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


Bohemian Chatterers

Bohemian waxwing

I read on twitter the other day that the Bohemian waxwing takes its English name from the species’ “Bohemian” habits — not living in garrets and painting derivative kitsch with gelid little hands, of course, but rather wandering restless from place to place, never truly at home, always eyeing the next mountain ash or crabapple.

I happily recognize in twitter the fons totius veritatis, and yet… and yet.

It is so easy to look these things up.

The OED tells us with shocking exactitude that “Bohemian” in the sense of a “vagabond, adventurer, person of irregular life or habits” was introduced into our language by Thackeray in Vanity Fair, published in 1848. And it informs us, too, that the bird name “Bohemian waxwing” antedates Becky Sharp and her gang by at least seven years — and in its older form “Bohemian chatterer” is found as early as 1772.

“Bohemian,” disappointingly, really means nothing more romantic than “from Bohemia,” the speculative breeding range assigned this species by virtually all pre-Linnaean ornithologists. Indeed, one of the vernacular names listed by Conrad Gesner in 1555 is “Behemle,” the “little Bohemian,” and Aldrovandi notes that though every winter it seems to fly into neighboring regions, even on occasion to Italy, “the waxwing is otherwise unique to Bohemia.”

In England, Frances Willughby and John Ray accepted the range statements given by their continental colleagues, noting — Willughby in English, Ray in Latin — that the bird is “said to be peculiar to Bohemia.”

The name stuck, even after we learned that these waxwings breed far from Bohemia. It has nothing to do with the bird’s behavior, and everything to do with a stage in the history of ornithology when we were still trying to figure out just where these winter nomads came from.


A Whooping Crane in London

One hundred fifty years ago today, the menagerie of the Zoological Society of London received its first whooping crane, an immature bird purchased from the Antwerp zoo.


I’m happy to admit that I hadn’t known there were any, ever, in European collections, though a bit of google “research” discovers this useful chart:

Note, though, that the Antwerp Zoo goes unmentioned, and that the birds (a second was soon added) held by the Zoological Society of London are listed here with no details — it seems as if another look using the new “full text” search option at the Biodiversity Heritage Library might well produce more records and deeper details.

Have at it!


It’s a Date

rosy-faced Lovebird

It’s annoying enough to set the clocks back and “lose” that hour of evening sunshine — but it’s downright disruptive when you also have to nudge the dog’s schedule at each end of the day so that he neither fears starvation in the morning nor expects undeserved seconds in the evening.

The brute beasts just don’t get it.

With an important exception, that is. In 1590, eight years after the promulgation of the new Gregorian calendar, the Austrian polymath Johann Rasch observed that

they say as a general rule that the birds marry every year on St. Vincent’s Day…. When last year and in the years before that certain people carefully monitored the birds, they found that they gathered into pairs and perched together on St. Vincent’s Day according to the new calendar, not according to the old one.

How did they do it? According to Rasch, these were

Catholic birds, so much more intelligent than so many coarse and stupid humans! They pair up on the day assigned by the Church and thus honor the new calendar.

Maybe Gellert should convert.



A Is For Ibis

“The ibis — the first letter invented by Mercury.”

Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit polymath best known today for his early efforts to transcribe bird song on the musical staff, explains why the Egyptians called the first letter of their alphabet “Ibis“: After the first king of Egypt, Osiris, had seen the land drained for cultivation,

a huge number of serpents was hatched out of the putrifying mud, and every day many people died from their bites…. Great Osiris sent a number of ibis into those areas, which ate the serpents and in short order made the area free of danger. Afterward it was remarked that the ibis, which had multiplied, made with their spread legs and bill … a shape not unlike that of the Latin A, which they called Ibin and was placed by Mercurius [the inventor of the Egyptian writing system] as the first of the list of sacred characters.

Kircher cites no less an authority than Plutarch for this story, which was widespread elsewhere in the fanciful Egyptological literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As it turns out, François Gaudard tells us that the Egyptians did in fact assign each letter of their alphabet the name of a bird, obviously for mnemonic purposes. Alongside the ibis, they had letters named for herons, doves, geese, hens, swans, quails, kites, sparrows, and (they have wings and fly) mosquitoes.

Even more charming, Gaudard reports on a papyrus of the fourth or third century BC in which neophyte readers and writers were coached in the demotic alphabet using a paired list of bird and plant names, each beginning with the same letter:

The Ibis [hb] perched upon the ebony tree [hbyn]

and so on.

Somebody needs to write a children’s book.