Archive for Birdwords


A Fallacious Hummingbird

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leucippus fallax, gould

Another sneaky bird, this one a hummingbird, named Trochilus fallax almost 175 years ago. It’s often easy to figure out what the original describer had in mind in styling a bird “deceitful,” but not this time.

type description of Trochilus fallax

When Bourcier and Mulsant named this species in 1843, they were entirely forthright about their lack of confidence in its truthfulness, calling it “deceiver” in both French and scientifickish. But they didn’t tell us why.

What’s mysterious to me seems to have been perfectly straightforward to the namers’ colleagues and contemporaries. When it came time to dismantle the venerable catch-all genus Trochilus, the inventors of new generic names simply came up with what were essentially synonyms to fallax. Charles Bonaparte called it Doleromyia in 1854, “deceptive fly-bird,” and Cabanis created a diminutive Dolerisca, the “little trickster.”

A-G Bevalet, in Muls and Verr

When Mulsant published the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches starting in 1874, he took over Bonaparte’s genus name, correcting the spelling to Doleromya, and fancying up the vernacular name to “doleromye trompeuse.”

And still not saying why.

The explanation, or an explanation, came in 1881, in the Catalogue descriptif of Eugène Eudes-Deslongchamps.

The museum in Caen holds the type specimen on which Bourcier based his Trochilus fallax. The specimen is quite well preserved and very carefully prepared…. Externally, this pretty little bird far more closely resembles a Leucippus than any other bird, but the evenly curved bill is very different. The general colors, and in particular the distribution of white spots on the tail, actually recall a miniature Campylopterus saberwing. It is likely for these reasons that Bourcier assigned the species the name fallax.

Doleromya, from Eudes-Deslongchamps

So there we have it. Or maybe not.

Eudes-Deslongchamps’s mention of Leucippus points in another direction. That name — which happens to designate the genus to which our bird, the buffy hummingbird, is currently assigned — most likely commemorates the Pisan prince Leucippus, who disguised himself as a girl to get closer to his beloved Daphne (it didn’t work out well for either of them, as you may recall).

The bird name was coined in 1849 by Charles Bonaparte, who obviously forgot he’d done so when he devised Doleomyia five years later. Bonaparte doesn’t happen to mention what he intended by adopting the name from classical mythology, but as usual, James Jobling makes a very good suggestion:

both sexes of the buffy hummingbird share the same plumage.

The deceit, then, would consist in each sex “hiding” in the plumage of the other.

I have no doubt that Jobling is right, and that that is exactly what Bonaparte had in mind. The only problem is –and it’s Bonaparte’s problem, no one else’s — that Bourcier and Mulsant weren’t thinking anything of the kind. Their 1843 description makes reference to only one individual, and an unsexed individual at that, so they could hardly have thought themselves tricked by the lack of sexual dimorphism.

Moreover, three decades on, in the Histoire naturelle, Mulsant has no difficulty tallying the characters that distinguish the age and sex classes of this species. But he notes that fallax 

shows some similarity to the species of the subgenus Threnetes in certain respects and in other respects approaches various members of the genus Leucolia.

This is not unlike Eudes-Deslongchamps’s observation seven years later — but invoking affinities to a different group of similar species.

I’m stumped. As I go through the sources and ponder, though, I begin to wonder: maybe what is “fallax” about fallax is the name itself, a jocular deception perpetrated on the future by two Frenchmen 175 years ago.

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Crescent Swallows

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cliff swallow

Beautiful birds, such as these most indisputably are, deserve beautiful names, and it’s hard to imagine a label lovelier than Hirundo lunifrons, the crescent-fronted swallow.

Alas, we’re stuck nowadays with the prosaic cliff swallow and the hardly more evocative Petrochelidon pyrrhonota (“red-rumped rock swallow”). But it took us a good long time to get there.

It isn’t at all clear when this abundant and widespread swallow was first “discovered” by European science. According to Elliott Coues, this is the bird Forster published in 1772 as “Swallow No. 35,”

which answers in some particulars to the description of the Martin, Hirundo Urbica, Linn. but seems to be smaller and has no white on the rump.

