Birdword: An Illustrated Guide to Some Tongue-Twisting Ornithological Terms

January 8, 2020

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:

Birdword: Tomial Tooth, Peregrine Falcon by C&C SaladintionPeregrine Falcon by C&C Saladintion, featured in Living Bird, Winter 2020.

Tomial Tooth: n. A protrusion on the upper bill of some birds—including falcons, kites, and shrikes—reminiscent of a tooth. The “tooth” and the corresponding divot in the lower mandible allow the bill to act like a pair of shears, which may make it easier for the predators to sever the spinal cords of their vertebrate prey.

 

Bird Divorce, illustration by Megan BishopIllustration by Megan Bishop, adapted from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Handbook of Bird Biology, featured in Living 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.

 

Bar-tailed Godwit Photos by Jon Irvine via Birdshare. Rhynchokinesis n. [Rhyncho (Gr., beak) + Kinesis (Gr., movement)] A bird’s ability to independently flex its upper bill, 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.
Bar-tailed Godwit photos by Jon Irvine via Birdshare, featured in Living Bird, Autumn 2018.
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.

 

Allopreening Laysan Albatross by Cliff BeittelAllopreening Laysan Albatrosses by Cliff Beittel, featured in Living Bird, Spring 2017.

Allopreen (v.), allopreening (n.): the grooming of one bird by another of the same species; birds allopreen to clean feathers in hard-to-reach places and to strengthen pair bonds.

 

Zugunruhe Black-and-white Warbler, Photo: Dan Tallman; Source: Handbook of Bird Biology, Third Edition.Photo by Dan Tallman, Handbook of Bird Biology, Third Edition, featured in Living Bird, Autumn 2016.

Zugunruhe: n. [German] migratory restlessness; when songbirds are ready to migrate, they literally cannot sit still.

 

Pileated Woodpecker by John Fox, Yellow-billed Cuckoo by Lindell Dillon, both via Birdshare. Featured in Living Bird, Winter 2016.

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.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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