Archive for Birdwords


The Wisdom of the Ibis

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I miss the days when every paper, every journal, every mimeographed newsletter had a motto proclaiming its approach to the subject at hand. In long-lived periodicals, those catchy phrases drawn from classical authors — sometimes (the horror!) even copied out in the original languages — often served the purpose of reassuring readers of the publication’s philosophical or ideological consistency: authors and reporters may come and go, but the Tagesspiegel, for example, is still happily going to go on seeking the causas rerum.

And so I was surprised in leafing through old issues of the Ibis to discover that for many decades, that venerable ornithological journal went through mottos at exactly the same rate as it changed editors. Here’s a selection, from the beginnings to the end of the First World War:

Ibimus indomiti venerantes Ibida sacram, / Ibimus incolumes qua prior Ibis adest. “We shall go undaunted, worshiping the sacred ibis; we shall go safely where the ibis awaits.” Apparently an original composition, this pompous distich met with jocular criticism at the learned hand of Alexander Goodman More.

Ibidis interea tu quoque nomen habe! Ovid, “The Ibis”: “You meanwhile must bear the name of ibis.” Given the ferocity of that poem, it’s hard to believe that Alfred Newton was overly happy at having agreed to take over the journal.

Ibidis auspicio novus incipit Ibidis ordo! “Under the good auspices of the ibis, a new order begins for the Ibis.” That’s Osbert Salvin looking forward to the future.

Ibis avis robusta et multos vivit in annos. “The ibis is a sturdy bird and lives for many years.” Obviously from a natural history encyclopedia, but I can’t quite pin it down; I’d assumed it was Isidor, but it seems not to be. In any event, a nice sentiment for the journal.

Cognovi omnia volatilia coeli. Psalm 50: “I know all the things that fly under heaven.” A little on the far side of the blasphemy line, if you ask me.

Non moriar, sed vivam, et narrabo opera Domini. Psalm 117: “I shall not die, but live, and I shall tell of the works of the Lord.” Sclater writes that he “commenced the Editorship of the Seventh Series of ‘The Ibis’ with a light heart.”

Quam magnificata sunt opera tua, Domine. Psalm 91: “How great are your works, oh Lord.”

Delectasti me, Domine, in operibus manuum tuarum. Psalm 92: “You have delighted me, Lord, with the works of your hands.”

He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast. Coleridge, “Rime.” Ornithology was sadder and wiser in the year 1919, I suppose.

White-faced Ibis

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Bright Eyes

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Yellow-eyed Junco

Set your google search to Spanish, and you’ll probably come up with something bland but straightforward for this bird, something like Junco de ojos amarillos.

That’s just fine, but it doesn’t have quite the spark of the old Echa-lumbre. Recorded by Francis Sumichrast in Veracruz in the 1860s, the name

comes from the belief that this species’ eyes are phosphorescent in the dark.

I wouldn’t put anything past a junco myself.


Chaw-Chaw Chow

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The Red-bellied Woodpecker is quiet, even reclusive, for much of the year, but the warm days of early spring can be filled with their loud churring rattles.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Inevitably, those vocalizations have given the bird its folk names, among them one recorded by Audubon in Florida:

from its well-known notes, the officers and men of the United States’ schooner, the Spark, as well as my assistants, always spoke of it by the name of chaw-chaw.

The residents of the banks of the St. John’s River had another motivation, too:

perhaps it partly obtained this name from the numbers cooked by the crew in the same manner as the dish known to sailors by the same name. 

We can assume that Audubon, too, partook, though he hints that this wasn’t his favorite meal:

It feeds on all sorts of insects and larvae which it can procure, and at certain periods its flesh is strongly impregnated with the odour of its food.

I think I’d pass on the chaw-chaw, too.

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Rough-legged Hawk

This was the sight that greeted me yesterday noon as I pulled in to DeKorte Park in the Meadowlands. Rough-legged Hawks aren’t exactly rare here in northern New Jersey, but these tiny-billed visitors from the Arctic are always exciting — and I think I’ve seen more Snowy Owls this winter in the state than members of this species.

Whenever you pause to admire a rough-leg, of course, you also have to smile at the bird’s scientific name, Buteo lagopus, the “bunny-footed buzzard.” Erik Pontoppidan, the original Great Dane himself, named the bird 250 years ago, following in the tradition of Linnaeus’s name for the ptarmigans and anticipating Pallas’s for the Common House-Martin. Though the Danske atlas is not available on line (tsk tsk), I assume that all three scientists were thinking of the birds’ feathered tarsi, which recall, to the eye and to the touch, the furry hind limbs of a hare.

It all makes very good sense. But why do we English-speakers call this bird Rough-legged rather than “fuzzy-footed”? Are rabbits’ feet really that abrasive?

