Bird Name Etymologies

February 9th, 2016

fiery-phoenix-robert-ballMany of us have difficulty remembering the scientific names of birds, such as those long order and family names– Phoenicopteriformes? Really?  

There is help for us, though.  We know about the phoenix, right?  The mythological bird that resurrects from fire.  And for anything birdy it will be immensely helpful to learn that “pteryx” means “wing” in Greek.  So now we can see in Phoenicopteriformes “phoenix-wing-form”; these are the birds whose form is reminiscent of the wing of a phoenix (i.e. fiery).  What order has such fiery wings?  The flamingos!– The FLAMINGos.  Suddenly bird names aren’t as difficult as we thought.  Greek and Latin are far from dead languages, my friends– they are as alive as Shakespeare, Lincoln, and the Beatles.  Our world becomes richer and our vocabulary multiplied if we can tap into these two languages. Here is a list of some word histories that might help us remember those pesky scientific names.  Let me know if you want me to add something, either because you know it and want to make a contribution, or because you are frustrated with a certain name and want to use etymology as the best sort of mnemonic device. This list will start short but I’ll update it from time to time. The sequence is consistent with Jarvis et al. (2014), at each node reserving order Passeriformes for the final position.

Before getting into the specifics, there are eight frequently recurring word parts that we should get out of the way in the beginning so I don’t have to explain them over and over.

-iformes  –   This suffix is reserved for bird order names. When you see a scientific name ending in this, it is designated as an order of birds. As in English, forma in Latin means “form, type, figure, shape”. So for instance, since columba means “dove”, the order of doves or pigeons– Columbiformes– would refer to those birds that are have the forma of a columba (actually now we base it on evolutionary relatedness, but you get the idea). Order names are generally based in turn on the family name that contains the type genus, i.e. the bird that has been chosen to represent the order as a whole, often for historical reasons. So the dove order is Columbiformes because Columba is the type genus, whose family is Columbidae. There are exceptions, though. For instance, Order Galliformes is used even though there is no longer a “Gallidae”, the chicken Gallus having been placed in Phasianidae; nobody changed the family name for some reason. They should have, especially if, as I believe, the older name is Gallidae anyway, by one year: Temminck named Gallidae in 1820, followed by Horsfield naming Phasianidae in 1821. Anyway, major detour, onto the next suffix.

-idae  –  This suffix is reserved for bird family names. When you see a scientific name ending in this, it is designated as a family of birds. It derives ultimately from the Greek eidos, meaning “image” or “appearance”, from which we get the word “idea”.  Plato used this word to refer to a general type that can represent all the specific manifestations, and now we use it in a similar way. Again, taxonomy has been revolutionized by evolutionary biology and we don’t think of families as types; but for purposes of naming we do have a type genus, decided upon by several rules of zoological nomenclature; and this in turn dictates the name of the family: so the family of the thrush genus Turdus is Turdidae.

orn- –  The Greek word for bird is ornis, genitive ornithos. Thus “ornithology” of course, and many uses in taxonomy, such as the many ancient birds or avialans that end in -ornis (e.g., SinornisConfuciusornis).

avi-  –  The name of birds as a class is Aves, and this precisely means “birds” in Latin (avis, pl. aves).

pter-  –  Not surprisingly, many scientific names for birds include a portion that is based on the Greek word pteron (feather) or pteryx (wing).  Most “pter-” words can be interpreted in this way; a pterosaur is a winged lizard, a pterygoid a winglike object (bone), and Archeopteryx has been christened “Old Wing”.

ala  –  This is the Latin word for “wing” (ala, plural alae), and is found in many bird scientific names, including the root group the Avialae, literally those with “birdy wings”.

pod-, pedi-  –  Feet are the next most common body part besides wings to be referred to in scientific names, at least at the family and order level.  The Greek word for foot is pous, but in declension the root is pod-.  In Latin it is pes, root pedi-.  Thus we have a podiatrist who’s a foot doctor, and cosmetic work on the foot is a pedicure.

a-  –  As a prefix, often this means “no” or “without”.  Thus aptery-” means “without wings” and “apodi-” means “without feet”.

In the following, I’ll assume you know these eight word parts. In addition, there are three cool things you should know about letters that will help:  (1) there is no c in Greek and no k in Latin, so Greek k-words became c-words in Latin(2) The letter x at the end of Greek words generally gets changed to or g when a suffix is added (thus the Strix owls are in Strigidae). And (3) the h sound in the beginning of Greek words was not made by a letter but an accent mark, so it was often dropped when importing into Latin.  So the Greek halcyon for kingfisher became alcyon, thus Alcedinidae.  On to the orders!