Forster does report that these swallows nest under eaves and on riverside cliffs, but there is little else here to indicate that he is writing of the bird we know as the cliff swallow; you’d think he might have mentioned some of the salient plumage features of this well-marked species. As it is, I suspect, contra Coues, that the skin Forster received was that of a tree swallow. In any event, Forster goes on to note — tongue perhaps ever so slightly in cheek — that

the Indians say, they were never found torpid under water, probably because they have no large nets to fish with under the ice.

More than half a century later, in 1823, Thomas Say, working with specimens from near Canyon City, Colorado, gave the cliff swallow a detailed formal description and the Linnaean name Hirundo lunifrons, commemorating the bird’s “large white frontal lunule.”

That species name, lunifrons, “crescent-fronted,” made its way into the AOU Check-list in 1886, and persisted in that authoritative work for decades. In 1912, though, Samuel Rhoads obtained copies of two items published in the Kentucky Gazette by Samuel Rafinesque, one of them dated — fatally — February 14, 1822, a year earlier than the publication of Say’s account. Rafinesque reports that

There are two species of Swallows in Kentucky…. The second species I shall now describe and call it the Blue Bank-Swallow. I have given it the scientific name of Hirundo albifrons which means the Swallow with a white forehead. It is very remarkable by its unforked tail…. Its face or the space surrounding the bill is black, the forehead white, the top of the head blue; the cheeks, throat and upper part of the rump of a reddish chestnut colour, or rufous…. This bird is to be seen preserved with its nest in the Museum of Cincinnati.

Rhoads, obviously in fine fettle, comments:

it seems a bit humiliating for [the scientific name of the species] to be snatched from the laurel crown of Thomas Say and transferred, by the rights of priority, to a man whom he undoubtedly despised and certainly ignored. Say was one of the coterie of Philadelphia naturalists that eventually drove Rafinesque and his literary contributions from any recognition by the Academy of Natural Sciences…. That eccentric naturalist [Rafinesque] had stolen the march on all his contemporaries by a little squib in the Kentucky Gazette.

Five years after Rhoads’s discovery, the proposal was made to change the scientific name of the swallow to Petrochelidon albifrons albifrons, “since Rafinesque’s name is clearly identifiable as Hirundo (= Petrochelidon) lunifrons Say and is of earlier date.”

AOU 1931

The proposal was accepted, and the 1931 edition of the Check-list was the first to use the new old name.

And the last.

Beginning as early as the 1840s, beginning, it seems, with George Edward Gray’s Genera of BirdsEuropean ornithology had begun to use yet another name, Petrichelidon pyrrhonota. When in 1894 that name was preferred in Richard Bowdler Sharpe and Clyde E. Wyatt’s Monograph of the Hirundinidae, it was time — one might think — for the Americans to react.

Sharpe and Wyatt, Mon.Hir.

Not so fast.

In 1902, the AOU committee dismissed the name pyrrhonota, finding no “evidence to show that the change is necessary.” Not until 1944, fully fifty years after the name had been ratified by Sharpe and Wyatt, did the AOU finally accept pyrrhonota as both applying to this species and enjoying priority over lunifrons and albifrons alike.

What changed their mind was Charles Hellmayr’s footnote in the eighth volume of his Catalogue of Birds of the Americas. It was Louis Pierre Vieillot who coined the name pyrrhonota in 1817, taking his description from the Sonnini translation of Azara’s Apuntamientos. Hellmayr explains that

with the exception of the blackish lower belly [“le bas-ventre noir”] which may easily be construed as referring to the dusky under tail coverts, Azara’s description, upon which Vieillot’s name was based, is quite accurate.

Quite why it took so long to reach this conclusion is a mystery. Had no American ornithologist looked seriously at Azara and Vieillot? That seems hardly likely: we know, for example, that Robert Ridgway knew the 1817 description, and nevertheless accounted it “doubtful.” We can assume, too, that the AOU committees from 1886 to 1944 were conscientious bibliographers.

However it happened, I’m sorry in a way that we’re stuck — apparently for good this time — with the boring pyrrhonota. Say’s name lunifrons is evocative, romantic, beautiful.

Almost as much so as the bird itself.

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Poor Thekla

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Wage Du, zu irren und zu träumen….

Ted’s finally done it. Read (and enjoy) his “Big Night” carefully, and you’ll discover that he’s finally carried through on the threat to eliminate the possessive ‘s in the English names of birds.

