garden birds

This was going to be a post where I tried to cover the many different bird names between US and UK that I've covered on Twitter, but I now reali{s/z}e that I don't have enough blogging hours in a day to do that, so consider this Part One in a series of bird-related posts. This one focus(s)es on (BrE) garden birds—i.e. songbirds and the like. The kind of thing that might nest in a tree, near you. (Note that yardbird is not AmE for garden bird!) Photos are from Wikipedia, unless otherwise stated, and are generally of adult male birds.

The naming of birds in North America

North America and Europe differ in their native bird species a fair amount, and so there are different birds to name. But when English-speakers first encountered birds in America, they often used familiar words for the unfamiliar species.

A great source on AmE/BrE bird-name differences is British Names for American Birds by Cecil H. Brown in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 2 (June 1992). If you want to read it, but find a paywall, then do contact your public (or school/university) library, which might have access through JStor , you should be able to register to read it without paying. (See vp's comments below for info.)

Brown discusses four main patterns of application of British names to American birds:
  • A. A British monomial [i.e. single name] or base name [i.e as part of a compound] for British species X is used to label the same species occurring natively in America.
  • B. A British monomial or base name for British species X is used to label species Y occurring natively in America when (1) species X does not occur natively in America, and (2) species X and Y are of the same genus.
  • C. A British monomial or base name for British species X is used to label species Y occurring natively in America when (1) species X does not occur natively in America, (2) the genus to which species X belongs does not occur natively in America, and (3) species X and Y are of the same family.
  • D. A British monomial or base name for British species X is used to label species Y occurring natively in America when (1) species X does not occur natively in America, (2) the genus to which species X belongs does not occur natively in America, (3) the family to which species X belongs does not occur natively in America, and (4) species X and Y are of the same order. (Brown 1992: 33)
In other words, A-named birds have the most similarity between the places, and D birds the least.  We'll notice the differences most between the names for the C and D categories.

Of the 87 British bird names that Brown studied (for all kinds of birds, not just the types in this blog post), 52 were in category A (i.e. same bird, same name + expansions of the name ), 15 in B, 10 in C, 3 in D, and 7 were exceptions to these categories. 

BrE robin
AmE robin
American robins and European robins are both brown with red breasts, but otherwise they look very different. The robin found in UK is Erithacus rubecula (left). The one in US is a type of thrush: Turdus migratorius (really; pictured right). Brown categorised this as type C, but this doesn't seem to take into account that the British robin is no longer considered a thrush, but a type of Old-World flycatcher.

It must be said: the UK robin is much (orig. AmE in this sense) cuter. They can also be quite sociable—probably because they're very keen on asserting territorial rights, so they will come and sit quite near you if you're relatively still. I'm sure when I read The Secret Garden as a child, I imagined the American type, but it's much more realistic to imagine the British type.

Both serve as symbols in their cultures, but of different things. In the UK, robins appear on Christmas cards. This is not because you see them more at Christmas(time). It seems that Victorian postmen were called 'robins' because of their uniforms, and so early Christmas cards had red-breasted birds with letters in their beaks as a kind of adorable visual metaphor. 

In the US, the robin is known as a first sign of spring, but it seems that's a bit of a myth too, since they don't actually migrate all that far during the winter. 

from Bizarro Comics—the joke doesn't work in UK

The bird is named after people—Robin being a variant of Robert. Originally, the British bird-name was redbreast, and one often hears robin redbreast as if it's the bird's first and last name.

In the US, Robin is usually a girl's name now (which might be spel{led/t} in different ways), whereas in the UK, Robin is more usually a boys' name and Robyn the female variant. 

Blackbird (late addition)

Commenter Bardiac notes that that word is used differently in AmE & BrE. Indeed, UK blackbirds are thrushes, often not all that black.  They thus look like AmE robins, fairly drab. New World blackbirds are of the same family as New World orioles, about which see below, and often more spectacular looking. Click on links for pics. 


Blue tit (UK)
The UK has many types of titmouse, which have often been called tit. The name is probably from Scandinavia, where the birds have similar names, and it is thought to be in imitation of the birds' chirp. Earlier and dialectal forms include chit and tomtit—again from the trend of giving birds human-like names. Calling them tits is a bit newer-fangled than calling them titmice. The OED says:

In Britain ‘tit’ has largely superseded the earlier name of titmouse, though the latter is still used for several American species. Most tits were traditionally placed in the genus Parus, but this has recently been split into several other genera.

