University and College Nickames Based on Birds

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Some unusual university and college team names are really not so strange when the stories behind them are known.

More than a few universities and colleges have forsaken traditional team names and mascots based on birds, such as Eagles, Hawks, and Owls, for ones that are out of the ordinary. Here are four such schools and how their team nicknames, all based on different types of “birds,” came to be.

The University of Delaware Blue Hens

The University has been using “Blue Hens” ( and, unofficially, “Fighting Blue Hens”) as the name for its athletic teams since 1911. So, why would a school choose a moniker that seemingly does not portray physical prowess or strength? The answer is twofold, but simple: (1) Blue Hens have been associated with Delaware’s history for over 200 years and (2) they are not your usual breed of chicken.

One of the Delaware companies formed at the time of the American Revolution came from Kent County and was led by Captain John Caldwell, whose hobby was raising a tough type of blue plumaged bird known as the Kent County Blue Hen. This breed was known for its ferocity in cockfighting, a then popular and brutal “sport.“ When Caldwell’s men proved equally ferocious in military battle, they became known as the “Blue Hens’ Chickens.”

The bird officially became Delaware’s state bird in 1939. The University also maintains a breeding group of Blue Hen Chickens on the campus farm.

University of South Carolina Gamecocks

The name “Gamecocks” first became specifically connected to USC in 1902. That year, South Carolina’s football team upset archrival Clemson. Celebrating students paraded through the streets carrying a picture that had been drawn by a USC professor. The picture featured the image of a gamecock, a fierce fighting rooster, standing over a fallen tiger. Within a few weeks, local newspapers began referring to the team as the “Game Cocks,” later to be shortened to one word.

There are also other connections to the name. One, like the Delaware Blue Hens, goes back to the time of the American Revolution. During the War, a South Carolina militia leader, Thomas Sumter, was called by the British the “South Carolina Game Cock“ because of his small size and fearlessness in battle. Another connection is with USC’s colors — garnet and black. Although they predate the school’s mascot, they are the predominate colors of many gamecocks.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

Chanticleer (pronounced SHON-ti-clear) is the name of a rooster that appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a story called “The Nun’s Priest Tale.” In the story the rooster is a proud and clever bird who, with the help of two friends, survives a hungry fox. But unlike the gamecock and Blue Hen, Chanticleer relies on his intelligence and quick thinking, not physical strength, to defeat his adversary.

In the mid-1960s Coastal Carolina, then a branch campus of the University of South Carolina, fielded its first intercollegiate basketball team. English professor Cal F. Maddox was selected as its coach and it was he who promoted “Chanticleers” as the team’s name, basing his selection on two premises.

First, the name provided a link to the nickname of CC’s mother school — the University of South Carolina “Gamecocks.” Second, he also saw an allegorical connection between Chanticleer and his first basketball team. Not blessed with an abundance of physical talent compared to upcoming opponents, Coach Maddox emphasized to his players the need to play intelligently and work as a team.

In 1965 a campus straw vote approved the name.

University of Kansas Jayhawks

A Jayhawk is a mythical creature that is a combination of the noisy, quarrelsome, robber bird known as the blue jay, and the sparrow hawk, a stealthy and fierce hunter. Considering the state of Kansas’s history, it would have been strange had KU not chosen the name for its athletic teams.

In the years leading to America’s Civil War, the then Territory of Kansas became a battleground between slavery and anti-slavery forces. In this conflict both sides resorted to looting, pillaging, rustling, and sometimes murder in opposing the other side. Both were given the common nickname of Jayhawkers, a synonym for “bloodthirsty ruffians” that had previously been used in other parts of America.

During and after the Civil War, the Jayhawk became a patriotic, pro-Union symbol and was applied to all law abiding Kansans. In 1886 a professor at KU created a chant for the science club that went “Rah, Rah, Jayhawk, KU.” This shortly developed into the famous “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk, KU” and in 1890 the newly formed football team was immediately called the “Jayhawks.”

The “Jayhawk” mascot has undergone numerous transformations during its history.

Sources:

  1. The universities’ websites, also “Anatomy of a Mascot” Coastal Carolina University Magazine, Spring 2002