Archive for Birdwords

Harper Lee, whose second (first!) novel is to appear this summer, celebrates her birthday today.

Northern Mockingbird

It seems a good time to ask a simple question: Why is it a sin to kill a mockingbird?

Lee’s novel offers its own, internal justifications for the rule, but is it possible that there is some sort of tradition standing behind Atticus Finch’s injunction?

T. Gilbert Pearson, the famous Audubonian and conservationist, was 13 when he bought his first gun in 1886. This is what an aged Floridian he knew as Aunt Celie told him:

Honey, when you gits big enough to tote a gun don’t never kill nary a mockin’ bird. Every one of them little fowls takes kyer of some good man or woman what’s daid, and when you hear one asingin’ at night you knows dat some good soul done come back and is walkin’ about. A sperit kaint never leave its grave lessen its mockin’ bird hollers for it to come out.

I’d say that this story adds more than a bit of weight and depth to the novel’s title, wouldn’t you? High school sophomores, take note!

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Boreal Bells?

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Seton, boreal owls

I’ve still never seen a boreal owl. For that very reason, I’ve spent an awful lot of time listening hard to recordings of the song. I even, for a while, and to the occasional consternation of my field companions, used that slow liquid tremolo as the notifier on my mobile cellular telephone.

Such things are called “ring tones,” a linguistic relic from the way-back days when phones jangled. But I can assure you, the song of the boreal owl sounds nothing like a bell. Not like a jingle bell or a sleigh bell or a church bell or a desk bell or a school bell.

Or does it?

I ran across this when I was — naturally — looking for something else.

Linnaeus assigned it the scientific name Aegolius funereus for its mournful cry, like the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.” Actually the call of the Boreal Owl is a sharp and chipper “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO!” in the same rhythm and pace as a winnowing snipe — Linnaeus may have been influenced more by folklore than careful observation.

I’m gratified to find the author agreeing with my assessment of the bird’s unbell-like song: while I might have used different adjectives, the transliteration works for my ear and mind. But what about all that stuff surrounding it? Is big bad Linnaeus really to blame for this, too?


A good first clue is how un-Linnaean that phrase “the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bill” is — not to mention the fact that it is in English. It’s easy enough, too, to figure out that the great Swede named the species not for its voice but for its somber plumage; the diagnosis in the Systema naturae — which, by the way, does not use the name Aegolius at all, as Kaup would not erect that genus for another 70 years — is limited entirely to the bird’s appearance:

Linnaeus 1758 boreal owl

Neither in the Systema nor in the Fauna svecica does the taxonomer adduce any sort of “folklore” about this species: instead, the latter work informs us, the description relies on a painting — one assumes that it was a silent painting — made by his teacher Rudbeck.

Screenshot 2015-04-06 14.41.25

My friend google takes you to some very unusual places if you try to find out who is really responsible for the notion that boreal owls sound like bells. Eventually, though, we arrive — with a forehead-slapping “of course!” — at Ernest Thompson Seton. In 1910, Seton wrote about “a new and wonderful sound” he had heard on a trip to the “arctic prairies” along the Athabasca River:

Like the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell it came.  Ting, ting ting, ting, and on rising and falling with the breeze, but still keeping on about two “tings” to the second, and on, dulling as with distance, but rising again and again…. Ting, ting, ting, ting, it went on and on, this soft belling of his love, this amorous music of our northern bell-bird.

Seton’s traveling companion, Edward Preble, identified the sound as “the love-song” of the boreal owl.

More likely, misidentified: that description is pretty clearly of the tooting song of a northern pygmy-owl, not of the dripping-water trill of a boreal.  Whether the identification was correct or not, though, Seton’s description of the song, down to the very “ting, ting, ting” of it, has remained influential in the ornithological and, shall we say, other literature.

Screenshot 2015-04-04 16.44.06

And sometimes, as in this excerpt from The Book of North American Owls, some people have put two and two together to leave the rest of us at fives and sixes.

Aegolius funereus owes its species epithet to its dark color. But look what happens when, as above, someone combines Seton’s owl’s tinging with an apparent bewilderment about the name. The “bell-like” song is analyzed as a “tolling,” the term for the slow striking of a deep-voiced bell on occasions of great solemnity. Thus, logically, the bird must be funereus because, well, its voice is funereal.

A not entirely lucky guess leads us to the culprit who first misleadingly put Seton’s song description together with the Linnaean name. Experience teaches that unattributed etymologies are almost always dependent on Choate, who writes of the boreal owl — quoting but not crediting Seton:

 L. funereus, “mournful,” as its call has been likened to the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.”

It turns out that this Linnaeus-Seton mashup has an equally incorrect competitor in the American tradition. Both Terres in the Audubon Encyclopedia and Gruson in his Words for Birds claim that the species epithet refers to the bird’s voice, not, however, because of its tolling peal but to an otherwise unattested scream,

as if wailing the dead.

I was disappointed to find Terres attributing this etymology to Coues, who certainly knew better. Happily, a look at the sources absolves Coues: he does indeed write that the adjective in question is

applicable to an owl, either regarded as a bird of ill omen, or with reference to its dismal cry, as if wailing the dead;

but he is talking here about a different species entirely, not the boreal owl at all.

In both cases — the owl as funeral bell, the owl as keening mourner — a little careful reading would have gone a long ways. Sometimes that appears to be too much to ask, though.

Especially when the modest truth threatens to get in the way of a good story.





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Big Nuez!

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Wee ar pleezd tue announs that begining with the next ishoo uv Berding magazeen, al buuk reevues wil bee publisht in simplified speling.

Wee wil, however, Continue tue Capitaliez the Comon naemz of al berds.

Hapy Reeding!

– Yuur Buuk Reevue Editor


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Grönvold lapwings

There is a vast, entirely unmanageable literature by and about ornithologists in the First World War. Even that heap of letters and books and articles and memoirs, though, cannot possibly make mention of all the millions who died while the larks trilled above the trenches and nightingales chanted from forests stripped bare.

Instead, we’re left to remember only the famous, among them Wyndham Knatchbull-Hugessen, killed in action at the age of 29, early in the course of the British offensive at Neuve-Chapelle.

Knatchbull-Hugessen had rejoined the Grenadier Guards on returning from a collecting trip to the Neotropics, part of his work with Charles Chubb on what was to have been a monumental, 16-volume survey of the birds of South America.

The first volume appeared in 1912, but on Knatchbull-Hugessen’s death three years later,

so little text had … been completed, and the work as projected was so extensive and costly, that nothing could be done in the way of completing even a second volume….

As often happens, however, the preparation of the text and the painting of the illustrations had proceeded at different rates. The artist, Henrik Grönvold, had made somewhat better progress, and in 1915, the publishers determined that the finished images should be issued even in the absence of the intended text. H. Kirke Swann provided brief descriptions for each of the 38 plates, which included ratites, tinamous, cracids, and a selection of water birds and waders.

Those plates would not be the only ornithological monument to Knatchbull-Hugessen. In 1916, Chubb proposed a new genus name for the spot-throated hummingbird, Brabournea. The name — later shown to be invalid — honored his late co-author, Knatchbull-Hugessen, the baron of Brabourne, killed in France a hundred years ago today.   

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Birds or Words

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Over at the ABA blog, where it is suggested that I am one of those birders

least concerned with what you call a bird. They are the ones who are distressed that a chicken hawk was chasing the snowbirds from their feeder.

Good stuff. What’s your take on what is intended as a serious argument?

And by the way, what do you think of the two images I selected as illustrations?

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