The following post was written quite some time ago but then got lost in the archives, half finished and half forgotten, until I stumbled upon this particular and peculiar post on Nate's incomparable Drinking Bird blog.
Oh, some might remember while others had hoped to forget, but this is a topic I am very fond of. I'll need to add tags to my posts one of these days - and this is not the one of the lot - but I can recall three posts on the subject (here, here, and here), with a few more surely buried in the archives.
Nate, inspired by a flaming and brilliant email from Ted Floyd (I'll have a lot of good to say about him soon) to a bird forum, writes about honorific names.
Well, I was about to look it up, but then quickly deduced that this had to mean bird species that were named in honour of a certain person by naming it after that certain person.
And as a matter of fact, this is something I had not failed to notice shortly after setting foot on North American soil for the first time in 1987.
I had bought myself a sweet little field guide - actually I had three, Peterson, the Golden Field guide and a third one whose name I can't recall, with photos instead of drawings.
Anyway, so I was trying to memorize the birds, their names and identification and struggled, because so many names were characterized by names. I'll let my comment to Nate's post do the fine tuning:
"... It is already difficult enough for a European birder to learn the identification of a few “difficult” bird species by heart before he visits North America, but to memorize in advance which warbler is from Connecticut, Kentucky, Tennessee, Nashville, Cape May, or is the sole property of Swainson, Townsend, Virginia (Virginia who?), Kirtland, MacGillivray, or Wilson, is a near impossibility, especially as the visiting birder has likely never been to any of these places, might have no idea where they are as he’s visiting Point Pelee in Ontario on his first trip to the continent, and has certainly never been introduced to the owners of the birds, let alone had a conversation with them. ..."
So quite a while ago, I started flipping through the pages of my trusty ol' Sibley and actually counted the birds named after names.
The result was impressive, as can be seen by the list at the end of this post. I am fairly sure the list is incomplete, but nevertheless:
The list contains 69 different persons, and 89 bird species are named after a person, which is roughly 11% of the bird species regularly found in North America. However, I should not fail to mention that the number of persons is likely larger than 69 as I have (for reasons of simplicity and because I just didn't want to freakin' google all the 89 honorific bird names) attributed all the Wilsons and Clarks etc. to the same person. I am fairly certain however that the two Clark birds (grebe and nutcracker) are named after two different Clarks and that this will likely be the case for a few more names.
And these are only the honorific bird names that contain a person's name. How about geographic names that honour or mention (or whatever it is that pleases) landscape structures or geographic entities, which in my honest opinion also fall into the same category?
If we take geographic references and names of landscape elements into account as well, the number of birds named after a name increases by roughly 105 species to at total of at least 204 species or 25% of all the bird species of North America.
You doubt that figure?
If in doubt, think it out...
1. All the "Eastern"s and "Western"s and "Northern"s like Eastern Kingbird, Western Grebe, Northern Shrike, ...
Seriously, they may seem to make sense, but in reality they mostly don't. A few examples:
The "Northern" in "Beardless-Tyrannulet might make sense if you live somewhere in Mesoamerica but for citizens of the USA or Canada, it's a joke. And look at Texas recently, where birders were able to see a Northern Wheatear (a vagrant from the far North) and a Northern Jacana (a vagrant from the far South) at the very same time.
And last but not least, just picture Clare up at Arctic Bay. Northern Cardinal? Well, he must be chuckling all the way through his Sibley...
2. All the states and cities, e.g. California Gnatcatcher, Kentucky Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, California Gull, Florida Jay, Carolina Parakeet (oh dear), Baltimore Oriole, Virginia Rail, Savannah Sparrow, ...
All you have to do is ask birders in Connecticut if they have the namesake's warbler on their state list and you'll have to agree that it's all a bit less then perfect.
3. All the geographic areas: South-Hills Crossbill, Mississippi Kite, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Laysan Albatross, ...
Ha! Look, while in St. Louis I never saw Mississippi Kites anywhere near the Mississippi, they were all in residential areas. The hawk might as well be called "University City Kite" if it was up to me.
And last but certainly not least, yes, you know it applies, no matter how much you may think it is unfair:
4. All the Americans: American Robin, American Crow, American Goldfinch, American Black Duck, ...
I am sorry but I just don't think that bird names were meant to sound patriotic, especially as American bird names just mimic European species that aren't even closely related to them, and I frankly feel the American Tree Sparrow and the likes deserves better.
Yet, worst of all:
5. All the Europeans or rather Eurasians: European Starling, European Tree Sparrow, etc.
Apparently, being invasive ecologically just wasn't enough.
Now, if you still disbelieve that 1 out of 4 species in North America is named after a name, go ahead: flip through your Sibley, page by page, and see for yourself.
I've been there, I've done that, and while the results were fun, the process wasn't particularly so.
I'll now leave you with the list of North American honorific bird names, the birds that were named after persons. It's a long, long list...
But rejoice: African birders must surely be worse off, but I am just not prepared to flip through my entire SASOL just yet...
Honorific Bird Names of North America
Abert (1): Towhee
Allen (1): Hummingbird
Anna (1): Hummingbird
Audubon (3): Shearwater, Oriole, Warbler
Bachman (2): Sparrow, Warbler
Baird (2): Sandpiper, sparrow
Barrow (1): Goldeneye
Bell (1): Vireo
Bendire (1): Thrasher
Bewick (1): Wren
Bicknell (1): Thrush
Bonaparte (1): Gull
Botteri (1): Sparrow
Brandt (1): Cormorant
Brewer (2): Blackbird, Sparrow
Brewster (1): Warbler (hybrid)
Buller (1): Petrel
Bullock (1): Oriole
Cassin (5): Auklet, Kingbird, Vireo, Sparrow, Finch
Clark (2): Grebe, Nutcracker
Cook (1): Petrel
Cooper (1): Hawk
Cory (1). Petrel
Costa (1): Hummingbird
Couch (1): Kingbird
Cravieri (1): Murrelet
Fea (1): Petrel
Forster (1): Tern
Franklin (1): Gull
Gambel (1): Quail
Grace (1): Warbler
Harlan (1): Hawk
Harris (2): Hawk, Sparrow
Heermann (1): Gull
Henslow (1): Sparrow
Herald (1): Petrel
Hutton (1): Vireo
Kirtland (1): Warbler
Kittlitz (1): Murrelet
Krider (1): Hawk
La Sagra (1): Flycatcher
Lawrence (2): Warbler (hybrid), Goldfinch
Leach (1): Stormpetrel
LeConte (1): Sparrow
Lewis (1): Woodpecker
Lincoln (1): Sparrow
Lucy (1): Warbler
Manx (1): Petrel
McCown (1): Longspur
McGillivray (1): Warbler
McKay (1): Bunting
Murphy (1): Petrel
Nelson (2): Gull (hybrid), Sparrow
Nuttall (1): Woodpecker
Ross (2): Gull, Goose
Sabine (1): Gull
Say (1): Phoebe
Scott (1): Oriole
Smith (1): Longspur
Sprague (1): Pipit
Steller (2): Eider, Jay
Swainson (3): Hawk, Thrush, Warbler
Thayer (1): Gull
Townsend (2): Solitaire, Warbler
Traill (1): Flycatcher (pre-split)
Vaux (1): Swift
Virginia (1): Warbler
Wilson (3): Stormpetrel, Plover, Warbler
Xantus (1): Murrelet