When birders tell their bird stories to one another, usually there's almost no confusion at all about which birds are being talked about. If someone says, "Hey, I had an Evening Grosbeak at my feeder yesterday," everyone will be able to visualize instantly that large, thick-billed bird with a yellow, black, and white body happily munching sunflower seeds. This is because during recent years the English names of North American birds have become fairly standardized, because the various field guides have usually agreed on which common, or English, names should be used.

Still, sometimes confusion arises. Is there a difference between a House Sparrow and an English Sparrow? No -- this is just one instance where the common name hasn't crystallized in everyone's' minds yet. In fact, in most plant and animal groups English names aren't nearly as systemized as they are among birds. A surprising number of the smaller and/or rarer species just don't have English names. Since names are so critically important to us, let me tell you a little story:

When I was a child on a farm in Kentucky, my grandfather Conrad taught me that a certain woodpecker's name was Yellowhammer. Years later, when a newly published field guide was consulted, no Yellowhammer was mentioned. In that field guide, my Yellowhammer was identified as the Yellow-shafted Flicker. Now, many years later, field guides call Yellow-shafted Flickers by the name of Northern Flicker.

Fact is, before bird field guides standardized English names for most North American birds, many species were known by a number of "country names" or "common names." These names varied tremendously from region to region, from community to community, and sometimes even from family to family. For the Northern Flicker, 132 names have been recorded!

Even today many North Americans speak of spotting "yellow canaries," though no canaries are native to North America. It's simply that people who don't know much about the matter regard all small, yellowish birds as "yellow canaries." In North America, over fifty species of small, yellowish birds scattered in several very different bird families are likely to be called "yellow canaries" by many people. Most "yellow canary" sightings are either Goldfinches or one of the many species of warbler.

Of course, for most people there's nothing wrong with using names like "yellow canary." It's great when a person enjoys birds enough to remember any name at all. Nonetheless, for our purposes, such names -- as colorful and fun to learn as they may be -- are not precise enough.  Continue to our other sections to read how you can learn to be very precise indeed with your names.