Cover image for 100 birds and how they got their names
100 birds and how they got their names
Wells, Diana, 1940-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, NC : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, [2002]

Physical Description:
xix, 297 pages : illustrations ; 19 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QL677 .W45 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



How did cranes come to symbolize matrimonial happiness? Why were magpies the only creatures that would not go inside Noah's Ark? Birds and bird imagery are integral parts of our language and culture. With her remarkable ability to dig up curious and captivating facts, Diana Wells hatches a treat for active birders and armchair enthusiasts alike. Meet the intrepid adventurers and naturalists who risked their lives to describe and name new birds. Learn the mythical stories of the gods and goddess associated with bird names. Explore the avian emblems used by our greatest writers--from Coleridge's albatross in "The Ancient Mariner" to Poe's raven.

A sampling of the bird lore you'll find inside:

Benjamin Franklin didn't want the bald eagle on our National Seal because of its "bad moral character," (it steals from other birds); he lobbied for the turkey instead.

Chaffinches, whose Latin name means "unmarried," are called "bachelor birds" because they congregate in flocks of one gender.

Since mockingbirds mimic speech, some Native American tribes fed mockingbird hearts to their children, believing it helped them learn language.

A group of starlings is called a murmuration because they chatter so when they roost in the thousands.

Organized alphabetically, each of these bird tales is accompanied by a two-color line drawing. Dip into 100 Birds and you'll never look at a sparrow, an ostrich, or a wren in quite the same way.

Author Notes

Diana Wells is the author of 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names and contributing editor to the journal Greenprints. Born in Jerusalem, she has lived in England and Italy and holds an honors degree in history from Oxford University. She now lives with her husband, an artist, on a farm in Pennsylvania

