Archive for Birdwords

Sep
25

Little Stogies

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Greater Ani Panama May 2007

Those weird black cuckoos of the American tropics have been known as “anis” since pre-Columbian times, and the Native name was adopted immediately and authoritatively by the earliest European scientists.

French-speaking colonists, though, came up with another label for the bird.

Piso and Marcgrave had been satisfied to merely describe the ani’s vocalizations:

It calls with a loud voice a single syllable, yiiiiy, rising in the middle.

But the creoles of at least one island colony heard something else.

There are also many small black birds in Guadeloupe, quite similar to European blackbirds, which the inhabitants call “bout de petun,” rolled tobacco, since they believe — just as fools hear bells speak and discover in the shapes of clouds anything they please — that this bird’s song says, “un petit bout de petun,” a little roll of tobacco.

They also called these somber-plumed birds “devils,” inevitably enough, but it was the odd name “bout de petun” that caught the attention of scholars in metropolitan France.

Buffon rejected the earlier explanation of the name as a fanciful transcription of the ani’s song; instead, he argued that this “ridiculous name” could have been inspired only by the bird’s plumage,

brownish black, the color of a plug of tobacco…. The creoles of Cayenne have given this bird a name more suitable to its usual song, calling it the “bouilleur de canari,” referring to the sound made by water boiling in a cooking pot, quite different … from the verbalization “bout de petun.”

Etienne Lefebvre-Deshayes, one of the most distinguished natural historians of the Caribbean, confirmed Buffon’s suspicion.

We wouldn’t say that the bird has a song at all, rather a quite simple whistle or peeping, though there are occasions when it is more varied, but always harsh and unpleasant,

hardly, it seems, the sort of vocalization to be rendered by the bubbling consonants of “petit bout de petun.”

Groove-billed Ani

Different ears have different hears, of course. Where Buffon thought it beneath serious consideration that “petit bout de petun” could resemble the ani’s song, Charles Nodier, a polymath genius and authority on (of all things) onomatopoeia, found confirmation for the name’s echoic origin in Buffon’s own words.

Readers familiar with the mechanics of pronunciation will agree that, contrary [to Buffon’s conclusion], there cannot possibly be a better and more natural representation of the sound of bubbling and boiling than the onomatopoetic “petit bout de petun,” which seems to have been formed expressly to echo the sound of bubbling…. the meaning [of those words] is entirely fortuitous and insignificant here,

the most forthright dismissal possible of the older author’s speculation about the tobacco-colored plumage of the ani.

Good to have that settled. Or not.

Carib Grackle

In his history of Guadeloupe, Jules Ballet turned a powerful hose on the stables by asserting that

the ani and the bout de petun are two quite different birds. The former, which is quite rare in Guadeloupe, has one character [namely, the bill shape] that prevents any confusion…. The bout de petun … is a grackle,

the Carib grackle.

Maybe. Truth is, I can’t hear “bout de petun” in the songs of any of the anis or of the grackle. Deep down, I think the name is probably the product of folk etymology. With no way to prove it, though, I’ll have to let all those dead Frenchmen figure it out among themselves.

smooth-billed ani

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Sep
03

Smith’s Painted Buntling

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There are but few things I miss from those long-ago years in Urbana, and this clown-faced calcariid is one of them.

Like clockwork, end of March every year we would get out and walk the foxtail-choked stubble of last year’s corn, and there they were — the first northbound Smith longspurs of the spring.

There was an extra piquancy to finding these birds in our neighborhood, as the first individuals ever met with by western scientists in the US had been found not all that far away, in southern Illinois, in April 1843, as Audubon’s last expedition was preparing to leave St. Louis for the upper Missouri.

Edward Harris and John G. Bell, Audubon’s New Jersey patron and his hired preparator, respectively, had left the old man in the city and set off for the prairies to the northeast, where they busied themselves for two weeks exploring and collecting. Bell reported that they had found an unfamiliar bird “very abundant,”

generally in large flocks, and when on the ground began at once to scatter and divide themselves, rendering it difficult for us to shoot more than two at one shot; they run very nimbly….

