Why are eagle owls called that

Birds calling their names

Eagle owl, cuckoo and zilzalp make it easy for nature lovers to recognize them

Every child knows the eagle owl and cuckoo, but they are not the only native birds that give us their names in this way!

Young eagle owl - Photo: Ingo Ludwichowski

Examples of calls and chants

Quite a number of birds owe their species name to the fact that they shout their name loudly in spring. U-hu or in some regions also Schu-hu goes back to the two-syllable call with which the largest European owl acoustically delimits its territory and advertises for a partner. It can still be heard at a distance of one to four kilometers and the two frequencies of the higher “U” and lower “hu” are probably adaptations to different habitats in which eagle owls live. The higher tone penetrates the open cultural landscape better, the lower the dense forest. In this way, the breeding partners can be found in virtually all situations and habitats.

Another well-known name caller is the Central European cuckoo. From the end of April the well-known "kuck-uck" in the fields and on the edges of the forest heralds the return of the harbinger of spring. Even if the bird is seldom seen, its presence can easily be determined by the chant of the territory with its long series of calls from its two-syllable name. The cuckoo is not only known for its name, but also for its breeding behavior. As a typical brood parasite, it does not build a nest, but lays its eggs in other birds' nests and lets them breed.


Young cuckoo - Photo: Andreas Schäfferling / www.naturgucker.de

The willow warbler, on the other hand, has given the persistently monotonous "chiff-zalp-chirp-zalp" the species name chiffchaff. The tireless singer is smaller than a sparrow, simply colored olive brown and white, and is busy doing gymnastics in the treetops. From March to the end of October, the chiffchaffes, which are widespread in forests, gardens and parks, call their name. But not all chiffchaffes call the same: birds from widely spaced areas chirpzalps different and do not understand each other or hardly any more. Central European chiffchaffes hardly recognize the typical singing of their Spanish colleagues.

Further called species names can be found in songbirds such as chaffinch and goldfinch. The latter is known by its reputation as “stig-litt” as goldfinch and, in addition to its reputation, can also be easily recognized by the exotic plumage of white, red, yellow and black. And the short, hard “finch” or “pink” identifies the chaffinch as a member of the finch family. The ravens call “Rab-rab” and the carrion crows “crow”. Meadow and mountain pipits let you hear a frequently repeated "beep", oriole a fluting "pi-rol". Among the snipe birds, the lapwing calls out "ki-witt" in different variations and thus underlines its impressive courtship flights over meadows and fields.


Zilpzalp - Photo: NABU / Kerstin Kleinke

Several bird names contain references to typical vocalizations of their bearer: owls howl, seagulls go back to the Old High German meaning "whimpering scream", jays and herons together come from a word stem with the meaning "hoarse scream". Ammern utter a hammering song, lovebirds turtle and teal shout "krick". Viktor Wember finds plausible explanations for around fifty species in his book "The Names of the Birds of Europe" for birds that are named after their calls or that call their names. They all make it easier for the observer to identify and recognize.

In other languages, too, utterances of the birds play a role in naming them. The English, for example, distinguish the whooper swan, trumpeting loudly, as a trumpeter swan (trumpeter swan) and thus clearly differentiate it from the elegant but noisy mute swan - it becomes a mute swan (mute swan) and thus proves that silence can also be eponymous.

During the courtship and breeding season, NABU offers hundreds of bird and natural history excursions all over Germany. There you can learn more about birds, watch them and learn about their calls and songs. The NABU dates database tells you where the next excursion will take place in your area.

Stefan Bosch


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