STRUTHIONIFORMES – Struthio is the type genus, meaning “ostrich” in Latin. It is an abbreviation of the Greek strouthiokamelus, which literally means “camel sparrow”, i.e. a bird that’s like a camel in that it’s huge and has a long neck and lives in the desert.  The Greeks also called the ostrich a giant sparrow, strouthos megale. To shorten it to struthio in Latin is a little ridiculous, as it ends up calling the ostrich a sparrow.

RHEIFORMES – Rhea was a titaness in Greek mythology, the daughter of mother earth (Gaia) and father sky (Uranus). She was considered the mother of several of the Greek gods. Her name either comes from metathesis (switching letters around) of the word era for earth or land, or else from rheo, which means flow or discharge (as in menorrhea, a symbol of motherhood).  In 1752 Paul Möhring decided to use this name Rhea for that perhaps ladylike, and certainly titanic, bird of South America.

TINAMIFORMES – The Carib Indians (Galibi to the French) called these groundbirds tinamu or inamu.  The word got Frenchified (Frenchfried?) to tinamou and there you have it.  Unfortunately we generally have no idea why native peoples called things what they do; often etymology slams to a halt as soon as we get to such a name.

APTERYGIFORMES – The kiwi looks like it has no wings, and indeed they are extremely reduced and probably absolutely functionless. So “no-wing” describes them well enough, although they might want to be known for what they have, not for what they don’t; Apteryx is what the schoolyard bully would call them.

CASUARIIFORMES – The Malayan word for this striking bird was kasuari, and that’s all we know.  Latinized this is casuari, and Anglicized it’s cassowary. By the way, if you’re familiar with the casuarina tree, that’s named for the resemblance of its foliage to the cassowary’s feathers.

ANSERIFORMES – Sometimes birds are just so familiar that the words for them just keep meaning the bird no matter how far back you trace them. Thus with Anser, the goose. Add that Greek aspirant “h” as you go back, and ultimately you get to a proto-Indo-European root ghans, from which we get gander, and even her husband the goose.  Who would have thought “anser” and “goose” have a common wordy ancestor! Darned cultural evolution…

Anatidae – There is no Anseridae!  Darn it all to heckle and jeckle.  The geese are with the ducks in Anatidae, from Anas, the genus for many ducks, from the Latin for… yes, duck, the root being anat-  It’s just Anas all the way back (no pun intended).

GALLIFORMES – Not surprisingly, the rooster has long been remarkable enough that his name has been gallus (Latin), gallos (Greek), for ages, descending from an ancient root that relates to his loud morning vocalization, which also gave us the word “call”. Our typical representation, “cock-a-doodle-doo” gave rise to another common name for him. He has made such a fuss for so long that now all the landfowl are named for him!

Cracidae – The Greek word kras is a poetic word for the head. Many of the members of this family have decorated heads, perhaps even poetically decorated– wattles, crests, poofy curls…

Numididae – Numida is named for Numidia in North Africa, which in turn is derived from the fact that there were nomadic people there. So the guineafowl are not being called nomads, but being associated with a place that had nomads.

Phasianidae – There’s no Gallidae, as I mentioned above. The Greek word for pheasant was phasianos, literally meaning a bird coming from near the Phasis River, now called the Rioni– a river in the country of Georgia flowing from the Caucusus to the Black Sea.  So, again, and rather uncommonly for a bird family, this is a place-name: Phasian-bird.

PODICIPEDIFORMES – The Latin word for rump, or butt, or anus– you get the picture– is podex, genitive podicis. So the grebes are being called ass-feet (hope they don’t mind), referring to the fact that their legs insert way in the back of the body because of their foot-propelled diving habits. You’d think the genus would thus be Podicipes, but because of a typo in a book by Latham in 1787, we’ve got Podiceps, which literally means “head-foot”. I don’t know whether I’d rather be called head-foot or ass-foot, but that’s beside the point. Luckily the family and order names are spelled right.

PHOENICOPTERIFORMES  –  Crimson in Greek is phoinix. The phoenix is a mythological bright red bird (Harry Potter fans may remember this), which dies in fire and resurrects from the ashes. You might also have heard of the Phoenicians, who were named for the crimson color that they first developed. So anyway, Phoenicopterus refers to the right red wings of the flamingo.

COLUMBIFORMES – In Aristophanes’ famous play The Birds, he used the word kolumbis, “diver, swimmer”, to refer to the rock pigeons of Greece, apparently because of the swimming motions they made with their wings when flying (I haven’t been able to confirm this explanation). Whether or not he made it up, it stuck, in a big way– Columbia, Colombia, Columbus, and of course Columba the type genus of its family and order were the verbal descendants of this imaginative name.

