Why Some Birds’ Names Have Changed

Remember the Rufous-sided Towhee?

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote!

A listener recently wrote us: “Years ago, some of the birds at my feeder were the Rufous-sided Towhee, Oregon Junco, and Red-shafted Flicker. But I can’t find them in my current field guides. They're gone, and so are the marsh hawk and sparrow hawk.” 

Well, the listener’s right. Some of these long-familiar bird names have passed into history.

The study of birds, like any science, remains a work in progress. New findings about birds’ DNA or other attributes bring changes in classification of species, which often result in new names. Take the Rufous-sided Towhee, found across North America. Differences between its western and eastern forms – plumage, songs, genetics – brought an official split into two distinct species: the Spotted Towhee in the West, the Eastern Towhee in the East.

The Red-shafted Flicker, on the other hand, was lumped with the Yellow-shafted Flicker, because so many hybrids were found. Now, they all fly from tree to tree as the Northern Flicker. 

But where have the “marsh hawk” and “sparrow hawk” gone? Check your field guide for the Northern Harrier and the American Kestrel.

Learn more at birdnote.org.


Written by Bob Sundstrom

Narrator: Mary McCann

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

Ambient sounds recorded by D.S. Herr.

Bird audio provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Spotted Towhee song recorded by K. Colver #49764. Eastern Towhee recorded by W.L. Hershberger #94294. American Kestrel recorded by D.S. Herr #133146. Northern Flicker recorded by R.C. Stein #6819. BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and produced by John Kessler.

© 2013 Tune In to Nature.org   February 2017