Naming Wild Birds


My son wants to know the name of the bird that is flying from tree to tree on the trail in front of us. I can’t identify the bird, not from this distance anyway, but I know why he is asking. Countless times on our adventures he has heard me murmur, “I wonder what bird that is,” and helped me scroll through pictures until we find a close approximation. “I think it’s some kind of warbler. Maybe a Wilson’s warbler, or a yellow warbler.” He surmises that the bird, being definitely yellow and not resembling anyone named Wilson, is probably of that variety. We have found our answer, correct or not.


I like to know the names of my fellow forest inhabitants. Although a name tells me little about the bird itself, being able to identify it seems to offer a degree of understanding. Once I am successfully able to match a living bird with its Audubon picture and name, I begin to see them everywhere. A Steller’s jay hops along a neighbor’s roof. A Western Tanager flits in our bushes, and a Northern Flicker visits our birdfeeder. Red-winged blackbirds sing as we take our walks along the lake, and an Osprey soars overhead. The woods have not come alive, as they have always been so, but now I am able to see it.


When our children are born, we give them a name. Five or ten letters to cloak them and follow them for life, to stand in as shorthand for all that they are. We utter their names when they are hours hold, when their hair is still wet and their unfamiliarity with the world is as great as our unfamiliarity with them.

“You think the name fits, don’t you?” I ask my husband. He, of course, affirms the choice we had made months prior, before we had even known whom I was carrying inside of me. I stare down. His skin is a reddish yellow, his eyes framed by barely visible wisps of eyebrows, and his nose curves sweetly just as all newborn’s noses do. I do not know what someone of that name is supposed to look like. It will have to do.


“What is that bird?!” a friend exclaims, peering out my window. It is the same question with all friends and family who visit from the east, the side of the country which magpies do not inhabit. I have to agree with them, the bird is rather striking with its long tail, blue wings, and smooth black head.  Part of its mystique is lost when it flies away, inelegantly stretching out its large white feathers on the tip of its wing, giving the appearance of flapping fingers.  “It’s a magpie. They are kind of pests, really,” I tell my friend. “But they are beautiful.”


There is great responsibility in choosing a name for a child, and also none at all. They will define the moniker, not the other way around. We will yell their names when it is time to leave the park, whisper them softly as we say good night, and shake our heads and say their names, laughing, as we look at our partners when the child misbehaves in a way that is oh so typical of himself.

My sons are wild birds, creatures I cannot begin to understand with spirits I cannot hope to harness. I have known them since they first existed, but as I try to comprehend their personalities, they slip away, changing and evolving again. Sweet babies turn into rowdy toddlers, and then into little kids with minds of their own. Soon they will be busy school children and teenagers who will most likely refuse to go birding with me. But that is tomorrow. Today, they wear the names we have given them, designations chosen as remembrances of those who came before and prayers for what will follow after.


I don’t know why we try to name wild birds. They will most likely fly away before we have begun to understand them.

Together, my sons and I peer into the wild, hoping to find homes for the names that fill our tattered bird guides. A name will not divulge any secrets to us, it will not clue us in on the full story of what flies between the trees.  A name is only a beginning.


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