I enjoy digging into the history of birds' names, because it often sheds light on the tangled web we humans weave as we try to organize the natural world in a way that helps us understand it, while letting us think that we make the rules and nature obeys.

The Orchard Oriole is a treasure trove of etymological enigmas. Start with the word oriole. I read that it dates back to Albert the Great in 13th-century Cologne, who created the word to mimic the song of the Eurasian Golden Oriole. If you don't believe that, don't worry. I've got another story. Many sources agree that oriole comes from aureolus, the Latin word meaning "golden." Either way you look at it, "oriole" was the name given to the bright yellow birds that are known in Europe as Orioles.

Immature Male Orchard Oriole

Immature Male Orchard Oriole

Then the Europeans came to America, where they saw bright yellow and orange birds flying around that looked a lot like the orioles back home. Without asking the folks who lived here already what they called them, the European settlers named them orioles.

Guess what. The New World orioles are not orioles. Totally different family. But by the time science caught up with common usage, the name had stuck, and multiplied, so that soon in North America alone there were ten different kinds of orioles-that-aren't-really-orioles. In 1766, a few years before the Declaration of Independence, Linnaeus gave these birds their own scientific name Icterus. But getting North Americans to start calling orioles by another name is like asking me to call Comisky Park...., well, let's not go there.

But wait, we're nowhere near done yet. Is there a doctor in the house? If so, you'll recognize the word Icterus. It's the Latin word for jaundice. I'm not making this up. Linnaeus named our orioles jaundice, because they are yellow.

Female Orchard Oriole

Female Orchard Oriole

And among all the American orioles, to the Orchard Oriole falls the final insult. Back when scientists were trying to get their hands around all the different Icterus's in the New World, they didn't realize that Orchard Oriole was a separate species. They thought it was a female Baltimore Oriole. When they realized their mistake, instead of apologizing and coming up with a nice Latin name for the Orchard Oriole, they doubled down and named the species spurius, politely translated as illegitimate.

So, the scientific name for the Orchard Oriole is Icterus spurius, jaundiced bastard.

The beautiful Orchard Oriole does not speak English, or Latin, so they don't care what we call them. Beati gli ignoranti.

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.