Archive for Birdwords
It’s not mid-summer yet, and our suburban lot is hardly mid-wood, but Ovenbirds are busy pompously pacing off the margins of our backyard.
The first Ovenbird known to European science was collected
at sea, in November 1751, by … Tho. Stack, M.D. and F.R.S in his Voyage to Jamaica, as the ship lay becalmed, about eight or ten leagues distant from Hispaniola.
Stack, who served as librarian to Hans Sloane, gave the skin (and that of a Black-throated Blue Warbler collected under the same circumstances) to George Edwards, who rightly surmised that the bird was a migrant — a suspicion confirmed by Edwards’s “good friend Mr. W. Bartram of Pensylvania,” who told him that this Golden-crowned Thrush arrives in the vicinity of Philadelphia in April to spend the summer. Bartram also provided the first description of the species’ nesting habits:
the Golden-crowned Thrush builds its nest upon the ground, and always chuses the south side of a hill… it makes a hole in the leaves, like a little oven, and lines it with dry grass, and lays five white eggs spotted with brown.
Neither Edwards nor Bartram took the broad onomastic hint: rather than name the bird Ovenbird, they persisted in calling it a “thrush,” the Golden-crowned in Edwards’s case, the infinitely fussier “T. minimus, vertice aurio, the least golden crown thrush” in Bartram’s. Brisson, too, named the bird for “the beautiful golden color of its crown,” “le figuier à teste d’or de Pensilvanie.”
Alexander Wilson disapproved.
“The epithet golden-crowned,” he wrote, “is not very suitable for this bird, that part of the bird being rather of a brownish orange; yet, to avoid confusion, I have retained it.”
The confusion Wilson was so eager to avoid, I assume, was the use of the name “Ovenbird” for a variety of Old World species that also build domed nests. Lockwood, surprisingly, mentions the name not at all, but Swainson (no, not that Swainson) cites it as applied to the Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, and Long-tailed Tit; the Oxford English Dictionary also lists the Wood Warbler among the feathered furnace builders of Europe.
Audubon was, to my knowledge, the first to publish the name in connection with our ground warbler:
The nest is so like an oven, that the children in many places call this species the “Oven Bird.”
The American Woodsman, himself, though, had put away such childish things, and insisted that the bird be called, as in his predecessors, the Golden-crowned Thrush — and railed against “certain naturalists” who classed it instead as a warbler (or, for that matter, an accentor).
Nuttall, a few years beforeAudubon, also used the name, but even by the end of the nineteenth century, the modern name Ovenbird had failed to entirely displace its more prosaic competitors. In the Century Dictionary, Coues describes its usage as merely “local,” and even the final, posthumous edition of the Key lists it last among the species’ English names, after “Golden-crowned Wagtail Warbler,” “Golden-crowned Accentor,” and “Golden-crowned Thrush.”
And this in spite of the fact that the AOU had spoken. The first edition of the Check-list, whose English names were “selected with due regard to [their] desirability,” installed “Oven-bird” as the authoritative vernacular name of the species, and so it has remained, even retaining its quaint hyphen through the Fourth Edition.
I’m glad that the AOU adopted the name it did, resisting the temptation to simply translate the Linnaean aurocapilla to create a bland and, to agree with Wilson, not entirely accurate moniker for a bird so much of whose charm lies in its habits. “Golden-crowned Warbler” would have made of our Ovenbird a diminished thing.
It’s spring, and over much of the continent “the Veeries sing their songs of long ago.”
Here in New Jersey, too, that weird spooling, swirling buzz is heard of a warm evening. But when we hear it here in the mid-Atlantic, some of us are likely to call the cinnamon-backed songster not by its official, onomatopoetic name, but by another, one that commemorates the name of the man who first described it to science.
Especially this year, of course, the bicentennial of Alexander Wilson’s death.
Oddly enough, though Wilson recognized that the bird he was describing was new and clearly different from any of the other American thrushes he was familiar with, he assigned to it the names, both Latin and English, of another bird.
With reference to the rich brown of the bird’s back, he called his novum Turdus mustelinus, the Tawny Thrush, both of which, as Wilson himself noted, were in use already for the bird we know as the Wood Thrush.
The difficulty Wilson’s sloppiness had created was noticed almost immediately. When James Francis Stephens copied out Wilson’s description of the bird for the General Zoology of 1817, he observed politely that
it is not a little surprising that Wilson in his American Ornithology should increase the confusion by giving a name that was applied by Pennant to the [Wood Thrush], when he was confident this bird was a distinct species.
Stephens gave the bird new names, both English and scientific, calling it the Brownish Thrush Turdus fuscescens; we still know the species under that latinized epithet today.
Seven years later, in 1824, Charles Lucian Bonaparte was able to overlook Stephens’s name to give the bird a new one of his own devising.
