Dept. of Word Lists

Bird Words

Adapted from "Bird Words," contributed by Ruth Beasley. Ruth, a VT subscriber, writes about birds on her website Learning the Birds. She can also be heard on High Plains Public Radio , her local NPR affiliate in Garden City, Kansas.

A large part of learning the birds is the attempt to gain fluency in a new language. Bird words, I call 'em. Memorable words like melanistic, pileated, accipiter, and axillar -- none my spell-checker recognizes. These fine words permeate the bird books, meticulously staking out descriptive territory.

Birders are people for whom subtle differences are carefully noted, and it's important to get the lingo right. Colors are precise, with shades of tawny, bay, cinnamon, ivory, chestnut, and buff. I'm still figuring out the difference between sooty and slatey, mottled and splotched.

Birds are chunky, dumpy, stubby, or stocky; richly spangled or semipalmated (see palmate); chisel-billed or zebra-backed. Birds can be gregarious, colonial, or cosmopolitan.

Body parts are carefully articulated: there are upperparts, underparts, and outerparts; primary and secondary; mandible, scapular, and speculum. Also rump, flank, cheek, nape, throat, chin, and vent.

There is bird-slang, although its buried in the literature: Hummingbirds are "hummers," Empidonax flycatchers are "empids," and Loggerhead Shrikes are "butcher birds."

Proper names can be as colorful as the slang is. Consider the Magnificent Frigatebird, the Elegant Trogon, or the Solitary Sandpiper.

Names affect our perception of a bird despite ourselves. I'm still hoping to see a Blue-Footed Booby and a Chuck-Will's-Widow, but I'm not so keen on the Sooty Tern or the Parasitic Jaeger.

Ah, but when you enter the world of sound, an evocative language truly does take shape. This may be where bird lovers outdo themselves in descriptive ecstasy. Birdsong is described as: bubbling and burbling; nasal, sibilant, petulant, mournful; harsh, hollow, guttural, ghostly; plaintive, staccato, liquid, tremulous; rolling, emphatic, ecstatic, vigorous!

You could go on and on, if you wanted to. Bird books are full of passionate description. Finding an excuse to talk this way is reason enough to study birds!


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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 8th 2006, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Callie B.
You are hitting the mark with things that I find interesting. More than once your little articles have brightened my day. This was a great web reference too. I emailed my birding friends about her website Learning the Birds.

Thanks,

Callie

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