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


*a Steller’s jay


*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.


Greater Pewee December 25, 2006, Anza Trail


The Official English Names of North American Birds


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.




Little Stogies

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


Smith’s Painted Buntling

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.



The Aromatic Oriole

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.