The name of mustelinus must … be restored to the [Wood Thrush]; and as the present species will then be destitute of a name, I propose for it that of T. Wilsonii.
Bonaparte, like so many Philadelphians, was a great fan of his late colleague’s work, but even he seems to have had a niggling worry or two about pushing it too far:
I do not consider myself censurable for the frequent repetition of the name of this great ornithologist, as applied to species in different genera; it is a tribute of respect which I conceive justly due to one who has done so much for the benefit of my favourite science.
Interestingly, however, Bonaparte does not appear to have suggested changing the English appellation as well, continuing to cite his Turdus wilsonii as the Tawny Thrush. The vernacular name Wilson’s Thrush appears to have been used first by John Richardson and William Swainson (himself of thrush fame, of course) in the Fauna boreali-americana, where they describe the Wilson’s Thrush in part from specimens killed right here in New Jersey.
It is with peculiar satisfaction that … we find our own observations confirm, in their full extent, the judicious remarks made upon this species by the Prince of Musignano (i.e., Bonaparte); and gladly do we follow him in commemorating it by the name of the great American ornithologist.
Unlike Bonaparte, Swainson knew that the bird already had a properly formed, properly published scientific name: but it didn’t matter.
True it is, that, by the strict rules of priority, we may not perhaps be justified in so doing; this species having received, in a popular compilation [take that, Stephens!], another name. But not even the laws of nomenclature … must upon every occasion impose shackles upon superior minds. Few ornithologists will be disposed to withhold from the memory of Wilson the only honour it is now in their power to give.
One who might, just might, have been so disposed was John James Audubon.
In the text of the Ornithological Biography, Audubon does, once, use the name Wilson’s Thrush, but the full species account and the plate are labeled Tawny Thrush, a typically ambivalent rhetorical move on the part of the man who just never could come to terms with his “illustrious” predecessor (and who, incidentally, seems to have mistaken the song of the Hermit Thrush for that of this bird).
Thomas Nuttall had no such compunctions: his account of the species is headed “Wilson’s Thrush, or Veery,” the first published use of the modern name I am aware of. Coues, too, used those two names, in that sequence, in the first edition of his Check List — but retained only Wilson’s Thrush in the second. Following Coues’s lead, the American Ornithologists’ Union also used the patronym in the first two editions of the Check-list.
The Fifteenth Supplement, published in 1909, changed a large number of English names, some of them for reasons that seem to range from arbitrary to inconsistent. (“Prairie Hen” was changed to “Prairie Chicken,” but “Sage Grouse” to “Sage Hen,” to adduce just one example.) Among the victims was the name “Wilson’s Thrush,” apparently deemed a “book name” and replaced by Veery, as a name more “in use where the birds live.”
I for one regret the loss of the old name. “Veery” may, to more imaginative ears than mine, recall the song, but it indicates relationship no better than such other inscrutable names as “Sora” or “Bufflehead.” And it misses out on another chance to commemorate the Father of American Ornithology, who deserves a little remembering this year.
Have you ever stopped to think how very few of the birds of western Europe and North America are named for their songs? While the English monikers of many tropical species chatter and rattle and bubble and trill, “our” more familiar birds of the northern hemisphere tend to bear names based on their visual, not aural characteristics.
It’s no real mystery why this should be. Most European and North American birds were discovered and described long before we had the technology to record or assess sound — and most of them are easily distinguished in any case by even the least careful eye.
Not so in much of Africa, southern Asia, and, especially, the American tropics, where calls and songs can be the only way to distinguish — sometimes even to detect — the hordes of fast-moving forest birds.
When Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot first described the Eastern Warbling Vireo in 1807, he didn’t even mention the bird’s song, limiting his account entirely to the not overly distinguished appearance of the skins in his collection:
This species has a brown bill and feet; the head, back of the neck and body are gray: this hue is slightly tinged greenish on the back; the long feathers of the wing and tail are brown, with the outer edges very slightly paler; the underparts are entirely dirty white; the flanks and the underwing coverts are like the back; the wings and the tail are grayish white below.
Apparently unable to decide which of the bird’s bland colors predominated, Vieillot assigned his new species the French name “moucherolle gris,” the gray flycatcher, and the scientific binomial Muscicapa gilva, the yellowish flycatcher.
Vieillot was far more than just a “closet naturalist,” but obviously his field experience with this species was restricted. Alexander Wilson, on the other hand, knew the bird well, especially its “extremely pleasing” song:
its voice is soft, tender, and soothing, and its notes flow in an easy, continued strain…. In these there is nothing harsh, sudden, or emphatical; they glide along in a kind of meandering strain, that is peculiarly its own.
