Birds that call their names

Imagine having our names based on the shape of our nose, our hairstyle, our body color, or based on the way we speak and behave! It would be funny and possibly even horrible, don’t you think? Fortunately our parents did not do that. But this is exactly what ornithologists did while naming most of the birds. Thankfully, bird names do not sound horrible. How do birds get their names? Many of them are named based on the color of their body feathers, shape and size of their body parts and food habits (eg. Black-winged stilt, Small green bee-eater). Interestingly, some of them get their names from the way they call or sing.

Many of us will have seen an Asian Koel, a well known brood parasite of crows (i.e. they don’t build their own nests but lay eggs on other bird nests). How did the Asian Koel get its name? Try to listen when it calls. The female Koel gives a bubbling call, and the male bird calls Koo…oo…Koo..oo and sometimes calls Ko..el…Ko..el… Ko..el And that’s why we call them Koel! Listen Asian Koel call here.

There are many more birds that get their names based on their calls and songs. These names are called onomatopoeic names. If you listen to a Common Cuckoo (which is a migratory bird from Europe) you will know why this bird is called what it’s called. The call is a two note Cuk…koo…Cuk…koo…Cuk…koo…

Common Cuckoo. Photo: Wikipedia
Common Cuckoo. Photo: Wikipedia

Listen Common Cuckoo call here.

Another example is Hoopoe. Hoopoe has got a far crying repetitive pooop….pooop….pooop or upupup…upupup…upupup…. Hence, the Latin name of this bird is Upupa epops. The generic name (first name) is based on its call.

Eurasian Hoopoe. Photo: Radha Rangarajan
Eurasian Hoopoe. Photo: Radha Rangarajan

Not only in English, but also in several of our Indian languages, bird names are based on their vocalizations. In Hindi, crows are called Kauwa, resembling their call Kaww…kaww…kaww and Grey Francolin is Teetar since they give out a loud and repetitive call Ka-tee-tar….tee-tar…

In Telugu, Red-wattled Lapwings are called Uththuthhi which renders like their call. In Tamil, Common Hawk-Cuckoo is called Akka Kuyil since their repetitive call sounds like Akka..Akka..Akka…. Akka means elder sister in Tamil while Kuyil refers to cuckoos in general.
Not only do individual species get their names from their calls and songs, but several groups of birds are also named in this way. Some examples are babblers, laughingthrushes, warblers, whistling ducks and chats.

Common Hawk cuckoo. Photo: P. Jeganathan
Common Hawk cuckoo. Photo: P. Jeganathan

Most of us surely have nicknames given by our school mates and friends. And so do birds! Birdwatchers refer to Red-wattled Lapwings as Did-he-do-it? Did-he-do-it? Pity-to-do-it since their alarm call can be rendered in words. Common Hawk Cuckoo is also called Brainfever bird as their ceaseless call sounds very much like saying Brain Fever…Brain Fever. Indian Cuckoo calls are rendered as one more bottle…one more bottle…

Red-wattled Lapwing. Photo: P. Jeganathan
Red-wattled Lapwing. Photo: P. Jeganathan

The interesting thing is that if you listened to these bird calls or songs now you would recall these words. Different languages have different words and meanings while rendering the bird calls (like that of Common hawk cuckoo). There are various stories from folklores behind some of these bird calls and songs too, which we will explore next.


To listen to bird calls and songs from India and around the world, check out this website – http://www.xeno-canto.org/

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 5th  October 2016.

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