It turns out that I just don’t know the word “rough” very well. Our friends at the OED remind me that in special application to animal integument, the word has — like its German cognate “rauh” — long had the sense of “thick” or “bushy” or “fluffy,” without necessarily connoting any sort of harshness. Animals — birds, horses, dogs, even bats and turtles — are “rough-legged” or “rough-footed” simply by virtue of having feathers or fur or conspicuously keeled scales on the extremities. “Rough-legged,” in other words, means “fuzzy-footed,” or even “soft-footed.”

Now don’t tell that to a vole or mouse, of course.


Spencer Baird’s Trickster Sparrow

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Song Sparrow fallax

As a young birder, just after the days of Hesperornis, I was puzzled by the claim in all the books that the Song Sparrow was abundant, familiar, ubiquitous. Though the species has greatly increased in eastern Nebraska over the decades since, back then it was an uncommonish bird, and it took me a couple of seasons before I felt that I had something like a handle on it.

Fast forward to our years in southeast Arizona. There, we quickly found, the local Song Sparrows looked nothing like what I had learned as a boy and grown so familiar with in Massachusetts and New Jersey and Illinois. Indeed, these birds of damp desert thickets and ponds are so different from what the historical eastern bias of American birding has styled “the typical” that many first-time visitors to the Southwest refuse at first to believe that they are Song Sparrows at all.

When Spencer Baird saw the first specimens of this new form in 1854, he found it distinctive enough to merit description as a new species. Compared with the “normal” Song Sparrow,

the bill is considerably smaller and the tail longer. The plumage above is more ashy, the streaks on the back not so distinct, the spots are more crowded about the breast, but fewer on the sides; their color more uniformly chestnut brown.

All that said, though,

this species bears a very close resemblance to Z. melodia,

and so Baird gave it the name Zonotrichia fallax, the “deceptive sparrow.”

Four years later, in the great report of the Pacific Railroad Explorations, Baird wondered whether he might not have been the one deceived:

Although this species is very similar to the M. melodia, yet, when specimesn are compared with an extensive series, of the last mentioned species, an impression of difference will at once be conveyed…. I do not, however, feel sure that this species will stand as perfectly satisfactory… At any rate, I consider it as less strongly established than any of the others before me.

By 1874, Baird and the distinguished co-authors of the History of North American Birds had rethought the whole thing. Their deliberations largely anticipate the notion of the Rassenkreis, a concept that would be explicitly applied to the Song Sparrows by Patten and Pruett 135 years later. Writes Baird in 1874,

Spread over the whole of North America, and familiar to every one, we find each region to possess a special from [of Song Sparrow] (to which a specific name has been given, and yet these passing into each other by such insensible gradations as to render it quite impossible to define them as species. Between M. melodia of the Atlantic States and M. insignis of Kodiak the difference seems wide; but the connecting links in the intermediate regions bridge this over so completely that, with a series of hundreds of specimens before us, we abandon the attempt at specific separation, and unite into one no less than eight species previously recognized.

Baird’s old fallax was one of those eight, listed in the History as Melospiza melodia var. fallax. 

Unfortunately, however, Baird extended his name fallax to comprise two very different birds, the pale, reddish, sparsely marked Song Sparrows of the southwestern deserts and the darker, more richly colored birds of the Great Basin and adjoining Rocky Mountains. Henry Henshaw corrected that error in the very first volume of the Auk, restricting the name fallax to

the older though least known form … inhabiting our southern border — Arizona and New Mexico.

The more northerly birds received their own, new name, montana.

The AOU Check-list, back in those happy days when it provided a full accounting of each species’ recognized subspecies, called fallax in its strict sense the Desert Song Sparrow, from 1886 up to the Fourth Edition of 1931, when the fallacious one pulled another of its tricks.

Screenshot 2014-02-24 12.45.51

Following Oberholser in rejecting Henshaw’s identification of Baird’s type specimen, the committee responsible for this, the weakest edition of the Check-list voided the name montana and re-allocated fallax to the northerly populations covered by Baird’s early description, using Grinnell’s name saltonis for the southern birds. As a result, fallax was called in English the “Mountain” Song Sparrow, and the English name “Desert” was shifted to saltonis, generating a quarter century’s worth of confusion that must have had our trickster sparrow laughing its pale rusty head off.

Not even the sneakiest sparrow was a match for Allan Phillips, though. Phillips, writing midway between the publication of the Fourth and the Fifth editions of the Check-list, re-asserted the validity and the identity of Henshaw’s montana, once again calling it in English the Mountain Song Sparrow, and effectively splitting the pale southern birds into three races – fallax (northern Arizona), saltonis (southwestern Arizona and California), and his new bendirei (central and southern Arizona and Sonora).

More recent authorities tend to synonymize all three of those Phillipsian races under fallax in Henshaw’s sense, leaving us with just one Desert Song Sparrow, a tricky little bird that no doubt still relishes the almost endless confusion it has caused over the years.

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