Divers; Or Why I Don’t Get Invited to More Cocktail Parties

Hooded Merganser and Red-breasted Merganser

The scientific names of the saw-billed ducks lead in all sorts of interesting directions. Take the Hooded Merganser, possibly the loveliest of a very lovely group of birds; its current genus name, Lophodytes, is as pleasant to say as it is meaningful.

“Lophos” is from the Greek word for crest, and “dytes” means “digger, diver.” So our cute little hoodie is a crested diver, a point only reinforced by the specific epithet cucullatus, meaning, well, hooded, or cowled.

There are somewhere between many and gazillions of birds with loph- in their name somewhere, and cucullatus/a/um is nearly as frequent. The “dytes” part is more interesting. Two penguin species–the consummate divers–share the genus Aptenodytes, meaning “wingless diver,” and the name “troglodytes,” familiar even to many non-birders as the genus name of the mouse-like wrens, has also been applied to species and subspecies of nightjars, swifts, waxbills, and cisticolas, each of which typically (and sometimes maddeningly) disappears from the birder’s view by diving into the darkness.

The other bird in the photo above is a drake Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator. “Serrator” is easy enough to figure out: like the English word “serrated,” it has to do with “serra” or “secra,” a toothed saw, in reference to the pointed projections on mergansers’ bills, which help them hold on their slippery prey. Oddly enough, “serrator” is rumored to also be an obsolete English name for the Ivory Gull–I don’t believe it, or even understand it, but such are the things one can run across on the internet.

Mergus, the genus to which all other mergansers but the Smew are assigned (and that’s simply Mergellus, a little teeny tiny Mergus) is a bit more mysterious. The word is obviously related to the Latin  “mergo,” “I dive,” on the same impulse as “dytes” (and the old genus name for the loons, Urinator).

But it is only recently that the noun “mergus” has been restricted in meaning to the mergansers. In Antiquity, the word referred to a number of ill-defined, perhaps unidentifiable waterbirds; Arnott notes that Pliny used “mergus” to translate Aristotle’s Aithyia, which is used nowadays (in a slightly different spelling) as the genus name for the pochards. To heap confusion onto mix-up, Arnott concludes (quite cogently) that Pliny and a few later Latin writers used “mergus” to denote the Great Cormorant, while in many other cases the name means simply “diving piscivore,” perhaps including Great Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls.

The name “merganser” (which doubles as the specific epithet of the Common Merganser or Goosander) is easily analyzed as a combination of Latin “mergus” and “anser,” meaning goose; it apparently first appeared in the neo-Latin of Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium.

Gesner’s cut is plainly of a Common Merganser, but in its earliest English usage, the word “merganser” was explicitly restricted to the Red-breasted Merganser. Sir Thomas Browne wrote in 1668 that the “gossander… is a large well colored and marked diving fowle most answering [closely corresponding to] the Merganser.” It seems to have taken nearly two centuries for the name to be applied more generally to all the saw-bills–first, apparently, by MacGillivray in his History of British Birds. Charmingly and sensibly and perhaps slyly, MacGillivray suggested that the larger species be called “merganser” and the smaller “merganas,” “diving duck.”

The species names of most of the remaining Mergus mergansers are fairly straightforward. The extinct Auckland Merganser went by the name australis, “southern,” a reference to its range. Miocene miscellus, described from a Virginia specimen, shows a mixture–a miscellany, as it were–of primitive and derived characters, while the European Mergus connectens, a Pleistocene species, “links” other species. The Chinese, or Scaly-sided Merganser is named simply squamatus, “scaly.”

The critically endangered Brazilian Merganser has the most descriptive name of all its relatives. Mergus octosetaceus was named by Vieillot in 1817; the French name he gives it, harle à huit brins, reveals the meaning of the scientific epithet: this species, writes Vieillot, has a crest comprising eight narrow vaneless feathers.

Great name, that one; but eight years later, Vieillot, having discovered that the crest in other specimens was made of more than eight feathers, changed both the vernacular and the scientific name, this time giving it the equally logical but inestimably more colorless name brasilianus.

The change created a confusion that persisted for nearly a century, with various authorities going back and forth over the years between some form (often enough mangled) of octosetaceus and brasilianus/brasiliensis. In 1850, Pucheran proposed a new, or rather an old, epithet, lophotes, which he had discovered on the label prepared by Cuvier and attached to Vieillot’s type specimen in Paris; Pucheran also took the opportunity to propose for the first time the synonymization of Latham’s Mergus fuscus. But Pucheran’s new name was pushing the idea of priority too far, and Vieillot’s (inaccurate!) octosetaceus has prevailed.

