Archive for Birdwords

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The authors of this new book on bird names graciously confess (p. 15) that

it may not be strictly entomologically accurate.

Res ipsa ladybug.

Categories : Birdwords, Book Reviews
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What’s a Sheld Duck, Anyhow?

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In between birds, Marco and I have been talking words.

Anybody surprised?

Yesterday evening, as we watched the sun set on thousands of Greater Flamingos and assorted waterfowl, Marco asked why the big, colorful ducks with the red bills feeding in the shallows were called “Shelducks.” My answer: I dunno.


Our friends at the OED find the name “sheldrake” attested as early as the fourteenth century, an unsurprising date for so conspicuously colored and common a bird (and edible, too, though no doubt a bit fishy).

Not until the seventeenth century, though, does an explicit etymology appear. In 1678, John Ray in his Ornithology of Francis Willughby lists

The Sheldrake, or Borough-Duck… [so] called … from its being particoloured, Sheld signifying dappled or spotted with white.

Now I know.

Who can figure out the odd name “Borough-Duck”? Say it out loud if it isn’t immediately obvious….

Categories : Birdwords
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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

Categories : Birdwords
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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.

Categories : Birdwords, Information
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