Fowled Up: Funny and Offbeat Names for Birds

catbird

Many of our chosen monikers for birds are nothing short of odd. At times, they’re outright humorous. Even several scientific terms are not immune to chuckles, especially for folks with a limited acquaintance of Latin. Then there are those familiar bird nicknames that have evolved into coarse slang. Indeed, at times our winged neighbors and human language have tangoed to form quite an intriguing pair.

Rolling off the Tongue

Although many of the names we have for birds make sense, the words themselves often seem strange at first to the ear, names such as bobwhites, chickadees, killdeers, kittawakes, rufous-sided towhees, whippoorwills, and willets, among a plethora of others. However, the source for these monikers could not be any more natural. All of these birds are identified by the calls that they produce, as if they were simply introducing themselves by saying, “My name is . . . so-and-so.”

This my-name-is-approach holds true as well for the coot and cuckoo. Both of these birds are dubbed for their peculiar cries. However, in their cases, their distinctive call-based names interestingly hold other connotations. Due to the offbeat sounds they generate, these birds have been associated respectively with idiocy and madness (1, 2). A “mad old coot” remains a common pejorative for describing a silly or stupid elderly man (3). And advertising, of course, has taken up the crazy cuckoo idea. Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, the cartoon personality on the Cocoa Puffs cereal box, famously goes loco in commercials, dramatically giving in at last to his wild cravings for the cereal. Oh, Sonny!

More Etymological Oddities

As discussed in last week’s post, several birds were named for the way they look rather than how they sound. Relying on this strategy, European explorers and naturalists often adopted Old World bird names for those they encountered in the Americas. A few birds, though, were named for affinities they share with other things. For instance, the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church provided inspiration for the northern cardinal’s moniker, as the bird’s color and crest were evocative of the cloaks and galeri already worn by those clerics (4, 5).

In several circumstances, other animals played roles in the labels bestowed upon our feathered friends. The catbird, for example, is named for the manner in which its call is thought to resemble that of a small, young feline (6, 7); the cowbird for frequently feeding off the insects near grazing cattle (8); and the anhinga or “snakebird” for the way its long S-like neck, when swimming for food, extends out of a lake or marsh, bobbing forward (9).

Mousebirds also exist, but strangely enough they are not named after the rodent—nor are they pursued as prey by catbirds! Diana Wells, the author of 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, explains that “mouse” in this case comes from mase, the old Germanic, Anglo-Saxon word for “small bird” (10, 11). As for dogbirds or “dirds,” they only exist online such as on websites like sadanduseless.com!

Bird Names Gone Wild

Not only are some common names unusual, quite a few of the scientific ones are seemingly peculiar as well, at least initially to someone like myself who doesn’t know Latin well. For example, Circus cyaneus is not related at all to traveling, big-top, blue-tent amusement; this is the name for the marsh hawk. Sturnus vulgaris has nothing to do with stern warnings about crude, profane language; it’s the formal term for a starling. And while Turdus maximus sounds bad, like some archaic form of schoolboy bathroom humor, that term, too, is rather innocent—just the scientific name for the Tibetan blackbird.

But now that we’re on the subject of monikers-that-appear-to-be-offensive-but-aren’t, let’s not overlook several bird names that lend themselves erroneously to sexual innuendo. A couple obvious ones are well-known for their share of adolescent chortles: tits and boobies. As William Young notes in his The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat, neither of these terms has anything whatsoever to do with the female human anatomy. Titr, from which the former bird’s name derives, is simply Icelandic for “small” (12). Meanwhile, the other birds are known as “boobies” due to how explorers deemed the creatures’ appearance and behavior as comical (13). Incidentally, the celebrated ornithologist and artist John James Audubon thought the name more fitting for folks who belittled these or any other birds as stupid (14).

Nowhere to Go but up?               

Before ending this post, I’d be remiss to at least not touch upon a couple bird nicknames that actually have evolved (or perhaps, more aptly, digressed) into sexualized expressions. For example, here in the United States, the nickname for owls has become slang for the female breasts. This appropriation is probably due to the prominence of the creatures’ eyes; however, the age-old connection between these birds and witchcraft, as a mysterious feminine power, may play an important secondary role.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the owl euphemism is relatively recent—late twentieth century—as opposed to another common one, the name for a rooster that’s synonymous with a part of the male human reproductive system. The website notes the latter word’s contextualized usage as far back as the early seventeenth century (15), as does another source, tracing it to a pun used in Shakespeare’s play The Life of King Henry the Fifth (2.1.53) (16).

The strange ways in which we identify with birds, right? At this point, what more’s to be said? With these last few looks into the offbeat connections between linguistics and our winged neighbors, this post may have delved as low as decency permits. Next week, let’s take flight from the gutter!

