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12 Birds Named After Famous Explorers

Modern day bird naming often emphasizes descriptive names, names that reflect a species’ habitat, behavior, coloration, or names that honor indigenous words or local names for the species. However many birds we are familiar with today were named in the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time period birds and other species were often named after the explorers that played a role in discovering or documenting new species in regions previously unknown to European science.

Explorers, naturalists, and their patrons frequently received such honors as a form of recognition for their contributions to expanding scientific knowledge and cataloging previously undocumented species. In this article we will look at 12 explorers who made such notable contributions to the study of birds that they had species named after them. 

1. Alexandrine parakeet

alexandrine parakeet
Alexandrine Parakeet | image by nbu2012 via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Psittacula eupatria

The Alexandrine Parakeet is named after Alexander the Great, who is credited with spreading the appreciation and possibly the distribution of these birds from their native regions in South Asia to various parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. Alexander the Great, known for his vast empire that stretched from Greece to parts of India, was known to have a fascination with exotic animals. It is said he may have kept this striking species of parakeet as a pet. 

These pretty parakeets are known for their bright green color, with a red patch on the wings, and thick red beak. Known for exhibiting strong social behaviors, they are often seen in large flocks, and are capable of mimicking human speech.

Interesting facts about them include their long lifespan, which can extend up to 30 years in captivity. They primarily inhabit forests, woodlands, and agricultural lands across a range stretching from the eastern parts of Afghanistan through the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia. They are still sold as pets in certain countries today, although their wild population is near threatened.

2. Audubon’s oriole

adult audubons oriole perched on branch
Audubon’s oriole | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Icterus graduacauda

Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter, renowned for his detailed illustrations of American birds in their natural habitats. His major work, “The Birds of America,” published in the early 1800’s, is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed, featuring life-size prints of North American bird species. 

His interest in illustrating birds in their natural habitat drove him to travel across many regions of the United States and Canada searching for these species in the wild. 

One bird named in his honor is the colorful Audubon’s oriole. They are the only oriole species in the western hemisphere with an entirely black “hood” – which includes the head and breast but not the upper back. Adults have lemon yellow bodies with black wings and tail. Mainly found in Mexico, they have a small range in southern Texas.

Audubon’s oriole has a relatively secretive nature, making it a less commonly seen bird despite its bright colors. Similar to other orioles, they eat mainly insects and fruits, including berries, apples and plums.

3. Magellanic Penguin

Magellan's penguin
Magellan’s penguin | image by Ron Knight via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Spheniscus magellanicus

Magellan’s penguin, also known as the Magellanic penguin, was named after Ferdinand Magellan, the explorer who first noted them in 1520 during his voyage around the southern tip of South America. These penguins are characterized by their black and white plumage and distinctive black band around their chest. They exhibit strong social behaviors, including breeding in large colonies, and are known for their loud, braying calls.

An interesting fact about Magellan’s penguins is their loyalty to their breeding sites, returning to the same spot year after year. They inhabit coastal regions in southern South America, primarily in Argentina, Chile, and the Falkland Islands, where they nest in burrows or under bushes. Their diet mainly consists of fish, squid, and krill.

4. Livingstone’s turaco

Livingstone's turaco
Livingstone’s turaco | image by Heather Paul via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientific Name: Tauraco livingstonii

Livingstone’s Turaco is named in honor of the explorer David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer who played a significant role in mapping the African interior. Find this turaco in the moist forests and woodlands of southeastern Africa, from Malawi to South Africa, where it plays an essential role in ecosystem health as a seed disperser.

These birds stand out with vibrant green plumage, highlighted by crimson wing patches and a prominent crest. These social birds are typically seen in small groups amidst dense forest canopies. Its movement is characterized by hopping through the trees. Interestingly, the pigment from its feathers is used in traditional ceremonies by some African tribes, showcasing its cultural significance.

5. Hudsonian godwit

hudsonian godwit
Hudsonian Godwit | image by clintonweaverphotos via Deposit Photos

Scientific Name: Limosa haemastica

Henry Hudson was a 17th-century English navigator and explorer known for his attempts to find a northern passage to Asia through the Arctic Ocean, and for exploring the rivers and bays in North America, including the Hudson River and Hudson Bay, which are named after him.

This godwit species has a population that breeds near Hudson Bay, where it finds suitable tundra habitats for nesting. They were named after the bay and in turn Henry Hudson himself. Adults have a black and brown mottled back with a chestnut belly during the breeding season.

It is remarkable for its long, non-stop flights over oceans during migration between North and South America, showcasing incredible endurance. The Hudsonian godwit uses coastal marshes and mudflats as stopover points, where it refuels for the journey. An interesting feature of this bird is its long, slightly upturned bill, ideal for foraging in mud for invertebrates.

6. Steller’s jay

Steller's jay
Steller’s Jay | image by Veronika_Andrews via Pixabay

Scientific Name: Cyanocitta stelleri

Georg Wilhelm Steller could be considered an explorer as well as a naturalist. He is best known for his work as part of the Russian explorer Vitus Bering’s second Kamchatka expedition, where he explored parts of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the Commander Islands, documenting new species and the geography of the region. Along with the Steller’s Jay, he has other species named after him, including Steller’s Eider and Steller’s Sea-Eagle.

The Steller’s jay is a striking bird known for its vibrant blue and black plumage and tall crest. This bird exhibits curious and intelligent behaviors, often mimicking the sounds of other birds and animals.

It is known for its boldness around humans, frequently visiting campsites and picnic areas to scavenge for food. An interesting fact about Steller’s jay is that it is the only crested jay west of the Rocky Mountains. Its habitat spans coniferous and mixed forests across western North America, from Alaska to Nicaragua.

