Powerful Woodpecker, and the Other Best Bird Names in the World

I recently saw an Instagram post about the Powerful Woodpecker and – as happens every time I hear that spectacular name – a little tingle went down my spine. If you love a good bird name like I do, you simply must agree that this one really has it all. It’s simple, truthful, and evocative. It’s powerful.

That blissful moment got me thinking…what are the very best bird names in the world? Powerful Woodpecker is one, surely, but who is keeping it company at the top of the heap? A quick Google search turned up very little in the way of satisfaction. Buried amongst the exhaustive lists of name suggestions for your pet budgie was one top-10 list on the ABA website, but to be honest any list that includes Greater Pewee can hardly be considered comprehensive.

To be fair, there are so many bird names to consider that the task is impractical at best. To truly compile a list of the most excellent monikers you would need to sort through the names of all 10,721 bird species that currently exist. That would be ridiculous.

So here’s how I sorted through the names of all 10,721 bird species that currently exist. Firstly, I excluded all eponyms and honorific names outright. These birds are named after people (ie. Bachman’s Sparrow), and if you haven’t heard the recent discussions about the issues they present, check out Bird Names 4 Birds for more details. Suffice it to say that they cannot be contenders for top bird-name honours.

Secondly, I considered some common naming conventions. I figured that birds named after places should probably be ineligible, as the allure of the name depends on your geographical perspective. Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge, for example, sounds very exciting and exotic to my Canadian ear, but I’d probably think differently if I lived in Taiwan.

I also ruled out geographical directions (Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western) and the prefixes “greater” and “lesser”, as they just sound inherently boring and they imply there are multiple, similar birds with similar names.

This narrows the field significantly, and much of what remains fits into the typical bird-naming format of “Colour-feature Birdtype”. Names like Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, Black-billed Magpie, and Yellow-legged Gull are so ubiquitous that it hardly seems the best bird names will be found among them. I skimmed through most of these, although a few standouts did catch my eye.

I figured the majority of the top spots would be filled by one-offs – oddball names that defied conventions and dared to stand out from the crowd. I wanted to feel like the person who created the named had used some poetic license, and smiled when they did so. I wanted to smile too.

And so, without further ado and in no particular order, I present to you the best bird names in the world. It’s not so much a top-10 as a top-12, for no other reason than I’m indecisive. Consider it more bang for your buck. Here goes:

Powerful Woodpecker

This is the bird that got me thinking, and the first one that always comes to mind when I consider spectacular bird names. The Powerful Woodpecker belongs to a group of big, powerful woodpeckers, but most have names like Red-necked or Crimson-bellied or Pale-billed. I like to imagine that whoever named this thing was so overcome as they watched it hammer away at a tree trunk that they simply had no choice. Powerful it is.

I should mention here that there is also a Powerful Owl, which is also an excellent bird name. But I heard of the woodpecker first, and that’s just how it is. Debate closed.

powerful woodpecker

Black Metaltail

Hummingbirds have really done well in the naming department. These tiny, bejeweled creatures really seem to captivate and enthrall obervers, and most of the creative names that adorn them reflect their glittering qualities. Consider Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Shining Sunbeam, or Fiery Topaz, just to name a few. You could easily do a top-ten list of hummingbirds alone.

The problem is that there are so many sparkling, colourful names for hummers that none particularly stand out from the rest. That’s what makes the stark contrast of the Black Metaltail so special. It’s like a gothic Care Bear. It’s something you wouldn’t think existed, and yet there it is. It has the plumage to match the name too, and I’ve never wanted to see a hummingbird more desparately. Sadly there is a shortage of free-to-use photos of these guys, but it’s ok because I’ve gone ahead and Googled it for you.

Incidentally there is also a Fiery-throated and Viridian Metaltail and that whole family situation is just very, very nice.

Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler

I decided early on that I would only allow myself one iteration of “tit” on the list, which was a real challenge given my general lack of maturity. I was absolutely decided that it would be Tit Berrypecker, but then I stumbled upon the absolutely incomparable Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler. I don’t even know what else to say about it, so I’ll just let you take a minute to soak it in. Did the person who contrived the name have a little laugh when they did so, or were they oblivious to its whimsicality? We’ll never know.

fluffy-backed tit-babbler

Little Spiderhunter

There’s something about the word “little” that makes it infinitely more appealing than “least” or “lesser”. The latter two imply comparison, while the former just suggests objective smallness. It also has a connotation of cuteness, and I love the juxtaposition of that against the word “spiderhunter”. I immediately conjured an image of an adorable, little bird with a big attitude, stalking through the trees in search of eight-legged prey. I was not disappointed.

little spiderhunter

Perplexing Scrubwren

Perplexing has got to be one of the best adjectives used in a bird name, and I love it even more because it’s a rare example of a science-type-person giving in to their feelings over convention and rigor. It’s human. Apparently the exact taxonomy of this bird is a bit confusing, and so it was named accordingly. It is as fitting as it is bare and honest. I wish more birds were named that way.

There’s also a perplexing lack of free-to-use photos of Perplexing Scrubwren, but here’s a photo of another scrubwren which is basically the same.

atherton scrubwren

Bat-like Spinetail

There some sort of objective allure in Bat-like Spinetail. I don’t know exactly why, but I think the word “bat” is just really satisfying to say. You sort of explosively exhale through the hard “b”, flow through the “a”, and then punctuate it with the definite and conclusive “t”. I like it a lot.

Furthermore the name evokes a mysterious, nocturnal animal and the word “spinetail” sounds more badass than it actually is, so this whole name is a delicious cocktail. It does the bird – a swift, by the way – perhaps more credit than it deserves.

It turns out that swifts are a bit tricky to photograph, but perhaps the blurriness here only accentuates the bird’s bat-like shape.

bat-like spinetail

Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler

The only “Colour-feature Birdtype” name to make the list, Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler is nonetheless something special. The colour “coral” appears in only two bird names, and this one is by far the more exciting of the pair. This is also the second appearance of “babbler” on my list, which was unintentional but perhaps unavoidable. A good word is a good word.

coral-billed scimitar-babbler

Scribble-tailed Canastero

I must admit I struggled with this addition to the list. I love the whimsical inclusion of the word “scribble”, and when I read it I instantly start to picture all manner of fantastical tail to match. Unfortunately the bird itself somewhat disappoints. The tail is sort of spiky with some random dark marks, but it falls way short of where my imagination led me.

I considered swapping the canastero out for Strange-tailed Tyrant – a bird much more deserving of its unsual name – but since I am judging on the name alone, the Scribble-tail stays. I like the word “canastero” too, which apparently means basket-maker in Spanish.

scribble-tailed canastero

Diabolical Nightjar

The Diabolical Nightjar kicks off our final quartet of birds, all of which are named for the sounds they make. The appeal of this one should be self-explanatory. Also called Satanic Nightjar (take your pick, it would make the list either way), the name apparently originates in a local legend about a creature that plucked out eyes, an act that the bird’s call apparently audibly imitates.

You’ll have to hit up Google for images of this bird, and while you’re there let me know if you can find any good recordings. There seem to be precious few, and I really need to know what eye-plucking sounds like.

Exclamatory Paradise-Whydah

It is frankly ridiculous that this bird is named after the way it sounds and not the way it looks. It is weirder still that it seems nearly impossible to find a recording, or even a good description of the sound it makes. Perhaps the exclamations are not made by the bird, but by its excited observers.

