Archive for Birdwords
This was the sight that greeted me yesterday noon as I pulled in to DeKorte Park in the Meadowlands. Rough-legged Hawks aren’t exactly rare here in northern New Jersey, but these tiny-billed visitors from the Arctic are always exciting — and I think I’ve seen more Snowy Owls this winter in the state than members of this species.
Whenever you pause to admire a rough-leg, of course, you also have to smile at the bird’s scientific name, Buteo lagopus, the “bunny-footed buzzard.” Erik Pontoppidan, the original Great Dane himself, named the bird 250 years ago, following in the tradition of Linnaeus’s name for the ptarmigans and anticipating Pallas’s for the Common House-Martin. Though the Danske atlas is not available on line (tsk tsk), I assume that all three scientists were thinking of the birds’ feathered tarsi, which recall, to the eye and to the touch, the furry hind limbs of a hare.
It all makes very good sense. But why do we English-speakers call this bird Rough-legged rather than “fuzzy-footed”? Are rabbits’ feet really that abrasive?
It turns out that I just don’t know the word “rough” very well. Our friends at the OED remind me that in special application to animal integument, the word has — like its German cognate “rauh” — long had the sense of “thick” or “bushy” or “fluffy,” without necessarily connoting any sort of harshness. Animals — birds, horses, dogs, even bats and turtles — are “rough-legged” or “rough-footed” simply by virtue of having feathers or fur or conspicuously keeled scales on the extremities. “Rough-legged,” in other words, means “fuzzy-footed,” or even “soft-footed.”
Now don’t tell that to a vole or mouse, of course.
As a young birder, just after the days of Hesperornis, I was puzzled by the claim in all the books that the Song Sparrow was abundant, familiar, ubiquitous. Though the species has greatly increased in eastern Nebraska over the decades since, back then it was an uncommonish bird, and it took me a couple of seasons before I felt that I had something like a handle on it.
Fast forward to our years in southeast Arizona. There, we quickly found, the local Song Sparrows looked nothing like what I had learned as a boy and grown so familiar with in Massachusetts and New Jersey and Illinois. Indeed, these birds of damp desert thickets and ponds are so different from what the historical eastern bias of American birding has styled “the typical” that many first-time visitors to the Southwest refuse at first to believe that they are Song Sparrows at all.
When Spencer Baird saw the first specimens of this new form in 1854, he found it distinctive enough to merit description as a new species. Compared with the “normal” Song Sparrow,
the bill is considerably smaller and the tail longer. The plumage above is more ashy, the streaks on the back not so distinct, the spots are more crowded about the breast, but fewer on the sides; their color more uniformly chestnut brown.
All that said, though,
this species bears a very close resemblance to Z. melodia,
and so Baird gave it the name Zonotrichia fallax, the “deceptive sparrow.”
Four years later, in the great report of the Pacific Railroad Explorations, Baird wondered whether he might not have been the one deceived:
Although this species is very similar to the M. melodia, yet, when specimesn are compared with an extensive series, of the last mentioned species, an impression of difference will at once be conveyed…. I do not, however, feel sure that this species will stand as perfectly satisfactory… At any rate, I consider it as less strongly established than any of the others before me.
By 1874, Baird and the distinguished co-authors of the History of North American Birds had rethought the whole thing. Their deliberations largely anticipate the notion of the Rassenkreis, a concept that would be explicitly applied to the Song Sparrows by Patten and Pruett 135 years later. Writes Baird in 1874,
Spread over the whole of North America, and familiar to every one, we find each region to possess a special from [of Song Sparrow] (to which a specific name has been given, and yet these passing into each other by such insensible gradations as to render it quite impossible to define them as species. Between M. melodia of the Atlantic States and M. insignis of Kodiak the difference seems wide; but the connecting links in the intermediate regions bridge this over so completely that, with a series of hundreds of specimens before us, we abandon the attempt at specific separation, and unite into one no less than eight species previously recognized.
Baird’s old fallax was one of those eight, listed in the History as Melospiza melodia var. fallax.
