Ever see a flock of snowflakes fluttering above a snowy field? How about bullbats cruising over dimly-lit city streets? Or, have you ever seen a sparrow hawk perched patiently on a telephone line? Even sharp birders may not recognize some of these as archaic bird names. All languages evolve over time, but it seems that that bird nomenclature has a relatively short half-life. Bird names change for many reasons, but here are a few of our favorite archaic bird names:
Snowflake – It isn’t too far of a stretch to picture a flock of Snow Buntings over a snowy field and think “snowflakes”. In fact, at the turn of the century this is how Snow Buntings were referred to. When I was first reading through results of the 1906 Christmas Bird Count, I thought the reference to “about a dozen” snowflakes as some kind of old-fashioned birding joke, but in fact, this was an accurate report, given the lingo of the time.
Bullbat – Birds that spend much of their lives near people tend to collect a plethora of pseudonyms, and so it is not surprising that a bird that nests on rooftops would be given a nickname. Even the official name “Common Nighthawk” is a bit of a misnomer, as these birds are neither hawks nor are they strictly nocturnal. Others may know the Common Nighthawk better as a “bullbat”, which is a more fitting term. The birds are erratic and bat-like in flight, and cruise over city streets at dusk, feeding on insects. But anyone who has seen a Nighthawk display during the breeding season knows why they call them "bull". Nighthawks will dive bomb other creatures that wander too close, including people, complimenting their bat-like flight with the attitude of a bull.