I had an e-mail from a childhood friend and she was talking about some of the common names that were used for certain birds where we grew up. One was “Rain Crow.”
I think I probably spent half my childhood believing that a Rain Crow was a crow that predicted the weather. It was a crow that gave a particular kind of sound when it was going to rain. The rest of the time it just went “caw, caw” like other crows. Then one day I finally got a good look at the bird that was making that sound and realized that it wasn’t a crow at all. Sometime after that I learned that its true name was “Yellow-billed cuckoo.” How it ever came to be called a rain crow or storm crow, another one of its names, I have no idea.
It may have been wishful thinking that got it that name. After all, in farming communities in the south in summer you spend most of July and August searching the sky for clouds and wishing for more rain. That might explain the rain crow, but how do you account for the “Indian Hen?”
My friend says she remembers her father referring to a bird they used to hear in summer as an “Indian Hen” and that she still hears it now sometimes in summer. She thought it might be some kind of woodpecker. I racked my brain but I could not remember ever having heard a bird referred to as an Indian Hen, so I did what I always do when I’m stumped: I asked Google. In the blink of an eye, there was my answer on the screen.
It seems the Indian hen is an old-time name for the American Bittern. Armed with this information from Google, I went to my reference books and in The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, I learned that this strange little heron has a whole paragraph of common names. Among the more colorful ones are: barrel-maker, bog-trotter, meadow hen, shitepoke (that one I had heard), stake-driver, thunder-pumper, sky-gazer, and water-belcher! As well as Indian hen.
The names like stake-driver and thunder-pumper were given to it in imitation of its call which sounds a bit like someone driving a stake. Sky-gazer could refer to its habit of freezing and pointing its bill straight up at the sky in order to try to blend in with the reeds and grasses of its habitat when it is disturbed. But meadow hen or Indian hen? I can only guess that perhaps Native Americans made use of it like a hen. Perhaps they used its eggs or used the birds themselves for food.
The bittern is a very secretive bird that is cryptically colored and is probably more often heard than seen. I cannot say for sure that I have ever actually seen one. I do remember once disturbing a pair of crow-sized birds from their roost late in the afternoon and my parents telling me they were “shitepokes” – so maybe those were bitterns. But, confusingly, some other small herons are sometimes called “shitepokes,” as well.
I once almost saw one – I think – at Galveston in one of the marshes but then it shifted its position and simply disappeared into the reeds and I could never find it again with my binoculars. So maybe it was a bittern or maybe not. It remains a name without a checkmark next to it on my life list. I think you have to be a little lucky or else very good in order to see a bittern in the wild, and I can’t really lay claim to being either.
It’s interesting, though, how birds get these colorful common names. When people don’t know the proper name of a thing, they will seize on one of its characteristics to describe it and identify it in conversation. If that name becomes accepted by enough people, it becomes a common name. Thus, the rain crow and Indian hen are born.
Indian hens or American Bitterns are not really backyard birds unless you live near a marsh or have a pond of sufficient size and habitat to attract one. But if you have trees in your yard, you might very well see a rain crow or Yellow-billed cuckoo this summer. I haven’t heard one calling yet but it is about time that they arrive in our area and I would expect to hear one any day.
And what about you? Do you know of other colorful common names that are given to our birds? I would be very interested to hear them.
(Update: I did later "get" the American Bittern and was able to check his name on my life list and, just recently, on our trip to Anahuac, I added the Least Bittern. Now both Indian Hens and Rain Crows are accounted for on my life list!)