Non-“Bird” Birds 咦,淡菜不是『菜』!信天翁不是『老先生』!!

in cn •  3 months ago

NOT a veggie!

I once wandered into a HK noodle restaurant and ordered 淡菜麵 the only "vegan" dish I could find on the menu: 淡菜麵 dàncàimiàn / danntsaymiann “[literally] bland vegetable noodles”. The veggies looked a bit odd, however. I was suddenly shocked to discover that I had inadvertently ordered mussels, a type of seafood that I absolutely detest. What a great way to sear unfamiliar vocabulary into your brain for all time!

The Structure of Bird Names

Most bird names in Chinese are composed of characters that include one of two bird radicals (鳥or 隹) on the right and a phonetic element on the left. Such names are relatively easy to guess at and pronounce.

#grtonalspelling Notice that the red -r is a 2nd tone marker

Other bird names consist of the word 鳥 and a premodifier, such as 蜂鳥 fēngniǎo / fengneau “[literally: bee bird] hummingbird” and 啄木鳥 zhuómùniǎo / jwomuhneau “[literally: treepecking bird] woodpecker”. These are probably the easiest of all bird names.

Problems occur when the name gives you absolutely no clue that you are dealing with a bird:

Puzzling Bird Names


海東青 hǎidōngqīng / haedongching “[literally: Sea East Blue-Green. I’m not sure what this name refers to] gyrfalcon” (AmE /ˈʤɝˌfælkən/, BrE/ˈʤɝˌfɔlkən/). The gyrfalcon is a bird of prey often used as a hunting bird by China’s northern minorities. Scientific name: Falco rusticolus

#grtonalspelling Notice how the bottom of the letter "e" is a reminder of the 3rd tone contour: fall-rise

[Flying Gyr Falcons in Montana]


信天翁 xìntiānwēng / shinntianueng “[literally: old man who trusts in Heaven] albatross”
There are many species.

#grtonalspelling Notice how the double -nn is a reminder that the 4th tone shinn is loud at the end

[Chris Jordan’s ALBATROSS film trailer, 3:49, The full film can be streamed/downloaded for free at:]

Chinese Bulbul

白頭翁 báitóuwēng / bairtourueng “[literally: white-headed old man] Chinese bulbul, scientific name: Pycnonotus sinensis
[ Chinese Bubul, CC-BY-SA, Earthshine9]

#grtonalspelling Notice how the -r is a reminder that the 2nd tone is rising

[Bulbuls Bathing, 38 seconds]

Chinese Hwamei

畫眉 huàméi / huahmei “[literally: painted eyebrows] Chinese hwamei, scientific name: Garrulax canorus

#grtonalspelling Notice how the -h is a reminder that the 4th tone is falls abruptly

[This short (2 minutes, 27 seconds) video that shows the leisurely way that many retired Chinese men spend their leisure time: they walk their bird cages to the park, meet other bird lovers and allow their birds a chance to see other birds. The dialog is in Cantonese with very clear English captions]

Taiwanese Hwamei

台灣畫眉 Táiwān huàméi / Tairuan huahmei Garrulax taewanus “[literally: painted eyebrows] Taiwanese hwamei, scientific name: Garrulax taewanus. The Taiwanese hwamei used to be classified as a subspecies of the Chinese Hwamei.

Any more names?

Dear Readers: I'm sure I've missed a few names. Perhaps you can make a few suggestions?

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Another misleading name: Kingfishers are sometimes called 魚狗 yúgǒu / yugoou “[literally] fish dogs”, a reference to their fish-hunting skills.