Unfortunately, however, Baird extended his name fallax to comprise two very different birds, the pale, reddish, sparsely marked Song Sparrows of the southwestern deserts and the darker, more richly colored birds of the Great Basin and adjoining Rocky Mountains. Henry Henshaw corrected that error in the very first volume of the Auk, restricting the name fallax to
the older though least known form … inhabiting our southern border — Arizona and New Mexico.
The more northerly birds received their own, new name, montana.
The AOU Check-list, back in those happy days when it provided a full accounting of each species’ recognized subspecies, called fallax in its strict sense the Desert Song Sparrow, from 1886 up to the Fourth Edition of 1931, when the fallacious one pulled another of its tricks.
Following Oberholser in rejecting Henshaw’s identification of Baird’s type specimen, the committee responsible for this, the weakest edition of the Check-list voided the name montana and re-allocated fallax to the northerly populations covered by Baird’s early description, using Grinnell’s name saltonis for the southern birds. As a result, fallax was called in English the “Mountain” Song Sparrow, and the English name “Desert” was shifted to saltonis, generating a quarter century’s worth of confusion that must have had our trickster sparrow laughing its pale rusty head off.
Not even the sneakiest sparrow was a match for Allan Phillips, though. Phillips, writing midway between the publication of the Fourth and the Fifth editions of the Check-list, re-asserted the validity and the identity of Henshaw’s montana, once again calling it in English the Mountain Song Sparrow, and effectively splitting the pale southern birds into three races – fallax (northern Arizona), saltonis (southwestern Arizona and California), and his new bendirei (central and southern Arizona and Sonora).
More recent authorities tend to synonymize all three of those Phillipsian races under fallax in Henshaw’s sense, leaving us with just one Desert Song Sparrow, a tricky little bird that no doubt still relishes the almost endless confusion it has caused over the years.
Ho hum, thinks the birder from eastern North America: just another Northern Cardinal.
But as our Linnaean Society field trip to Phoenix this past week reminded us, a close look at that bird in the southwestern US and northern Mexico reveals a bird a little less contemptibly familiar than we might expect.
The red cardinals of Arizona are startling and striking, big and long-tailed and long-crested. The species’ best-known field mark, the black mask surrounding the bill, is noticeably reduced compared to the same patch in eastern birds, often not quite meeting across the forehead, making that brilliant red helmet stand even taller.
It’s no wonder that Robert Ridgway found these birds “easily distinguishable.” In 1885, he described a series of specimens from Arizona as belonging to a new subspecies, which he named Cardinalis cardinalis superbus.
In the 70 years after Ridgway’s description of the bird, this distinctive race — one of sixteen most authorities still recognize across the Northern Cardinal’s extensive range in North and Middle America — went by the sensible and straightforward English name of the Arizona Cardinal, a name lost, like so many others, when the 1957 edition of the AOU Check-list created standardized vernacular names for North America’s birds at the species level.
More and more, I think, American birders are returning to the English subspecies names propounded in earlier editions of the Check-list. In this case, though, there’s an alternative better even than “Arizona Cardinal.”
Though Ridgway provided no etymology when he named his new cardinal, it seems likely that he understood superbus to mean simply “superb, outstanding, excellent.” But in real Latin, as opposed to scientifiquese, the word is much richer. From the vaunting ambition of Turnus in the Aeneid to the traditional mortal sins of the medieval church, “superbus” and “superbia” referred to one’s own hubristic estimation of oneself as superb or outstanding or excellent.
Doesn’t this bird look superbus? We could do worse than to call these Arizona birds Prideful Cardinals, glowing as they do in the certainty of their own superbness.
We didn’t watch or listen to or — heaven help us — attend any football games yesterday. No surprise there, but it seems that we did miss out on one of the most inspired bird misidentifications of the year.
I’m told that the mascot of one of the teams involved is the “Seahawk,” a bird I’d always assumed was the Osprey. But apparently the television graphics showed not that familiar fish-eating kite but an entirely different bird, an Augur Buzzard from Africa.
And that got me thinking. Somewhere in the back of my mind lingered the notion that this species had its name from some association, real or fancied, with the Roman practice of augury. But as so often, a moment’s reflection puts paid to that easy connection: why would the ancient auspices have looked so far afield?