Harris and Bell were up to the challenge, though, and eventually secured “several specimens,” two of which made their way into the Smithsonian collections (first, it seems, as personal gifts from Audubon to Spencer Baird) and one of which apparently remains there (it is impossible to reconcile the locality and age information provided in the electronic specimen record with what Baird says of the skin).

Audubon did not recognize the little dead finches, either, and he published them as representing a new species, the Smith lark-bunting, Plectrophanes Smithii. The name honored his “good friend Gideon B. Smith, Esq., M.D.,” the entrepreneurial entomologist whom Audubon had visited in Baltimore at the start of his 1843 voyage.

The practiced eye will have noticed in that last paragraph that while Smith is still commemorated in the bird’s official English name, he goes unmentioned in the current scientific name, Calcarius pictus (“painted spur-bird“). This not uncommon circumstance — have a look at the hawk and the sparrow named for Edward Harris, to take two well-known examples — typically arises when a competing scientific name is found to have priority only after the English name has attained currency; it’s no surprise in North American ornithology that Audubon, a powerful voice and a not always careful bibliographer, is so often prominent in these stories.

In the case of the longspur, it is entirely understandable that Audubon and his companions in St. Louis overlooked the fact that the species had been published and named more than a decade earlier. William Swainson’s handsome lithograph of a single male shot on the banks of the Saskatchewan River in April 1827  (the specimen once in the collections of the Zoological Society of London, but now apparently lost) was completed in 1829; the formal description and name, Emberiza picta, were published in the volume dated 1831 of the Fauna boreali-americana.

Smith longspur 1827 specimen

Swainson’s lithograph, the first image above, shows the bird in all its springtime glory, but Bell and Harris were less fortunate. Though these longspurs can be quite bright indeed as they pass through Illinois, Audubon’s plate, the second above, shows that his companions encountered, or at least shot, only females or males still early in their pre-alternate molt. Though Audubon’s use of the name “lark-bunting” suggests that he may have recognized the novum as somehow longspurrish, there is really no reason to expect that he, Harris, and Bell should have recognized their smudgy brown birds as identical to the dapper badger-faced creature from Carlton House.

Audubon painted bunting Smith longspur plate 400

And that in spite of the fact that Audubon himself had experience, in the field and in the hand, with Swainson’s “painted buntling.” (Extra credit, by the way, if without benefit of google you can identify the tail in Audubon’s image.) To prepare his plate for the Birds of America, Audubon borrowed the original Saskatchewan skin of “this handsome species” from the Zoological Society. Examining the specimen in the 1830s, he was reminded of something he had seen himself on the wintertime prairies:

That the Painted Bunting at times retires far southward, probably accompanying the Lapland Longspur, is a fact for which I can vouch, having seen one on the shore of the Mississippi in December 1820, which however I missed on wing after having viewed it about two minutes, as it lay flat on the ground.

Though is not entirely unheard of for male Smith longspurs to appear in breeding aspect in early winter, Audubon was certainly fortunate to witness the phenomenon — and to remember it so clearly nearly two decades later.

The phantom from Illinois survived in the scientific literature for the better part of a decade, listed on Audubon’s authority as distinct from the Swainsonian picta by no less than George Robert GrayJean Cabanis and Charles Bonaparte.

Baird et al. 1858 Smith longspur

Sometime in the 1850s, it was somehow determined that Audubon’s Illinois bird — the longspur he named for Smith — was in fact simply the “immaturely marked” plumage of Swainson’s painted buntling. Whatever debate and discussion may have taken place seems to have gone on behind the published scenes, but the ever so slight broadening of the specimen record available to Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway may have helped: the two Robert Kennicott skins (neither of which I can find in an NMNH search) bracket the migration of the species through the Mississippi Valley, and I assume (dangerous thing, that) that they provided the points of triangulation to finally confirm the identity of the earlier Illinois specimens.

Smithsonian Smith longspur 1858 specimens

It was Baird and his collaborators who struck the nomenclatural compromise by recognizing the priority of Swainson’s picta/us but retaining Audubon’s vernacular tribute to Gideon Smith. We should continue to think of the good doctor whenever we see this species, but I hope that next time we run into one — on the breeding grounds or on migration through a chilly midwestern field — we try to remember, too, that it took years of effort by some of the century’s most important ornithologists to figure out that two species were in fact only one.

