A Fast and Reckless Driver: The 2019 ABA Bird of the Year

The teenaged hot-roddery of one of Apollo’s most famous sons is commemorated in the generic name Linnaeus assigned to the birds we know as tropicbirds, among them the American Birding Association’s 2019 Bird of the Year, the red-billed tropicbird.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 11313766596_e3ecce0797_z.jpg

Though Linnaeus is credited with the name, these daring aerialists had been known to western science since the early sixteenth century. European sailors may well have encountered them at the end of the fifteenth, and surely the early human settlers of tropical ocean islands knew the birds from the very beginning.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2019-01-01-at-1.05.53-PM-826x1024.png

European naturalists were introduced to the red-billed tropicbird by Fernández de Oviedo, who spent more than a decade in the West Indies; a concise version of his Historia general y natural de las Indias appeared in 1526. Oviedo writes that

“On the voyage to the Indies, certain white birds are seen, the size of a dove or larger. They are great fliers, and have long, very narrow tails; thus they call them ‘strawtails’. They are most often seen halfway or a little more on the journey to these regions.”

On his third trip west, Oviedo and his party saw one halfway between Spain and the Canaries. “All the sailors were greatly surprised and said that they had never seen or heard of one so close to Spain…. They are more often seen starting some 350 leagues off Hispaniola and Guadeloupe.”

Linnaeus never saw a living tropicbird anywhere, of course. But Oviedo’s report and the report of his successors over the next two centuries inspired one of the best names the Archiater ever came up with: Phaethon aethereus, the ethereal driver of the sun.

Share

The Advent Bird

Common loon

Remember all those observant birds forming their pair bonds on January 22? One species, the common loon, performs an even more impressive calendrical feat:

While our birds [in central Europe] have had to adjust to the new calendar only once, and have moved their wedding date each year ahead to a single, immoveable day, the immer birds [common loons] of Norway can distinguish the fourth Sunday of Advent from any other day, and this is the only day when they can be found on land.

As a result, the Norwegians call that Sunday “Immer Sunday” or “Ommer Sunday.” And the German natural historian Philipp Ludwig Statius Müller was so impressed with the story that he named the loon, Colymbus immer, the Advent bird.

Merry Christmas!

Share

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

or

*a Steller’s jay

or

*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.

You?

Greater Pewee December 25, 2006, Anza Trail

Share

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.

Share