I like it.

Of course, he’s not the first resident of Boulder to have an opinion about such things. In 1907, Junius Henderson (who seems to have had no objection to barbarous capitalization) posed the rhetorical question

why on earth should it be Baird’s Sparrow? In many such cases, the man whose name is given to the bird has never even seen the species, has had nothing to do with its discovery…. Baird is as much honored by speaking of the Baird Sparrow as by using the possessive.

Six years earlier, Richard C. McGregor had argued more soberly for the practice of dropping the offending ‘s: he quotes a letter from C. Hart Merriam in which it is pointed out that

the species are not in any way the property of the persons whose names they bear, but are merely named in honor of these persons…. the National Board on Geographical Names has for many years abandoned the use of possessives in all geographical names…. the Forestry people in their catalogue and checklist of forest trees of the United States have dropped the possessive….

Joseph Grinnell summed it all up in his review of the 1910 edition of the AOU Check-list:

We are disappointed to observe that the useless possessive is retained in personal names,

a matter noted expressly in the Supplement immediately preceding the new list’s publication.

It took forty-three years (!), but W.L. McAtee responded specifically and, as usual, confidently to all the current arguments:

the English possessive is equivalent to the Latin genitive…. It is true that the United States Geographic Board has abandoned the use of the possessive… but… those names are not based on Latinized genitives…. The most common objection to the use of the possessive case is that the bird does not actually belong to the man… a puerile [argument] at best.

McAtee also took up an argument Gerald H. Thayer had offered as early as 1910: such common surnames as Black, White, Moor, Fish, and so on are

as likely to belong to naturalists as to anybody else. Surely this is a sufficient rebuttal of the arguments in favor of dropping the possessive ‘s and apostrophe from the common names of birds and beasts named for men.

Apparently it was sufficient — if specious — and the AOU, and most English-language lists, have retained the possessive ‘s ever since.

There is one persistent and incomprehensible exception, though.

When Christian Ludwig Brehm received a series of larks his sons had collected in Spain, he found that the birds

differ on even the very first glance so much from all the other crested larks that there can really be no dispute about the validity of this new species,

a species he named Galerita Theklae, “Thekla’s Haubenlerche.”

We have named this lark for our unforgettable daughter, who died on July 6, 1858, in her twenty-fifth year.

Thekla Klothilde Bertha Brehm

Touching indeed — especially given that the bereaved father was writing no more than three weeks after the young woman’s death.

Touching, but largely ignored in English-speaking ornithology, which almost with one voice calls this bird the Thekla lark, flouting the otherwise carefully preserved rule of the possessive ‘s.

I suspect that a misunderstanding of the German “Theklalerche” is behind this lapse — that someone at some time failed to recognize a personal name in “Thekla” and read it instead as, say, a geographic label.

And that is an injustice to both Brehms, father and daughter. If we’re going to have “Baird’s sparrow,” let’s also have Thekla’s lark — or better still, let’s lose all those possessives consistently.

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Harper Lee, whose second (first!) novel is to appear this summer, celebrates her birthday today.

Northern Mockingbird

It seems a good time to ask a simple question: Why is it a sin to kill a mockingbird?

Lee’s novel offers its own, internal justifications for the rule, but is it possible that there is some sort of tradition standing behind Atticus Finch’s injunction?

T. Gilbert Pearson, the famous Audubonian and conservationist, was 13 when he bought his first gun in 1886. This is what an aged Floridian he knew as Aunt Celie told him:

Honey, when you gits big enough to tote a gun don’t never kill nary a mockin’ bird. Every one of them little fowls takes kyer of some good man or woman what’s daid, and when you hear one asingin’ at night you knows dat some good soul done come back and is walkin’ about. A sperit kaint never leave its grave lessen its mockin’ bird hollers for it to come out.

I’d say that this story adds more than a bit of weight and depth to the novel’s title, wouldn’t you? High school sophomores, take note!

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Boreal Bells?

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Seton, boreal owls

I’ve still never seen a boreal owl. For that very reason, I’ve spent an awful lot of time listening hard to recordings of the song. I even, for a while, and to the occasional consternation of my field companions, used that slow liquid tremolo as the notifier on my mobile cellular telephone.

