A Fast and Reckless Driver: The 2019 ABA Bird of the Year

The teenaged hot-roddery of one of Apollo’s most famous sons is commemorated in the generic name Linnaeus assigned to the birds we know as tropicbirds, among them the American Birding Association’s 2019 Bird of the Year, the red-billed tropicbird.

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Though Linnaeus is credited with the name, these daring aerialists had been known to western science since the early sixteenth century. European sailors may well have encountered them at the end of the fifteenth, and surely the early human settlers of tropical ocean islands knew the birds from the very beginning.

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European naturalists were introduced to the red-billed tropicbird by Fernández de Oviedo, who spent more than a decade in the West Indies; a concise version of his Historia general y natural de las Indias appeared in 1526. Oviedo writes that

“On the voyage to the Indies, certain white birds are seen, the size of a dove or larger. They are great fliers, and have long, very narrow tails; thus they call them ‘strawtails’. They are most often seen halfway or a little more on the journey to these regions.”

On his third trip west, Oviedo and his party saw one halfway between Spain and the Canaries. “All the sailors were greatly surprised and said that they had never seen or heard of one so close to Spain…. They are more often seen starting some 350 leagues off Hispaniola and Guadeloupe.”

Linnaeus never saw a living tropicbird anywhere, of course. But Oviedo’s report and the report of his successors over the next two centuries inspired one of the best names the Archiater ever came up with: Phaethon aethereus, the ethereal driver of the sun.

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The Advent Bird

Common loon

Remember all those observant birds forming their pair bonds on January 22? One species, the common loon, performs an even more impressive calendrical feat:

While our birds [in central Europe] have had to adjust to the new calendar only once, and have moved their wedding date each year ahead to a single, immoveable day, the immer birds [common loons] of Norway can distinguish the fourth Sunday of Advent from any other day, and this is the only day when they can be found on land.

As a result, the Norwegians call that Sunday “Immer Sunday” or “Ommer Sunday.” And the German natural historian Philipp Ludwig Statius Müller was so impressed with the story that he named the loon, Colymbus immer, the Advent bird.

Merry Christmas!

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Anent Possessive Bird Names

Harris Sparrow

A new proposal before the AOS NACC (I like that almost as much as the test we had to take in junior high, the PSAT NMSQT) would alter the English names of North American birds named for people by removing the “possessive” -s from the designation of the eponym: thus, for example, we would once again have the Harris sparrow, the Franklin gull, and the Steller jay, aligning them with the Zenaida dove, the Thekla lark, the Narina trogon, and so on.

Steller's Jay

Each of the arguments the author adduces in support of his proposal is a cogent one. But there is another, even more compelling reason to do without that hypercorrect little letter:

English syntax.

Franklin gull

There is a vast scholarly literature on how names work in English, virtually all of it far too sophisticated for my humble learning. But one thing is clear: a phrase like

*the Franklin’s gull

or

*a Steller’s jay

or

*some Harris’s sparrow

is not acceptable in English if Franklin or Steller or Harris is the proper name of a known person. “The Franklin’s Tale” is not a counterexample, as the anonymous teller of the story is a “franklin” by profession, not by name. And “a Steller’s” or “some Harris’s” makes sense only if we mean “a certain person named Steller” or “some guy called Harris,” clearly not what is intended in either phrase.

Birders may have got used to such barbarous constructions. But try it in another context and I bet your language faculty stumbles.

*the Chaucer’s version

*a Verdi’s overture

*some Bocaccio’s novella

Instead, any native speaker will write and say “the Chaucer version,” “a Verdi overture,” “some Bocaccio novella.” Likewise, any non-birding native speaker will stutter when confronted with “the Pallas’s warbler” or “a Scopoli’s shearwater” or “some Pander’s ground jay,” and we would too had we not been corrupted by decades of solecism.

This issue was hinted at, obliquely, in the course of one of the early go-arounds, in the first decade of the twentieth century. Jonathan Dwight was a big fan of the fake genitive, but in his slightly (and uncharacteristically) peevish argument for its preservation, we find him pointing out that

we may say, for instance, either “Wilson’s thrush occurs” or “the Wilson thrush occurs,”

a circumstance whose significance Dwight failed to recognize.

Leon Dawson, the great pioneering ornithologist of the Pacific Northwest, also noted the constraints on the possessive, but he explained them not as syntactic but as semantic. Namely, Dawson claimed that the “genitive” form in -s referred to “the species as a scientific concept [with] no thought of any individual or set of individuals,” while the phrase with the attributive eponym denoted the actual “creatures of flesh and feathers.” Thus,

Baird’s Sparrow occurs in Dakota…. The sparrow is a Baird Sparrow. If he sits on a mullein stalk he is the Baird Sparrow who sits on a mullein stalk.

It’s a nice distinction — in both senses of the word — but it’s overthought, and would have as its result that Centronyx bairdii had not one but two English names, one for the species in the abstract and one for the animals belonging to that species.

