to human history. Fact is, the bird was bright red long before there was a Catholic Church. So, if anything, the church’s cardinals should have been named after the bird, not vice versa (of course, the “bird” in this case was on American soil and was not yet known in the early days of the Church).
Further complicating matters is calling our bird the “Northern” Cardinal. What on earth do they mean by “Northern”? Cardinals are found from Florida northward to Canada, so what’s so northern about it? Well, maybe this is in reference to cardinals that live in Central or South America. It turns out that there is no “Southern” Cardinal, although there is a “Vermilion” Cardinal that lives in South America. Is the Vermilion Cardinal the southern species that forced our bird to be designated as “Northern”? Whatever the answer, this is clearly confusing to those of us who live where our cardinal lives.
My solution to this conundrum is to name this bird as all birds should be named … with words that describe the bird’s unique appearance or behavior, free of historical context (why not confine historical references to the scientific names?). In this case, coming up with a solid common name is easy-peasy. Both male and female have a crest atop their head, and even the female is reddish, so why not just call the species Crested Redbird? I can’t think of any reason why not, so “Crested Redbird” (with a dark face) is now its “Lang-Official” name and I expect the rest of the world to use my name in preference to the catholicized version. Well, why not?
No criticism of the Church is intended here; it wasn’t the Catholic Church that named the bird, rather the bird was named in reference to the Church. I say name the bird in reference to itself, which seems the most logical and reverent thing to do.
Please chime in with your personal thoughts on this very important matter!
I live in South America,so we get the Vermillion.
Hope soon to see the nice all red ones.
I would be very happy if bird names made more sense than they do. It would certainly make it easier to remember their names. And while we’re at it, could we please get rid of those silly, potentially demeaning labels like “Lesser” and “Common.” Take for example the so-called Common Yellowthroat. He’s a handsome chap and he doesn’t seem to be at all common, at least not here in the northeastern US, so doesn’t he deserve a better name? Perhaps he could be called the Black-masked Yellowthroat, given his striking black eyemask? And then there’s the Lesser Bird of Paradise.… Read more »
Deborah: I agree. I do not like particularly like the word “Common” to be used in bird names, even if the bird is indeed rather common (as yellowthroats are in my area). For the yellowthroat, I suppose the name you’ve suggested (which is a good one) could possibly just be shortened to “Masked Yellowthroat” …
Thanks for responding. I would agree that Masked Yellowthroat would be fine, so long as there are no other yellow birds that have a mask of a different color. Given that there are so very many warblers, I wasn’t sure if this was the case.
A preview of spring, how wonderful Lang. Thank you for sharing the video and soundtrack of the crested Redbirds. Completely enjoyed his voice of spring.
The beautiful Red bird seems to be praising the coming of spring 🙂 “Oh lovely Cardinal, sing your praises of JOY”
There is actually scientific evidence that birds secrete feel-good opioid hormones when singing. The same chemicals would make us feel quite good, “joyful” in fact … so there’s really nothing wrong (scientifically-speaking) with inferring that the lovely Cardinal is in a positive state of mind when he sings (at least when he’s not involved in an aggressive territorial encounter with another male … a circumstance charged with intense feelings that probably don’t feel very good).
Four below zero on March fourth and a male red bird is calling ritchoo, ritchoo. How cool is that! Afternoons are warming up in the Adirondacks. Wild canaries, purple finches, and pine siskins are mobbing the feeders.
Hi there Ted! Yep, spring is just around the corner. In fact, they predict warming next week, with several days in the 60s and around 70F or warmer for one day. Then rain toward the end of the week. That means I should be hearing wood frogs and spring peepers, plus the Spotted and Jefferson’s salamanders will be migrating to their breeding sites. I really look forward to the action and hope it warms up in your neck of the woods as well.
I call American Bittern Bump-a-chunks because the sound is how I usually locate them. I like crested red bird-but wonder then who is the un-crested red bird?
Eleanor: A pretty popular common name for the American Bittern is “Pumperlunk” … quite similar to your name. The un-crested redbird is the Summer Tanager, which I often simply call the Forest Redbird.
I love the message about just experiencing birds… I love photographing them but I often just put down the camera and bins and just experience the bird doing whatever it’s doing, in its environment. It reminds me of what is true.
Also, I heard somewhere that the female Crested Redbird is one of the few species that will sing on its nest. I figure, she’s just so happy about her little chicks coming into the world, she can’t keep from singing!
Diane: I didn’t know that the females sing from their nest. That would be a great behavior to document. In Warbling Vireos, the male commonly sings while sitting on the nest and I have a great video showing this … I plan to feature that video in a blog post come June.
Using part of the brain to come up with a name for what we are seeing takes away attention from the part of the brain that is enjoying the exquisite sight and sound. Is it possible to not waste brain space on naming it and totally immerse ourselves in the experience of witnessing such beauty? But of course then to share our experience we would have to be telepathic, or something……..
