Friday 14 August 2009

Names Games, part 2: North America

In part 1 of my translation series I have provided examples from Europe, but how about German names for North American birds?
Yes, in case you are wondering: all the world’s bird species were given a German name. You may wonder further, asking what sense that makes when all the field guides will only contain English and scientific names and thus all conversation – even amongst Germans – about those foreign bird species will probably rely on the English names? But even though you might make a good point and it might not make very much sense, a few people apparently considered it interesting enough to be worth their while and here we are with German names for all the birds in the world except some recent splits and discoveries.

In contrast to European bird names, those names from strange and foreign lands (strictly from a German view point) did not evolve through common usage amongst the ordinary people over a prolonged period of time or underwent multiple changes as the names evolved (e.g. Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starlings from Africa simply weren’t at the centre of people's every-day conversations in 18th century Germany). Sadly, these German names were actually made up by birders and / or scientists rather recently and therefore are often characterized by a clear lack of aesthetics and fantasy. Most are actually – in my opinion – rather boring, like “Messingglanzstar” (Brass Glossy Starling) which is the lovely Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starling.
This lack of creativity sadly also applies to many of the German names of North American bird species. However, using the fabulous BabelBirdy site, I have found a few examples that might fill your heart with joy or your head with ache. These German names were translated into English as in part 1 and I am more than curious to learn from my (North American) readers what they think and like or dislike:

The German names of selected North American Bird Species, translated into English

There is not much excitement in the big, large non-passerines as most groups also occur in the old world, so there was no need to make up a lot or create some serious nonsense. People simply took the German name for the group and added the specific part. Here’s what I found to be quite charming:

Anhinga = American Snake-necked Bird
Yellow-crowned Night-heron = Crab Heron
Roseate Spoonbill = Pink Spooner
Wood Duck = Bride Duck (no idea!)
Bufflehead = Bufflehead Duck (oh, the cowards! Why did they have to add “Duck” to one of the coolest bird names of all time? Why Büffelkopfente and not just Büffelkopf?)
Harris’s Hawk = Desert Buzzard
Laughing Gull = Aztec Gull
Black Skimmer = American Scissorbill
Dowitchers = mudwalkers
Greater Roadrunner = Road Cuckoo

Now we get to the smaller birds, and these include quite a few groups that don’t have any representatives in the old world. Here, people had to get at least a bit more creative and I have found a few interesting translations.

The Tyrant Flycatchers are called tyrants in German and there sadly is not a lot of variation or alterations within the group – all tyrants:
Olive-sided Flycatcher = Spruce Tyrant
Northern Bearless-Tyrannulet = Chaparral Fly-piercer (my goodness, the only exception to tyrant but what an awful one. Germans are no better than the rest. We owe the bird, we all do, all the languages in the world, every nation. We owe a lot.)
Empidonax flycatchers = mostly Tree Species + Tyrant (e.g. Yellow-bellied = Birch Tyrant), interesting: Pacific Slope Flycatcher = Bank Tyrant

Vermilion Flycatcher = Purple Tyrant (crap)
Eastern Kingbird = King Tyrant (wow, if the Eastern Kingbird gets split some day, maybe we can have a King Dictator Tyrant and then a King Dictator Sith Tyrant Overlord – what an evil creature in the Land of the Free)
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher = Scissor Tyrant (the definite anti-climax of my research, how lame, what a sorry excuse for a bird name)
Great Kiskadee = Bentevi (what? I have no idea whatsoever! Looks like a random combination of letters to me)
Phainopepla = Mourning Silk Snapper (the snapper as a reference to flysnapper = the German expression for a flycatcher)
vireos = basically the German translation of the English name + Vireo e.g. Hutton’s Vireo = Huttonvireo (can you spell b-o-r-i-n-g?)

