more birds and birdy things

As promised last time, here's more about birds. See the previous post for more about garden birds and some other bird-related things and for information about Cecil Brown's categories of BrE-AmE bird-name relationships. The last instal(l)ment was called garden birds, though there are some birds there that might be found prevalently elsewhere (I stuck parakeets in with garden birds, just to be able to say something about parakeets in gardens) and there might be some here that are found in your (BrE) garden or (AmE) backyard.

If you have already read the garden birds post, you might want to have another look at it as I have made late additions to it (marked as such) to cover "gardeny" birds that I'd missed in the first (AmE) go-round. And if I come across more that belong in the categories here, I'll add them.

(Immediately after I first posted this, Jim Martin pointed out more. I've not marked these as 'late additions' because they've come before most people have had a chance to read the post, but I have credited Jim.)

As before, all images are from Wikipedia and are of adult male birds, unless otherwise noted.

birds of prey

buzzard and hawk

In the US, buzzard is another name for the turkey vulture (so-called because it looks a bit turkey-ish). In BrE it is for birds of the genus Buteo.
(BrE) buzzard

Turkey vulture/(AmE) buzzard

Americans call members of the Buteo family hawks, and so sometimes have to distinguish members of the Accipitrinae sub-family true hawks, though your average American (like me) probably wouldn't be able to tell you the difference between them.

sea birds

skua / jaeger

AmE uses jaeger (from the German for 'hunter) for the smaller species of skua and BrE doesn't.  (Via Jim Martin)

Pomerine jaeger/skua


Another one from Jim. I'm going to let Wikipedia do the work for this one:
Guillemot is the common name for several species of seabird in the Alcidae or auk family (part of the order Charadriiformes). In British use, the term comprises two genera: Uria and Cepphus. In North America the Uria species are called "murres" and only the Cepphus species are called "guillemots".

Guillemot comes from the French name Guillaume (as we saw last time, naming birds after men is not uncommon).  Murre came from the UK, originally. It might be imitative, and might be related to Welsh morra or Cornish murr.


Jim Martin points out that mew gull (onomatopoetic for their call) is more used in AmE for the species called common gull in BrE, though these particular gulls are not all that common in UK. Wikipedia points out that there are broader and narrower meanings of mew gull, but I'll let them tell you about it.

Gulls in the UK are serious birds. The herring gulls common on much of the coastline are the size of ducks or geese. They are not shy about stealing food right out of your hands, which (given their size and stealth) can be very disconcerting. My worst herring gull memory (i.e. best herring gull story) was when we were at a park with our then-toddler and saw a herring gull with a pigeon halfway down its throat. Spouse chased it with an umbrella till it dropped the pigeon—the pigeon was too big for it to fly off with.



Members of the genus Gavia are called loons in AmE and divers in BrE. The OED notes that loon is probably derived from loom, a Shetland dialect name for the bird, which probably came from Old Norse. Loon as a name for a type of person (orig. a worthless person, rogue) existed separately from the bird-name, though it's possible that the existence of the person-insult affected the transition from loom to loon. Loony has a different etymology still: shortened from lunatic. All of this was kind of surprising to me—I'm sure many people have folk etymologies that conflate bird loon and person loon and adjective loony. And now of course, loonie is also slang for a Canadian $1 coin, because it has the bird-loon on it and Canadians generally have more linguistically in common with the US than with the UK. (Sorry, Canadians, but it's true.) 

NAmE loon / BrE diver


(From Jim Martin). The common merganser is in BrE the goosander. Goosander has an obscure etymology. The first part is goose and the second part is probably from the Old Norse plural for 'duck'. (Merganser is the Latin name.)

Domesticated birds

cock, rooster, cockerel

Male chickens are traditionally called cock in BrE and rooster (which probably came from an English dialect) in AmE. In The Prodigal Tongue I write about the fact that cockerel is used more and more in BrE where cock used to be the right word. A cockerel was a young cock, but nowadays people feel less comfortable saying cock, so they fancy it up with an -erel. So if you want to know more about that, and more about taboo-avoidance in BrE and AmE more generally, I have a book to recommend!