Pucheran’s–or Cuvier’s–specific name for this rare bird takes us back to the beginning: “lophotes” means simply “crested,” from the same word that gave us Lophodytes. Next time you’re standing around balancing a drink and a horse doover, try some of this stuff out on the other guests: you may never have to worry about being asked out again.

By the way, who doesn’t love the Biodiversity Heritage Library? It’s impossible not to while away an entire day following even the most whimsical thread.


Hoover’s Warbler

The Yellow-rumped Warbler deluge shows no sign of receding, and Jericho Park is pretty much crawling with chipping, singing, flycatching Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers again today.

It’s important–well, I think it’s important–to remember that both Audubon’s and Myrtle are polytypic; thus, it’s incorrect to speak of “the Audubon’s subspecies” or “the Myrtle subspecies” of Yellow-rumped Warbler, unless, of course, you’re using the word in the plural. The Myrtle Warblers we see here in Vancouver, the breeding race of northern British Columbia, are Dendroica coronata hooveri, differing in measurements and in some plumage characters from their eastern, nominate-race cousins.

This subspecies was described in 1899 by Richard C. McGregor, an adoptive Californian who would later become famous as the doyen of Philippine ornithology. He named his subsp. nov. after his college friend Theodore J. Hoover, collector of the type specimen and the older brother of Herbert.

In preparing his original description, McGregor also used specimens taken by Henry Ward Carriger, an early California oologist. I don’t know much about Carriger–fill me in if you do–but I was greatly impressed to read that as early as 1898, he had recognized the differences in the call notes of Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers, a distinction that even today not all birders are aware of.

The Californians were out in front even then.


Golden Crowns and Black Tresses

Names are really just extreme words. And if the link between “ordinary” words and things is arbitrary, then that between names and the denoted can be downright capricious. Bird names are no exception, as generations of the literal-minded have moaned.

But a few birds enjoy names that are, wonder of wonders, straightforwardly descriptive.

Golden-crowned Sparrow? I’ll buy that. Hard to imagine what else you might call this bird with its, well, golden crown.

Unless, that it is, you happened to be Johann Friedrich Gmelin, who gave the species its scientific name in 1789. Gmelin was working from a not very good painting by John Latham, who labeled the bird “Black-crowned Bunting,” notwithstanding his description and depiction of the “fine yellow” of the crown.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Gmelin followed Latham’s slightly misleading lead in assigning the species the epithet atricapilla, meaning “black hair.”

That too makes sense from some views, I suppose, though I can’t help wondering why Latham and then Gmelin would have zeroed in on those midnight locks rather than the aureate crown. No accounting for taste!


The Eagle Goose

Snow Geese are taken pretty much for granted across most of the continent nowadays, but the dark morph of Lesser Snow Goose remains a Midwestern specialty.

It’s only relatively recently that these handsome white-headed birds were recognized as conspecific with their snowy brethren; my first field guide still listed them as a separate species (which betrays not my age so much as the vintage of my first bird book).

The “lump” came in 1973, and with it one of those delightful onomastic mixups that bird taxonomy is so prone too. Priority required that the scientific name of the newly enlarged species be Chen caerulescens. Thus, all Snow Geese, including those populations that do not have a dark morph, now bear the name originally assigned the dusky birds, a name that means, well, “blue goose.”

It would be no more nonsensical, and even more amusing, had we adopted another of the old common names of the dark morph, “Eagle Goose,” which describes the adult’s bright white head. Maybe I’ll propose it to the AOU….


The Fifty-first Supplement to The AOU Check-list

It’s that season, and the new Supplement to the AOU Check-list (still so quaintly spelled a century and a quarter after the first edition!) appeared at BioOne yesterday.

The news of a few species “splits” affecting birders in the US and Canada was not unexpected–the only thing surprising, and perhaps a little disappointing to a resolute non-scientist, was that there weren’t more. In any event, we now officially have two whip-poor-wills, Mexican Whip-poor-will and Eastern Whip-poor-will, and the old “winter” wren is now recognized as three species, two of which–Pacific Wren and the remarkably poorly named Winter Wren sensu novo strictoque–occur in North America. “Our” black scoter is split from the Old World species and renamed Melanitta americana, vindicating good old Swainson a hundred seventy-five years after he described it; its English name is apparently uncertain at the moment, though the copy of the Supplement I printed out today calls it, logically and straightforwardly, “American Scoter.”

