common names of birds

Robin Panza panzar at CLP2.CLPGH.ORG
Sun Jun 4 09:04:30 CDT 1995

I think all of us have experienced the pitfalls of using common names for
plants.  But what about animals?  My impression is that at least vertebrate
names are much less variable.  Is that impression incorrect?  How much do
vernacular names of given species of birds, snakes, turtles, and common
mammals vary, say, within the continental US, or within Europe (but within
the same language, of course)?


One major problem with respect
to plants that has been pointed out in several postings is that vastly
different plant species can have the same common name; does this happen
nearly as often with vertebrates?

The American Ornithologists' Union has standardized the common names of North
and Central American bird species.  However, that doesn't mean that there
aren't folk names.  The U.S. Dept. of Interior (resource publication 174)
published a 35-page partial list of unofficial names of birds in "Obsolete
English Names of North American Birds and Their Modern Equivalents".  This list
appears to mostly include names that were formerly reasonably "official" (e.g.,
when races of one species had different common names).  It doesn't include, for
example, the 30+ local vernacular names for Ruffed Grouse.  Many other game
birds have multiple local names (although I can't provide any off the top of my

Despite the AOU, there are many local names for things.  For example, the local
name (southwestern Pennsylvania) for Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
is Redbird, and is very widely used here.  Some of the local names are so much
more interesting or descriptive than the official name, such as
fly-up-the-creek for Green Heron, or chewink for Rufous-sided Towhee.

There are relatively few cases with 2 species having the same vernacular name,
but they are there.  For example, black flycatcher can refer to Sayornis
nigricans (Tyrannidae) or Phainopepla nitens (Ptilogonatidae).

My impression is that the situation is considerably worse for other
vertebrates, as there has been no organization trying to standardize the names.
I think that birds are so popular among non-biologists (bird-watchers, feeders,
and hunters) that common names were deemed important enough to make uniform,
while herpetologists and mammalogists just ignore them and use Latin.  As for
fish, well, Rock Fish and Orange Roughy can apparently be applied to anything
with fins that turns up in the market.

Robin Panza
Section of Birds
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
panzar at

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