Country(side) birds


If I'd been smarter/cleverer, I'd have label(l)ed the last post "passerine (perching) birds" and not "garden birds", as that would've made for a clearer division between one bird-type and all others. But I didn't, and so I'm putting larks here, because they're more likely to be found on farms or mountains than in gardens. Anyhow, there is only one lark in North America, and Americans call it the horned lark, but the same species in Europe is called the shore lark. That particular species doesn't seem to extend to the UK, where there are other larks with their own not-needed-in-the-US names.

AmE horned lark
elsewhere shore lark

observing birds

the hobby

Bird-watching is a term that seems more popular among people who don't do it as a hobby than people who do. The (more specialist—and often dismissive) BrE term for a bird-watcher who "collects" sightings of birds is twitcher (see comments for more info). Its use has spread beyond Britain, but is still heard a lot more in BrE, and it's more informal than "official". The OED's first example of it is from 1974, but they note a claim that it was coined in the 1950s and relates to the person twitching with excitement. The noun twitch thus came to be an expedition or gathering of bird-watchers. The intransitive verb twitch subsequently came to be used for serious bird-watching and a transitive version for spotting a rare bird. Here's an example of each (in that order) from the OED:
  • 1977   New Society 17 Nov. 341/2   Those now in their thirties have been twitching for maybe 20 years.
  • 2009   Birdwatch Winter 6/3   We can hope that in 20 years, birders won't feel compelled to charter flights to ‘twitch’ the lone, singing Canada Warbler.

Another term in the OED quotations is tick-hunter, which would mean you're searching for birds to 'tick' off your list, using the BrE sense of 'tick' (AmE 'checkmark'). These days, that sounds more like you're looking for small blood-sucking arachnids in the hope of preventing Lyme disease. There were no instances of it in the corpus I searched (see below).

In AmE, the specialist term has been birder, with bird becoming a related intransitive verb. OED's first citation for this is 1945. The word has spread beyond the US now.

In the GloWBE corpus, the clear winner for international word-of-choice is birder (the white here indicates it's not now especially AmE or BrE), and there are AmE/BrE differences in preferred hyphenation of bird(-)watcher, not necessarily in the order I might have predicted.

Green = more particular to that country. Pink = less


People who research birds often mark wild ones with a little thing{ie/y}* around a bird's leg. The thing{ie/y} is called a band in AmE and a ring in BrE. The verb goes the same way. In AmE the birds are banded and in BrE the are ringed. If you do that to a bird, you are a (AmE) bird-bander or (BrE) bird-ringer. For more, see Wikipedia.

* Sidenote: The OED tells me that thingy is 'originally and chiefly Scottish'. Thing(ie)s may have changed since that entry was updated in 2008—as the word seems widespread now. There is a spelling difference, though, in that Americans are more likely to style it as thingie.


And, denizens of the internet, I want to end with an important semantic question: When is a bird a birbThe Audubon Society has been looking into it.


  1. While rooster is the most common US form, when referring to their fights/fighting, cock typically gets used. Different linguistic paths or a case of using the more "vulgar" sounding term?

    1. Cock has never been altogether absent from AmE—it is a possible thing to call the bird, and you're right that it's more common in contexts that are not so "Old Macdonald".

    2. And in the south, gamecock is used to name the fighting bird (so is the mascot for teams).

  2. I have never heard of birbs before this.

    Rings/bands: Isn't this the same for wedding rings/bands? Seems to me that wedding bands I only ever hear in American films and TV shows.

    1. That may be. I'll save it for another post.

    2. I (AmE speaker) definitely grew up calling them "wedding rings", and only started hearing the term "wedding band" more recently. It feels like a more technical term to me: something you might use when shopping for one, but not in casual conversation.

    3. The story I've always heard (in the US) is that a band is a particular kind of ring, one that has rotational symmetry. You can spin it on your finger and since it's the same all the way around, it's never "upside down" on your hand. A typical engagement ring or a school class ring or a signet ring, on the other hand, all have a section that's more ornamental that's intended to be the part showing on top of your hand, and therefore can't be spun on your hand w/o hiding the interesting part. This means that it's possible to have a wedding ring that's not a wedding band, which is particularly common for women's wedding rings which may "nest" with their engagement ring.

      I concur with Max, though, that "wedding ring" is more common in general AmE than "wedding band."

    4. What on Earth is a "school class ring" ?!

    5. Graduating seniors in high school can buy a commemorative ring representing the school. It usually has a stone (I chose my birthstone) and on the sides the initials of the school and year of graduation. IME people don't tend to wear them much after college. I still have mine, but God only knows where it is in this houseful of stuff. Not mine but a typical example.

