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Bird Nicknames

Steve Brenner|

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Like any eclectic group of hobbyists and professionals, birders have slowly developed their own language. In the broad sense, many of these terms are second nature to us: lifer, dipping, MEGA, etc. This custom vernacular is essential to bird watching culture, and often times can be the quickest way to identify a sympathetic avian maniac versus an innocent bystander curious about you standing in a hurricane on the side of the road looking at ‘nothing’ in a flooded field. Whether we like it or not, birder slang is here to stay.

During the Biggest Week this past spring, Drew Weber and I came to a startling conclusion about American birder slang compared to the twitchers across the pond: Our species nicknames pale in comparison to British bird nicknames. Granted, there are some American slang birds that everyone knows: sharpie for sharp-shinned hawk, MoDo for mourning dove, and probably our best, butterbutt for the yellow-rumped warbler. Of course, everyone can shorten the names of certain species as well, or even use the outdated regional names our birds used to have (e.g. Oldsquaw, Mudhen), and on the surface, you would think we are doing a fine job with species slang.

But what about those Brits? Snatchers, Groppers, Tysties, Lancy, Bonxie, Spuggies, Lesserpeckers, Throstle? Let’s be honest, these words sound awesome, and are just plain fun to say. Perhaps the biggest slight of all: a ‘yank’ is any rare species from North America. I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I think George Washington would want us to try just a little bit harder, don’t you think?

Below I have some offerings for the first wave of slang names. It’s not a perfect list, but at least it can get the ball rolling.

Ginger – Red-Headed Woodpecker: This one is rather self explanatory, but ‘redhead’ and ‘ginger’ seem to be interchangeable now in American society, so let’s give an awesome bird an awesome new name. The Redhead duck could also apply for this nickname.

Red-headed Woodpecker (photo by Steve Brenner)

Red-headed Woodpecker (photo by Steve Brenner)

Lush – Olive-sided Flycatcher: Lush is slang for a drunk. He always wants three beers.

Bill the Butcher – Northern Shrike: This one is more of an expansion than an original. Shrikes already have the moniker “butcher bird”, but I thought it would be cool to honor a classic American film character (played by a Brit) who is ruthless and powerful, just like Shrikes.

Bluj – Blue Jay: Pronounced ‘blooge’ with a soft ‘g’, this one is an attempt to give our common birds more ridiculously awesome names. Admittedly there is room for improvement here, but you get the idea.

Nutter Butter – Red-breasted Nuthatch: This one makes a lot of sense to me, but I’m not sure why. My good friend Gunnar introduced me to this one while birding in Sax-Zim, and it just stuck. Plus, nuthatches love peanut butter, and they would probably enjoy the delightful packaged snack of the same name.

Red-breasted Nuthatch enjoying his new namesake (photo by Steve Brenner)

Red-breasted Nuthatch enjoying his new namesake (photo by Steve Brenner)

Ewok – Black-and-white-Warbler: There is no use in denying it, I’m a Star Wars nerd. First time I saw this little guy, the similarities were too close to pass up. The coloration, the behavior, the distaste for the Galactic Empire? See for yourself.

Old Yeller – Prairie Warbler: The titular dog lived out in the prairies, and was also golden yellow in color. But be sure not to take this nickname too far, because we all know what happened to that dog (and no one wants to take a warbler out back and shoot it).

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Prairie Warbler (photo by Steve Brenner)

Clownface – Lark Sparrow: Lark Sparrows have really cool facial patterns that remind me of clowns (not the creepy clowns). Also, any variation of the word ‘face’ works here: Crazyface, Facetime, Face from the “A-team”. I’m open to suggestions.

Lark Sparrow, aka clownface (photo by Steve Brenner)

Lark Sparrow, aka clownface (photo by Steve Brenner)

RedcoatAny rare bird from the UK that turns up in the states, such as the Northern Lapwing.

Northern Lapwing in Massachusetts. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Northern Lapwing in Massachusetts. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

This list could be longer, but again, we are just scratching the surface with this bold new enterprise. Perhaps this will bring upon a grassroots bird naming revolution. Please comment below with your thoughts or new nicknames you think birders should be using out in the field.

About the Author

Steve Brenner

Steve is a late bloomer when it comes to birding, but ever since taking Drew Weber's ornithology class at Penn State, it has been all downhill from there. He has worked a variety of field jobs including studying the impacts of Marcellus Shale development on breeding songbirds in PA for multiple seasons, and also banding Northern Saw-whet Owls for the Ned Smith Center during the fall of 2012. A proud resident of Buffalo, NY, Steve enjoys birding, photography, and exploring potential new hotspots.

  • I am particularly fond of Ewok for Black-and-white Warbler. That one works for me.

    • Nate Swick

      I should point out I really like referring to “Scopoli’s” Shearwater as Spicoli since they sort of remind me of Sean Penn in that movie.

      • Steven Tucker

        THIS

      • I had to look up the reference, saw a couple of these guys off NJ this past weekend.

  • Nate Swick

    I’ve always called vagrants from Europe “Euros”. It’s a nice counterpart to Yank.

    Seems like shorebirds get more of these than most groups. Lesserlegs, Greaterlegs, Spotty and Sollie Sands, Semi Sand, Pecs, Uppies, Buffys, etc.

    • Raptors get a good representation, but shoulder, leg, tail, coop and sharpie are not particularly clever.

      My favorite of the twitchers slang is PG Tips for Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. The tips refers to the tail pattern and PG tips was a popular brand of tea in the seventies apparently.

  • Dan Andrews

    Most nicknames derive from birders wanting to shorten a name (e.g. sharpie, tv (turkey vulture), plus the list Nate gives of shorebirds). So, I suspect nicknames that aren’t any easier or shorter to say won’t gain much hold (e.g. Bill the Butcher vs Shrike). Butterbutt, however, works even though its not practically any shorter than Yellow-rumped, because of alliteration, as does Butcher Bird.

    Mostly, I don’t see a whole lot of purpose in giving birds nicknames just for the purpose of giving them nicknames (despite being an ex-pat Brit). If you use a nickname not in common usage and someone asks you about it, you have to spend time explaining the nickname and possibly debating it—which is fine for many gregarious people, but I’m more of a “Can’t talk now. Birding” type of person (and that is when I’m feeling sociable and friendly–in the early a.m. a short grunt suffices to communicate my feelings at extraneous chat).

    I do like Ewok though (much much better than my BAWWWWWwwwww).

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  • Scott Weidensaul

    Steve – Nice post, and I’m all for “Nutter butter.” But some of the UK “nicknames” you cite are (like oldsquaw and timberdoodle) also just obsolete regional names. Bonxie and tystie are both Norse names, via the Shetland Islands, for great skua and black guillemot, and throstle is an Old English name for song thrush dating back to the 12th century. “Spruggy” is old northeast England slang for a sparrow.

  • Steven Tucker

    I agree with your sentiment (slang is fun, no doubt), but I can’t say I can get behind any of these, except for “bluj” (yup, fun to say). “Clownface”??!!! All clowns are creepy, Lark Sparrows are not.

    • I agree with you on the creep factor of clowns.

      • Paul Lewis

        Actually, Lark Sparrows are already called “Harlequin Sparrows” in Spanish, which is a clear reference to their clown-like faces. Acorn Woodpeckers are known as Harlequin Woodpeckers for the same reason.