Birdword is a recurring feature in Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
They’re sometimes called technical terms, eight-dollar-words, jargon, or just plain gobbledygook. But hidden inside those multisyllabic ornithological utterances are keys to fascinating behaviors, time machines to take you back to ancient Greek and Latin, and sly insights to the minds of scientists at work. In this recurring feature, we break down a few of the “birdwords” we enjoy the most:
Illustration by Megan Bishop, adapted from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Handbook of Bird Biology, featured inLiving Bird, Spring 2019.
Bird Divorce: In many songbirds, such as cardinals, Blue Jays, and chickadees, males and females tend to pair up for multiple breeding seasons. Some may mate for life. But divorce is also common. In birds, divorce is when both members of a pair are still alive, but one or both birds break their existing pair bond, usually to re-pair with a different individual. Divorce is most often initiated by the female. Experiments have shown that many females divorce in order to re-pair with a higher-quality or more dominant male.
Rhynchokinesis: n. [rhyncho (Greek, beak) + kinesis (Greek, movement)] A bird’s ability to independently flex its upper mandible, a trait most pronounced in long-billed shorebirds and a few other groups such as cranes and hummingbirds. In shorebirds, the action assists with the capture of slippery items when the bill is thrust deep into the sand or mud.
Zygodactyl: adj. [Greek zygo (yoked, or paired) + dactyl (toed)] Having two toes facing forward and two facing backward. A feature of several orders of birds, including cuckoos, woodpeckers, and parrots.