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 33, 48.
  2. Young, W. The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2014. pp. 54, 68–71.
  3. Farmer, J.S. Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: C to Fizzle. Volume 2. London: Harrison and Sons, 1891. p. 178.
  4. Wells, D. pp. 25–26.
  5. Young, W. p. 34.
  6. Wells, D. p. 148.
  7. Young, W. pp. 39–40.
  8. Wells, D. pp. 37–38.
  9. Wells, D. pp. 229–230.
  10. Wells, D. p. 253.
  11. Young, W. p. 44.
  12. Young, W. p. 42.
  13. Young, W. p. 42.
  14. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 367–368.
  15. Harper, D. Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com.
  16. Farmer, J.S. p. 135.
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Fowl Ball: Birds as Mascots and Monikers

eagle_goteam

Out of hundreds of university and college team nicknames in the United States, one easily soars above the rest. In fact, according to Roy E. Yarbrough, a professor of sports management studies and author of a book on mascots, more than seventy schools use the same bird moniker (1, 2).

Symbols of Power, Emblems of Distinction

Fans of Boston College, Emory University, Marquette University, North Carolina Central University, and Tennessee Tech may already know the answer. Yes, the Eagles are #1. That moniker easily outranks other notables, such as Tigers, Bulldogs, Panthers, and Knights. It also is more than twice as common as the second-most popular bird nickname, the Hawks (3).

The popularity of raptors—eagles, hawks, and the like—is easy to understand. Like other popular team nicknames, such as Cougars, Bears, and Warriors, these birds are symbols of strength and finesse. Of course, birds generally known for their courage and aggressive behavior, such as Cocks and Cardinals, also make for common monikers in college athletics.

Perhaps as a way of setting themselves apart, some schools have opted for more unusual nicknames. As examples, there are the Ducks (University of Oregon), the Roadrunners (University of Texas at San Antonio), the Penguins (Youngstown State University in Ohio), and the Herons (William Smith College, a women’s college in New York state).

Birds Make it Big in the Pros

Professional sports organizations within the United States and Canada have displayed a bit of variety in their chosen monikers. Below is a compilation of thirteen clubs named after birds, from the Canadian Football League (CFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL):

Anaheim Ducks (NHL)

Arizona Cardinals (NFL)

Atlanta Falcons (NFL)

Atlanta Hawks (NBA)

Baltimore Orioles (MLB)

Baltimore Ravens (NFL)

Montreal Alouettes (CFL)

New Orleans Pelicans (NBA)

Philadelphia Eagles (NFL)

Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)

Seattle Seahawks (NFL)

St. Louis Cardinals (MLB)

Toronto Blue Jays (MLB)

At this time Major League Soccer lacks any teams with bird monikers. However, one franchise, D.C. United, includes a stylized bald eagle as part of its logo.

Two hockey clubs absent from the above list, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, require a bit of explanation. Despite their costumed bird mascot Tommy Hawk, the Chicago team’s name is actually inspired by a Sauk Indian chief (4, 5). And while the logo for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, a franchise known briefly as the Falcons during the early 1930s, features feathered wings on a wheel, the team does not explicitly convey the name of any particular type of bird (6). So, these two clubs actually do not have bird-inspired nicknames, so that’s why they’re not included.

Like the Chicago Blackhawk’s Tommy, several popular bird mascots promote teams that do not bear their likeness. For instance, the Pittsburgh Pirates, a Major League Baseball team, have the Pirate Parrot (7). Even the biggest star among costumed squawkers and arguably the most influential mascot in all of sports history, The San Diego Chicken (a.k.a. The Famous Chicken), is not officially connected to any particular team (8).

When College Nicknames and Mascots Don’t Match

In the world of collegiate sports, several popular bird mascots, too, are not directly related to their school’s team nickname. For starters, there’s Sebastian the Ibis, who cheers for the University of Miami Hurricanes. You’re probably wondering, what does an ibis have to do with hurricanes? Well, the Mascot Hall of Fame website explains, “According to folk legend, the ibis is the last sign of wildlife to take shelter before a hurricane, and the first to return after the storm passes” (9).

On the opposite side of the gridiron, another avian mascot represents Miami’s conference rival, the Virginia Tech Hokies. Derived from the school’s older Fighting Gobbler mascots, the HokieBird is a bit of a cross between a turkey and cardinal. However, the Hokies nickname, originating from an 1896 “spirit yell,” came before the introduction of the bird mascot (10). Perhaps one can say that a HokieBird is a Hokie, but a Hokie is not necessarily a HokieBird.

The moniker adopted long ago by the University of Kansas involves a similar situation. That institution’s nickname, the Jayhawks, has ties to a label adopted by the state’s mid-nineteenth-century political and paramilitary abolitionist groups. However, by the early twentieth century, notions of a large-beaked, shoe-wearing bird began taking root. Today, those precursors have evolved into the University of Kansas’s two costumed mascots, Big Jay and Baby Jay (11, 12). From a historical perspective, though, Jayhawks are arguably different than the school’s colorful representatives.

