Obsolete English Names of North American Birds
and Their Modern Equivalents Scoutsel.gif (1527 bytes)


 Richard C. Banks*

 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, National Museum of Natural History,Washington, D.C. 20560

 *Formerly affiliated with: National Ecology Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Museum of Natural, Washington, D.C. 20560

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Obsolete English Names, Part 1, Accentor through Myna(h)

Obsolete English Names, Part 2, Nene through Yellowthroat



 Nicasio wren, mountain mockingbird, desert sparrow—these are among the many names one might find in the older North American ornithological or birding literature but not in recent field guides or check-lists. These are English common names that once were used for species, subspecies, or populations of birds but that have been supplanted by other names. Sometimes it is fairly easy to relate the old names to the present names, but often it can be difficult, especially if they are accompanied by scientific names that also have changed. In this list I equate those old names, and some not commonly found in modern writing, to the present English and scientific names of the species to which they apply.

 The usefulness of such a list was brought to my attention by Curtis Sabrosky, an entomologist retired from the Systematic Entomology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In his work on ectoparasitic flies, Dr. Sabrosky occasionally finds specimens taken from avian hosts identified on the labels only by obsolete English names. On occasion, he has sought assistance from the author in identifying or verifying the host bird in current terminology, and expressed a desire for a list such as this.

This index should also be useful to other workers and for other purposes. Ornithologists not well versed in taxonomic matters might save valuable research time if they could immediately relate a bit of information recorded in the older literature to the name of a species with which they are familiar. Law enforcement personnel might find some support in convincing a gunner (or judge) that the old or colloquial name of a bird shot is the same as the name in the list of species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Serious birders, historians, collectors of natural history books—even crossword puzzle fans and trivialists—might find something of use or interest.

 One might wonder how and why English names (often called "common names") of birds change. Some rather old changes occurred because relationships were uncertain when the birds were first named and family groups as we now know them were poorly defined. Many North American species were named because of superficial similarities to Old World groups—most thrashers were originally called thrushes, and many warblers were called flycatchers. Some species were given more than one name by different writers. The names of some species have just been shortened through time. Some group names—sparrow, bunting, and finch, for example—were used interchangeably.

Many populations of American birds were named originally as species, and received not only distinctive scientific names but also distinctive English names. As the species concept and ornithological knowledge developed through the 19th and 20th centuries, many of these populations came to be treated as subspecies of more broadly conceived species. Often the separate populations carried their old English names unchanged into their new status, so that several subspecies of a species might have quite different English names. The Check-list of North American Birds, published by the American Ornithologists' Union and considered the definitive source of both scientific and English names of birds by most North American workers, followed the practice of using English names for subspecies through its fourth (1931) edition. There, for example, were listed 14 subspecies of Thryomanes bewickii, only one of which was called "Bewick's wren." That practice ended with the fifth (1957) edition, in which all subspecies were grouped under the English name "Bewick's wren" and individual subspecies were not provided with distinctive English names. The latter practice has been generally followed by the major ornithological journals and the authors of field guides, and over the past 30 years many names once familiar to ornithologists and birders have essentially passed into oblivion—but not, of course, out of the literature.

 The continuing study of avian taxonomy is still refining our understanding of the relationships of populations of birds. Such studies in the past few years have yielded additional instances in which two (or more) populations traditionally treated as distinct species should be considered only a single species. In some instances the accepted English name for neither population is applicable to the combined populations, and it has been deemed better to coin a new name rather than to continue the use of either old one. Thus the combined myrtle and Audubon's warblers became the yellow-rumped warbler. Such changes are often met with consternation among the birding community, at least in the short run, but become accepted with increasing use. The older names are still valuable and are often used for the component groups when individual birds can be so identified.

 Other studies have shown that what has long been considered a single species is actually a composite of two or more reproductively isolated populations, each of which should be considered a species. Occasionally old English names can be revived for one or all populations, but at times new names have had to be coined. Thus the two "song-type" populations of the old Traill's flycatcher were found to represent two distinct species, one of which (Empidonax traillii) was given the name willow flycatcher, whereas the other (Empidonax alnorum) was christened alder flycatcher. This actually presents the opposite of the problem this list seeks to solve, because in this instance old literature references to "Traill's flycatcher" might apply to either of the newly recognized species.