    6. UK secondary schools, at least in my days in the sixties, have no graduation ceremony. School year ended mid-July, but after finishing our final exams in June, we all buggered off to get summer jobs. All very low key.

      In the autumn there was something called speech day and we were invited back to that to get prizes - book tokens, I recall.

    7. So, I was watching the British sitcom The Other One just now and someone started talking about wedding bands and my ears pricked up. Then they went on to say, "I want one that does Adele covers,"

    8. Also, the graduates of US military academies (West Point, Annapolis, AF Academy) all get class rings upon graduation and are called "ring knockers" derisively for their starchy attitudes (by enlisted members) or cliquishness (by other officers). I was told it comes from them knocking their rings on the bar in expectation of instant service from the barkeep.

  3. David Marjanović07 June, 2020 18:23

    The extremely important guide makes me extremely happy. Thanks for that link.

  4. Sounds like the Herring Gulls there are similar to the Western Gulls on the Pacific coast of the U.S. in both size and agressiveness. Western Gulls are also duck-sized, will steal anything that might be edible, and are not afraid to dive bomb at you to get whatever food you're holding.

    1. John Miller, Haverfordwest08 June, 2020 14:36

      In the UK we have herring gulls (light grey back, pink legs) and the very similar lesser black-backed gull (black/dark grey back, yellow legs). They are genetically virtually identical, although they do not interbreed, and form a Ring Species. As you travel eastwards from the UK, you lose the lesser black-backed, which are at rge eaten limit of their range here. However, continuing around the world eastwards, the backs of the herring gulls become progressively darker and their legs less pink and more yellow until, when you reach the Atlantic again, they are obviously lesser black-backed. Isn't evolution marvellous?

  5. A couple of observations:
    1: I have always understood a twitcher to be a bird-watcher who responds to reports of rare birds and rushes off to see them - that's a little bit narrower than your definition.
    2: BrE still uses merganser for any other sort of merganser other than a goosander; there is a native species - red-breasted merganser. Thus the difference is that a BrE goosander is an AmE common merganser.

    1. Thanks—Jim had told me 'common merganser', so I will add that word in!

    2. Indeed - as distinct from bird-watchers, who simply go to a likely spot and enjoy seeing whatever species happen to be there.

  6. The Canadian coin is spelled loonie rather than loony.

  7. When my son was young, he told my husband he had seen a turkey vulture (because it looked like a vulture with a turkey head). My husband laughed and said there was no such thing, he had seen a turkey (we have many wild turkeys around us). My 8 year old son looked it up and sure enough it was a turkey vulture. We had never seen them growing up, but now we do. Because of climate change, there are many birds we have never seen before coming north. So as you mentioned in the previous blog post, in the US we have more variety, but perhaps variety in the terms we use.

    1. Also, as an aside, are there Turkeys in Britain?

    2. Yes, loads.
      Especially in the North of England.

    3. The turkey comes from the Americas, but has long been domestically kept in Europe. Turkey is what most Brits eat at Christmas (though it can be hard to get at other points of the year). You won't see wild ones unless they escaped the farm.

      More info here:

    4. Oh.
      Is roast turkey not a Christmas tradition in the US, too?
      Maybe the expression "turkeys voting for Christmas" needs translating as "turkeys voting for Thanksgiving"...

    5. Some US families traditionally have roast turkey for Christmas dinner, but it's not like at Thanksgiving where most meat-eaters have one. At Christmas it's just as commmon to serve Prime rib, ham, or something else.

    6. I think most Americans are turkeyed out by the time they finally finish all the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving. Growing up, we always had a Christmas ham.

      Now I live in Japan, where KFC Japan's marketing has been so successful, it is now a secular tradition to have fried chicken on Christmas. To the point where you actually can't go to a KFC store on Dec. 24 or 25 because they are only filling pre-orders on those days.

    7. After my last post, we were stopped on the road by flock of wild turkeys. They look somewhat different than the farm bred turkeys.

