“Here’s the Short-billed Dowitcher . . . Costurero de Pico Corto,” Kellie Quinones, our trip leader, says, consulting Guida de Campo Kaufman: a las Aves Norteamericana. “Costurero: It’s a seamstress with a short bill, because again, the movement where you saw me going like this”—Quinones mimics the head-bobbing of the birds feeding in the pond in front of us—“and because like a sewing machine, it’s going like this”—she threads a needle in the air in the same up-down motion. “That’s why it’s called the Costurero de Pico Corto.”
It’s a sticky summer morning in New York City’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and the Feminist Bird Club’s first bilingual walk has turned into a Spanish lesson for the mainly English-speaking crowd. We delight in the names that Quinones, a board member with NYC Audubon, translates for us, letting them roll off our tongues as we peer through spotting scopes at Glossy Ibises or Ibis de Cara Obscura, Black-crowned Night-Herons or Pedrete de Corona Negra (Quinones’s spark bird), and a Wilson’s Phalarope or Falaropo de Pico Largo. The last one is rare in these parts and a lifer for many of the more experienced birders.
While English common names tend to dwell on field marks (White-fronted Sandpiper) or ornithological legacies (that Wilson’s Phalarope), most Spanish names describe actual behaviors of birds. But even when the labels seem simple and intuitive, the story behind them is quite complicated.
As proof of concept, look to the lack of field guides in Spanish. So far, star birder and Audubon Field Editor Kenn Kaufman is the only North American author to release a translated version of his avian field guide. “Right from the start, I knew I wanted to do a Spanish edition, too,” Kaufman says. “I wanted birding to be more inclusive.” Now his bilingual edition, released in 2005, is used by Quinones and other Latinx birders across the Western Hemisphere.
Creating a standard set of common names in any language is a tricky business, Kaufman explains. Even English, the controversially de facto language of ornithology, can have different names for the same species depending on which side of the Atlantic you're on. In Spanish, the terminology gets even more complicated. There are 21 nations and territories where Spanish is the official language, and each has its own dialects, slang, and indigenous languages. So, even within the same country, there could be multiple common names for the same bird.
Some of the “official Spanish names” are just direct English translations and pay little thought to definitions, says Vicente Rodriguez, a biologist and bird conservationist with the Mexican government. When Rodriguez gets together with ornithologists from other Spanish-speaking countries, he says they’ll often resort to using the Latin or English names because regional nuances quickly become chaotic.
The naming disparity can also make it difficult to coordinate cross-border ornithological projects and get diverse groups of people interested in birding. To reduce confusion, in 2015, CONABIO, the national commission for the knowledge and use of biodiversity in Mexico, released a list of common avian names for every species found in the country.
“We here at CONABIO are trying to expand birding activities, not only watching them but participating in citizen science projects,” Rodriguez, who remains involved with the project, says. “We think that producing common names in Spanish will help.”
To compile the mammoth list of 1,000-plus birds, Rodriguez and his colleagues had to first collect all the different names used for each species in Mexico. They then studied the species' distribution, giving special consideration to names from areas where it was common. Finally, the CONABIO team looked for labels related to the appearance or behavior of the bird—something that would make easy to remember and ID, Rodriguez says.
One of the names they ended up changing was the Spanish term for trogons. The previous term for the group was Trogones, translated directly from English. But in some regions of Mexico, people called it the “flagbird” because of how its red and green plumage resembled the Mexican flag. In the end, CONABIO decided to revise the name to Coa to sound like the bird’s distinctive call.
“It’s very easy now to recognize a trogon," Rodriguez says. "All the different species of trogon make a coa coa sound."
Another name they changed, much to Rodriguez’s satisfaction, was the Collared Aracari’s. He’s not sure exactly where aracari came from, but says the moniker likely originated from an Amazonian dialect. The bird used to be called Aracari de Colar, before Rodriguez and CONABIO changed the official Mexican name to Tucancillo Collarejo, which roughly means “a small toucan with a feathery collar on the front of its chest.”
Beyond the Mexican border, it’s harder to find a consensus. The translations in Kaufman’s guide, for example, might be recognizable to a Mexican birder, but not to a Cuban or Peruvian one. That makes the birding experience more challenging, while also giving it more purpose.
“Names have a very strong power” because they create a sense of local ownership over birds, says Rafael Galvez, an artist, board member at the Tropical Audubon Society, and director of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch. What’s more, he says, they deepen the connection between culture and nature. During fall migration, when birds funnel through South Florida on the way to their Latin American wintering grounds, Galvez organizes counts for participants to identify species in different languages. The point is to show people originally from Haiti, Cuba, or other parts of the tropics that “these are [their] birds, too,” he says.
Hemisphere-wide, language invites new people to learn about birds and feel welcome in the conservation community, says Jennie Duberstein, a Sonoran Joint Venture coordinator who does bilingual outreach and avian education. Sometimes, she says, the names in the Kaufman guide don’t match the ones adopted by Latinx communities in Arizona and northern Mexico. But even by working with a recognizable dialect, she's often able to get the dialogue started.
In the end, it’s all about making an effort, Quinones, our guide back at Jamaica Bay, says. Language can help bridge divides—and no matter the exact phrase that’s used, on the other side of that bridge, there are birds.
Hear the Spanish names for 10 common North American birds:
Correction: Two of the Spanish names in the article, Pedrete de Corona Negra and Tucancillo Collarejo, were slightly misspelled. We apologize and have since corrected them.