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

In this little volume, Wells (100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names) offers 100 two- to three-page essays that provide brief but satisfactory descriptions of an individual bird or bird group (e.g., sparrows, owls, and hawks). Tidbits and trivia, as well as literary, folkloric, biblical, mythical, or other references, help explain why a bird is named as it is. Wells discusses the origin of the scientific name, clarifying the meaning of the original Latin terminology, and often recounts who selected the name and why or for whom the bird was named. Each of the alphabetically arranged entries includes a black-and-white sketch. There is a satisfying mix of common birds (e.g., cardinal, crow, and goose) and more exotic species (e.g., cassowary, bird of paradise, and hoatzin). Especially well timed with the recent publication of new field guides by David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, this volume will make a likable, but not imperative, addition to public and academic libraries with ornithological collections. (Index not seen.) Nancy Moeckel, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Albatross Albatrosses fly as if by magic, rarely flapping their long, narrow wings. At different heights above the ocean wind speeds vary dramatically. Albatrosses glide down swiftly to meet low-speed surface winds, which then thrust them up again, and they repeat this to soar almost indefinitely. To sailors long ago this seemed supernatural, and they thought the birds were incarnations of wandering souls. To kill an albatross, they believed, would bring bad luck to the ship and its crew. "An albatross around one's neck" has been part of our language ever since Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the cursed seaman in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"; but in spite of his vivid description of the great bird circling the ship and perching on the rigging like "a Christian soul," it is unlikely that Coleridge saw a living albatross. The story probably originated from Captain George Shelvocke's account in 1759 in his Voyages, which described an albatross soaring around the ship, following it "as if he had lost himself" and making "our display with sail, reef and rudder" seem "clumsy and inept." His ship, the Speedwell, was battling to round Cape Horn in terrible weather, and one sailor had already been lost overboard in the icy sea. The second in command was Simon Hatley, who in a fit of "melancholy," shot the albatross in September 1719, and was blamed for the ship's continued bad luck. Hatley was taken prisoner by the Spaniards and punished for privateering by being "hanged until he was almost strangled and then cut down," a torture reminiscent of the heavy albatross around the Ancient Mariner's neck. Although sailors were in awe of these birds, they did sometimes kill and eat them, and even made purses out of their webbed feet. The albatross's common name has prosaic roots. It comes from the Arabic al-qudus, "bucket," describing seabirds that hold water in their bills (see Pelican). The Spanish altcatraz (which now means "gannet") may have been changed to "albatross" because the Latin alba means "white," and mature albatrosses of some species are largely white. Albatrosses are in the order Procellariiformes, from the Latin procella, meaning a violent storm. These ocean birds live in turbulent southern oceans remote from land. Their bills are "tubed" to excrete excess salt from the seawater they drink (see Petrel). They can't fly when they are becalmed, and they find it hard to get airborne. Although they come ashore to breed, a pair often won't even wait for their chick to fledge; the parents will feed it enough so that it can survive alone on its fat until it can make its way to the sea. The albatross family, the Diomedeidae, is called after Diomedes, the king of Aetolia, who fought in the Trojan War. On his way home he stopped on an Adriatic island; there his companions were punished for grumbling by being turned into birds, "like white swans, though they were not swans," wrote Ovid. Despite the wandering albatross's obvious difference from swans, Linnaeus named the legendary bird after Diomedes's men, calling it Diomedea exulans, or "homeless." This bird has a wingspan of up to twelve feet and travels hundreds of miles, but is now thought to return to favorite fishing areas rather than wandering aimlessly. The only albatross that regularly visits North American waters is the black-footed albatross, D. nigripes, but few of us will see even this bird. Still, the albatross is with us, a powerful symbol of sin and retribution, and still we wonder, like Coleridge's Wedding Guest, what our duties to the natural world should be. Avocet In June 1814, John James Audubon rose at dawn to watch nesting avocets on a lake in Indiana. "Now Reader," he writes, "wait a few moments until I eat my humble breakfast . . . and you and I will do our best to approach the sitting bird unseen by it." He does this successfully: "Lovely bird," he murmurs, "how innocent, how unsuspecting, and yet how near to thine enemy, albeit he be an admirer of thy race!" At this point the reader might prefer to be excused, leaving Audubon to shoot five avocets, including three incubating females. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that in those days, before photography and good binoculars, shooting a bird was the only way to examine it properly, and avocets, like other birds, once seemed too plentiful to ever become rare. The American avocet, that Audubon described is a spectacularly beautiful bird. It is mostly white, with a chestnut head during mating season, and black markings on the wings. White birds often have black wing tips, because black feathers are stronger than pigmentless white ones and wear better on the edges of wings. The American avocet has long blue legs and an upward-curving bill, which accounts for the family name Recurvirostridae, from the Latin recurvo, "I bend backward," and rostrum, "beak." The members of this family include the stilts. The American avocet and the black-necked stilt breed in North America. Stilts have thin red legs, even longer than the avocets'. The stilt's name, Himantopus, is from the Greek himantos, "thong," and pous, "foot." The avocet's common name comes from the old European Recurvirostra avosetta, first used by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi. In 1678 The Ornithology of Francis Willughby (published posthumously by Willughby's friend and collaborator John Ray) described the bird as "The Avosetta of the Italians." This might be from avis (Latin for "bird"), a fondly diminutive description of the avocet, a bird of peculiar beauty and grace. Its harsh cry is less bewitching than its appearance, and in Dutch the avocet is kluut, in imitation of this. In northern England they were also called "clickers" (because they sometimes click their bills) and "awl-birds." The awl-shaped beak, thin and curving upward, is swept from side to side to collect food from the bottom of ponds. Avocets often feed in stagnant water, and consequently are very prone to tapeworms. Alexander Wilson described an avocet he took as "infested with tape-worms and a number of smaller bot-like worms." Wilson also said that the avocet, "from its perpetual clamor and flippancy of tongue, is called by the inhabitants of Cape May, the Lawyer." It is rather tempting to connect this with the Latin stem avocatio, "a diversion," the origin of the French avocat, "Lawyer." But there seems to be no traceable link here, and, regretfully, we must relinquish the "flippancy of tongue" required to make one! Bird of Paradise It might seem that birds of paradise were deservedly named for their beautiful plumage. Instead the name more likely comes from a sixteenth-century misperception that they had no wings or feet with which to fly or perch, and therefore floated ethereally in the heavens. When dried skins of birds of paradise were first brought to Europe from New Guinea, they were described by Antonio Pigafetta (the chronicler of Magellan's expedition) as being without feet or wings. Such was the way they were used in New Guinea for decoration. But Europeans, who had never tried this way of preserving birds, assumed that the dried skins were complete. The first skins from New Guinea were brought to Madrid by Juan Sebastie wrote, demonstrating more than a touch of political disillusionment. Bonaparte also named the paradise crow, or Lycocorax pyrrhopterus ("red-winged crow"). But until recent DNA testing it was not definitely established that the bird of paradise's nearest relative is the crow, not the bowerbird, as had always been thought. Male bowerbirds build elaborate ornamental "bowers" to attract females. Both birds of paradise and bowerbirds live in Australasia, where there are few predators other than humans. In this avian paradise they don't have to be able to move quickly or be constantly on the alert: They are unlikely to have their wooing interrupted and so can afford to indulge without danger in the luxurious sexual lures of cumbersome plumage or painstakingly constructed bowers. Bittern Although it's not a large bird, the cry of a bittern can echo for miles. Thoereau wrote that American bitterns were sometimes called "belcher-squelchers," and they seemed to be calling, "Slug-toot, slug-toot, slug-toot." They move back and forth when sounding, using their whole bodies to choke up their booming cry, and are commonly called "thunder pumpers." The European bittern has an even more powerful voice, described by Oliver Goldsmith as seeming to come from "some formidable being that resided at the bottom of the water." Bitterns are closely related to herons but have short necks and stout bodies. They live solitary lives in marshes, spearing their prey, mostly frogs, with pointed bills and nesting on the ground. Bitterns' eyes are positioned so they can see in front of them when their bills are turned vertically and beneath them when horizontal. There are two kinds of bittern, the Botaurus and the Ixobrychus, and both names derive from the birds' peculiar bellowing cries. Botaurus comes from the Latin butire, "to cry" (which also gives us "bittern"), and taurus, "a bull." The name Ixobrychus (from the Greek ixos, "reed," and brukho, "roar") was devised in 1828 by Gustav Johann Billberg, a Swedish naturalist (for whom a popular houseplant, the billbergia, was named). Bitterns have learned an extraordinary protective strategy. They can "freeze," with their bills pointing directly upward and their striped bodies exactly matching the reeds surrounding them. Sometimes if there is a breeze they even sway a little to imitate their reedy camouflage. "This was its instinct," wrote Thoreau, "whether it implies any conscious artifice or not." Excerpted from 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells, Lauren Jarrett All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. xiii
Albatrossp. 1
Avocetp. 4
Bird of Paradisep. 7
Bitternp. 10
Blackbirdp. 12
Bluebirdp. 15
Bobwhitep. 18
Buntingp. 20
Capercailliep. 23
Cardinalp. 25
Chaffinchp. 28
Cootp. 31
Cormorantp. 34
Cowbirdp. 37
Cranep. 40
Crowp. 43
Cuckoop. 46
Curlewp. 49
Dipperp. 52
Duckp. 55
Eaglep. 58
Egretp. 61
Emu and Cassowaryp. 63
Falconp. 66
Flamingop. 69
Flickerp. 72
Flycatcherp. 74
Frigatebirdp. 76
Gannet and Boobyp. 79
Goatsuckerp. 82
Goldfinchp. 85
Goosep. 88
Gracklep. 92
Grebep. 95
Grousep. 97
Gullp. 100
Hawkp. 103
Heronp. 106
Hoatzinp. 109
Hummingbirdp. 111
Ibisp. 114
Jayp. 116
Kestrelp. 119
Kingbirdp. 121
Kingfisherp. 123
Kitep. 126
Kittiwakep. 128
Kiwip. 130
Larkp. 133
Limpkinp. 136
Loonp. 138
Magpiep. 141
Merlinp. 144
Mockingbird and Catbirdp. 146
Nightingalep. 150
Nuthatchp. 153
Oriolep. 156
Ospreyp. 159
Ostrichp. 162
Owlp. 165
Parrotp. 168
Partridgep. 171
Peacockp. 173
Pelicanp. 176
Penguinp. 179
Petrelp. 182
Phalaropep. 185
Pheasantp. 188
Phoebep. 191
Pigeon or Dovep. 193
Ploverp. 196
Puffinp. 199
Quailp. 201
Ravenp. 204
Rheap. 207
Roadrunnerp. 210
Robinp. 212
Sandpiperp. 215
Sapsuckerp. 218
Secretary Birdp. 221
Shrikep. 223
Skimmerp. 225
Skuap. 227
Snakebirdp. 229
Sparrowp. 231
Starlingp. 234
Storkp. 237
Swallowp. 239
Swanp. 242
Swiftp. 245
Tanagerp. 248
Thrushp. 250
Titmouse and Chickadeep. 253
Turkeyp. 255
Vulturep. 258
Wagtailp. 261
Warblerp. 263
Woodcock and Snipep. 266
Woodpeckerp. 269
Wrenp. 272
Selected Bibliographyp. 275
Indexp. 285