    8. This website says that US consumption of turkey on Christmas is slightly less than half that on Thanksgiving (

      I wonder if Christmas Dinner is less of a thing overall in the US than in Britain. Our main gluttonous holiday is Thanksgiving, and, since American are more likely to be religious, I wonder if more of us are in church for Christmas. A big dinner is secondary and perhaps tertiary for most American families after unwrapping presents (which can take hours and hours for families with children) and possibly church. Thanksgiving is an entire day off of work with nothing to do but cook and eat; Christmas has to fit dinner in between presents and church.

    9. When I was a kid in the late fifties/early sixties in the UK, we'd probably finished unwrapping presents before breakfast. No way we were going to sit and have breakfast with all those unwrapped presents around. (It was traditional in our house for the the presents to be left at the foot or our beds in a pillow case used as a sack.)

      Nowadays, Christmas is usually at my sister's house and there are only five of us, the youngest now in his forties. My sister and her partner are keen walkers so it's unwrap presents in the morning, go for an hour's walk, then dinner starts usually around three and seems to last about four hours.

  8. And, of course, there are those cases where a bird has two different names in BrE - green woodpecker/yaffle; hedge-sparrow/dunnock... I think a buzzard here (UK) is very definitely one species of buteo; the one called buteo buteo. Are there others? They are becoming more and more common. Also, what about other birds of prey - kestrels, sparrowhawks, etc. Do they have US equivalents, and if so, what are they called?

    1. American Kestrels used to be called Sparrowhawks decades ago in the US...and perhaps still are in some areas. What I find curious is that few Americans know what a Kestrel is. Even in the rural area where I live, where many of us enjoy the wildlife, nobody seems to notice this small but rather conspicuous (Amer)robin-sized falcon atop nearly every other power pole or along fence lines. People who are not birders seem completely unfamiliar with this bird name. They prob could guess what the old term of sparrowhawk would refer to, but would not say we have them in our area.

    2. Here, they are two different birds. The kestrel is Falco tinnunculus and the sparrowhawk is Accipiter nisus.

    3. Buteo reminds me of the game Subbuteo and something that Dave Gorman mentioned on his TV programme a while back.

      When Peter Adolph invented the football game back in the forties, he wanted to call it "Hobby" but found he couldn't trademark that name. He seems to have been a bit of an expert on birds, so he called the game Subbuteo from the Latin name Falco subbuteo, a bird commonly known as the Eurasian hobby.

  9. I may have made up my own etymology, but I always thought they were called loons because they're active at night, when the moon is up.

  10. I agree with Chris Jackson. It's a serious error to describe an ordinary birdwatcher as a twitcher. It's likely to be taken as an insult. Twitchers are a particular category of birdwatchers who go chasing off all over the country to twitch (sic) rare birds. If they get there and don't see the bird, they've 'dipped'.

    Although 'birder' is beginning to be heard, it's OK, and has been more usual to refer to an ordinary but fairly serious birdwatcher as an ornithologist here without that sounding pretentious. One can, just about, talk about 'birding' but that's a sort of freestanding gerund backfired from birder. As yet, in BrEnglish, I'd say that 'bird' as a verb doesn't really exist.

    I think, if I heard someone described as a 'tick-hunter' I'd assume they either studied or collected ticks. As hobbies go, that would be fairly unusual.

  11. With all due respect to Jim Martin, I haven't heard of any of the bird names listed as his contributions, so perhaps these names could more accurately be characterized as birder specialist argot than general American dialect. (Compared to the previous post, in which nearly all of the birds mentioned are well known to nonenthusiasts of birds.) I'm only even familiar with one of the birds at all, the seagull (which is nearly always called seagull not just gull and never "mew gull" anywhere I've lived in the US).

    If loon the bird and loon the person aren't related etymologically, where did "crazy as a loon" come from. I've always presumed it predated the John Prine song of the same title and that he was referring to a known phrase, but maybe he coined it? Or maybe nobody connected the birds to the phrase before he did?

    1. Mew Gull is a particular species of gull. In the U.S. it's found along the Pacific coastline and in Alaska, and looks similar to several other gull species. Some of the birds mentioned are found only in certain parts of the U.S., or live most of the time at sea (murres, guillemots, jaegers and skuas), and so are less likely to be encountered or noticed by non-birders.

  12. Here in Virginia, USA, we have lots of turkey vultures, but I don't think they are really birds of prey. I understand that they normally feed on carrion and rarely eat live creatures.

    1. I grew up (in California) calling them buzzards, but they are actually small condors, related to the California and Andean condors. They do mainly eat carrion.


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