One of the American species is more commonly called the (black-capped) chickadee, again an onomatopoetic name, after its alarm call. Some people assume that Americans don't call these birds tits because of alleged prudery, but this is almost certainly not the case, since Americans do call other birds titmice — the shortened tit form would not have been so common when colonists were originally naming these things. The chickadee naming could have come about because (a) it was seen as being different enough from European tits to warrant a new name, (b) the name was more evocative, or (c) it seemed silly to call a bird a titmousesimilar to AmE preferring ladybug over (BrE) ladybird for description's sake.  Nevertheless, as I say, there are other species called titmouse in the US like the tuffed titmouse below, so I think it was just that the name chickadee appealed more. Titmouse counts as Brown's category B.

                        Black-capped chickadee
Tufted titmouse (N Am)

Speaking of Christmas cards, American ones are sometimes illustrated with the black-capped chickadee or the cardinal, neither of which are found in the UK/Europe. The cardinal, of course, is red and cheery. I don't know if the chickadee is particularly Christmassy, or if it's just a cute bird that allows American cards to imitate the British robin ones (since the US got the Christmas-card tradition from the UK in the Victorian age). (See comments for further info.)

Google image search


If someone says they have a goldfinch in their garden, it'll be the left one in the US (Spinus tristis) and the right one in the UK (Carduelis carduelis). This is Brown's category C.

A bit about cardinals and jays

The (northern) cardinal lives in the eastern half (and a bit) of the US. A recent Twitter discussion I
Cardinal (NAm)
saw questioned whether Catholic cardinals were so-called because they wear red like the bird. Worth noting that this is backwards. Americans often don't reali{s/z}e that their wildlife isn't everyone's wildlife (as another Twitter discussion about raccoons reminded me last week). The birds were so-named (originally cardinal-bird) because they're red like a cardinal's robe, not the other way (a)round.

Blue jay (NAm)
I always think of cardinals and blue jays together, as they are always a welcome flash of crested colo(u)r in our northeastern US (AmE) backyard/(BrE) garden.

I didn't know what the bird was when I snapped the picture below in Brighton, but it turns out it is also a jay, a Eurasian jay, which has some blue in it. So perhaps when Europeans hear Americans talk about blue jays, some imagine this. Jay belongs to Brown's category C.

Eurasian jay

Here is Brown's category D. New-World orioles [right] belong to the blackbird family. As Wikipedia says: "Unrelated to Old World orioles of the family Oriolidae, they are strikingly similar in size, diet, behavior, and strongly contrasting plumage, a good example of convergent evolution." There are a lot of different kinds and they're all pretty, so click through to Wikipedia to see more pics.
Baltimore oriole (NW)

Black-naped oriole (OW)

Starling (late addition)

I'm slipping this one in even though the name doesn't mean different things in the two places, just because I want to note that starlings were imported to the US from Europe, reputedly as part of an effort to ensure that all birds mentioned by Shakespeare lived in the US. While starlings do very pretty things on our local sea front in Brighton, in the US they turned out to be a big pest that ousted native species. This is a great fact for Americans to be armed with when asked to answer for the problem of grey squirrels in Britain.

 Sparrow (late addition)

I had just assumed that sparrow meant the same in both countries because the sparrows I know in the two places look pretty much the same. But as I was preparing to write the next instal(l)ment of this bird series, I noticed that Brown marks sparrow as category D—applying the British name to a different family of birds. It turns out that I think they're the same because, like the starling, the European house sparrow (Passer domesticus, family Passeridae) is a successful transplant to the Americas. But before that happened, English-speakers in North America had applied the name to birds from another widespread family, Passerellidae
These are what birdwatchers call LBJs 'little brown jobs' or sometimes LBBs 'little brown birds', because they're all over the place and hard to distinguish. (I can't find where LBJ originated, though the job in it is probably closest to a the sense 'A thing of a type specified or evident from the context', which the OED marks as 'orig. U.S.'.)  So it's not entirely surprising I hadn't noticed the differences. There are a lot of different species with different looks, but

European house sparrow

American tree sparrow



Ok, parakeets are generally not thought of as garden birds, but I'll include them here because there are plenty in English gardens. They're especially numerous around south London (and so they're sometimes called Kingston parakeets), but they've been spreading out—even into Scotland, it seems. I love watching them in my mother-in-law's garden.

