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Rockin' with witcheties and oompalumps

Have you ever seen the masked witchety? How about the oompalump? Living deep within the marsh, oompalumps can be a challenge to see.

No. I haven't lost the last of my marbles. Not yet anyway. No. This is my way of introducing a discussion about the names of some birds.

Many birds are named for their appearance. Is there any better example than the red-winged blackbird? Some are named for the places they live, such as mountain quail. Still others are named for noted ornithologists, such as the Townsend's warbler. Then there are those named for their calls or song.

A student of birdsong will already know that the masked witchety and oompalumps in my bit of whimsy must be the common yellowthroat and secretive American bittern, respectively. The "witchety, witchety, witchety" is a common song in the marshes of the valley. The deep pump-like call of the bittern is a familiar sound of the marsh as dusk falls. The names may sound ridiculous but only because they are novel.

Consider the killdeer. What an absurd name. The killdeer never killed anything larger than a modest-sized insect. And it certainly doesn't resemble a deer in the slightest. Yet, on a summer's night a bird flushes from a pasture and cries out as it wings off to another field with juicier insects and seeds. The explanation for the name is at once clear. "Kill-dee, kill-dee."

The chickadee is another rather silly name. But I bet most of you have heard the familiar "chick-a-dee-dee" call at your feeder on a winter morning. I'm just glad people didn't focus on its song rather than its call. Otherwise we might have black-capped cheeseburgers dining on the sunflower seeds in our yards. I'm not ready for that one. "Cheeese-bur-ger."

Then there is the spotted towhee. A familiar name but rather odd if you think about it. The towhee is a large sparrow, and on a spring morning "ta-wheeeee" can be heard from many a small tree above the blackberry patches along the Bear Creek Greenway. In the southeast United States, a closely-related species, the eastern towhee, is called a chewink by many. Would you care to guess what the song sounds like? We have other towhees in our region — California and green-tailed towhees. Neither has a song that sounds like "ta-wheee." It's guilt by association. They are stuck with the name because of their close relations to the spotted towhee.

A pre-dawn trip up Salt Creek Road in May might have you listening to a common poorwill. Actually, if people were listening just a bit more carefully when it was named, we might have the poor-will-ip in our field guides instead. The "ip" part of the song is quite soft. You may also hear a saw-whet owl on the same outing. This owl sounds quite a bit like a hand saw being sharpened (whetted). The sound is difficult to convert directly into a name. So we are left with a description instead. Flickers and jays are two more for the list of birds named for their calls.

Onomatopoeia! No. This is not another whimsical bird name. This is the term applied to things named for the sound they make.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.