Unaware that Vieillot had already described it, Wilson gave “this sweet little warbler” new names, calling it Muscicapa melodia and, in English, the Warbling Flycatcher. Happily, that new name caught on. Bonaparte adopted it in his Synopsis, and Nuttall gave it its modern form of Warbling Vireo in the Manual:
This sweetest and most constant warbler of the forest … is plain and unadorned; but the sweet melody of his voice, surpassing, as far as nature usually surpasses art, the tenderest airs of the flute, poured out often from the rising dawn of day to the approach of evening, and vigorous even during the sultry heat of noon … gives additional interest to this little vocalist.
No name could have been imposed upon this species with more propriety than that of the Warbling Flycatcher. The male sings from morning to night, so sweetly, so tenderly, with so much mellowness and softness of tone, and yet with notes so low, that one might think he sings only for his beloved, without the least desire to attract the attention of rivals.
It’s too bad that Vieillot’s bland gilvus — “dull yellowish” – enjoys the privilege of priority, but at least in English we get to call the bird a name it truly deserves. As Coues puts it,
Its voice is not strong, and many birds excel it in brilliancy of execution; but not one of them all can rival the tenderness and softness of the liquid strains of this modest vocalist.
I’m guessing that ninety-nine out of a hundred readers of this ‘blog’ identified this Least Sandpiper at the merest of a glance. And I’m equally sure that not one out of that hundred (yes, someday we just might have fully one hundred people reading this blog) could give this familiar and abundant species’ scientific name without hesitating.
Me, I don’t just hesitate. I have to look it up. Every single time. For thirty-five years now.
It’s not that the name is difficult or vague or nonsensical. Calidris minutilla makes as much sense to us today as it did to Vieillot when he named the species (including it in the catch-all genus Tringa) in 1819.
The name of this bird was given it on account of its small size … it shows some affinity to the Tringa minuta of Leisler, which is found in Europe; I believe, however, that it is a separate species.
Minuta is the Little Stint, and in naming his new species, Vieillot simply gave it an even more diminutive diminutive.
So far so good. But the problem is that there are so many of these small sandpipers — and so few good names to go around.
Brisson started it all in 1763, when he described the Semipalmated Sandpiper from a specimen sent from Hispaniola by André Chervain. When Linnaeus gave the French ornithologist’s “petite alouette-de-mer” its Latin binomial, he, sensibly enough, called it Tringa pusilla, simply adopting and translating Brisson’s adjective “petite.”
By the time Middendorf came along in 1851 with the newly discovered Long-toed Stint, all the good names for the “little” sandpipers were used up.
This little bird of our is so similar to Tringa minuta that I have noticed the differences only now, after a closer examination. In its structure, size, and coloration, it cannot be distinguished at all from Tringa minuta in its summer plumage (cf. Naumann), except for its strikingly long toes and the dark-colored shafts of the flight feathers…. I would have classified this bird as a distinctive variant of Tringa minuta if the typical form of that species did not also occur in the Stanowoj Mountains without the least hint of intergradation with [the new bird].
But what to call it? Middendorf settled on subminuta, a name indicating both the bird’s apparent similarity to the sympatric Little Stint and its tiny size, “less than small.”
What we have today is a bunch of rather similar little sandpipers with a bunch of incredibly similar names:
Calidris pusilla (“small”), Semipalmated Sandpiper
Calidris minuta (“small”), Little Stint
Calidris subminuta (“even smaller”), Long-toed Stint
Calidris minutilla (“really small”), Least Sandpiper
No, of course not. And neither would this lovely bird.
It’s the first of May in northern New Jersey, and like clockwork, down from the trees comes the jangly, clangly song of the Orchard Oriole, like a slow House Finch singing in a coffee can.
I love the name “Orchard Oriole,” recalling as it does those long-ago days of America’s bucolic past, when every town ate apples from its own backyard. I’ve always bristled slightly at this species’ odd scientific name, though: What’s so spurious about Icterus spurius?
The bird owes that not particularly flattering moniker to Linnaeus, who listed it for the first time in the thirteenth edition of the Systema naturae, published in 1767. The description is economical to the point of scantiness: spurius is a “black oriole, tawny beneath, with a white panel in the wings.” If we want more (and we always do), we have to go back to Linnaeus’s own sources, Catesby and Brisson.
Catesby calls this species “the basterd Baltimore bird,” Icterus minor. The “handsomly cloathed” birds perched so neatly on the catalpa fruits are labeled male — above — and female — below; nowadays we know that both of the birds Catesby painted were likely males, the upper individual a first-cycle immature and the one beneath a full adult.
By using the English (and the French) word “bastard,” Catesby was not suggesting –as some have read it — that this oriole was somehow “illegitimate” or “counterfeit” or even a “hybrid”; the term is employed here in what was then the perfectly usual scientific sense of “similar,” “resembling, but not identical with, the species which legitimately bear[s] the name” (OED s.v. bastard).