7. Pallas’s sandgrouse

Pallas's sandgrouse
Pallas’s sandgrouse | image by Ján Svetlí via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Syrrhaptes paradoxus

Peter Simon Pallas was an explorer as well as a naturalist and zoologist. He is renowned for his extensive scientific expeditions through the Russian Empire, including Siberia, the Urals, and the Caspian Sea region, where he studied the geography, flora, and fauna, significantly contributing to the 18th-century understanding of these areas.

Pallas’s sandgrouse is a ground bird that breeds across the middle latitudes of central Asia. They are a sandy brown color with a long, pointed tail and feathered legs and toes. This bird is known for its ability to fly long distances to find water, a key behavior for survival in its arid and semi-arid habitats.

Because their diet is mainly dry seeds, they need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated. Large flocks make round trips to watering holes at dusk and dawn. When newly hatched chicks are too young to fly to the water, males will soak their breast plumage and return to the chicks wet, allowing them to drink from their wet feathers.  

8. Franklin’s gull

franklins gulls
Franklin’s Gulls (breeding adults) | image by David A Mitchell via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Leucophaeus pipixcan

The Franklin’s Gull is named after Sir John Franklin, a British Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer. He is best known for his expeditions in the Canadian Arctic, including his final expedition in 1845 aimed at navigating and charting the Northwest Passage, a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic. 

Adult, breeding Franklin’s gulls have a black head with a white crescent around the eye. They have snowy white underparts, gray wings and a red bill. During the non-breeding season, their heads turn mostly white with just a hint of the black leftover and their bill becomes dark. This species undertakes lengthy migrations from its breeding territories in North America to wintering grounds in South America, showcasing impressive endurance.

These gulls are highly social, commonly found in large groups in fields and lakes, where they feed on insects and small fish. They breed in the prairie wetlands of central Canada and the northern United States, a stark contrast to their coastal winter habitats.

9. Clark’s nutcracker

clarks nutcracker evergreen
Clark’s Nutcracker | image by jeremyarnica via Deposit Photos

Scientific Name: Nucifraga columbiana

The stately Clark’s Nutcracker is named for William Clark, the co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800’s. This  historic journey was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired western portion of the United States following the Louisiana Purchase. The expedition aimed to map the territory, establish trade with Native American tribes, and find a practical route across the western half of the continent to the Pacific Ocean. They discovered several new bird species and provided valuable observations on the wildlife of the American West.

Clark’s nutcracker is a robust bird found in the mountainous regions of western North America. With its sharp, pointed bill, it is adept at extracting seeds from pine cones, a staple of its diet. This bird exhibits remarkable memory skills, able to recall the locations of thousands of seeds it buries in the ground as a winter food source. This seed caching behavior plays and important role in seed dispersal, particularly for whitebark pine, as it forgets some of the seed caches, allowing new trees to grow.

10. Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's woodpecker perched on dead branch
Lewis’s Woodpecker | image by Channel City Camera Club via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Melanerpes lewis

The other half of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Merriweather Lewis, has a bird named him too. Lewis was the first to describe this unique looking woodpecker during their western expedition. Instead of the typical black and white coloration most North American woodpeckers have, the Lewis’s woodpecker has emerald green wings and head feathers, with a pink belly, silver chest and crimson face.

Another aspect that makes this bird a unique woodpecker is that it will catch insects in mid-flight, which is a behavior more often seen in flycatchers. The Lewis’s Woodpecker prefers open woodlands and is often seen foraging for food in open spaces. They are found in the western United States and parts of southern British Columbia. 

11. Cook’s petrel

Cook's petrel
Cook’s petrel | image by Ron Knight via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Pterodroma cookii

Cook’s petrel is named after the British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook. Cook is perhaps best known for his three great voyages to the Pacific Ocean. He made significant contributions to European knowledge of the area, including the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia, the Hawaiian Islands, and the first circumnavigation of New Zealand. 

Cook’s petrel is a small seabird known for its long-distance migrations across the Pacific Ocean, much like Captain Cook himself! This bird, characterized by its light gray and white plumage, is highly adapted to life at sea, rarely seen on land except during breeding season. Cook’s petrel exhibits remarkable navigational skills, flying thousands of miles from breeding sites in New Zealand to feeding grounds off the coasts of North and South America.

12. Swainson’s hawk

swainsons hawk
Swainson’s hawk | image by NPS/Patrick Myers via Flickr

Scientific Name: Buteo swainsoni

Swainson’s hawk is a medium-sized raptor known for its impressive migratory journey, one of the longest of any American raptor. Summers are spent breeding across the western half of the United States and Canada. Then in the fall they make a long journey south to their wintering grounds in Argentina.

William Swainson was an explorer, notable English ornithologist, naturalist and artist. He conducted significant exploratory work in Brazil from 1816 to 1818, collecting specimens and studying the flora and fauna of South America. Later, he emigrated to New Zealand, where he continued his work in natural history. Swainson’s explorations contributed to his extensive writings and illustrations, especially on birds. The Swainson’s Thrush and Swainson’s Warbler are also named for him.

This hawk exhibits a variety of plumage colors but is typically recognized by its dark chest and light belly. It prefers open habitats such as grasslands and prairies, where it can be seen soaring high in the sky searching for prey like insects and small mammals.


Naming birds after famous explorers bridges exploration and ornithology, honoring explorers’ achievements and contributions. These names keep the explorers’ legacies alive, connecting them with the natural world they helped reveal. This practice highlights the importance of exploration in understanding biodiversity and encourages conservation. It shows how exploration and science work together, ensuring these explorers’ names and discoveries continue to inspire curiosity and respect for nature.

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