But there is a meaning difference for parakeet. AmE uses that name for the little birds that are kept as pets, what BrE (and some US pet bird enthusiasts) call budgerigars or budgies, for short. The ones in London are rose-ringed parakeets, or ring-necked parakeets. These would also be called parakeet in AmE, because that's what they are, but Americans have less need to talk about them, as they are not living in public parks. See the comments for info about areas of the US where feral parakeets are found.

AmE parakeet; BrE budgie
Feral parakeet in London

Bird-related vocab

Bird table is used in BrE to describe some kinds of bird feeder where seed lies on a flat surface. One doesn't find this term so much in AmE—they're just listed as 'bird feeders' in online shopping hubs.

Google image search for "bird table"

The dawn chorus

Recently one of my Twitter Differences of the Day involved the BrEism the dawn chorus, meaning 'early morning birdsong'. Someone asked me why I thought the British invented a special term for this and AmE apprarently didn't, and I flippantly replied "Sentimentality". But there is probably more to it than that.

It is pretty hit-{and/or}-miss which concepts get lexicali{s/z}ed in a language/dialect, but in this case, I think Britain has two things going for it. First, its relative geographical homogeneity: no deserts, temperate climate throughout, no one more than 70 miles from the coast, and no one higher than about 1500m above sea level. (It's even more homogeneous if we only consider England, where most of the media discussed below comes from.) Some birds will be more common in some places than other places, but the particular sound of birds singing at dawn is not going to be a very local phenomenon. Second, there's a lot of nature programming on television and radio. These two facts together make for a lot of garden programming and other kinds of national attention to nature-in-your-immediate area. And so if they talk about something like the dawn chorus, it'll be (a) immediately familiar to anyone paying much attention and (b) spread very easily around the country. In the US, I'd expect there's a lot more variation in what the morning sounds like. We are not 'a nation of gardeners'—which is not to say that Americans don't garden, but there's less of a national identity built around it. And the US is in general less sentimental about local nature—probably because nature is often less cuddly and Beatrix-Potterish in the US. To my mind, there is nothing cuter than the North American chipmunk, but Americans have to hold nature at more of a distance, because some of it is deadly in its own right (rattlesnakes, crocodiles, grizzly bears), some of it is unpleasant (skunks), and much of it can carry rabies. And it's so populous. If we in my part of New York State were to stop and say "Look! A squirrel!" every time we saw one like my in-laws (and now my child) do here in the southeast of England, we'd never get out of our own (AmE) driveways.

Final fun fact

When I was researching The Prodigal Tongue, I was really struck by how much influence publishing laws (and their circumvention) have had on life. Here's an example. Audubon's Birds of America (1827–1838) had no text in its first edition just pictures, because if there were text (and they distributed it in the UK), they'd be required to provide free copies to public libraries in England. The text was printed in a separate book, so that the relatively inexpensive all-print books could be provided separately from the expensive-to-print pictures.

P.S. Apologies for some formatting problems here. Blogger has changed its interface and (a) a lot of things that used to be easy are now harder, (b) the html-editing page is considerably harder to read, (c) captions seem to easily come unfixed from their images. I might fix some things later, but I've already spent FAR TOO LONG on this post today!


  1. As bird things have a tendency to do, this may become your all time highest read or responded post. I, for one, hope it is and will begin the responses here.

  2. San Francisco has a considerable population of feral parrots and conures and possibly parakeets too. There's a documentary, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," which is worth your while if you can find it.

    1. I have corrected/updated the post, with a pointer to these comments, thanks.

  3. This is a delightful mix of my interests. :)

    The Terry Pratchett book Hogfather has a character trying to attach an actual robin to a Christmas(ish) card, which was my introduction to the robin as signifier of Christmas rather than spring. Pratchett's books are so full of references and layered puns that fans have helpfully written an annotated guide.

    Also, not to nitpick, but just because I'm fond of them -- there is a parakeet that you can find roaming American parks. The monk parakeet is hardy enough for our winters, and there are feral bands of released/escaped pets and their descendants in multiple areas, including my patch of New Jersey. It's a bizarre sight, as there's nothing else in the area that is such a vivid green.

    1. I was going to comment on this too. Austin is well known for its large colony, probably stemming from some being released in the late 60s/early 70s. It's really weird to see these bright green birds sitting on power lines with dull pigeons and grackles (we have owls, hawks, buzzards, mockingbird and brighter colored cardinals and blue jays, but you don't see them out on the city streets as often).