As an aside I’ve always found it odd that the prefix “paradise” on a bird name very often denotes the presence of a ridiculously long tail. Check out the paradise-kingfishers, paradise-flycatchers, and Paradise-Jacamar for some supporting evidence. I’m not sure where this association began, but I suppose if paradise was filled with these caudally-gifted birds I truly would want to go there.

exclamatory paradise-whydah

Screaming Piha

If there is a name on this list that requires no justification, it may be Screaming Piha. Say it out loud a few times and tell me you’re not sold. Apparently it’s the second-loudest bird in the world, with it’s emphatic wolf-whistle reaching 116dB (which is a lot I guess?). The sound is used in the background of many rainforesty movies too, so keep your ears peeled and you can impress your friends by shouting “Screaming Piha” loudly in the movie theatre.

screaming piha

Zitting Cisticola

If there is a group of birds that absolutely won the naming lottery, it is inarguably the cisticolas. In addition to the delightful Zitting Cisticola, this group includes:

  • Chattering Cisticola
  • Singing Cisticola
  • Whistling Cisticola
  • Trilling Cisticola
  • Bubbling Cisticola
  • Tinkling Cisticola
  • Wailing Cisticola
  • Rattling Cisticola
  • Churring Cisticola
  • Winding Cisticola
  • Chirping Cisticola
  • Croaking Cisticola
  • Piping Cisticola
  • Siffling Cisticola
  • Stout Cisticola
  • Foxy Cisticola
  • Cloud Cisticola
  • Wing-snapping Cisticola
  • Cloud-scraping Cisticola

Many are named after the sounds the make, and this is a good thing, as most are not much to look at. They are very small, and very brown, and very similar to each other. Their camouflage and furtive habits make them hard to see, and when you see them they’re wickedly hard to identify. It is probably these very challenges that led to their particularly good names, as sound is often the only thing an observer has to work with.

zitting cisticola

This brings me neatly to the end of my top-12, but I can’t wrap up without two honourable mentions that very nearly made the list (I couldn’t quite justify a top-14, but I’m sneaking them in anyway). I really love the abject simplicity and flagrant accuracy of Orange Dove, but I ultimately decided it just couldn’t run with the other names on this list. I also wanted to include Caucasian Snowcock, and if I need to explain why, I have to wonder what you’re doing here in the first place.

Well what do you think? Did I get them right? Did I miss your favourite? Feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments below, or on social media. And if you’d like to see my entire shortlist of 124 finalists, just scroll on down below the photo credits. Until next time.


Photos:

Powerful Woodpecker – By Francesco Veronesi from Italy – Powerful Woodpecker – Ecuador_S4E2767, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39083192

Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler – By Nicolas Huet – Nouveau recueil de planches coloriées d’oiseaux, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19916219

Little Spiderhunter – By Koshy Koshy from Faridabad, Haryana, India – Little Spiderhunter, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74742718

Atherton Scrubwren – By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86320025

Bat-like Spinetail – By Maans Booysen, Birding Weto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56218898

Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler – By Dibyendu Ash – Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler Eaglenest WLS Arunachal Pradesh India March 2019.Previously published: No, this image has not been published in any science portal; though it can be used in future., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82334424

Scribble-tailed Canastero – By Daniel Lane – https://www.flickr.com/photos/8013969@N03/6193708772, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81270832

Exclamatory Paradise-Whydah – By Francesco Veronesi from Italy – Exclamatory ( Long-tailed ) Paradise-Whydah – Gambia 17_CD5A0620, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55723825

Screaming Piha -By Hector Bottai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92484471

Zitting Cisticola: By Anton Croos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17805553


The Finalists:

