by Bill Banaszewski and Michele Howland
While researching my recent article for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine about herons of the Finger Lakes, I became curious about how various wildlife species came by their ordinary names. Many, especially birds, are named based on their colors. Others are named after their behavior, preferred habitat, physical traits, and songs or calls. Some even carry the names of individual people.
Other names are downright perplexing and make little sense to me. For example, the great blue heron plumage is mostly grey, so why isn’t it named the great gray heron? Nature buffs of any age can be baffled by wildlife names that make little sense. Our neighbor’s three young grandchildren – Clara, Zola, and George, who frequently visit Keuka Lake – excel at nature study. They can identify a remarkable number of wildlife and will call out a misnomer on the spot! Each of them contributed eagerly to our conversations for this piece.
We all agreed that wildlife names based on color make sense – black bear, red fox, bluebird, yellow warbler – to name a few. Nonetheless it can be tricky at times. For example, some black bears have cinnamon-colored coats.
Birds that derive their names based on color can be easy to identify, especially if there is no difference between males and females. Blue jays are an example. But with other bird species there is a marked difference between the sexes, a form of sexual dimorphism. Awhile back, George, age 5, was quick to identify a sky-blue-colored male bluebird at our nest box, but we were most impressed that he accurately spotted a female even though her colors are a faded blue-gray. Most often the male of the species is more brightly colored while the female is duller.
Another example of this dimorphism is the red-winged blackbird. Males have a bright red shoulder patch against a rich black body, but females are actually brown with no red wing patches at all.
Some species’ colors transition through their life stages. The newt, a semiaquatic amphibian, has color and name changes during the four stages of its life. Hatched from eggs in small bodies of water, they are black newt tadpoles. While still in the water, they transform to red-spotted newts with red spots on an olive-green background. After a year or two, they emerge from water and migrate into moist woodlands. In this third stage they are named red efts, having red bodies and red spots surrounded by black circles. After several years they return to water and their colors revert to olive green with red spots. For the rest of their lives, they are again called red-spotted newts.
Habitat-related names also make sense to us. For instance, swamp sparrows do indeed live in swamps. Water snakes spend most of their lives in water, and tree frogs live among the branches of trees.
Some animals would have better fitting names if they reflected their habitats. Milk snakes got their common name from farmers who blamed low milk yields on the snakes. Some folks even claimed that the milk snake milked cows! Seriously? We think a barn snake would be a better name for a milk snake. That’s where they usually hang out in search of prey.
A number of birds have the word “common” as part of their name, and some are quite abundant, such as the common crow. However, the common nighthawk, which is widespread and found in most states, is really not common at all.
There is also the common loon, but it is becoming less common. Its population is decreasing due to lead poisoning from sinkers and the destruction of shoreline nests washed away by the wakes of power boats. Climate change has also been detrimental. With warming temperatures, some loon nesting habitats are swarmed with an overabundance of black flies, which causes many loons to abandon their nests.
Although a specific behavior may not always be obvious when viewing wildlife, it can help to correctly identify species. Woodpeckers use their beaks to drill holes in trees. Snapping turtles aggressively snap their powerful jaws to capture prey. Shoveler ducks constantly sweep their spatula-like bills under water to gather up food.
Woodchucks are supposedly named for a behavior. We have all heard the jingle, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” Well, they don’t chuck wood. But to be clear, they will occasionally gnaw on wood to keep their continually growing teeth from malocclusions, which can be fatal.
Beaver, on the other hand, gnaw bark and “chuck” trees to use the branches to build their dams and lodges. Why couldn’t we rename woodchucks and use either of their two nicknames: whistle pig because their alarm is a pig-like whistle, or groundhog because they live underground? We would support renaming the beaver to woodchuck, but that is not likely to happen. There is far too much lore and symbolism ascribed to the beaver.
Songs and Calls
When we asked the kids to think of birds that call their name with their song, Clara, age 7, quickly chimed in “the chickadee – chickadee-dee-dee.” Coincidently, a few years back, we helped Clara identify a feather she found in her yard. It turned out to be that of a mourning dove, named of course for its woeful cooing.
Songs and calls of wildlife are made for different purposes. Calls sometimes notify their family group of the availability of food. Crows are an example. Many birds also make calls to warn of danger, like the blue jays who signal a red fox is nearby.
Both calls and songs are used during breeding to claim a territory or to attract a mate. The song of a screech owl during the mating season is a descending trill. However, they are named for the high-pitched screech they emit when making a kill. Chipmunks constantly repeat a chipping call as a warning. Male bull frogs bellow like a foghorn or bull horn, and spring peepers make a surprisingly loud peeping call to attract females during the springtime breeding season.
Birds are named after people more than other wildlife are. Recently, there has been a spirited debate generated by the American Ornithological Society, which is establishing guidelines for renaming birds that have controversial or inaccurate names. Currently there are more than 100 birds named after specific humans, some of whom were enslavers or grave robbers. Many were not even ornithologists.
The Bachman’s sparrow is an example, named after John Bachman, a South Carolina naturalist, but also a slave holder and white supremacist. One Audubon magazine subscriber commented, “Let’s not debate whether people were evil or not, simply remove human names and use names descriptive of the birds themselves.”
A similar issue was addressed recently by the Entomological Society of America when it changed the name of the gypsy moth caterpillar. The gypsy connotation is an ethnic slur, demeaning Romanian gypsies who have been the target of racism and genocide. The new name, the spongy moth caterpillar, is derived from the insect’s light tan, fuzzy egg masses that resemble sponges. We wonder why it was not renamed for the appearance of the moth itself rather than its egg mass.
Some names are just downright perplexing. Pumpkinseeds are small fish with an array of beautiful, colorful markings, but it’s named for its shape, said to resemble a pumpkin seed. Really? When Zola, age 6, first heard me identify that fish by name, she calmly replied, “It doesn’t look like a pumpkin!”
Pickerel frogs are named after a long thin fish, the pickerel. George knows there is something wrong with that name. He raised his arms, shook his head, and declared once and for all, “A pickerel is a fish!”
And if you go to a bait shop and ask for crabs, you’ll get crayfish. Crayfish are not crabs, and they’re not fish. We figure George would have had something to say about this, too.
Having a clearly visible white ring around its neck, the ring-necked pheasant is well named, but surely the ring-necked duck is not! It has no ring around its neck; its ring is around its bill. Go figure.
There are fresh and saltwater sheepshead fish. They are not the same species, and neither resembles a sheep’s head. Josh Olive, a well-known outdoor writer, is as perplexed as we are. He asks, “Why are these fish named for a domesticated ruminant – a sheep? Their teeth look like human teeth, so why not call them people fish!”
Saltwater sheepshead are also called convict fish for the black and grey horizontal stripes across their body.
The naming of wildlife needs a lot of attention and revision. Can you suggest better names for the wildlife you know?
More so than other wildlife, birds tend to be named based on their physical traits. Great horned owls are named for what appear to be horns, but they’re actually ear tufts. Pintail ducks have long, pointed pin-like tails. The great blue heron is the largest member of the heron family, and the least bittern is the smallest.
A familiar bait fish – alewives – are also called sawbellies. Sawbelly seems like the better name as they have bony protrusions along their bellies that feel like saw teeth. In the Middle Ages, calling for an alewife could get you in hot water. An alewife was the woman of the house who was responsible for keeping the men well supplied with beer.