Gray Jay = Tit Jay (wait, the Paridae, not the structures that define mammals)
Tree Swallow = Swamp Swallow
Tufted Titmouse = Native American Tit (in German, we use the politically incorrect term for the ethnic group which is however not politically incorrect in German as the “Indianer” are very highly respected, almost adored here thanks to the Karl May books and movies)
bluebirds = cottage singers (interesting!)
Townsend’s Solitaire = Townsendklarino (please, don’t ask where the Klarino comes from unless you want a useless response of a clueless guesser. It sounds Italian, well, definitely nothing even remotely resembling a German origin - your job, Rick)
Varied Thrush = Necklace Thrush
thrashers = mocking thrushes

wood warblers = forest singers
Prothonotary Warbler = Lemon Forest Singer
Blackburnian Warbler = Spruce Forest Singer (another chance wasted! The poor creature)
Nashville Warbler = Ruby-spot Forest Singer (Not bad, ey? Not bad)
Northern Parula = Tit Forest singer (yet again, the Paridae, not the …)
Yellow Warbler = Gold Forest Singer
Cape May Warbler = Tiger Forest Singer (YES !!! Strrrrrrrike!!)
Yellow-rumped Warbler = Crowned Forest Singer
American Redstart = Flysnatcher Forest Singer (well, as I said: Flycatchers are Flysnatchers)
Common Yellowthroat = Little Willow Yellowthroat
Ovenbird = Pipit Forest Singer

The birds formerly known as North American Tanagers (likely to become Tanager-Cardinals) = Tangaren (oh no, I’ve been betrayed by my own language!)
Dickcissel = Dickzissel
Blue Grosbeak = Azure Bishop
Painted Bunting = Pope Finch (yes, I swear it is true!)
Pyrrhuloxia = Slender-billed Cardinal

All the Emberizine sparrows and their allies are correctly called Buntings in German (har har har):
all towhees = Ground Buntings
Chipping Sparrow = Buzzing Bunting
Field Sparrow = Clapper Bunting
Vesper Sparrow = Evening Bunting
White-crowned Sparrow = Badger Bunting
Dark-eyed Junco = Winter Bunting (I love that one)
The other “sparrows” are mostly a direct translation of their name’s specific part + bunting, e.g. Baird’s Bunting, Henslow’s Bunting, Grasshopper Bunting, White-throated Bunting, Harris’s Bunting etc.

Icterid orioles = Trupiale (yet again, why oh why?)
Icterid meadowlarks, grackles, cowbirds and blackbirds = in German, an alteration of the word starling is used ("Stärling", although the German word for Starling is “Star” without the –ing, but the root is the same), so it is comparable to calling these species not starlings but maybe steerlings, stoorlings, steurlings, stierlings, stairlings, etc. in English. Even though I find it sad to name all the Icterids (except for orioles which are Trupiale and some grackles being Grackels) “Stärling” without any variation or diversity, I do recognize the creativity behind simply making a new word up for such a large group. The only interesting example for a species I found:
Great-tailed Grackle = Jackdaw “StXXrling” (so you know where to look for vagrant Jackdaws in North America now)

American Goldfinch = Gold Siskin
Pine Siskin = Spruce Siskin (yeah, we love to cause some confusion)
redpolls = Birch Siskins

What's that you say? Oh, I can't hear you, just write it down in the comments section, will you?


Rick Wright said...

Jochen's right, of course: most of these names are so obviously contrived (so "sentimental" in the Schillerian sense) that there's not much to say about them.

Brautente simply translates the scientific epithet sponsa, referring to the drake's wedding finery.

Krabbenreiher is very unfortunate, leading to possible confusion with Squacco Heron (crabier in French, if I remember right).

Ufertyrann is a very poor choice for Pacific-slope Flycatcher; it's really Cordilleran that nests in crevices in banks.

The kiskadee name is nonsense, apparently an attempt to transcribe the common call, which does definitely have a "v" sound in it (think Lapwing in display), but "Bentevi"--come on!

Meisenhaeher is great--many subspecies of Gray Jay really do look like great overgrown shaggy chickadees.

My favorite of the ones Jochen cites is Klapperammer: obviously formed with reference to Klappergrasmuecke, which ends its song (one of my favorites) with a trill somewhat like a dried-out Field Sparrow's. And Dachsammer is right on, too.

I remember German birders calling juncos Junkos; is that passe'?

Trupial is simply troupial; no need for yet more "orioles" in the world!

I've enjoyed reading these, Jochen; thanks!