  • Amethyst-throated Sunangel
  • Ancient Murrelet
  • Ankober Serin
  • Austral Canastero
  • Bat-like Spinetail
  • Bearded Mountaineer
  • Beautiful Firetail
  • Black Butcherbird
  • Black Metaltail
  • Black Sawwing
  • Black Scimitarbill
  • Black-rumped Flameback
  • Blaze-winged Parakeet
  • Booted Racket-tail
  • Bougainville Hooded Whistler
  • Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer
  • Brownish Twistwing
  • Buff-throated Purpletuft
  • Burnt-neck Eremomela
  • Carbonated Sierra-Finch
  • Carunculated Caracara
  • Caucasian Snowcock
  • Celestial Monarch
  • Changeable Hawk-Eagle
  • Charming Hummingbird
  • Cheer Pheasant
  • Chiming Wedgebill
  • Chocolate Boobook
  • Citreoline Trogon
  • Clamorous Reed Warbler
  • Clicking Shrike-Babbler
  • Cloven-feathered Dove
  • Cock-tailed Tyrant
  • Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler
  • Creamy-breasted Canastero
  • Cricket Longtail
  • Dark Chanting-Goshawk
  • Diabolical Nightjar
  • Diademed Tapaculo
  • Diamond Firetail
  • Elegant Crescentchest
  • Empress Brilliant
  • Exclamatory Paradise-Whydah
  • Fasciated Antshrike
  • Feline Owlet-nightjar
  • Festive Coquette
  • Fiery Topaz
  • Fire-fronted Serin
  • Fire-throated Metaltail
  • Flame Robin
  • Flaming Sunbird
  • Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler
  • Flutist Wren
  • Fluttering Shearwater
  • Fringe-backed Fire-eye
  • Glittering-bellied Emerald
  • Goldenface
  • Gray Go-away-bird
  • Great Lizard-Cuckoo
  • Great Sapphirewing
  • Green-crowned Brilliant
  • Growling Riflebird
  • Hamerkop
  • Handsome Francolin
  • Happy Wren
  • Hardhead
  • Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch
  • Horned Screamer
  • Immaculate Cupwing
  • Invisible Rail
  • King Vulture
  • Little Spiderhunter
  • Lovely Cotinga
  • Lucifer Hummingbird
  • Macaroni Penguin
  • Magnificent Riflebird
  • Marvelous Spatuletail
  • Melancholy Woodpecker
  • Metallic-winged Sunbird
  • Modest Tiger-Parrot
  • Musician Wren
  • Mysterious Starling
  • Noble Snipe
  • Orange Dove
  • Ornate Hawk-Eagle
  • Perplexing Scrubwren
  • Plushcap
  • Pompadour Cotinga
  • Powerful Woodpecker
  • Prong-billed Barbet
  • Purple-throated Sunangel
  • Pyrrhuloxia
  • Rainbow Starfrontlet
  • Razorbill
  • Relict Gull
  • Resplendent Quetzal
  • Rhinoceros Auklet
  • Rock Earthcreeper
  • Rufescent Tiger-Heron
  • Rustic Bunting
  • Scintillant Hummingbird
  • Screaming Piha
  • Scribble-tailed Canastero
  • Shining Sunbeam
  • Sibilant Sirystes
  • Snoring Rail
  • Soft-plumaged Petrel
  • Spangled Coquette
  • Sparkling Violetear
  • Squatter Pigeon
  • Standardwing Bird-of-Paradise
  • Strange-tailed Tyrant
  • Superb Fairywren
  • Surfbird
  • Tit Berrypecker
  • Transvolcanic Jay
  • Vampire Ground-Finch
  • Vegetarian Finch
  • Violet Sabrewing
  • Viridian Metaltail
  • Vivid Niltava
  • Welcome Swallow
  • Yellowhammer
  • Zitting Cisticola

3 replies on “Powerful Woodpecker, and the Other Best Bird Names in the World”

The majority of woodpecker species feed on insects and other invertebrates living under bark and in wood, but overall the family is characterized by its dietary flexibility, with many species being both highly omnivorous and opportunistic. The diet includes ants, termites, beetles and their larvae, caterpillars, spiders, other arthropods, bird eggs, nestlings, small rodents, lizards, fruit, nuts and sap. Many insects and their grubs are taken from living and dead trees by excavation. The bird may hear sounds from inside the timber indicating where it will be productive to create a hole. Crustaceans, molluscs and carrion may be eaten by some species including the great spotted woodpecker, and bird feeders are visited for suet and domestic scraps.

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