Commoner’s Field Guide to Birds

Three years ago, I asked for a bird feeder for Mother’s Day. My first, time-intensive, agonizing identification was of a Black-capped Chickadee. If only I had first read the field guide books, which all agree that the likely first enthusiastic customer on a new backyard feeder will be the cheerful Black-capped Chickadee. I’ve since identified 25 bird species in my backyard, and the Black-capped Chickadee is one of the few whose name makes any kind of sense. It wears a rakish black beret, perfect for any basement poetry reading, and natters on throughout the day, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee,” sometimes commenting with goodwill, sometimes scolding with irritation, but always with its charming, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” If only my adolescent were so endearing with his constant repetition of, “Can we have pizza? Can we have pizza? Can we have pizza?”

Birds, I learned to my horror, were named by white men who shot them dead and noted the defining details of corpses. John James Audubon might shoot hundreds of birds for the sake of one drawing. A Ring-necked Duck’s neck ring might be obvious from close-up observation of a stationary object, but in the cold, wet field, from a distance, on a moving target, it’s a Ring-billed Duck, for heaven’s sake. Duh. I am not the first to note this, I now see in some field guides, so we are all in agreement: let’s get rid of these stupid names and start over.

This system was clearly instituted in order to make fanatical birders look smarter while the rest of us look dumb. If it turns out the name is too easy on the casual observer, the ABA (American Birding Association) and AOU (American Ornithologists’s Union) change it. Thus, the Marsh Hawk made too much sense: it was a hawk in marshes! So they changed it to Northern Harrier in order to remain superior.

Let us create a field guide for the masses. Following are new names for some favorite local birds, as voted upon by UME (You and Me):

Phyllis Diller and Madeline Kahn:

diller hooded merganser





Former Hooded Mergansers
Former Hooded Mergansers (female and male)

Executioner’s Hood:
(this guy swung wild with his hatchet and chopped off his own leg):

Former Dark-eyed Junco
Former Dark-eyed Junco

Elton John:

Elton John
Former Wood Duck (seriously, they name the most over-the-top duck in North America like it’s drab lumber?)

Red Stink-eye:

The Evil Red-eye
Former Spotted Towhee

Darth Vader’s Mask:

Darth Vader's Mask
Former Northern Shovelers

Ingalls Bonnet:

Former Bufflehead
Ma Ingalls
Former Ma Ingalls

Grace Jones:

Former Crow
Former Crow

Hungover Sinatra:

Former Double-crested Cormorant
Former Double-crested Cormorant

David Bowie:

David Bowie
Former Belted Kingfisher (big as a platform boot)

Lastly, let me introduce the Ring-BILLED Duck:

Former Ring-necked Duck

On Mother’s Day, I’ll be reading about some of these birds on the podcast Inside Voice, produced by Jennifer Scharf, who co-produced the Seattle Listen To Your Mother stage shows (for which I got my only brow waxing job to date; see photo inset above). The podcast will feature new work by other members of the Listen to Your Mother casts. This was also my first foray into Skype. You really can teach bad birders new tricks.

*** Photo Credits:

Phyllis Diller:

Madeline Kahn:

Ma Ingalls:

All other photos: Jennifer D. Munro


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