 

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Aug
28

The Aromatic Oriole

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Golden Oriole

Wow. Yes, this seems to be the best photograph I have of a golden oriole, taken a few years ago in the days leading up to our Birds and Art tour of Burgundy.

But what I’m concerned about this morning is not my photographic aptitude but one of the odder names assigned this lovely bird, the German “Weihrauch.”

A twelfth-century copper alloy censer, Germany; now in the Met.

“Weihrauch,” literally “holy smoke,” just means “incense.” It’s not impossible that oriolids are fragrant in the hand — plenty of other birds are, from auklets to shrikes. In this case, though, that theory would throw us off the scent, so to speak; instead, “Weihrauch” is the product of that familiar linguistic process called folk etymology.

Folk etymology is not the same as fake etymology, the pseudo-scholarly fabrication of connections between words that are in fact not historically related. Want to see some fakes? Just spend a little time on the internet, or even, if you can bear it, talking to people.

Fake etymology is a process of explanation. Folk etymology is a process of creation, in which an unfamiliar word or form is altered to resemble a familiar one. One of my favorite examples: the name “tiger meat” for the spicy midwestern bar food arose, I suspect, from “beef tartare,” when the incomprehensible “tartare” was humorously transformed into an animal name. Good ol’ google turns up plenty of other specimens.

It turns out that among the many, many echoic names given the bird with the golden voice is the German “wîrôk.” (I don’t hear it, myself, but Suolahti tells us so.) Johann Leonhard Frisch fills in the rest of the story:

The two final notes of the bird’s song sound like “i” and “o,” and so “i” and “o” occur in all of its names…. Some have assumed that the name Wyrock, with the long “i” and “o,” must be Low German, and so mispronounce it “Weihrauch,”

self-consciously and hypercorrectly running the name through a High German diphthongization to make it more comfortingly familiar, if semantically a bit bizarre.

Folk etymology becomes especially interesting when its products inspire sometimes fantastic “back stories” to explain them. I haven’t run across any narratives contrived to explain “Weihrauch” (not yet, at least), but the ecclesiastical association may be behind another folk name for the species listed by Naumann — “Bruder Wyrauch,” “Brother Incense.” I plan to use that one from now on myself.

 

 

 

 

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Aug
26

Parrot of the Month

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blue-headed parrot, orange-cheeked parrot

Of all the breathtaking lot of parrots, few are as likely to leave the birder agulp as the stunning blue-headed parrot, a widespread and common bird from southern Central America to Bolivia and Brazil.

The dazzling swarm in the photo above was at one of the famous clay licks of Peru, but this species burned its way into my memory years before I saw them there, when a single individual flew beneath me as I was perched high on a tower in Panama, its head out-bluing the tropical sky.

And being who and what and as I am, at the very same moment a question pierced my mind, one that has nagged me ever since: What’s so menstruous about Pionus menstruus?

blue-headed parrot

Nowadays, questions about the scientific names of birds are easily answered. We have James Jobling’s considerable store of erudition at our fingertips, and in the few cases where that doesn’t help, all the wealth of the Biodiversity Heritage Library is there for the mining.

But I’m stymied.

The name is Linnaean, appearing first in the twelfth edition of 1766.

1766 Syst nam Psittacus menstruus blue-headed parrot

The Archiater’s Latin diagnosis of the newly named parrot is quite thorough, beginning with the fact that Dr. Petrus Bierchen reports from Suriname that the bird has a voice like a jackdaw.

The body is the size of a turtle dove’s. The head and neck are bluish, the feathers dusky but blue at the tip. The back and wings are green. The wing coverts are yellowish green. The belly is greenish, the feathers bluish at their tips. The remiges are green, dusky on the inner vane. The rectrices are green, becoming blue at their tips, but numbers 1, 2, and 3 are blood-red on the inner vane, from their base halfway out; the outer vane is entirely blue. The crissum is red, the tips of the feathers yellowish blue. The bill is horn-colored: the upper mandible reddish on the edges. The eyes are black. The eye rings are bluish grayish.