    2. I have corrected/updated the post, with a pointer to these comments, thanks.

    3. Also Chicago and surrounding areas:

  4. Chickadees form flocks in the winter and these flocks often take advantage of food density in human habitat areas. Consequently, people in the US and Canada perceive them as ‘moving in’ after the first winter snows. This is probably why they are associated with Christmas and winter scenes in general.

    1. I was going to say the same thing. Usually the only birds at the bird feeder in my part of upstate NY were chickadees and cardinals (not to mention the squirrels). Chickadees were the first bird name I remember and the first bird I can conclusively identify because of its call.

  5. Audubon would have provided copies not to "public libraries" but to copyright deposit libraries. Wikipedia suggests that 1827–1838 there were maybe six or ten such libraries in the UK compared with two in the US.

    1. Thanks. This is the info I got from Hove Museum:

  6. A friend of mine told me that a few years ago he was at a small science fiction convention in Germany which had a strong musical element to it. (The term is filk singing, for those interested.) He did a comic recitation or song about budgies. The Germans all spoke good English but just in case, he looked up the German for budgerigar and told the audience what budgie meant before hand.

    After the song, an American in the audience came up to him and asked if he could now translate it for Americans.

  7. I ran head-first in the robin difference earlier this year - I mean, I knew in theory that American robins were different from British robins, but it still boggled me to see someone on Instagram posting a picture of them. It wasn't even the sign of spring thing, though I hadn't heard it before, it's just that British robins are such territorial birds the idea of robins in flocks just doesn't compute.


  8. Anyone can create a free individual JSTOR account. This gives access to 80% of the articles (including this one) and entitles you to read 100 articles per month for free (increased from 6 per month during the COVID crisis).

    1. Thanks—I'll add that to the post.

    2. Lynne -- I should have mentioned that you will be asked to supply an institution, a role and a research interest when you register. You can put anything for your institution. "Individual Researcher" for your role, and leave your research interest blank.

  9. Budgerigar is the name first given to the bird when it was "discovered" in Australia, which word may or may not have come from one of the Aboriginal languages. Of course that got shortened to "budgie" because this is Australia. Why they invented a new name for it in the US instead of using budgerigar, who knows?

    1. No one made up a new word. A budgie is a type of parakeet. It's like calling a mallard a duck.

  10. Re bird migration: Robins are the state bird of Michigan, and the joke is that's because they all go to Florida in the winter too!

  11. Another comment:

    Thank you for mentioning that we have more dangerous nature to watch out for here than in the UK! So much of Europe has gotten rid of theirs! Czechs, for example, used to always ask me about why I didn't go hiking "in nature" every weekend here in Texas. My response: one, I hate the heat, and two, we have rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, coral snakes, black widows, brown recluse, and feral hogs. I am not feeling that...

    In addition, hiking in the Czech Republic is much more fun, in that there is always a pub on the trail about every 45 minutes' walk.

  12. And in Australia we have a number of Robin species with red or pink breasts, and yellow Robins. Not related closely to European or American species, but pretty and engaging. And Magpies - large piebald crow-like characters,sometimes aggressive, but easily tamed with hand-outs. English speakers arriving in a strange land needed labels for common birds and used names they had in their own vocabularies, and the more scientific ones made mistakes too. The first Brush Turkey (a megapode which hatches its eggs in a compost heap) was erroneously labelled a vulture by Latham who had only a skin to work from. It looks a bit like a turkey.

  13. Nobody's mentioned the Australian term "budgie smugglers" for tight swimming trunks, yet. :-)

  14. Chickadee was a word I knew only from 'Whistle while you work' in Disney's "Snow White". At the age I first heard it, I didn't worry about not knowing the meaning of every word I heard. Later I supposed a chickadee might be a kind of cicada, whose chirrup could be thought of as 'cheerful'. Now I know what it is. Thank you, Lynne. We didn't speak of tits in general, but specifically of blue tits, great tits or coal tits, the familiar ones in gardens of southern England.

    1. Not sure where you are that cicadas could be called cheerful--the ones around here sound like high-pitched power drills up in the treetops!

  15. Robins actually have reddish-orange breasts, not really red. I am relatively new to your columns, so I am certain you have already covered the terms of red/orange in your writings. Still, I wanted to mention that the names Redbreast or Robin Redbreast pre-date use of the word Orange. Red was more general in its color range, including true red, orange, rust, and more. It also inspired the charming and ear-pleasing alliterative nickname of Robin. Much nicer than something like Owen Orangebreast! :)

    1. I believe the word "orange" didn't come into use until the fruit arrived, so they didn't have a word for the colour and had to use "red". Meanwhile, it always irritates me that they use the wrong robin in the original film of "Mary Poppins".

