“Name Game” copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Docents frequently ask me, “What is the difference between a pigeon and a dove?” In my usual helpful way, I always reply, “Two letters.”
“Pigeon” is derived from a Middle French word meaning “young bird”; “dove” is assumed to be derived from (via Old and Middle English) an Old High German word meaning “dove.” There is a tendency to call smaller pigeons doves (jambu fruit dove) and larger birds pigeons (Mauritius pink pigeon). The point is, these common names do not signify a difference in taxonomic classification between pigeons and doves. For example, the common city birds we call pigeons are also known as rock doves.
The American robin is a good example of how birds are named and why common names are confusing. The European robin is a small thrush with a bright red breast that it displays to frighten or startle predators. The English fondly call this bird “Robin Redbreast” (Robin is a diminutive form of the name Robert). When the English emigrated to America, they named our larger thrush robin, too, although it is clearly not the same bird. In fact, homesick Britons throughout the world call any bird with a red breast a robin, whether it’s a thrush or not. (The English in America also missed their hedgehogs, which may explain why they called the woodchuck a “groundhog.”)
In the same vein, European settlers applied the name “bunting” to the cardinal grosbeaks, which are not particularly closely related to buntings. Ironically, most of the New World’s true buntings are called sparrows.
Another example of confusing names are the warblers. The warbler family is native to the Old World. In general, they are small, very plain birds with musical songs (hence, “warbler”). On the other hand, the wood warblers, found in the New World, are often very colorful when in their nuptial plumage ( for example, yellow warbler, cerulean warbler, American redstart), but their songs would not, shall we say, win a Grammy.
Of course, you have the opposite situation, too. When an American thinks of a solitary lake in Minnesota and its haunting sounds, the beautiful common loon instantly comes to mind. Upon hearing the very same cries, a Brit thinks of the common diver. Guess what? The common loon and the common diver are same species — they, like great gray owls, reindeer (caribou), and many other animals, are found along similar latitudes in both hemispheres and are familiar to many transcontinental cultures. In this case, the British name is more accurate; the loon’s adaptations for diving are second only to those of the penguins. The loon is so specialized for diving that adults cannot walk on land (they have to maneuver along on their breasts), and they require a long runway to take off. The bigger (and deeper) the lake, the better. Incidentally, the word “loon” is of Scandanavian origin (and is no relation to the Middle English word “loon,” meaning “crazy” or “foolish”). Given the number of Scandanavians who settled in Minnesota and other northerly parts, it’s not surprising that the North American bird has been dubbed with a Scandanavian name.
The bottom line is, don’t worry too much about those common names. After all, is the pronghorn antelope really an antelope?1