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15 Birds Named After Their Behaviors or Traits

Birds gain their names from many sources – their colors, the place they are most commonly found, or even the name of the person that discovered them. But sometimes it is the unique physical features or behaviors of the bird that are enough of a defining feature to give them their name. That is the category we will explore in this article, birds that are named after their behaviors or traits. From birds known for their “laughter” to those that crack nuts, let’s dive into these interesting species.

1. Laughingthrush

White-crested laughingthrush
White-crested laughingthrush | image by Alastair Rae via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Family: Leiothrichidae

Laughingthrushes are named for their melodious and often loud calls that sound like laughter, making them easily recognizable in their habitats. These birds are known for their social behavior, often found in groups that sing together, creating a chorus of “laughter.”

There are 133 species of laughingthrush, with most living in tropical climates in Southeast Asia and India. They tend to prefer scrubland and lightly wooded environments whether they are swampy or almost deserts. Laughingthrushes mainly eat insects and berries, but some of the larger species may eat small lizards.

2. Spectacled owl

Spectacled owl
Spectacled owl | image by David Stanley via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Pulsatrix perspicillata

The Spectacled owl is named for the distinctive white feather markings around its eyes, which resemble spectacles against its otherwise dark plumage. This appearance makes it one of the most recognizable owl species. Found in the forests of Central and South America, the Spectacled owl prefers dense, tropical rainforests where it hunts at night for small mammals, insects, and other birds.

Its deep, booming calls can be heard echoing through the forest at night. This owl nests in tree cavities and is known for its powerful talons and silent flight, characteristics that make it a formidable nocturnal predator.

3. Roadrunner

greater roadrunner
Greater roadrunner | image by Renee Grayson via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Family: Cuculidae

Roadrunners are named for their ability to run at high speeds, often seen darting across roads in front of vehicles. These birds are adapted to life on the ground, using their speed to chase down prey, including insects and small reptiles. There are two species, the Greater roadrunner found in the U.S. southwest and Mexico, and the Lesser roadrunner found in Mexico and Central America.

They have a distinctive appearance with a long tail and a crest of feathers on their head. Despite being capable of flight, roadrunners prefer running and are known for their agility and speed, reaching up to 25 miles per hour. That long tail can help them maneuver turns while running, like the rudder on a boat. 

4. Spoonbill

roseate spoonbill
Roseate spoonbill | image by fegatelligiancarlo via Pixabay

Scientific Family: Platalea

Spoonbills get their name from their bill’s unique spoon-like shape, which they sweep through shallow waters to catch food like fish and small invertebrates. This bill is not just distinctive but highly functional, allowing them to feed effectively in their aquatic habitats of wetlands and estuaries.

One well-known species is the Roseate spoonbill, which can be seen in the United States in southern Florida and select places along the Gulf of Mexico. They are notable for their pink plumage, since most other spoonbill species are white. These birds prefer to live in warm, shallow waters where they can feed and nest in colonies. 

5. Frigatebird

frigatebird soaring
Frigatebird gliding

Scientific Family: Fregatidae

Frigatebirds are seabirds known for their large wingspan and forked tails, allowing them to soar high above the ocean. A unique trait is the male’s inflatable red throat pouch, used during mating displays. They exhibit kleptoparasitic behavior, often stealing food from other birds, earning them the nickname “pirates of the sky.”

Frigatebirds, known for their impressive aerial abilities and distinctive appearance, got their name from the 18th-century English term “frigate,” which referred to a fast and maneuverable military ship. The name was likely inspired by the birds’ remarkable flying skills and their ability to stay aloft, gracefully soaring over the ocean for long periods of time.

Frigatebirds nest in colonies on tropical and subtropical islands worldwide. They don’t land on the water and avoid getting wet. They soar above the water and will catch fish at the surface, especially flying fish. These birds can remain aloft for days and weeks at a time without landing. 

6. Weaver Bird

Masked weaver building a nest | Image by Peter Holmes from Pixabay

Scientific Family: Ploceidae

Weaver birds are named for their highly skilled nest-building behavior, weaving intricate, hanging nests out of plant materials. These birds, found across Africa, Asia, and Australasia, create elaborate nests that hang from tree branches, resembling woven baskets. The male weaver birds are primarily responsible for nest construction, using it as a means to attract females. Their vibrant colors and social nature make them stand out in their habitats, which range from savannahs to farmlands and even urban areas.

7. Lyrebird

Superb lyrebird (male) | image by Brian Ralphs via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Family: Menuridae

Lyrebirds get their name from male’s tail feathers, which, when spread out, resemble the shape of a lyre, an ancient harp-like musical instrument. These birds are famous for their exceptional mimicry skills, able to replicate a wide array of sounds from their environment.

Found in the dense forests of Australia, lyrebirds use their unique tails and vocal abilities mainly in mating rituals, where males impress females with visual displays and a repertoire of mimicked sounds. They are shy birds that can be hard to study, but they have been recorded living up to 30 years!