While species determinations speak only to identity, genera are all about relationships, and this Supplement is full of new views about what belongs with what. Canyon, California, and Abert’s Towhees are moved over to Melozone, which they’ll be sharing with the tropical ground-sparrows; only the three rufous-sided and Green-tailed Towhees remain in the cheerful-sounding genus Pipilo.

There are some significant innovations in the warblers, too, both Old World and New. Here in North America, Vermivora is greatly diminished, now including, if I count right, only Blue-winged, Golden-winged, and the ghost of Bachman’s Warblers. The handsome old genus Oreothlypis is resurrected to contain all the other erstwhile vermies and two tropical “parulas,” Flame-throated and Crescent-chested Warblers; visually and intuitively, those latter two have always been thought of as intermediate between the parulas and the old-style Vermivora, so it’s nice to see them sharing a taxonomic drawer. I just wish that we could change their English names, too, to echo the genus name: wouldn’t it be nice to go out and see some Orange-crowned Mountain-Chats? And just imagine what high school football teams in Tennessee could do with it.

Another pair of warblers, the waterthrushes, have now got their own genus, Parkesia, bearing the name of one of the last century’s greatest museum men and warbler experts. Ovenbird stays behind to brandish its tail in Seiurus, no doubt to the posthumous frustration of Eliot Coues, who argued long and hard that it should by rights have been spelled Siurus.

I tremble to report it, but it’s official now: Aimophila, that wonderful ragbag genus of wonderful ragbag sparrows, has been dismantled. Here in Arizona, only Rufous-crowned Sparrow is still an Aimophila, our others moved into the revived genus Peucaea. Five-striped Sparrow, always an uncomfortable nomenclatural fit, has gone back to Amphispiza, joining once again the visually similar Sage and Black-throated Sparrows. (No action on the possible split of Sage into Interior Sage and Bell’s Sage Sparrows.)

These changes, of course, I take personal: my favorite bird in the world, Rufous-winged Sparrow, can no longer serve as the eponym for this b-log or my drowsy little guide service. What shall I do? Kenn suggested renaming it “Peucaea Perambulations,” but I think maybe I’ll just let people think that I can’t identify Rufous-crowned Sparrow and leave it at that.

The revisions don’t stop at the level of genus, either. There are eleven new families recognized, including the re-elevation of Osprey and the gnatcatchers to family status; the longspurs and white buntings also get their own family, Calcariidae (and McCown’s Longspur goes its own way generically once again).

The Old World “warblers,” a miscellaneous bunch if ever there was one,  are broken into many families: Cettiidae includes the bush warblers, Phylloscopidae the leaf warblers, Sylviidae the round-headed chattering warblers (now including Wrentit), and Acrocephalidae the reed warblers. Those new Eurasian families are followed in sequence by an American one, Donacobiidae: hurray for Donacobius, sometimes a wren, sometimes a thrasher, now confident enough to simply be itself.

Most far-reaching of all is the re-organization of a couple of non-passerine orders. Sunbittern and Kagu, two of the most extravagantly plumed birds anywhere, now get their own order, Eurypygiformes; I doubt that this particular innovation will last–higher categories generally want to be more densely populated–but that’s the solution of the moment. The falcons and the other diurnal raptors are split into two orders, falcons and caracaras keeping hold of the old Falconiformes and the rest inserted into a new Accipitriformes.

And then there are the storks and pelicans. Ciconiiformes relinquishes everything but the storks themselves; the herons and ibises are now part of the order Pelecaniformes, where they sit alongside the pelicans and form the suborders Ardeae (herons and  bitterns) and Threskiornithes (ibises and spoonbills).

The committee giveth and the committee taketh away, and the old totipalmate swimmers are now split up into three orders: the pelicans and herons (that phrase will take some getting used to!), the Phaethontiformes (tropicbirds), and the Suliformes (frigatebirds, boobies, and cormorants). When I was a boy, back before they’d invented DNA and chemistry and all that, we learned that orders were defined by foot characters: we’ve come a long ways!

And changes will continue. The committee rejected proposals to split the scrub-jays and the curve-billed thrashers, but watch the “pending” section of the committee’s web page for new proposals–and look forward to next July when the next Supplement will be published.