I’ve mused elsewhere on the unsatisfying explications given the “official” English name of Spiza americana, that cheerful black-throated wire-singer of the American Midwest. “Dickcissel,” I firmly believe, was never a genuine folk moniker, but rather a contrived book name masquerading as the product of a naive agrarian ear.
But what about the other English name adduced by Robert Ridgway, “Judas bird”? Of ancient usage for live decoys—birds that betray their fellows—that name is cited for the Dickcissel in books published well into the twentieth century. There is no record of Dickcissels being kept as decoys, so there must be another explanation.
And in fact, the earliest sources to ponder the question say that the bird’s odd name is “in allusion to its song.” Elliott Coues, quoted here from the Birds of the Northwest, declines to go further, or even to take any responsibility himself for what he writes of the name and its origin: he carefully identifies his authority, “Mr. Ridgway tells me.”
All roads lead to Ridgway. Ridgway’s own early works, though, offer no clue about how the name “Judas” should allude to the bird’s song. Not until 1881, in an updated list of the birds of Illinois, published seven years after the first edition and seven years after Coues’s Northwest, did Ridgway add to his list of vernacular names “Judas Iscariot,” a painfully obvious bit of post hoc backfill permitting the concoction of an improbable etiology: this “indefatigable songster[‘s] notes . . . are variously interpreted as ‘Dickcissel,’ ‘Judas Iscariot,’ &c., whence some of its various local names.”
That seems more than a stretch, but it was clearly the only way that Ridgway or, more likely, some impish informant could come up with a way to understand “Judas bird.” There is a better, simpler way to explain the name, though—assuming, of course, that it ever existed im Volksmunde.
Iconographically, Judas is depicted carrying a moneypurse, filled with the thirty pieces of silver.
Even at table during the Last Supper, Judas clutches the thirty pieces of silver. And he knows there are thirty because he has counted them.
It seems virtually certain to me not that our Judas bird speaks the name “Judas Iscariot,” but rather that its jangly, metallic song brought to mind the monotonous clang of silver coins striking a tabletop; it was but a short metonymic step from there to the most notorious coin counter of all time.
There is an instructive parallel in the names of an Old World species known, like the dickcissel, more for its voice than its appearance. The common chiffchaff is—or has been—known in French as the “apothicaire” (say Cabard and Chauvet, “shopkeepers are well known for ceaselessly counting their pennies”) and as the “compteur d’argent”; that last, Norman label was adopted by Louis Pierre Vieillot in 1817 as the bird’s species epithet, collybita, meaning “banker” or “money changer.” (One assumes, with the Italians, that Vieillot’s name was a printer’s error for collybista.)
It will never be possible to prove this one way or the other, I’m afraid. But if you do happen to encounter a barefoot farmboy on a hot Illinois afternoon, ideally a time traveler from the mid-nineteenth century, you might try asking him what he calls that sparrowy bird with the buzzy voice singing above the cornfield.