8. Laughing Kookaburra

Laughing kookaburra perching
Laughing kookaburra perching | image by I Am via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Dacelo novaeguineae

The Laughing kookaburra, native to Australia, is named for its unique call that sounds like laughter, used to mark its territory. This distinctive sound, often compared to that of donkeys or monkeys, is a key part of its identity. Their syrinx can create two different frequencies at the same time, adding to their distinctive sound. Adults teach their young how to produce this call shortly after they are old enough to leave the nest. 

With a large bill, it hunts insects and small animals in forests and suburban gardens. They like to perch on a branch and wait for prey to pass by, where they can then pounce on them from above. Mice, insects, fish, frogs, lizards, small birds and even snakes are on the menu.

9. Oystercatcher

Image: Ramos Keith, USFWS |

Scientific Family: Haematopus

Oystercatchers are shorebirds that earned their name from their skill in catching and eating shellfish like oysters, mussels, and clams. Using their strong beaks, they can pry open shells or hammer them open. Most species appear similarly, with long legs, a dark stocky body and long orange beak.

Oystercatchers are found along coastlines worldwide, where they inhabit sandy beaches, mudflats, and rocky shores. These birds are also known for their loud, piercing calls and their social behavior, often seen in pairs or small groups. Their nesting is typically on the ground, where they lay eggs in simple scrapes, camouflaged among pebbles or vegetation.

10. Snowy Owl

Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus

It’s not too hard to see how the Snowy owl got its name. These owls are unique in their beautiful, pure white feathers that mirror the snowy environments of its Arctic habitat. Snow owls are a remarkable bird of prey found in North America and Eurasia. Its white plumage serves as camouflage, allowing it to blend into the landscape while hunting for prey like lemmings.

Unique among owls, it hunts during the day and night, adapting to the Arctic’s extended periods of daylight and darkness. During harsh winters, it may travel south to find food. Snowy Owls nest on the ground, making nests in simple depressions.

11. Snail Kite

male snail kite
Snail Kite (male) with snail | image by Mike’s Birds via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Rostrhamus sociabilis 

Snail kites live in Central America and in many Caribbean islands. Central and Southern Florida are home to these birds as well. Kites are a type of raptor, and this particular kite gets its name from its primary food source, apple snails. They look for snails while perching or flying low over the water. Grabbing the snails with their feet, they carry the snail to a perch where they can use their bill to extract the snail body from the shell. 

You may be able to spot a Snail kite if you live in Florida, but they are very affected by the presence of apple snails. They may be abundant in a region with many snails one year and then absent the next if there are no snails. 

12. Clark’s Nutcracker

clarks nutcracker
Clark’s Nutcracker | image by peterichman via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Nucifraga columbiana

Clark’s Nutcracker is named both after the famous Lewis & Clark expedition as well as their special relationship with pine trees. This bird is commonly found in the mountainous regions of the western United States, including the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas. They have a gray body with black and white wings and tail. Their thick, pointy beak allows them to break into pine cones and pull out the large seeds – “nutcracking”. They can stash seeds in a special pouch under the tongue, transporting several at a time. 

Clark’s nutcrackers bury these pine seeds to create stores for the winter. Each individual bird buries thousands of seeds a year, and actually remember where they put most of them! But the seeds they forget or don’t get to end up germinating and eventually growing into trees. In this way, these birds perform an important task,  helping the trees distribute their seeds. 

13. Surfbird

Surfbird | image by Aaron Michael via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Calidris virgata

Surfbirds are aptly named for their feeding habits, which involve foraging along wave-swept shores (in the surf), probing for invertebrates hidden within the rocks and seaweed. Surfbirds are well-equipped with sturdy bills that help them pry open shells and access the small crustaceans, mollusks, and insects they consume.

Surfbirds nest in Alaska and British Columbia, but then spread far and wide during the non-breeding season. In the winter they can be found from the Alaskan coast all the way down the Pacific coast to Chile! They are fairly speckled during the breeding season, but their upper-parts darken to a sooty gray in the winter, leaving a white belly and yellow legs.

14. Northern Shoveler

northernl shoveler male
Northern Shoveler (male) | image by Imran Shah via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Spatula clypeata

The Northern Shoveler is a handsome duck with quite a beak! Their large beak is noticeably long and fatter at the end than the base, resembling a shovel. Along the edges of this large beak are comblike projections that help them filter plant material like seeds as well as tiny crustaceans out of the water.

Males have a green head with a chestnut and white body. Females are mottled brown and white with a pale blue shoulder patch. They also have the shovel-shaped beak, but theirs is orange while male’s is black. Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) are widely distributed across North America, Europe, and Asia.

15. Barn Owl

Scientific name: Tyto alba

Barn owls can be found year-round throughout most of the United States. They prefer mainly open habitats such as grasslands, fields, ranches, agricultural land and strips of forest. Their name reflects their inclination to nest in barns and other structures like church steeples, abandoned buildings, and silos that have high eaves and beams.

Not only do they like to nest and roost in barns, but at night they can exit the barn to hunt over the wide open fields. Barn owls like to fly low across open areas, using their excellent hearing to locate mice, rats and other small mammals. They have a warm brown back and pale white underparts with a round, white, almost ghost-like face.

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