PTEROCLIDIFORMES – Pterocles literally means “key-wing” in Greek (ptero kleis). The root of kleis is kleid-, hence the d.  As for why it’s called a key-wing, one hunch that has been offered is the elongated middle tail-feathers of the sandgrouse species that the ancients would have seen– Pterocles alchata, the pin-tailed sandgrouse.  It should have been key-tail in that case, for one thing, and I don’t even know that Greeks had those kinds of keys.  I think they are referring to the key design, or meander, that is often found in Greek art; I could imagine the patterns on sandgrouse wings being considered similar to those repeating geometric designs.

MESITORNITHIFORMES – Mesitornis is literally, in Greek, a “go-between bird”, as mesit- means “middle”. It was named by Napoleon’s nephew (Charles Lucien Bonaparte), by the way, as several of our birds were (this one in 1855). Anyway, from this basic definition we could go in two directions: a common use for the word mesites is “reconciler, intercessor, mediator”.  But I cannot come up with a reason why one would call this bird a go-between in that case, except for the fact that it does tend to be social. Perhaps he just gave it the boring name of being in a “middle position” taxonomically or size-wise.

CUCULIFORMES – A couple of cuckoos, including our region’s black-billed cuckoo, say their name– “cuckoo-cuckoo”. The idea of a crazy person is American 20th century, but cuckoo clocks were around since the 18th century, as was the reference to a stupid (probably repetitive) person.  All of these things refer to the cuckoo’s call.  “Cuckold” is a bit of a confused term– it is a man whose wife has cheated on him, and refers to the female cuckoo of many species that lays eggs in other birds’ nests.  But just because she lays eggs in a nest doesn’t mean she slept with the owner.

MUSOPHAGIFORMES – Musa is the banana or plantain, from the Arabic mauz; and phag– is to eat, like phagocytosis in cell bio or mycophagy for you mushroom lovers. So this is the order of the plantain-eaters, or banana-eaters, which is a pretty good description of many of these birds, although a lot of them like figs even more.

OTIDIFORMES – The bustard’s name is literally Otis, what more can one say?  This name is often thought to relate to the Greek oti- regarding ears or hearing (where we get your otolaryngologist, and eventually “audio”), so Otto or Otis could mean “keen of hearing”, and a bustard might have been named for its head feathers that do extend back or outward like ears.  Good enough for me!  Or you can just say his name’s Otis.

CAPRIMULGIFORMES – People used to think that the members of this family sucked on the udders of goats for food, which is why they’re called “goatsuckers” in your Peterson guide. “Capri-” refers to goat (e.g. Capricorn; to caper is to jump around like a goat), and “mulgi-” refers to milk.

Nyctibiidae – Literally “night-living”, from nyx/nox and bios.  Of course it lives during the day too, so don’t be confused about that.  And the other Caprimulgiform families are also nocturnal, so the potoos shouldn’t really be singled out for this.  I would have called them something that refers to their remarkable ability to look like stumps (but then again the frogmouths do that too).

APODIFORMES – This suggests that the swifts and hummingbirds have no feet (a- podi-). Of course they do, but they’re small, particularly in the swifts.

Trochilidae – In Greek mythology Trochilus may or may not have invented the chariot.  In any event a trochilus is a fast moving critter, and the name was applied to all sorts of little birds until Linnaeus just made an executive decision to restrict it to the hummingbirds.

OPISTHOCOMIFORMES – This is a long way to say that the hoatzin is the bird with the mullet.  Outside of medicine we rarely see the Greek word opistho- anymore, but it means rear, back, dorsal.  And comi-, think of “comb” although it’s not really related– yes, hair.  Lotta hair in the back.

GRUIFORMES – Grus is Latin for crane, and these words are actually related. Way back along in Proto-Indo-European, their ancestor in something like gere-no was probably an attempt to name the bird after what it sounded like.

Heliornithidae – John Latham is the grandfather of Australian ornithology.  That’s all well and good, but in this list he’s mainly known for his mistakes.  In 1785 he apparently mistook a mention of the “bird of the sun” (oiseau de soleil in French, Latinized to Heliornis) for this group of birds, the finfoots, instead of the sunbittern (below, under Eurypygidae).  And now we call one of the finfoots a sungrebe, just to add to the confusion and to provide an opportunity for a difficult quiz question for ornithology students.  Technically this fin-footed-family should be Pinnipedidae, but that would invite confusion with the morphologically quite distinct seals and sea lions.

Rallidae – The genus name Rallus was Latinized from the modern French rale = rail.  Some think this term is used because it’s reminiscent of a rail’s cry. Others think of “thin as a rail”, which is of course true as these birds are laterally compressed, which allows them to slink through dense marsh vegetation.

