How Do Birds Get Their Names? (And Our Favorite Bird Nicknames)

What's in a name? Meet the committee in charge of naming and organizing birds.

A blue-headed vireo sitting in a tree.Peyton Bowden
A blue-headed vireo sitting in a tree.

Think about the last time you saw a northern oriole or rufous-sided towhee. Technically, nobody has seen either of these birds for 25 years. That’s because in 1995, these species were reclassified by a committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union, which has been the keeper of the Checklist of North and Middle American Birds since 1886. They decided how birds get their names. Now northern orioles are classified as Bullock’s oriole in the West and Baltimore orioles in the East. Rufous-sided towhees were split into two species as well. Now birders can see the spotted towhee in the West and the eastern towhee east of the Great Plains.

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Why Do Birds’ Names Change?

These changes aren’t simply taxonomic trickery. Instead, when making these decisions, the committee weighs evidence including plumage variations, differences in songs, DNA, and the amount of hybridization between closely related species.

Many birders celebrate the splits because they can add species to their life lists. But the committee is more concerned with getting the science correct. According to birding expert Kenn Kaufman, “The committee doesn’t make changes without a specific reason.”

Many widely accepted names remain, like American robin, even though the species is not at all related to the robins of Europe. The name is completely based on the superficial resemblance of the two species.

“These decisions are based on extreme knowledge, with the committee responding to detailed proposals from various taxonomic experts,” Kenn says.

The committee doesn’t only split species apart, as in the cases of the orioles and towhees. Sometimes they lump them together. In 2017, Thayer’s gull was determined to be the same species as the Iceland gull. This was a reversal of the 1973 decision to separate the birds into two distinct species. One proposal not yet passed but gaining more scientific momentum is to recognize hoary redpolls and common redpolls as potential variations of the same species.

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How the Committee Formed

Interestingly, the American Ornithologists’ Union experienced a taxonomic lumping of its own in 2016. It merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society to form the current keeper of the checklist, the American Ornithological Society.

The seventh edition was published in 1998 and is the most recent. Annual supplements address interim changes. They are released each summer in the nature journal The Auk. Much of the committee’s work relates to the scientific names of the birds and ensuring that birds are classified accordingly. It strives to maintain consistent naming across the region, from the North Pole to Panama and a few islands in between. Regular updates also reflect changes in distribution as species move into, or leave, their highlighted regions.

Next time you’re thumbing through your field guide, ponder how the birds got their names. Consider whether any of the birds you’re seeing will go the way of the sparrowhawk (now American kestrel), derby flycatcher (now great kiskadee), solitary vireo (now blue-headed, Cassin’s and plumbeous vireos) or blue-throated hummingbird (now blue-throated mountain-gem).

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Bonus: Best Bird Nicknames

The American Ornithological Society maintains the official list of birds. However, birds often have nicknames that are quite widely accepted. Here are a few of our favorites.

  • Butterbutt: yellow-rumped warbler
  • Timberdoodle: American woodcock
  • Yellowhammer: northern flicker (yellow-shafted)
  • Bluebill: scaup
  • Sawbill: merganser
  • Peep: sandpiper

Ken Keffer
Nature writer Ken Keffer fondly remembers the spring duck migration in his native Wyoming, but now he gets most excited when irruptive finches, siskins and redpolls visit his feeders in Iowa.