No real onomastic clues here, and neither of the authorities Linnaeus cites — George Edwards’s 1758 Gleanings and the fourth volume of Mathurin Brisson’s Ornithologie — offers any hints. It is notable — if purely incidental to my question — that all three of the scientists relied on different sources for their knowledge of the bird: Linnaeus’s type had been supplied from Suriname, Edwards was working from a live individual in London, and Brisson had access to a specimen labeled as originating in Martinique.

Buffon and his collaborators likewise seem to know nothing about the odd Linnaean name. The OED and the Century are of no use, and we’re stuck with the prospect of a systematic search through “the older literature,” which in North American ornithology tends to mean anything before the publication of Ridgway, a scant century ago.

Johann August Donndorf’s Zoologische Beyträge, a commentary on Gmelin’s edition of the Systema, is one source Ridgway overlooked or declined to exploit for his North and Middle America (he would not have been the first to rail against Donndorf’s sloppiness as a bibliographer), but it is often productive of otherwise obscure eighteenth-century names and publications. In this case, it sends us to Statius Müller’s translation of Linnaeus, where the German systematist coins the name “Blauhals” (“blueneck”) for this species — and incidentally asks himself the same question that occurred to me more than 200 years later in Panama.

We have named it the Blauhals because we are unable to explain the name “menstruus.” I suspect that in the case of many names Linnaeus did not even intend that their meaning be understood, as otherwise he would have explained the more obscure among them himself, or assigned clearer names.

Vieillot, usually a bright light in the otherwise dim bibliographic jungle, has no comment on “menstruus,” but to make up for it, he tells us that in Paraguay the bird is called “siy,” an echoic name. Levaillant likewise says nothing about the Linnaean name; his two accounts of the species, though, are a really fine example of this explorer and ornithologist at his best, addressing everything from sex and molt to land use changes in coastal South America.

Barraband blue-headed parrot, Levaillant 1805 pl 114

And so it continues, right up to today: as far as I can find, no one seems to have known Linnaeus’s motivation, or even to have speculated about it in print. Time to widen the search, perhaps.

If I google correctly, the blue-headed parrot is the only bird in the world currently in possession of a species or subspecies epithet “menstruum/a/us.” In 1786, though, Giovanni Antonio Scopoli gave a formal diagnosis and Linnaean binomial to a woodpecker that had been collected in the Philippines by Pierre Sonnerat a decade earlier. Sonnerat described his bird:

… the green woodpecker of the Isle of Luzon [has] the entire body a somewhat dirty green; the top of the head is faintly spotted with gray; the flight feathers of wing and tail are blackish; the upper tail coverts are very bright scarlet red, forming a large patch; the feet and bill are blackish.

Sonnerat Nouvelle Guinée pl 36

Scopoli assigned this bird the name Picus menstruus, like Linnaeus before him offering no hint of an explanation. What do the two birds have in common, the parrot and the picid? Linnaeus distinguishes his parrot from the one that precedes it on the page by undertail color: he writes that the latter is “similar to P. menstruus, but its undertail is not red.” Scopoli adds to his summary of Sonnerat’s woodpecker account that “the rump and undertail are red” (my emphasis to show the addition).

Can it be that “menstruus” here means not simply “monthly” but “catamenial”? Entomology provides what may be a significant parallel: the sarcophagid name Syctomedes menstrua is a junior synonym of Syctomedes haemorrhoidalis, both names alluding to the red genitals, as if colored by flowing blood.

I know very little about Scopoli, the namer of the Luzon woodpecker and the eponym of a shearwater and a drug that helps when looking for the shearwater. Linnaeus, though, was more than capable of ignoring the blue-headed parrot’s blue head to reach for a more scurrilous name. His own contemporaries reproached him for the poor taste of some of his inventions, that notorious

Linnaean obscenity [and] licentiousness…. Science should be chaste and delicate. Ribaldry at times has been passed for wit; but Linnaeus alone passes it for terms of science.