Rick Wright said...

PS: "Klarino" probably refers to the musical instrument--Townsend's Solitaire has a very long, fluty song.

Hilke Breder said...

Interesting compilation of names. Brautente: hilarious to call a male wood duck bride-duck. Did somebody confuse the genders?

I assume most of these German names were invented in the 19th or early 20th century for collectors who wanted to show off their collection of bird skins to friends and guests or donate them to a museum. Latin names would simply not do. According to Bernd Heinrich's The Snoring Bird, writing about his father who made a living out of collecting and preserving exotic birds, skins of rare birds were highly prized by museums and private collectors alike. Much of what was considered natural science then consisted of classifying and naming, Latin names of course, which then had to be translated for into German for public consumption.

SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

I had a good smile at some of these plus your remarks Jochen but the one that really gets me is the fly-piercer? My goodness, what WERE they thinking?? It catches flies and doesn't pierce them. It sounds like some kind of old fashioned duel with rapiers. :)

Hilke Breder said...

Maybe it's a bit off topic, but there is a fascinating article about taxonomy in the NY Times, "Reviving the Lost Art of Naming"

Rick Wright said...

By the way, I finally made the effort to check into "Eisvogel."

The name does originally come from "iron," but "eisarn"=ferric was reanalyzed under the influence of Pliny (the kingfisher lays in the winter...) as "eis ar"="ice predatory bird."

Makes a cool bird seem even cooler.

Arnulf said...

For more information on German birdnames (for German, not North American birds), you could check out Hugo Suolahti's "Die deutschen Vogelnamen -- Eine wortgeschichtliche Untersuchung" from 1909 that's been reprinted by deGruyter in 2000. It's basically an, at times very entertaining, etymology of most German birdnames.
Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print (see info at Amazon), but maybe it'll be available at your local library.

Jochen said...

@ Rick 1 and 2: thanks yet again for your information and for enriching my post!! "Ufertyrann" for Pacific slope might just be a result of there not being seperate names yet for the rather recently-split Cordilleran/Pacific-slope.
Junko might just be a "practical" approach for German birders who have only English field guides and thus all know the English names but have never heard of the official German name. I would guess that most birders in Germany know what a Junco is but would be completely clueless if you'd start a talk about a winter bunting.
And I would also guess that klarino has to do with an instrument.

@ Hilke: glad you enjoyed the post. I guess you are right about the origin of the names. The German names committee however got really active in the late 1990ies and a lot of the names were changed then to what they are today. For example, most (but not all) references to persons or regions were eliminated. They simply tried to make the names more logic and attractive to BIRDERS. The times they are a'changing.

@Joan: I guess fly-piercer is still marginally better than beardless tyrannulet, but I also don't get why birders (or those in charge of making up names) just don't seem to appreciate the beauty of a drab brown-grey bird.

@ Hilke 2: nothing even remotely associated with bird names is off-topic here! Thanks a million for the link!

@ Rick 3: thanks for introducing me to yet another hypothesis on the bird's name. Ice Kite (the hawks called Aar in German nowadays are mostly called Kite in English) is by far the best one I've heard, sure beats Iron or Ice bird.

@ Arnulf: thanks very much for the link, I wasn't aware of the book yet. With Christmas approaching (we have 37°C today and really LONG for winter) I might hint my wife towards reading the comments section of this post!!

@ everyone. as with part 1, I am very happy my posts generated so much interest and comments. Blogging will slow down on Belltowerbirding yet again for a few weeks but I'll see what I can do to follow up with other comparable posts.

John B. said...

Possibly Brautente is a suggestion that the Wood Duck's crest looks like a veil?

I like the family name for the wood warblers – Waldsinger? The names for both Cape May Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler come very close to the scientific names and are very descriptive besides.

Birch Siskin is a great descriptor, but I prefer redpoll.

PeF said...


the name for the Kiskadee comes from the Portuguese name Bem-te-vi which is an adaptation of the birds call.

And if you translate that into English, you'd get something like
"Saw you well". :)


Laurent said...

I just noticed that the Cap May Warbler has basically the same translation in French "paruline tigree", or "tiger warbler"

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