Oh, I have a lot to say about this, perhaps a blog post on the pros and cons of identification. I do believe that basic ID skills are important, but not as an endpoint. If one cannot immerse in the experience itself, then what’s the point? So the trick has to do with achieving a balance. Sure, learn to ID common birds and other common nature objects because this helps one discriminate and communicate. But ALWAYS work on improving one’s ability to sink into the experience of the now (a la E. Tolle).
We shall call your to-the-point renames the “Langinate” bird names, suggestive of ‘Latinate’! …Thank you for the stunning video capture of that winged wonder singing oh so unself-consciously yet melodiously.
I really like your video’s, and I’m curious what Camera you use.
Caleb: These days I use a Panasonic Lumix GH4 for bird work, with either a 500mm canon lens or else their new 100-400 zoom.
Yes I am sure many of us do the same with bird names. To help my wife get to know our common feeder birds, I call house finches “RED-HEADED HOUSE FINCH” and cardinals “RED-RED CARDINAL.” I often accidentally said “English muffin” instead of sparrow, so now I just always call them MUFFINs. I once asked Prof. Elliott if he had studied HOSP vocalizations, and I hope by now that he has. I was just in Aruba where Eared doves and Common ground-doves are both very plentiful, so of course they became “EARED MODO” and “TINY MODO.” If you want to… Read more »
lol I love your bird names. You need to be the official bird namer from here out!
I love the picture and sound together. Kind of hurts my throat to watch this action. I think you need to start a book with Lang official names. I for one would benefit because I’m very bad at identifying birds. I’ll buy a signed copy if you write one.
Here’s another one: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker should be Yellow-bellied Saplapper. They don’t suck the sap, they lap it up with their tongue. The tongue is NOT a straw. I wonder who messed that one up? : >)
That makes me think of the misnamed Mute Swan, which isn’t mute at all. I’ve spent a lot of time over a number of years observing and photographing a family of Mute Swans not far from where I live and they certainly communicate with sounds. They’re most vocal when they have young. In fact, the cygnets and parents “talk” to each other even while they’re hatching.
Well, I agree with your take on nomenclature, but I say stand aside, flashy male (not you, Lang–the bird); make way for the astonishing beauty of the female of your kind! Her tender shadings of olive with ochre highlights and delicate tracings of the titular red interweave to outshine that gaudy redcoat any day of the year. Hahaha, just my 0.02!
Very good point Sharon. The naming of birds is quite sexist for sure. The only strong argument for naming birds after the male’s appearance or sound is that the male is usually (at least among songbirds) the most colorful, most vocal, and most often seen of the two sexes. Many birders are quite unfamiliar with female appearances because females are way more difficult to observe (although not in the case of the cardinal … err, crested redbird … where females are quite likely to be seen by the average observer).
The more subtle-shaded female sings the male’s song, too, as you may have implied, though much less commonly than the male. I think she sings more briefly. Something to look and listen for.
Another cardinal factoid from the bird guy.
Yes, female cardinals sing and sometimes their songs are as complicated as males. I have recordings of mates counter-singing, and a video clip of a female singing at 1:25 in the species portrait that is featured in my “Theater of Birds”. Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also are known to sing and Red-winged Blackbird females produce a sputter that is referred to by some as a type of territorial song. In spite of these examples, female song is nonetheless a rarity among songbirds here in the north temperate zone.
Superb video and audio capture! I have always presumed the Pyrrhuloxia is the “central” cardinalid, with a range bracketed by our familiar Northern one and the Vermilion in South America. I am not aware of other cardinal species in the Western hemisphere.
If that was the case, they should be called “Northern Cardinal,” “Central Cardinal” and “Southern Cardinal”. But that really doesn’t work because the Pyrrhuloxia is not cardinal red. So the reference wouldn’t work. The word “Pyrrhuloxia” combines the Latin term for the Bullfinch with a Greek reference to the bird’s bill shape (according to Kaufman’s description on Audubon’s website), and that’s highly specialized and academic, known only to the few. I’m not sure what I’d call the Pyrrhuloxia, though he is obviously “Crested”. If I put “Cardinal” in his name, I fall into the age-old trap. Note that in reality,… Read more »
I’m not sure what I’d call the Pyrrhuloxia either, but it wouldn’t be Pyrrhuloxia, that’s for sure! In my humble (accurate) opinion, such a difficult name that is totally meaningless to most people shouldn’t be used as a common name.
Yes! I call it ‘Redbird’ too! And everyone knows what I’m referring too!
Well … be sure to include “Crested” because the Summer Tanager is also red and quite common in many southern states. I refer to it as the “Forest Redbird” so as to distinguish it from the “Crested Redbird”.
I heartily agree! Crested Redbird it is in my yard as well!
All hail the Crested Redbird!
Crested Redbird makes perfect sense! Accompanying video of the cardinal singing is beautiful. I look forward to more “Lang-official” named birds.
I got a bunch of “Lang-Official” names, especially for birds named after some explorer or ornithologist. For example: The “Henslow’s Sparrow” should perhaps be called “Meadowsqueak”!
Meadowsqueak! Love it!
Stunning! Great points made. How about Red Crest?
Keep the sounds flowing. Thank you.
Red Crest implies that only the crest is red.