Since You Asked: What's in a name?

We enjoy the feisty little chickadees that visit our bird feeder, and it's easy to see how they got their name. But how do birds get their names?

— Bob and Ruth T., Medford

Yup, the chickadee's name is an instance of onomatopoeia — calling something what it sounds like — although it might have been more accurate to call them chickachickadee-dee-dees.

We're assuming you're asking about common names, and not scientific ones, which are quite different. Birds are named for all kinds of things. Some names are straightforward. It doesn't take an ornithologist to tell the difference between a greater yellowlegs and a lesser yellowlegs, at least in principle. Dippers and wagtails are equally obvious, as is the scissor-tailed flycatcher.

Piping means chirping, so sandpipers are sand-chirpers. The spotted sandpiper has spots. The stilt sandpiper has long legs. And if you see a long-billed dowitcher next to a short-billed dowitcher, you will have no trouble deciding which is which.

But what's a dowitcher, anyway? The word is a corruption of Duitsch (Dutch) or Deutscher (German) snipe. It probably goes back to Dutch colonials in New York.

Some birds have their common and scientific names mixed up. Those common mergansers you see around here are Mergus merganser in Latin, which means "diving goose."

Names come from lots of languages. The gadwall is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon "gad," meaning "point," referring to the bird's teeth. Sora is an American Indian name for that bird.

Of course, science geeks delight in confusing us. Here at the Since You Asked International Ornithology Institute, we didn't mind the oldsquaw becoming the long-tailed duck. But we're still apoplectic about the black-shouldered kite having to go around as the white-tailed kite.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501

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