Recent Publications




Those who are serious about bird-watching, or "birding," are not content to stay at home and see who drops in. Rather they go out into the wild to observe the more the 800 species of birds in North America

Birders who live in the Harrisburg area are especially fortunate in this regard. One of the premier sites in all the world for observing birds of prey is Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, only about an hour's drive to the northeast near Highway 78. Every autumn tens of thousands of birds fly by Hawk Mountain in their annual southbound migration. These passersby include not only hawks, but a dozen other kinds of birds of prey including eagles, falcons, ospreys, and harriers. 

Most people are content simply to observe and enjoy these magnificent creatures. But those who are wordbuffs as well as birdbuffs may start wondering about the name of each species. The Red-tailed Hawk and the Broad-winged Hawk are obviously named for their appearance. The Goshawk's name is short for Goosehawk, since this bird feeds on ducks and geese. 

The Northern Harrier is also named for its favorite prey, the hare. These predators, formerly called Marsh Hawks, glide close to the ground looking for rabbits, mice, or frogs. The British jet plane called a Harrier, which can swivel its turbines and hover like a helicopter, it named after this bird, which sometimes hovers in a headwind while scanning the earth below.

Another visitor to Hawk Mountain is the osprey, whose very name seems to have something to do with prey. But the actual source is Latin, ossifrage, literally "bone-breaker." Ospreys feed almost exclusively on fish, diving out of the sky and snatching their prey feetfirst out of the water with bone-crushing talons. Falcons, like ospreys, have powerful, curved beaks and claws and their name calls attention to this feature. Falcon derives from Latin falx, "a sickle." 

Of course, one doesn't have to drive to Hawk Mountain to watch birds and wonder about their names. From right where I sit here in my study, I can see a cardinal at the birdfeeder in our backyard. Is he named after the color or is the color named after him? Or is he somehow like those high officials in the Roman church? 

My trusty dictionary explains that the basic meaning of cardinal is "principal, chief." It comes from the Latin word cardo, "door hinge," because it is something upon which everything else turns or depends. A cardinal in the Roman Catholic church is a member of the Pope's council, one who traditionally wears a bright red robe as a symbol of his office. The color cardinal is named after this robe, and the bird is named for its color. (Actually, not all cardinals are cardinal; the females are greyish-brown with orange beaks, wingtips, and tails.) 

Occasionally, the cardinals are willing to share our feeder with orioles, who also take their name from their coloring. Oriole is a French word meaning "golden," derived from the Latin aurum, "gold." The word aura, a golden glow, comes from the same source.

Other birds in our backyard are named not for what they look like, but what what they do to find a meal. The names of the woodpecker and the sapsucker are self-explanatory. But what about the nuthatch? Does he sit on a nut all day, hoping it will hatch eventually so he can eat the kernel? Actually, the hatch in nuthatch is from a French word meaning "to chop or split," as in our word hatchet. The nuthatch is a nutcracker, splitting open the shell to get at the kernel. 

Whether on Hawk Mountain or in their backyard, birders may enjoy the experience even more if, along with books by Mr. Audubon, they include one by Mr. Webster.

Recent Publications

The Way We Word





KINGS AND CABBAGES: The Origin of Common German Family Names


DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: Names of Pennsylvania's Rivers and Creeks



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