 Still another factor that has placed some once-familiar English names in limbo is the increasingly worldly view of North American ornithologists and birders. The sixth (1983) edition of the Check-list of North American Birds extended its geographic coverage to include Hawaii and the Caribbean islands as well as the area between the United States-Mexico border and the Panama-Colombia border. In many instances this resulted in the juxtaposition in the list of two or more species with the same English group name, one without a modifier and the other(s) with. For uniformity, and to avoid confusion between specific and group names, additional modifiers were provided where necessary. Thus the familiar "plain" catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) of North America became the gray catbird to effect a parallel construction in name to that of the black catbird (Melanoptila glabrirostris) of Central America. Further, for species with extensive distributions outside North America, the Check-list used English names that are generally accepted on a worldwide basis rather than perpetuate the situation in which a single species might have one English name in North America and another elsewhere. The Florida (or common) gallinule of North America thus was called the common moorhen, as the species is known elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

The result of this process of evolution of names is that there are many English names for populations of birds at various taxonomic levels that are no longer in general use. These names still appear in the earlier (and some modern) literature, of course, and on labels of some specimens collected years ago, perhaps in the display cases of some museums, but many of them are not immediately recognized by younger ornithologists or birders.

I have compiled a list of English names of birds that one is unlikely to find in the indexes or texts of the more recent ornithological journals, references, or field guides. The list is restricted to names of species found primarily in the United States and Canada, with a few exceptions. The indexed names have been culled from the first four editions of the Check-list of North American Birds, early State bird books and regional distribution lists, standard technical ornithological references, and a variety of other sources dating back to the time of Audubon and Wilson, who were among the first to use distinctive names for American birds. Particularly rich sources of names were A. C. Bent's "Life Histories..." series, published as Bulletins of the U.S. National Museum from 1919 to 1968; the 12 parts of Robert Ridgway's "Birds of North and Middle America," published as U.S. National Museum Bulletin 50 (continued by Herbert Friedmann); and the Field Museum series, "Catalogue of Birds of the Americas and the Adjacent Islands," mainly by C. E. Hellmayr. The source of any particular name is not important. Hawaiian language names for species found only in that State are included and equated to English names—or vice versa. Some British names are included for species found in both the Old World and North America. Some truly vernacular or colloquial names of waterfowl, particularly, are included where they are distinctive to a species, but many such names are used only locally and others are applied indiscriminately. An extensive list of local names for game birds was published by W. L. McAtee in 1923, as U.S. Department of Agriculture Miscellaneous Circular No. 13.

Not all variants of old names are indexed. Where similar modifiers such as Texas and Texan, or San, Saint, and St. Lucas have been used for the same species, only one is listed. Where the difference between an old and modern name is merely "European" versus "Eurasian," the old name is not listed. Old names that differ from modern ones only in prefixing a modifier to a presently used group name, as in eastern and western house wren, are excluded, except where there is a possibility of confusion with another species with a similar or identical group name (e.g., redstarts, nighthawks).

Old names are listed alphabetically by group name in the left column; some are listed more than once or are cross-referenced if the group name is ambiguous. The present English name of the species to which the old name applies is in the middle column, and its present scientific name is in the right column. Current English and scientific names are based on the sixth (1983) edition of the Check-list of North American Birds and supplements to the Check-list published in the Auk in 1985 and 1987. Several footnotes attempt to explain instances in which the application of an English name has changed from one species to another or there is some other possible confusion.

It is unlikely that this list is complete or error-free. Please call omissions or errors to the author's attention.

As noted, the concept of this list originated with Curtis Sabrosky. Martha B. Hays did much of the early compilation. David W. Johnston reviewed the entire manuscript, and Peter Cannell provided helpful suggestions.


l White-necked crow is properly applied to Corvus leucognaphalus of Hispaniola and (formerly) Puerto Rico.

2 This name may also apply to the Pacific loon, Gavia pacifica, recently split from the Arctic loon.

3 Several species in the genus Carduelis are presently called greenfinches.

4 Records of Wright's flycatcher before 1939, and most before 1957, pertain to Empidonax oberholseri.

5 Nomenclature of the black-tailed group of gnatcatchers follows the recommendation of Atwood 1988 (Ornithol. Monogr. no. 42).

6 These names may apply also to Clark's grebe, Aechmophorus clarki, recently split from the western grebe. The latter name was used for the two species combined.

7 The name western gull was used until recently to include the species now known as the yellow-legged gull, Larus livens.

8 The name sparrowhawk to a group of Old World species in Accipiter.

9 This name may be applied loosely to any grebe.

10 Early references to the tropical kingbird may refer to the present Couch's kingbird, Tyrannus couchii; the species have recently been divided.

11 Redwing applies properly to a Eurasian thrush, Turdus iliacus, but has been used with various modifiers for the red-winged blackbird.

12 Pink-footed shearwater is the current name for Puffinus creatopus.

13 This name has been applied also to populations now known as kamao, M. myadestinus; amaui, M. oahuensis; and olomao, M. lanaiensis. All were formerly considered a single species.

14 This is not Pipilo albicollis of Mexico.

15 Yellowhammer is properly applied to an Old World sparrow, Emberiza citrinella.