Brisson, twenty-odd years later, adopts Catesby’s name for the “Baltimore bastard.”
Like Catesby, Brisson uses the word “bâtard” without pejorative connotation; but he does question his English predecessor’s identifications. Brisson is perfectly willing to believe that the green bird is the male of the species, but
the other bird depicted by Catesby on the same plate and which he claims is the female would appear rather to be the female of the preceding species [the Baltimore Oriole].
I believe the “female” as described by Catesby to be suspect. That bird far excels the male in its exquisite colors, a distinction enjoyed by no bird of the second sex, except for the females of hawks. And so in my view his descriptions of the sexes should be reversed.
Getting closer — but not quite there yet.
If any of the great naturalists of the late eighteenth century could have been expected to solve the puzzle of oriole plumages, it should have been Buffon, who had literally at his fingertips the finest collection of birds in the world.
But the great Frenchman was even more confused than his colleagues.
No doubt this bird was named the Bastard Baltimore because the color of its plumage are less vivid than those of the proper Baltimore, and in view of that fact it has been considered a decadent species [abâtardie]: and indeed, when careful comparison has shown that the two birds resemble each other in virtually every way (the Bastard does have slightly shorter wings), except for their colors, and that, to put it simply, that they differ only in the hue of those colors, which are distributed in almost absolutely the same way, then one can hardly avoid the conclusion that the Bastard Baltimore is no more than a variety of the true species, a variety that has degenerated under the influence of climate or some other cause.
Buffon’s notion of degeneracy, one he deployed so often in his discussions of North American animals, is neatly underlaid here by his theory of the relative state of development of the sexes:
In a word, the proper Baltimore is to the Bastard Baltimore, in so far as the plumage color is concerned, essentially what the Bastard Baltimore is to the female: for in the female the colors of the upperparts and tail are more muted and the underparts are of a yellowish white.
Martinet’s plate from the Planches enluminées, above, shows neatly the logical result of Buffon’s animadversions: the “proper” Baltimore is an adult male Baltimore Oriole in all his glory, while the Bastard Baltimore — which “should” be our Orchard Oriole — is obviously (to modern eyes) an old female or young male Baltimore Oriole.
It took none other than Alexander Wilson to finally sort it all out.
Wilson, ever the proud adoptive American, takes great umbrage at Buffon’s “philosophizing” and the “superstructure of theory” he built on his confusion of the female Baltimore with the male Orchard Oriole. The Father of American Ornithology notes that the two species are “evidently unlike” in size, in color, in pattern, in bill shape, in tail structure, in vocalizations, in nest construction, and in egg color and shape. If those differences aren’t sufficient, he asks, can we
assure ourselves, that the Great-horned Owl is not in fact a bastard Goose, or the Carrion-crow a mere variety of the Humming-bird?
It’s a rhetorical question. And a pretty snide one at that, even by Wilsonian standards of snottiness.
Having established that the great Buffon was a great buffoon, misled by “the distance of Europeans from the country they [the two American oriole species] inhabit,” Wilson goes on to offer the first description of the female Orchard Oriole and, critically, the first account of the plumage changes undergone by the male:
The young male of the first season corresponds nearly with the above description [of the female]. But in the succeeding spring, he makes his appearance with a large patch of black marking the front, lores and throat, as represented in fig. 2. In this stage, too, the black sometimes makes its appearance on the two middle feathers of the tail; and slight stains of reddish are seen commencing on the sides and belly.
Even Wilson, however, was confused by young males just attaining their “perfect” chestnut plumage, believing that patchy individuals like his Figure 3 were “at least birds of their third summer” rather than year-old males in molt.
Wilson was a famously careful field ornithologist, but his study of this species’ plumages had the advantage of particularly close observation. Orchard Orioles, he wrote,
are easily raised from the nest, and soon become agreeable domestics. One which I reared and kept through the winter, whistled with great clearness and vivacity at two months old…. I also kept a young female of the same nest, during the greatest part of winter, but could not observe, in that time, any change in its plumage.
Wilson commemorated his discovery in the new scientific name he gave this species, Oriolus mutatus, the “changeable” oriole, and protested in the most vigorous possible terms the Linnaean epithet spurius and its translation as “bastard.” That word,
when applied to a whole species of birds, perfectly distinct from any other, originally deriving their peculiarities of from, manners, colour, &c. from the common source of all created beings, and perpetuating them, by the usual laws of generation, as unmixed and independent as any other, is, to call it by no worse a name, a gross absurdity.
As an alternative to that offensive label, Wilson coined the English name we use today for these birds, observing that “they are so particularly fond of frequenting orchards, that scarcely one orchard in summer is without them.”
Spurious? Only some of the things we’ve said about them over the years. The birds themselves are, in Wilson’s so apt word, perfect.