A wise person once said that you should never make fun of someone for mispronouncing a word because it means they probably learned it by reading. Birders can relate. We read all kinds of unusual names in field guides but rarely get the chance to hear them spoken out loud. And it’s not like the birds come and introduce themselves.
Consequently, there can be a lot of trepidation when pronouncing a bird’s name in front of another birder for the first time. For example, when describing my excitement about my first trip to Arizona, I pronounced Pyrrhuloxia variously as “pyra-blah-blah-blah,” “the P one,” and “p . . . (inaudible mumble).”
Enough! I have pronounced tons of bird names incorrectly over the years and want to prevent you from experiencing the same pain and embarrassment. Here is a short guide to the proper pronunciation of some of the more difficult and daunting names in birding. Please note that I am aiming to avoid some of the traditionally debated pronunciations: You can say either PILL-eated or PIE-leated, and PLO-ver or PLUH-ver—they’re all acceptable.
Also, I’ll be using my own, unofficial pronunciation style, with each syllable laid out phonetically and the emphasized syllables in caps.
Pyrrhuloxia — peer-uh-LOX-ee-a
Perhaps the most daunting bird name of any American species, the Pyrrhuloxia can be tamed by breaking the pronunciation down into five simple syllables, with an emphasis on the third. If you’re curious, the name derives from the combination of two Greek roots: pyrrhula, meaning bullfinches, and loxia, meaning crossbills. But that doesn’t help much with pronunciation. Instead, and bear with me here, try to remember the “peer-uh-LOX” part by imagining yourself looking at the toppings in a bagel shop. What's the connection? I dunno, but you'll never forget it now.
Phainopepla — fay-no-PEP-la
Another Southwestern speciality with a tough name. I typically mispronounce this one by unexplicably adding an extra syllable at the end: Phainopepala. Don’t you do that. If you can just remember that the daunting “phai” is just pronounced “fay,” you’ll be fine. Also, Phainopepla gets its name from Greek roots meaning “shining robe,” which is a wonderful phrase. So if you want to avoid pronouncing Phainopepla altogether and just say “Hey, look, a Shining Robe!” that’s totally fine with me.
Cordilleran Flycatcher — coor-dill-YAIR-an; coor-de-YAIR-an
Depending on who you are talking to, there are a couple of acceptable pronunciations for Cordilleran. What stays constant is the emphasis on the third, not the second, syllable. Being an American English speaker, my first instinct was to emphasize the second syllable—cor-DILL-eran. Nope, this word has a Spanish root—cordillera, meaning mountain range—and the emphasis should fall later in the word. There does seem to be flexibility in the second syllable, though, whether you want to pronounce it like the pickle.
Species: Parasitic, Pomarine, Long-tailed
You’ll want to know how to pronounce this before you’re faced with yelling it to the other birders on your pelagic boat trip. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy. YAY-gur. These seabirds got their name from the German word for “hunt” due to their notorious reputations as pirates of the seas, hunting and harassing other birds for their food. An easy trick for remembering Jagermeister alcohol, which means “hunt master.”
Crested Caracara — CARE-a-CARE-a
These large, weird raptors are a highlight of any visit to Texas or South Florida, but it’s not an obvious word to pronounce. An understandable impulse is to pronounce the “car” parts of this word like the automobile, but you must resist the urge. They should actually be pronounced “care,” like, um, the English verb that means “look after and provide for the needs of.” It’s onomatopoeic, or an imitation of the bird’s cry, which means that it’s a tough word to guess at. Now you know.
Quetzal — KET-zal
Species: Eared, Resplendent, Crested, Pavonine, White-tipped, Golden-headed
QUEET-zal? CUTE-zal? These stunning birds are common in Mexico, and so it’s not surprising that their name has its origins in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people. But we don’t come across Aztec words too often (avocado, coyote, and chili are some others), so the hard pronunciation of the first syllable in Quetzal can be tricky. Here's an easy cheat: Just think of it like “pretzel” and you’ll be fine.
Calliope Hummingbird — ka-LIE-o-pee
Another name you might have a better shot at if you had brushed up on your ancient Greek. This tiny, magenta-throated hummingbird of western mountain meadows is named after the muse of poetry, song, and dance. Though they aren’t known for their singing, seeing a Calliope Hummingbird is enough to make me want to do a little jig, so I guess it’s an apt name.