The proposal submitted this month to the AOS has already drawn more than its share of withering scorn. But that scorn is inspired by simple inertia, and I have yet to read a truly cogent objection to reviving the practice of the zero-ending eponym.

You?

Greater Pewee December 25, 2006, Anza Trail

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The Official English Names of North American Birds

Gulls

Normal people, on pulling into a rainy New Jersey parking lot, may remark on the abundance of seagulls lurking in hopes of a french fry. But birders maneuver their Subarudes and Prii into the middle of the flock and right away start identifying, aging and sexing the birds they would never, ever, not ever call “seagulls.”

Giving the birds their official labels, applying the official names to the things in front of us, is quite simply what birding is in post-Griscom American culture. Indeed, our stubborn insistence on the link between objects and their names has completely elided the difference between the word and the thing it is meant to denote, such that using the wrong name for a bird has become tantamount to misidentifying the bird — two mistakes that to my mind should be considered as belonging to entirely different classes of error.

An illustration: You may know those two small black and white grebes backwards and forwards, but I defy you to always, without fail, pin each of the names auritus/nigricollis/Slavonian/horned/eared/black-necked to the right bird. It is too easy in the heat of the seawatching moment, especially if you happen to be watching a different sea from the one you’re used to, to blurt out the wrong name even when you have correctly recognized the bird. Only a naive kind of linguistic realism could account that a “misidentification,” but that is precisely the conclusion most birders would come to.

Horned Grebe

American ornithology has always been more sensible — in principle, at least — in its approach to the function and value of names. The latest, 1998 edition of the AOU (now AOS) Check-list retains the traditional salutary reminder on its title page,

asserted in 1886 as literally the organization’s First Principle in matters nomenclatural. In that same year and in that same document, the AOU (one’s fingers always yearn to type “the fledgling AOU,” don’t they?) affirmed that “zoological nomenclature is the scientific language of systematic zoology, and vernacular names are not properly within its scope,” a principle adhered to in practice by Check-list committees (and their Check-lists) for the next sixty years.

Things appear to have changed in the 1940s (a fascinating story in itself), and by 1957, when the fifth edition of the Check-list finally appeared, the AOU had made its claim to be the authoritative issuer of English names. There was an attempt in the late 1970s by the American Birding Association to reassign that responsibility (remember the “Northern Junco”? The “Thin-billed Murre”?), but    in spite of its adoption in the “new” Peterson of 1980, that alternative list of vernacular names never caught on.

white-winged junco

Now, the AOU/AOS committee may be ruing the long-ago day that Eugene Eisenmann and colleagues sat down to produce that first list of “official” English names. The past several years have seen more and more formal proposals submitted to the committee urging the alteration of English names for one reason or another, proposals supported with arguments ranging from the more or less cogent to the downright silly. A few have been ratified by the committee, most rejected — but all take time and attention away from the real work of the committee, the assessment of evolutionary relationships and the alignment of scientific nomenclature to reflect those relationships.

Already this fall two proposals have been published to change English names. One, to rename the Saltmarsh Sparrow as the “Peterson Sparrow,” is entirely gratuitous and will, I trust, be dismissed out of hand by the committee. The other may turn out to be more difficult.

McCown's Longspur

The stunning and little-known McCown Longspur is named for the man who first collected it, in 1851. Ten years later, John P. McCown would join the ranks of traitors who took up arms against their country in defense of slavery.

My first reaction matches that of the proposal’s authors: McCown’s is not a name we should commemorate, especially given that –incredibly, shockingly — there are those who still openly celebrate his role in a treasonous uprising to keep a people enslaved. Elliott Coues, who served on the right side of the Civil War, ultimately called the bird the Black-breasted or (far better) the Bay-winged Longspur, and I now plan to follow his lead in the field.

But it is hard to guess whether the AOS committee will make the same change — not because I suspect the committee of anything like ill will or a lack of understanding, but because the committee is constitutionally (and in most cases properly) so faithful to the ideal of stability in naming. While change has only justified revulsion on its side, there are several plausible arguments in favor of the status quo (slippery slope arguments aren’t convincing):

Lawrence did not claim to be “honoring” McCown when he named the bird; McCown’s subsequent biography is entirely unknown to virtually all those who use the English name; bird names do not positively celebrate their sources as statues and other memorials do.

And then there’s the big one.

A name, the committee pronounced 132 years ago,

is only a name, having no meaning until invested with one by being used as the handle of a fact; and the meaning of a name so used, in zoological nomenclature, does not depend on its signification in any other connection.

Even if saying it didn’t make it so, that statement should be philosophically incontrovertible to all but the most benighted linguistic realists.

And yet: while all can agree that there is nothing essentially McCownian about the longspur, labeling it officially with that name inevitably calls to mind the man and his crimes, even for us good nominalists out there.

Whatever the committee’s decision, this proposal may finally be what breaks the  seventy-year hold of the AOS on the English names of North American birds, freeing field guide authors, birders, even normal seagull watchers to make wise and informed decisions about what they want to call their birds.

 

 

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