Such things are called “ring tones,” a linguistic relic from the way-back days when phones jangled. But I can assure you, the song of the boreal owl sounds nothing like a bell. Not like a jingle bell or a sleigh bell or a church bell or a desk bell or a school bell.

Or does it?

I ran across this when I was — naturally — looking for something else.

Linnaeus assigned it the scientific name Aegolius funereus for its mournful cry, like the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.” Actually the call of the Boreal Owl is a sharp and chipper “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO!” in the same rhythm and pace as a winnowing snipe — Linnaeus may have been influenced more by folklore than careful observation.

I’m gratified to find the author agreeing with my assessment of the bird’s unbell-like song: while I might have used different adjectives, the transliteration works for my ear and mind. But what about all that stuff surrounding it? Is big bad Linnaeus really to blame for this, too?


A good first clue is how un-Linnaean that phrase “the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bill” is — not to mention the fact that it is in English. It’s easy enough, too, to figure out that the great Swede named the species not for its voice but for its somber plumage; the diagnosis in the Systema naturae — which, by the way, does not use the name Aegolius at all, as Kaup would not erect that genus for another 70 years — is limited entirely to the bird’s appearance:

Linnaeus 1758 boreal owl

Neither in the Systema nor in the Fauna svecica does the taxonomer adduce any sort of “folklore” about this species: instead, the latter work informs us, the description relies on a painting — one assumes that it was a silent painting — made by his teacher Rudbeck.

Screenshot 2015-04-06 14.41.25

My friend google takes you to some very unusual places if you try to find out who is really responsible for the notion that boreal owls sound like bells. Eventually, though, we arrive — with a forehead-slapping “of course!” — at Ernest Thompson Seton. In 1910, Seton wrote about “a new and wonderful sound” he had heard on a trip to the “arctic prairies” along the Athabasca River:

Like the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell it came.  Ting, ting ting, ting, and on rising and falling with the breeze, but still keeping on about two “tings” to the second, and on, dulling as with distance, but rising again and again…. Ting, ting, ting, ting, it went on and on, this soft belling of his love, this amorous music of our northern bell-bird.

Seton’s traveling companion, Edward Preble, identified the sound as “the love-song” of the boreal owl.

More likely, misidentified: that description is pretty clearly of the tooting song of a northern pygmy-owl, not of the dripping-water trill of a boreal.  Whether the identification was correct or not, though, Seton’s description of the song, down to the very “ting, ting, ting” of it, has remained influential in the ornithological and, shall we say, other literature.

Screenshot 2015-04-04 16.44.06

And sometimes, as in this excerpt from The Book of North American Owls, some people have put two and two together to leave the rest of us at fives and sixes.

Aegolius funereus owes its species epithet to its dark color. But look what happens when, as above, someone combines Seton’s owl’s tinging with an apparent bewilderment about the name. The “bell-like” song is analyzed as a “tolling,” the term for the slow striking of a deep-voiced bell on occasions of great solemnity. Thus, logically, the bird must be funereus because, well, its voice is funereal.

A not entirely lucky guess leads us to the culprit who first misleadingly put Seton’s song description together with the Linnaean name. Experience teaches that unattributed etymologies are almost always dependent on Choate, who writes of the boreal owl — quoting but not crediting Seton:

 L. funereus, “mournful,” as its call has been likened to the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.”

It turns out that this Linnaeus-Seton mashup has an equally incorrect competitor in the American tradition. Both Terres in the Audubon Encyclopedia and Gruson in his Words for Birds claim that the species epithet refers to the bird’s voice, not, however, because of its tolling peal but to an otherwise unattested scream,

as if wailing the dead.

I was disappointed to find Terres attributing this etymology to Coues, who certainly knew better. Happily, a look at the sources absolves Coues: he does indeed write that the adjective in question is

applicable to an owl, either regarded as a bird of ill omen, or with reference to its dismal cry, as if wailing the dead;

but he is talking here about a different species entirely, not the boreal owl at all.

In both cases — the owl as funeral bell, the owl as keening mourner — a little careful reading would have gone a long ways. Sometimes that appears to be too much to ask, though.

Especially when the modest truth threatens to get in the way of a good story.





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