Revisiting 40: Bird X

Yesterday’s posting “Hung with care” was about, among many other things, animal alphabets, including in #8 one from Sally King McBride (going from alligator A to zebra Z), about which Robert Coren asked in a comment:


Do you happen to know who the “X” bird in #8 is? It’s the only one I can’t identify.

How many X birds could there be? you ask. Well, a fair number, but my guess on this one is the ovenbird xenops, but I could be wrong. (McBride is alive and working in NYC, so if someone wants to figure out how to get in touch with her and is willing to write to her, they might be able to find out her intentions and report on them here.)

She has a nice webpage here, with a whole collection of different alphabet paintings.

As for a list of X-initial birds, birds with names beginning with X, this is the sort of thing that enthusiastic completists get into, so there are lists on the net. In particular, the Travel for Wildlife site, under the Animals That Start With X heading, has this sublist for birds:

Xantus’ Becard (Pachyramphus aglaiae)
Xantus’s Hummingbird (Basilinna xantusii)
Xantus’s Murrelet (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus)
Xavier’s Greenbul (Phyllastrephus xavieri)
-Xeme (Xema sabini)
Xinjiang Ground-Jay (Podoces biddulphi)
Xenicidae (prior family name of New Zealand wrens, now Acanthisittidae)
Xenicus gilviventris (New Zealand rock wren)
-Xenipirostris (genus of birds from Madagascar, 3 species)
Xenops (genus of ovenbirds, 4 species)
Xenorhyncus asiaticus (Black-necked Stork)
Xolmis (genus of flycatchers in South America, 8 species)

I’ve marked the five that seem to me to be the most likely candidates. They are mostly genus names, hence single words; and for the New Zealand rock wren, I’ve just picked out the genus name.

Except for xeme /zim/, the common names on the list are two-word names with an X-initial possessive modifier, similar to Cooper’s hawk and Wilson’s phalarope, which we wouldn’t ordinarily think of as bird names that begin with C and W, but rather as subtypes of birds with names that begin with H and P, respectively; or are N + N compounds, similar to barn swallow and California quail, again not ordinarily thought of as bird names that begin with B and C, but as subtypes of birds with names that begin with S and Q, respectively.)

The bird in #1 is clearly not a stork, so that leaves us with

the 1-syllable name xeme
the 2-syllable names Xenops and Xolmis
the 3-syllable name Xenicus
the 5-syllable name Xenipirostris

5 syllables is a lot for a memorable name, and anyway Xenipirostris (a genus of birds in the vanga family Vangidae) doesn’t look at all like the bird we’re after. From Wikipedia on the type species:


The Lafresnaye’s vanga (Xenopirostris xenopirostris) is a species of bird in the vanga family Vangidae. The species is … one of three species in the genus Xenopirostris. It is endemic to the south and south west of Madagascar.

I had great hopes for the xeme, because xeme‘s a common rather than taxonomic name and because it has just one syllable. But it’s a gull, not at all like the bird in #1. From Wikipedia:


The Sabine’s gull (Xema sabini), also known as the fork-tailed gull or xeme, is a small gull.

On to Xenicus, which is just wrong in so many ways, in particular beak and tail. From Wikipedia:


The New Zealand rock wren (Xenicus gilviventris) is a small New Zealand wren (family Acanthisittidae) endemic to the South Island of New Zealand. Its Māori names include pīwauwau (“little complaining bird”), mātuitui, and tuke (“twitch”, after its bobbing motion). Outside New Zealand it is sometimes known as the rockwren or South Island wren to distinguish it from the unrelated rock wren of North America.

A bit closer, but with far too much white in its plumage, is Xolmis. From Wikipedia:

(#5) Black-crowned Monjita (Xolmus coronatus)

Xolmis is a genus of South American birds in the tyrant flycatcher family Tyrannidae. These are relatively large flycatchers that are found in fairly open habitats. Most have black, grey and white plumage.

That leaves us with Xenops, which is very close. From the eBird site on the Plain Xenops (Xenops minutus):


Active small bird of humid tropical forest. Usually found singly, often moving with mixed-species feeding flocks. Clambers and climbs on small branches, twigs, and vines, mainly at middle to upper levels inside forest. Often hangs upside down like a chickadee. Note the bold white whisker mark, boldly patterned black-and-rusty wings and tail, and short, wedge-shaped bill.

The sticking point is the white whisker mark, conspicuously absent in #1.

But then it turns out that bird people use xenops as a common name to refer to a wider set of birds than those in the genus Xenops. In particular, there’s the rufous-tailed xenops. From Wikipedia:

The rufous-tailed xenops (Microxenops milleri) is a species of bird in the family Furnariidae. It is found in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests.

More details from the eBird site:


Small xenops of mature rainforest. Extensively streaked, tan body, with contrasting reddish wings and tail. Has a strong white eyebrow and lacks the bold white mustache of other xenopses. Compared to other xenopses, also has a straighter bill, and shorter tail. Creeps along branches like a nuthatch, often with mixed-species flocks.

Ok, no white mustache, but a reddish tail. So not a perfect match to #1. But I think we’ve got some sort of xenops in that drawing. X is for Xenops.

9 Responses to “Revisiting 40: Bird X”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    McBride’s bird looks to be longer/slenderer than any of the other pictured birds, and none of them have the extensive black cap. It’s possible that she did intend Xenops but took some liberties in representing it.

    And now I’m off to look up “Xantos” to find out who this person was/is who got three such disparate birds named after them.

    • Arnold Zwicky Says:

      Maybe we should be arguing that the bird in question should be known as “McBride’s Xbird”, Pseudoxenops Mcbridei.

    • Robert Coren Says:

      “Xantus”, rather. John Xantus is the Anglicized name of a Hungarian zoologist; a somewhat colorful character, to judge from his Wikipedia entry. Interestingly, the Becard is not among the eight animals (along with seven plants) listed there as being named after him,

  2. [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky considers different birds with names starting with […]

  3. Stewart Kramer Says:

    As far as I can tell, the twitter hashtag #xenops is overwhelmed with ovenbird entries of #animalalphabets illustrations, so that’s presumably what McBride intended, even if the elongated posture to make the X shape makes them a bit un-xenopsistic:

    I particularly like this cartoonish x-ray xenops, which avoids the messy ornithological details of species-dependent color patterns, but still has the distinctive upcurved beak:

    • Arnold Zwicky Says:

      Fabulous. Thanks for the detective work, which makes it clear the xenops is the bird in question.

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