Psittacus menstruus appears to be yet another example.

 

 

 

 

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Jun
22

Sharpe’s Pygmy Finch

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Also known, as of this latest Supplement to the AOU Check-list, as the Morelet seedeater.

Morelet White-collared Seedeater

The re-split of the white-collared seedeater into the Morelet seedeater and the cinnamon-rumped seedeater will strike many birders as a “no-brainer,” and the NACC’s decision in this case aligns the AOS taxonomy with most other authorities’ treatment of these tiny tanagers. The only thing we’re likely to have trouble with is the spelling of the name of one of the “new” species.

As the NACC points out, both the scientific and English names of the northern bird commemorate the Burgundian natural historian, novelist, and illustrator Pierre Marie Arthur Morelet, active in the mid-nineteenth century in Africa, the Azores, Middle America, and the Caribbean. In 1850, two years after Morelet’s return from Central America, Charles Bonaparte published a new seedeater in his honor — but misspelled the explorer’s name in the species epithet, an error that has never been corrected and likely cannot ever be.

Morelet had collected the first specimens in northern Guatemala in 1847; Bonaparte examined them at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle shortly thereafter. I understand Bonaparte’s mention here of the MNHN curator Jacques Pucheran as identifying the author of a manuscript name, probably on the specimen label, adopted and then misspelled, or at least not corrected, by Bonaparte. In any event, we are stuck with the error, and with the disparity between the number of consonants in the English name and in the scientific name.

Less than a year after Bonaparte’s publication, John Porter McCown collected two male seedeaters in Brownsville, Texas, the first records of the genus north of Mexico. Now numbers 41295 and 41296 in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, these birds were at first identified by George N. Lawrence as white-throated seedeaters, a species known only from northeastern South America. In July 1856, Philip Lutley Sclater demurred, suggesting that the individuals Lawrence had described were probably in fact representatives of the Morelet seedeater. Two years later, with at least one of the McCown specimens at hand, Spencer Baird — in an authoritative book written with the assistance of George Lawrence — agreed.

White-collared Seedeater, male, Guatemala

We know today that Sclater and Baird were right, but it took decades for the matter to be settled. In 1888, Richard Bowdler Sharpe determined that the Texas birds were female ruddy seedeaters; in what should have been a sweet piece of poetic justice, Lawrence himself had described that species six years earlier.

In gentlemanly response, Lawrence re-examined other Texas specimens belonging to George Sennett, then on deposit at the American Museum. He was able to dismiss their allocation to the ruddy seedeater, but found at the same time that they were not identical to “the true S. morelleti,” either. He accordingly described the northerly specimens as a new taxon, S. morelleti sharpei, recognizing in the subspecific epithet his “friend, Mr. R.B. Sharpe, as he is the only one to have recognized it as being distinct” from nominate morelleti. 

The source of all that confusion was the dull plumage of males in the northern portions of their range. Generations of birders have been mildly disappointed on seeing their first Texas seedeaters at how far from truly “white-collared” the birds there are. Robert Ridgway, in declining to recognize Lawrence’s sharpei, speculated that “fully adult males have simply not yet been taken” north of Mexico, and that it was just bad luck that we in the US did not get to see the more dramatically marked individuals. The AOU quickly removed sharpei from its list of recognized subspecies.

In 1907, with a wider range of specimens available to him, Joel Asaph Allen figured it out. It was not a case, he wrote, of coincidence, but one of genuine geographic variation:

the adult males of the Texas form do not acquire the broad black pectoral collar and the black back of typical morelleti, and … in consequence … have been considered as … immature.

The differences extended to females as well, and Allen found them sufficient to reinstate Lawrence’s sharpei. The bird variously known in English by such names as the little seedeater, the Sharpe finchlet, and the Sharpe pygmy finch re-entered the AOU Check-list the next year. It is still recognized as a valid subspecies by the most authoritative world lists.

Next time you get to see a Morelet seedeater, remind yourself who Morelet was. But also give a thought or two to those who dedicated so much time to figuring out just what the French naturalist had collected on that day in 1847.

 

 

 

 

 

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