Noisy and colorful, the eastern towhee appears to have been a well-known bird to early European settlers in North America. Indeed, this big and conspicuous sparrow was the subject of one of the first bird paintings ever made by a European naturalist on this continent.
The caption to this copy of John White’s sixteenth-century watercolor reminds us just how many folk names, and in how many languages, this bird has had over the centuries. I was reminded of another one this morning—one that I believe is attested in the writings of only one ornithologist.
In his manuscript list of the birds of Point Breeze, Charles Lucien Bonaparte calls the towhee “chitterwing.” On his return to Italy in 1827, he used the same name in the Specchio comparative, and it occurs again in the German-language reprint of that work in the 1834 volume of the Isis von Oken. In each instance, “chitterwing” is the only English name assigned the species.
It is very rare that a vernacular bird name turns out to be genuinely hapax in the ornithological corpus, but I think that this one is. Or have you run across it elsewhere? And if you have, what do you think its origin is?