We Can’t All Be Whiskey Jacks – Meditations on a Bad Bird Name
It’s no secret that I am a big fan of our more elaborate and storied bird names. Besides timberdoodles and whiskey jacks, I also have a soft sport for bird names that are official but still lovely or funny or charming or strange – the Flappet Lark, for instance, which sounds Seussian, and the the Dark Chanting Goshawk, which sounds more like it belongs in one of Jim Henson’s feature-length films. And, of course, the Smew.
That said, there’s a lot of bird names that are at first blush more prosaic, but still deeply satisfying. The Solitary Sandpiper is aptly summed up in those two words. The Wood Duck, while it deserves many lines of poetry in its own right, is named with a folksy straightforwardness that seems appropriate to its place in the American forest and the American literature. The Olivaceous Warbler, the Ivory Gull, and the Cinnamon Teal are all named simply for their color, but the names are nevertheless evocative.
So why doesn’t the name Violet-Green Swallow work for me? It’s certainly accurate. The iridescent sheen on the backs of these beautiful birds does in fact flash, according to the light, in the colors of majesty and of nature, which seems appropriate. Yet somehow it lacks poetry. Maybe it’s the awkward hyphen in the middle, or the fact that the name feels out of step with the names of other swallows, which are mostly named for their preferred nest-sites (of course, Cliff Swallow is already taken, which is perhaps why the Violet-Green was not named according to the standard idiom. Off the top of my head, I would prefer to call this bird the Splendid Swallow (it is!,) the Shining Swallow, or even the Lofty Swallow, which gets us at least back into the vicinity of its nest.
Are there any bird names that you irrationally dislike, or just don’t think are good enough for the bird in question?
Feature image by Noël Lee; Dark Chanting Goshawk by Frank Vasson; back view of Violet-green Swallow by Walter Siegmund