Blue Jay showing its brilliant blue feathers

What’s in a Fake-News Bird Name?

Jay! Jay!

I hear that cry and know instantly which bird just flew nearby. The Blue Jay’s squawk and its brilliant blue feathers mirror its name, making it easy to find and remember the bird.

That’s not often true of the fake-news name given to the Red-bellied Woodpecker.

That name almost always belies the belly, which bears just a smudge or a soupçon of red. And when this bird’s at work, those red feathers are typically tucked tight against the tree and no help to the novice birder.

Red-bellies are all around our home, all year long. By now, I find them easily, and in fairness, a few live up to their name. Here’s a montage that shows a range of red-bellied plumage. You’ll see a hint, the real deal, and some totally false advertising.

The birds in the video are all males, the last one a young fellow. Females typically have even less red on their bellies than males. Here’s a lady just after delivering a mouthful to her kid. My shot doesn’t show her minuscule red belly patch (but the photo is too irresistible not to share).

Red-bellied Woodpecker at nest
A Red-bellied Woodpecker mom just after feeding the kids

Color cues lack for so many female birds, they’re often geebeebees to me: generic brown birds, GBBs. Another visually confounding bird is the Brown Creeper. Both sexes creep and their backsides are indeed brown. But I call them Brown-camouflage Creepers, which explains why I never found one fast enough to position a camera.

Another bird whose name tells about them but doesn’t help with visual ID is the Mourning Dove. If you’re unfamiliar with this bird’s sad coo, you’ll find recordings on Audubon’s field-guide page.

Mourning Dove with chicks in nest
A Mourning Dove Broods in the Nest

The Great Crested Flycatcher’s name might help with identification if you happen to see it snatch its namesake prey (or some other insect). I’ve not managed that feat, but here’s one with its mouth wide open—for singing, not swallowing.

Great Crested Flycatcher on a snag
A Great Crested Flycatcher sings on top of a snag

Red-headed Woodpeckers, on the other hand, practice truth-in-advertising. Once they’re grown up, that is.

Red-headed Woodpecker at a tree
A Red-headed Woodpecker explores a tree cavity

Now, back to that bird with the stunning blue feathers. Talk about false advertising—He’s not really blue! Blue Jays (and all blue-colored birds) only look blue because light scatters on certain parts of their feathers as though through a prism. All we see is the blue portion of the color wavelength, even though the feathers’ pigment is brown.

You can read more about this fascinating feather phenomenon here. The article, written by The Forest Preserve District of Will County, Illinois, explains how to test the trickery yourself if you happen to have a feather from a blue-colored bird.

If you have a blue feather, I hope you’ll try that and share what happens.

And now for some resources about bird names, both common and scientific:

The Etymology of Common Names of Birds.

Bird Names on

The International Ornithological Committee, whose World Bird List includes common English names for more than 10,000 bird species. They also champion the convention of capitalizing a bird’s specific name and using lower case for its general group (i.e., the Blue Jay is one of several jays in the United States).

Birdzilla’s Origin of Bird Names, which talks about the many characteristics that anchor birds’ names, besides calls and colors. This article explains both common and scientific names for several birds, including the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Fake-News Bird Name?”

  1. I have so many red bellied woodpeckers around my house that I can identify them by their call, long before I see them. But, I can never remember their names when I’m trying to tell someone what I hear, because that red is so elusive that the name won’t stick in my brain. Thanks for another great read.

    1. Ginny, I know them by their call, too–it’s quite distinctive, isn’t it? They might be our most common woodpecker. Then again, they’re braver and louder than the downies and the hairies, so it might just be that they’re the most visible. Thanks for taking a few moments to read my little story and drop in a comment.

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