    2. Yes, orange as a color term came into all the European languages along with the fruit in the 1500s. Some languages even adopted the color and fruit names separately, for example Danish: orange (color) from French and apfelsin (fruit, literally 'Chinese apple') from Low German.

      The color orange hasn't been featured on this blog, but ginger has been covered, first in a post about it:

      and then as a UK-to-US word of the year in 2010:

    3. Oranje and sinaasappel in Dutch too

  16. I was fascinated to learn the the UK Common Blackbird is in the same family as the American Robin (Turdidae); I saw my first in a park in London, acting very like an American Robin.

    US Blackbirds (there are several) are in the same family as our Orioles, Icteridae.

    I also learned that in the UK "Buzzard" is the broad term for Buteo Hawks, (which are basically called "hawks" here in the US, though we also call other birds hawks). I usually think of something more like an African Buzzard when I think of Buzzard, so that was a bit of a surprise!

    1. I think you're mistaken about buzzards (buteo buteo); they are definitely .a species in their own right.

  17. I (BrE, elderly) think the term "titmouse" is now obsolete - certainly I have never known it to be used; we always just say "tit", unless we specify blue tit, coal tit, etc. The first time I visited the USA, over 20 years ago now, I woke up the first morning in the Boston area and discovered that the dawn chorus sounded very different there!

  18. For those following along, the post has been updated in several ways now, including adding blackbirds and a short discussion of starlings.

    1. I've read your updates... and you are treading dangerous ground, Lynne.
      You have traduced one of Britain's best-loved, most charismatic native birds...

    2. I always thought blackbirds were crows or ravens!

    3. No, they are merely black birds! And they croak rather than sing. Just before lockdown we were staying with my mother in Sussex and there were two male blackbirds having a shouting match, one on the conservatory roof, and one on the roof of the house opposite! Blackbirds have a really loud song and are apt to sing in the night, too.

  19. For someone who grew up in the countryside, I am very bad at knowing the names of anything but the most common British birds. I am always amused by the term LBJ used by real bird watchers for miscellaneous birds they can't easily identify.

  20. Correction: only the female blackbird is brown, the male being a smart black with a yellow/orange bill and a yellow circle round his eyes.
    British robins come close to you when you are gardening in the hope of finding insects in the disturbed soil. Apparently on mainland Europe, though the same species, they are not so tame.

  21. When chickadees are wintering near a bird feeder they often get accustomed to the humans who fill that feeder, and will come very close. They might take seed from your hand, or land briefly on your head.

  22. I came to this a bit late:

    I always love the fact that they used a model of an American Robin in the scene of Mary Poppins which is set in obviously in London, as incongruous as Dick Van Dyke's much loved accent.

  23. I tend to think of Blue Jays and Orioles together, since they're both in the AL East. The Cardinals are in the NL Central (and the NFC West) and rarely play either the Jays or the Orioles (although the Orioles used to be the St. Louis Browns, who played the Cardinals in the '44 World Series).

    I'm also curious about the spelling of "bluejay" as a single word. The two-word versions seems to be most common in the US. Is the one-word version the UK spelling?

    1. No, that's just me. UK has little need to spell it, not having them. I'll correct the spelling now.

  24. The male European Blackbird is a striking coal black bird with a very fine song, arguably a better song than the Songthrush or even the Nightingale. The female is the same shape but a chocolate brown. They are abundant and conspicuous in gardens, woodland etc but don't really flock.

    The picture of a Black Capped Chickadee looks a bit like our Marsh Tit. There's also a Crested Tit that's restricted to a few pine forests in Scotland and looks a bit like the picture of the Tufted Titmouse. .

    There is an Oriole on this side of the Atlantic but it isn't the same family as the American ones. It is a rare visitor to Britain but quite common in parts of France.

  25. Here is an instagram with pictures of North American birds (somewhere in Michigan) in the owners front yard for examples of typical North American birds:

  26. If you want to see more photos of birds, I share you my blog.

    1. I don't usually allow promotional posts like this, but they are very nice pictures.

  27. Agree the British robin is much cuter than USA counterpart.
    Also British male blackbird is indeed a distinctive, shiny and handsome with a lovely song. Blackbirds also have some amusing behavioural traits. They sing until twilight but not any later into the night.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)