In his original description of the species he named Falco (Buteo) Augur, Eduard Rüppell explains:
The principal food of this hawk is small birds and mice; it pursues the latter especially when the animals are chased out of their hiding places by the burning of dry grass or the noise of a large troop of people passing by, such that these birds often sail ahead of armies or merchant caravans. That may well be the reason that the Abyssinians credit this bird with a special gift for prognostication….
Years earlier, Henry Salt — not an ornithologist — appears to have witnessed the same behavior, but he told a slightly more complicated story of the locals’ “singular superstition respecting this bird”:
When they set out on a journey and meet with one of them, they watch it very carefully, and draw good or bad omens from its motions. If it sit still, with its breast towards them until they have passed, it is a peculiarly good sign, and every thing is expected to go on well during the course of the journey. If its back be turned towards them, it is considered an unpropitious sign, but not sufficiently so, as to create alarm. But if it should fly away hastily on their approach, some of the most superstitious among them will immediately return back to their homes.
I don’t know who won yesterday. But if I’d had the sense to watch the seahawk before the game, I bet I could have told you before it even started.
Howard Saunders was a big name indeed in British ornithology in the late nineteenth century. Co-editor of the Ibis, editorial executor of the last two volumes of Yarrell, and the author of any number of still useful papers, Saunders was a particular expert on the larids, one especially lovely species of which still bears his name.
In the late 1870s and early ’80s, Saunders was a member of the BOU group charged with assembling an official list of British birds “in accordance with the most approved principles of modern nomenclature.”
His own copy of the list, which was published in 1883, now resides in the library of the University of California at Davis, and the annotations reveal a man not always satisfied with the results of committee work.
Among Saunders’s co-authors, Henry T. Wharton, responsible for, among other things, the book’s etymologies, comes in for some particularly withering criticism.
Saunders honestly (and often rightly) disagrees with some of the derivations offered here, but he seems to have had a more fundamental objection to the whole enterprise, writing at one point, when Wharton has gone on a bit too long,
Is this a Latin Dictionary?
At times, Saunders reproaches Wharton for being too tentative. Where Wharton derives the epithet curruca “perhaps” from curro, “I run,” Saunders writes in bold pencil that
Curruca was the derisive title of the lover of the adultress — he had to “cut and run,”
an amusing and helpful reminder of the relationships, etymological and ornithological, between Lesser Whitethroats and Common Cuckoos and common cuckolds.
Neither does Saunders have much faith in his colleague as a bibliographer. Along with correcting simple transcription and spelling errors in the citations, he calls Wharton’s attribution of the genus name Linota to Bonaparte
Nonsense: it was used by Gmelin in 1788.
Dudgeon rises even higher when his fellow committeeman misreads or overlooks something in Saunders’s own work. The account of the Stock Dove avers that that species “does not occur in Scotland or Ireland,” a claim Saunders underlines and furnishes with an editorial exclamation point before adding at the bottom of the page,
Certainly it does, in both; as Saunders tells you, Mr. Wharton!,
a reference to the citation — “Saunders, iii. p. 8″ — in the account’s bibliographic header.
And then, inevitably, there are those cases where one of Saunders’s own contributions to the list was altered before publication. The published account for the Bonaparte’s Gull says that
this transatlantic species is said to have occurred in Ireland, and near Falmouth, Cornwall.
Saunders’s pencil underscores the verbs, then adds
Not my writing — I said it had occurred, for I had seen examples, but some people rush in etc.
He crosses out vigorously the statement of the range of the Ross’s Gull, writing in its place
“A circumpolar species,” I wrote, because I knew, but some sapiento-ignoramus must needs alter it.
In a note following the Glossy Ibis account – badly truncated by the binder’s knife and the scanner’s edge — Saunders explains what had happened:
I left for the winter, Dec’r 1882, at this point, and all the rest was rushed before my return in Mar [?] 1883.
I don’t especially have the feeling that Saunders would mind our reading these comments, nearly a century and a half later. But I’m going to be very careful about where my own books and their annotations end up, that’s for sure.