BIRD WATCH: What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually

A FRIEND SENT me a newspaper clipping recently. It was from a newspaper in Alabama and carried an article I found interesting.

It was primarily about the need to attach names to “things.”

When you add birds to the subject under discussion, things get very interesting. Names and nicknames, even those given to birds, touch history, regional differences and a variety of other subjects.

The article in the Huntsville Times was written by Steven Austad. He was writing about more than the urge to name things; he was also writing about Alabama’s state bird.

The bird is a flicker, a Northern flicker, and is related to our Northern flicker. The Alabama bird was once called the yellow-shafted flicker. Our Northern flicker was the red-shafted flicker. One has yellow shafts and coloring in its feathers. The other has red in its plumage.

Then, the ornithologists decided the two birds were not two different species because they will hybridize and produce fertile offspring. Their young often look like a combination of both races.

Alabamians chose the yellow-shafted flicker for their state bird. In that part of the country, it is known as the yellowhammer. I’m familiar with that nickname but didn’t know how it evolved until I read Austad’s article.

When the term “yellowhammer” is used, it is associated with Alabama — and not only their flicker. This goes back to the Civil War.

Yellow trim was sewn on the uniforms of Alabamian soldiers. It made them easy to recognize, and soldiers from other states took to calling them “Allerbammer yallerhammers.”

Its distinctive yellow feathers and the way it “hammered” on trees and other noise-making objects gave the bird its name.

What about our state bird? It has always been known as the American goldfinch.

Now some call it by what was once a regional name. Willow finch has currently been designated as a name for our yellow bird.

Why was it originally called the American goldfinch? Because there is a European bird that is also called goldfinch, now the European goldfinch. It is colored nothing like our “wild canary.”

Wild canary is just one of the common nicknames attached to our North American bird. It is seen throughout North America and has been given other regional names. My favorite is “distlefink” — or “thistle finch.” They love damp, shady meadows where willows and thistles grow.

Other states claim this colorful yellow bird with the merry song for their state bird. In both Iowa and New Jersey, its title is Eastern goldfinch.

Several other birds are claimed by more than one state. One of the most popular is the meadowlark. There are two species, Eastern meadowlark and Western meadowlark. The Western is far more widespread in North America and the two overlap ranges in much of the country.

Identification can be a challenge in the overlapping ranges. Their voices are one way to tell them apart, but both are known for their singing. It is their voices that echoed across lonely prairies that are responsible for this bird’s popularity. Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming and Oregon all claim the meadowlark for their state bird.

Only one other bird is even more popular than the meadowlark. One of this bird’s regional names makes it easy to identify.

Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia all picked the “crested redbird” for their state bird. It is officially known as the Northern cardinal.

Choosing a state bird began in 1927. That’s when the state legislatures for Alabama, Florida, Maine, Missouri, Oregon, Texas and Wyoming chose their state birds. Arizona was the last state to choose one. In 1973, they picked the cactus wren. I don’t know if it has any nicknames.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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