Of course, interesting histories can be found behind the nicknames and mascots at many other colleges. These teams are just a sample of several in the United States that are cheered on or fronted by popular fowl.

Sources:

  1. Rosenberg, B. “It’s all in the name: From Bulldogs to Horned Frogs, mascots help build institutional identity,” 8/13/2004. NCAA News: http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/NCAANewsArchive/2004/Association-wide/it_s%2Ball%2Bin%2Bthe%2Bname%2B-%2B9-13-04%2Bncaa%2Bnews.html.
  2. “The top mascots in college and professional sports,” 2/13/2005. USA Today: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/2005-02-13-tenworstjobs-mascots-yarbrough_x.htm.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “History: The McLaughlin years.” Chicago Blackhawks (official website): http://blackhawks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=46778.
  5. “Tommy Hawk.” Chicago Blackhawks (official website): http://blackhawks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=46626.
  6. “Written History: 1930s.” Detroit Red Wings (official website): http://redwings.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=43758.
  7. “The Pirate Parrot.” Pittsburgh Pirates (official website): http://pittsburgh.pirates.mlb.com/pit/fan_forum/mascot_index.jsp.
  8. “Biography.” The Famous Chicken (official website): http://www.famouschicken.com/biography.html.
  9. “Sebastian the Ibis, University of Miami.” Mascot Hall of Fame: http://www.mascothalloffame.com/virtual/past/index.html?staff_id=37.
  10. Cox, C.B. “What is a Hokie?” Virginia Tech (official website): http://www.vt.edu/about/traditions/hokie.html.
  11. “The Jayhawk.” University of Kansas (official website): http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/jayhawk/.
  12. “The Mascots.” University of Kansas (official website): http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/mascots/.

How Come Crows and Ravens are Black?

crowheron_JustSo

Why do swallows have forked tails and herons have bent necks? Why do robins have red breasts? And why are crows and ravens black? For the simple, unscientific answers to such questions, one doesn’t have to look far. Folklore offers some interesting answers.

Such stories are sometimes referred to as etiological myths. They’re common in many cultures, and are often referred to as “just-so” or pourquoi (French for “why”) stories. The famous British author and poet Rudyard Kipling actually published a book in 1902 called Just So Stories for Little Children that offers responses on an assortment of things, including the origins of the leopard’s spots and the camel’s hump. You’ve probably heard of such explanations. Well, similar tales also exist throughout the world to account for the characteristics of certain birds.

So why exactly does the swallow have a forked tale? Well, according to a Palestinian folktale, the bird narrowly escaped from the striking serpent’s bite, losing part of its tail feathers (1). For the Buriat, those feathers were detached by an arrow flung by the sky god Tengri (2). Also, in a similar story from Namibia, Africa, the heron managed to evade an attacking jackal, but the incident left the bird with a crooked neck (3). Somehow, these traits, through a kind of unnatural selection, apparently have been passed down ever since.

Many “just-so” stories account for the color of a particular bird’s feathers. The Pima have a legend that relates how the bluebird bathed in a lake for several mornings, eventually shedding its unattractive feathers and growing beautiful blue ones in their place (4, 5). The Cherokee have a similar story about a “magic red pool” that transformed the cardinal, thought to be originally brown (6). A darker tale from Wales reports that the European robin got its red breast—burned from hellfire—while compassionately tending to the damned (7).

Fire does seem to play a role in lots of these etiological accounts. According to the Brule Sioux, crows were originally white, and owe their black plumage to a charring incident involving an angry council of Native American hunters and their campfire (8). The idea of soot, ash, or smoke being responsible for a bird’s color is remarkably widespread, too, ranging from an old account in Brescia, Italy, of blackbirds in chimneys to the Cherokee’s story about ravens transformed inside a hollow tree struck by lightning (9).

Tales like these indicate how the human mind can easily misconstrue aspects of biological development and/or evolution. Perhaps one of the strangest cases involving such misunderstandings, though, arose centuries ago. We will look next week at the bird some people thought was a fish.

Sources:

  1. McNamee, G. (editor). The Serpent’s Tale: Snakes in Folklore and Literature. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2000. pp. 52–54.
  2. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 139.
  3. Knappert, J. The Book of African Fables. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. p. 38.
  4. Erdoes, R., Ortiz, A. (editors). American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. pp. 346–347.
  5. Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (first edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
  6. Martin, L.C. p. 23.
  7. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., UK: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 51.
  8. Erdoes, R., Ortiz, A. pp. 395–396.
  9. Tate, P. pp. 1, 116.