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Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

Read more about my tour program at the website of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

April 18-25: Birds and Art In Catalonia.

May 11: “Taking Off the Blinders,” a lecture for Biggest Week in American Birding.

August 13: “Museum Birding,” a workshop for Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.

August 14: “Prophets of Woe and Mischance,” a lecture for Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.

October 3: Autumn bird walk at Brookdale Park.

October 7: Autumn bird walk at Brookdale Park.

October 7: Book signing for Brookdale Park Conservancy.

October 8: “Putting Birds Where We Want Them,” a lecture for Real Macaw Parrot Club.

November 9: Lecture for Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club.

March 3, 2016: Lecture for Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

March 19-26: Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes and Prairie Grouse.

April 14-22: Birds and Art In Catalonia.

April 24 – May 2: Birds and Art in Provence.

May 29 – June 4: Birds and Art in Burgundy.

September 30 – October 8: Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg.

October 24 – November 1: Birds and Art in Venice and the Po Delta.


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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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It pleases me beyond belief that one of the most venerable of American bell manufacturers is called — get this — Verdin.


The company is not named for the penduline tit of the deserts, alas, but the coincidence got me thinking about a question that has bothered me for years — for decades, in fact.

What does it mean to say that a bird’s sounds are “bell-like”?

Bearded Bellbird

Compare the hollow clonking of a bearded bellbird

Barrow's Goldeneye

with the shirring trill of a Barrow’s goldeneye‘s wings

Northern Pygmy-Owl

or the mock-ferocious tooting of a northern pygmy-owl.

Or even the staccato ticking of an excited verdin: all those sounds and many more are regularly described as “bell-like.”

They all are, I suppose, but the bells to which they are likened are all different ones. We have only the one word in English, unfortunately, “bell,” to describe the variety of noisemakers those birds’ sounds evoke, from the wooden thonk of the bellbird to the silvery jingle bell whistle of the goldeneye. Some other languages are better off here. Compare the German “Glockenvogel,” for example, for the bellbird with “Schellente” for the seaduck: the first rings like a church bell, the second sussurates in flight like distant sleigh bells.

This I can understand. And if we expand our definition of the bell just a little ways to include the triangle — that musical instrument so beloved of elementary school teachers and put to such good and witty use by Liszt — then it makes sense to me, too, to call the chips of verdins and black-throated sparrows “bell-like.”

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Brookdale Park Walk

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Join Rick Wright, author of The American Birding Association Field Guide to New Jersey Birds, to “Discover the Birds of Brookdale Park.”

The two-hour walk begins in the parking lot between the grandstand and the maintenance building, reached by turning into the park from Bellevue Avenue. We’ll walk approximately one mile on wide, level sidewalks and paths; our pace will be slow and relaxed, with plenty of time to appreciate and learn about the migrant and resident birds we find.

Bring water, a snack, and a notebook and pencil; if you have them, binoculars can be useful, too.

There is no fee for this walk, but donations to the Brookdale Park Conservancy are welcomed and will be put towards improving the park’s bird habitat. Only one walk is being offered this spring and we hope to see you there on Wednesday, April 8, 7-9 am.

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April Calendar Puzzle

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No one who has dallied in the pet section at Woolworth’s will have any difficulty identifying these two creatures: the upper bird is a black-and-white mannikin, its companion a spotted munia. Neither is a sparrow, and only the munia occurs as a wild bird in China.

The mannikin, or at least the population depicted here, nigriceps, was first described by John Cassin on the basis of specimens from the collection of the Duc de Rivoli, purchased for the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1846. The munia had been long known at that point: Linnaeus gave the species its epithet, punctulata, basing his description on that in Edward’s Natural History of Birds of 1743. Edwards’s painting of the bird, which he called the “Gowry Bird … being sold for a small Shell apiece, call’d a Gowry,” in the East Indies, places it in an unusual pose, apparently for compositional rather than behavioral reasons.

Edwards, Spotted Munia 1743

Edwards also tells us that this species was commonly kept in England in “Gentlemen’s Houses”; the one he painted was in the possession of Charles du Bois, treasurer of the East India Company.

More to the point of the monthly puzzle, Edwards reports that Eleazar Albin, too,

figur’d a Bird something like this, and makes it the hen of another Bird he has placed it with; he calls it a Chinese Sparrow….

Edwards correctly doubts that the two birds on Albin’s plate are conspecific — but that matters less to us than the fact that that image, first published in the 1730s, is clearly behind, at whatever remove, the calendar plate that started all this.

Albin, Chinese sparrows

Albin drew his birds

at Mr. Bland’s at the Tiger on Tower-Hill… they were brought from China in East-India by the Name of Chinese Sparrows.

We’re still left to wonder who pirated the plate and added all those eggs. Maybe next month.

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