Vaux’s Swift — VOX’s
Birds named after people, called honorifics, are difficult because sometimes people’s names aren’t pronounced the way you think. Like, people always mispronounce my name like “LOON-ed” how would they know it’s wrong if I wasn’t there to tell them that “it’s Lund like fund?” I always thought this Vaux was pronounced in a French style, like “faux,” but apparently the Philadelphian mineralogist William S. Vaux pronounced his name like “Fox,”so this bird’s name should be said like “foxes.”
Ptarmigan — TAR-mig-gin
Species: Willow, Rock, and White-tailed
When you’re talking about these chunky Arctic grouse, leave that P alone. It’s hanging out there and really making things weird, but you must ignore it. Interestingly, that P was basically slapped onto the existing Scottish Gaelic word for this bird, tàrmachan, because people mistakenly thought the word had a Greek origin. Apparently starting words with “pt” was something the Greeks did. The more you know.
Sabine’s Gull — SAB-in’s
Another tricky honorific bird, this beautiful nomadic gull of the open seas is named for Irish explorer, astronomer, and all around interesting guy Edward Sabine. I used to think this bird was named after the river in Texas, which is pronounced sa-BEEN, but apparently Edward put the emphasis on the first syllable, SAB-in.
Plain Chachalaca — chach-uh-LAA-ka
Another family of birds more common in Mexico, and another Aztec name. “Chachalaca” is an onomatopoeic word referencing the bird’s call. If this helps you, and it helps me, you can remember how to pronounce this bird because it’s pretty similar to how the announcer in the Super Nintendo game NBA Jam pronounces “Boom Shakalaka!” after a massive dunk. No? Not helpful? OK.
Guillemot — GILL-eh-mott
Species: Black, Pigeon , and Spectacled
The name Guillemot is a diminutive form of the French name Guillaume, translated as William in English. But don't get tricked: Though it was named after the French name, it’s not pronounced like it in English, so make sure you pronounce the "ll" part of Guillemot. Think of these birds as eating fish with gills, and say “Gill-eh-mott” instead of the French-sounding “GEE-ya-mot.”
Phalarope — FAL-eh-rope
Species: Red, Red-necked, and Wilson’s
There are like a million interesting things about these shorebirds, including that they spin around in circles in the water to stir up food, and that they’re one of the few American birds where the females are more colorful than the males. With so many important facts to remember it’s perhaps a relief that their name is easier to pronounce than it may look: FAL-eh-rope. It’s a name of Greek origin referring to the fact that, apparently, their large, lobed feet are similar to those of coots. Another interesting fact!
Rose-throated Becard — BEK-ard
These tropical birds only occasionally range into the U.S., and even then it’s usually just a stone’s throw over the border into Arizona or Texas, so you may not have frequent occasion to pronounce it. For the longest time I thought this was pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable, like Captain Picard from Star Trek. Nope, it’s just a quick, inelegant BECK-ard, which comes from the French becarde, meaning shrike.
Common Pauraque — pow-RAH-kay
Another species whose name derives from an attempted translation of a Spanish-language onomatopoeic, the name of this cryptic nightjar is as hard to say as it is to find hidden in the leaf-litter. The proper pronunciation in English is a little unsettled because of uncertain transliteration from Spanish, but the consensus is that the emphasis is on the middle syllable and that it ends with a “kay” and not a “kuh.”
Cassia Crossbill — CASH-uh
Only described in 2009 and formally accepted as a new species in 2017, the Cassia Crossbill is American birding’s newest endemic. Found only in the South Hills and Albion Mountains of southern Idaho -- never straying from its namesake Cassia County -- this incredible crossbill has a larger bill than other American crossbills, perfect for opening the dense cones of the Lodgepole Pine. According to the official Idaho Pronunciation Guide, the bird and its county are pronounced like paper currency, not like, say, Mama Cass. Here’s a way to remember: it’s chilly in Idaho, and this is a tough bird, so you could call it the cold, hard Cassia.
Craveri's Murrelet — cra-VAIR-eez
You’re excused if you don’t have much opportunity to practice the pronunciation of this small alcid, an uncommon visitor to the waters off Southern California. But if you’re lucky enough to see one on a pelagic trip, you’d get extra points by calling it out with the proper name. The bird is named for a pair of Italian naturalist brothers, Frederico and Ettore Craveri, who spent a lot of time in Mexico. For this one, it helps to say the name with a (bad) Italian accent, putting the emphasis on the second syllable (cra-VAIR-eez) instead of the first (CRAY-ver-eez)
I hope this quick guide helps you avoid some birding embarrassment in the field. For more, please check out Kevin McGowan’s bird name pronunciations website, and Edward Gruson’s book Words for Birds, if you can find a copy.