CHARADRIFORMES – Aristotle talked about the little kharadrios named for nesting in a kharadra, a ravine or river valley. Most plovers nest in open land so this isn’t entirely helpful. One Greek plover, however, the little ringed plover, does seem to have a particular liking for riverbanks. (Also, hmmm, can it be a coincidence that Caradhras is that terrible mountain in the Lord of the Rings?  Apparently it is, as not only is it really the opposite of a ravine, but the name is formed from two Elvish words (caran = red, ras = horn) that exist elsewhere in Tolkien).

Burhinidae – As if calling these guys thick-knees wasn’t insulting enough in English, when we go back to the Latin these awkward things are called ox-noses, from bous (like bovine), and rhinos.  Choose your insult, they’re both pretty accurate– for a shorebird this knock-kneed one’s got quite a schnoz.

Haematopodidae – You can see the oystercatcher’s bright red bill a mile away, and oh yeah it has slightly pinkish legs.  So naturally some dingbat, in a move similar to describing an elephant as “an animal with a little tail”, decided to refer to oystercatchers as “blood-red footed”:  haema/haemato (like hemoglobin), and pus/podi.

Recurvirostridae – The rostrum is the bill. In the avocet, a notable member of this family, the bill is recurved, meaning curved up or backwards, like a recurve bow.

Jacanidae – We’ve excised the little cedilla from the Portuguese jaçana, taken from an American Indian (Tupi-Guarani) word pronounced similarly as jassana.  With this spelling alteration, and considering that there is no soft c in Latin, most pronounce it with a hard c, but the jacana has the distinction of having a name pronounced more ways than probably any other bird.  I doubt the bird itself has a strong opinion on the matter, although if it did, that would presumably be the final word.

Scolopacidae – The skolopax was for centuries, from Aristotle till after Linnaeus, any of those little shorebirds with a long pointy stick (skolops) for a bill. What’s funny is that words with skol– generally mean impaling, skewering, and skolops has “ops” in it, suggesting face or eye.  So with a little poetic license you can think of the sandpipers as poke-in-the-eye birds.  Ouch.

Laridae – Aristotle called the gull (or perhaps it was a cormorant, but let’s say it was a gull) a “fatso” (laros or laris), for its habit of eating incessantly at sea.

Stercorariidae – Another bird insulted by its name! Somebody thought to call the skuas “shit-birds”– stercoreus meaning filthy, foul, or just outright bad in Latin, from stercus meaning excrement. And yes the Romans did use it figuratively against each other, and, in this case on a bird with uncouth feeding habits.  It’s not clear whether they were using the term pejoratively or thought it literally appropriate because of the skua’s scavenging habits.

Alcidae – Latinizing the Old Norse word for the auk, alka, left us with a soft c because it’s followed by an i.

PHAETHONTIFORMES – The mythological Phaethon was the son of Helios, the sun… i.e., the tropicbird comes from the tropics, where the sun is.

EURYPYGIFORMES – Another rather loaded morphology-based name, the sunbittern is named for it’s broad, euro– (think of Europe) tail or rump pyge, like the pygostyle, or much more interesting, the Callopygian (literally beautiful-assed) Venus, a sculpture of the goddess where she’s twisting around to admire her own rearward hemispheres.  Returning to the sunbittern, and skirting any snide comment on its Euro-rump, it does have a nice broad tail, which the male can spread along with its wings to create a spectacular display for its prospective mate.




Diomedeidae – Diomedes was a Greek fighter whose buddies were all turned into good and wise birds that nest on islands (albatrosses, we can pretend).




ACCIPITRIFORMES – To say that a hawk “accepts” prey might be a polite term for what it’s actually doing, but that’s what Accipiter (accepter) means.

Cathartidae – Something cathartic is purging or cleans things up. That’s what the vulture does– cleans up the ground of all the dead bodies.

STRIGIFORMES – This name derives from the “strident” sound, or screech, of some owls.











Tyrannidae – The flycatchers are like tyrants, or absolute rulers, in that they take flying insects in flight at will. They also have a little crest which might give them a sort of regal aspect.

Mimidae – the Mimids mimic sounds of other birds and animals.

Sylviidae – The Old World Warblers are named for being woodland, or sylvan, birds.

Regulidae – The Rex is the king.  Regulus, a regulator, is a diminutive or lesser form, hence the common name “kinglet” for these little guys with ruby or golden crowns.

Vireonidae – Vireos are green (verdant, virescent) and are named for it.  “Vireo” literally means “I am green”.

Fringillidae – Finches thrive in the cold, or so goes the old wisdom. It’s true that a lot of our finches are northern birds. So “fringilla” comes from the same root as frigid or refrigerator.

Cardinalidae – This family is named after its cardinal member, the cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis, the male of which wears a bright red outfit just like those top Roman Catholic churchmen do.