McCown’s longspur probably is a bird you’ve never heard of, even if it did make news in August.
That’s when its name was changed.
It is now the thick-billed longspur because namesake John Porter McCown was at one time an officer in the Confederate army.
The longspur is a bird of wide horizons and short grass, a prairie bird. McCown was on duty with the U.S. Army in Texas when he shot the bird, at that time officially unknown to science.
He sent it to a friend, amateur ornithologist George N. Lawrence, who gave it McCown’s name, and then offered the first scientific description of it.
It was common to name birds after the person who found or recognized a species not previously described in ornithological literature, i.e. a precise and complete description from which future identification could be made.
Formal proposals to rename the longspur date to 2018, and the name change was made this year after petitions requesting that action were once again presented to the American Ornithological Society. It has committees responsible for official bird names in North and South America.
The name of a person given to a bird is known as an honorific. It can honor collection of the first specimen, as in McCown’s case.
The bird name can be given as a gift, the case when John James Audubon named Lucy’s warbler for the daughter of a friend. Audubon was the first to present a scientific description, thus earning the naming right.
Bird names can reflect the location where that initial identification was described, as in Philadelphia vireo, (not helpful in identification). They also can reflect a physical characteristic of the bird. Think of the golden-winged warbler (very helpful.)
There are 149 American birds named for people for one reason or another. Some have suggested that all of them be revisited, given names that more accurately reflect the bird physically, and remove any possible negative connotation.
This, of course, would create all sorts of problems for field guides and historic records, not to mention disagreements. The change is unlikely.
Some bird names just don’t make practical sense. Many could be changed to more accurately and obviously identify a specific species. This also is highly unlikely to be done. For one thing, it would spoil our fun.
We could no longer wonder, for instance, about the ring-necked duck. What ring, you might say. It’s there, a green band hidden in the neck feathers of the bird in its usual posture. Hunters see it, dead bird in hand. (The ring on the bill is evident.)
Or, the red-bellied woodpecker. The girlish blush on its tummy is mostly visible during breeding season, so name-wise it’s a bit of a stretch.
Or the pileated woodpecker, presenting a tiny dilemma when it comes to pronunciation, not to mention the meaning of pileated. (It means having a crest covering the pileum — pill-eum or pie-leum? And that means the top of the bird’s head from bill to nape.)
Why not call it the large crested woodpecker?
The American robin was named by early English settlers to this country for its resemblance to a smaller red-breasted bird back home. I’ve always wanted to change its name to red-breasted yard thrush (it is a thrush).
Years ago, on a guided bird trip to Texas, one of our leaders suddenly bolted to his left, calling as he ran, “Northern beardless tyrannulet.” He had heard its song.
This is a tiny gray flycatcher, obviously not easy to find, hence the sudden alert. Tyrannulet refers to a small member of the tyrant flycatcher family, tyrant touching the aggressive nature of these birds.
Beardless? The bird lacks rictal bristles found on the bearded tyrannulet. Rictal refers to small hairlike feathers at the base of a bird’s beak. This bird was named by someone with a magnifying glass and an attitude.
Be thankful for golden-winged warbler and the person who named it.
(North America is home to more than 1,000 bird species. If we start changing names, who knows where it would stop?)
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.