“Whitestart”? Just Say No

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Painted redstart, Arizona, August

It matters no more to me than it does to the birds themselves what we call the warblers of the genus Myioborus. Names, after all, don’t signify in the same way as other words. Call these tropical flitters redstarts or whitestarts or falsestarts: each of those names is just as “good” and just as “bad” as the others.

Thus, the AOU check-list committee’s judgment on Proposal 2016-A-2 can go with equal appropriateness either way, retaining the traditional name “redstart” or adopting the neologism “whitestart.” It’s hard to get terribly exercised about onomastic housekeeping like this.

Common Redstart

But what does have my dander just the slightest bit up is the argument presented in the Proposal to make the change. It seems to go like this: the outer rectrices in Myioborus are white, not red; and

“start” of course is the modern English reflex of Middle English stert, Old English steort, tail of an animal.

Ergo, the vernacular name applied to Myioborus, with their flashy white tails, is a “misappropriation” that would “perpetuate ignorance.”

That’s not true at all (“of course”). “Start” hasn’t meant “tail” in English for more than six hundred years; if you don’t believe me, ask any other native speaker. The bird name “redstart” has been etymologically opaque for just as long. In other words, “redstart” doesn’t mean “red-tail” to any English-speaker; it refers, depending on which continent you spend most of your time on, to either a chunky chat or an active wood warbler. 

The Myioborus warblers are nothing if not active (whether they are wood warblers or not is a question for another day). Only naive pedantry can claim that their white tails disqualify them from redstartness. 





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“Never Assume the Obvious”

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Bonaparte's Gulls

real Bonaparte’s gull

One hundred years ago today, Ludlow Griscom was out shooting birds for his graduate alma mater, Cornell University. As Roger Tory Peterson told the story,

Firing into a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls, he shot a bird which he skinned and labeled as an immature Bonaparte’s. Then taking aim at one of the passing Common Terns, he dropped it into the water, retrieved it, and subsequently labeled it an adult Common Tern.

You can guess what followed when

both specimens were re-examined. The supposed Bonaparte’s was actually a Little Gull, the first record for upstate New York; the tern was an Arctic Tern…. May 20, 1916, had been a red-letter day, but Ludlow did not appreciate it at the time.

“Never assume the obvious,” the resolutely unchastened Griscom told his disciples. But Peterson, telling this tale long after Griscom’s death, did just that. It would seem to be obvious that Griscom made up his own skins. Not this time, though.

Look what I found:

Screenshot 2015-08-20 14.20.44

I guess we know what America’s greatest bird painter was doing, too, one hundred years ago today.

Categories : Famous Birders
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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.

sharp-tailed grouse

Ipswich Sparrow

August 5: “Sparrow Tails,” a lecture at the Southwest Wings Birding Festival.

August 6: “A Day with Rick Wright” at the Southwest Wings Birding Festival.

August 7: Bird walk and book signing at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park.

January 9, 2007, Boyce Thompson 024

August 11-14: Museum workshops and field trips at the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival.

August 15-20: Lecture and field trips at the ABA Birding Rally, Sierra Vista.

September 21: “The Very Worst Bird Names Ever, and Why They’re Not So Bad,” a lecture for Bergen County Audubon Society.

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

Berlin Siegessäule

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

March 11-18, 2017: Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes and Prairie Grouse.

March 20, 2017: “Discovering Brown,” a lecture for Washington Crossing Audubon Society.

Gibbon Bridge sunrise sandhill cranes

May 2-10, 2017: Birds and Art in Provence.

May 12-23, 2017: Birds and Art in Tuscany.

European bee-eaters

September 13-20, 2017: The Pine Ridge and Black Hills, a field trip with the Linnaean Society of New York.

Pine Ridge sunrise

September 29 – October 7, 2017: Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg.

common crane

December 19-27, 2017: Christmas in Salzburg.

Hooded Crow and European Red Squirrel

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


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Alice’s Little Thrush

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gray-cheeked thrush

All birding, they say, is local, and there’s nothing like a mid-May visit to the old midwest to prove it. The species I was happiest to see last week in Michigan included the golden-winged warbler, black-billed cuckoo, and Tennessee warbler — none of them exactly rare in New Jersey, either, but it’s a fine feeling to roll out early on a warm morning and know that those and so many other migrants could be almost counted on.

Gray-cheeked thrushes, too, are vastly more common and vastly easier to see west of here, and it was gratifying to get excellent and prolonged views of this secretive bird several times last week.

But it was doubly gratifying to look out the window here at home this morning to see the bird in the photo bouncing around the backyard. It’s hard to get much more local than that.

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Other People’s Bird Books: Bonaparte’s Pigeons

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This one is, simply put, spectacular. The front wrapper of the University of Wisconsin’s copy of the offprint of Charles Bonaparte’s Coup d’œil sur l’ordre des pigeons bears this inscription:

Screenshot 2016-04-05 16.31.56

The black ink is a bit hard to read on the green ground, and it didn’t help that Bonaparte or someone smeared the leaf, but it reads

M. Waterton

Walton Hall near York, from his friend the author — 

care of Mr. Gould.

Bonaparte and Charles Waterton had been on good terms ever since the ships they were traveling on collided in June 1841, an accident that resulted in their reconciliation after some earlier hurt feelings. Gould, of course, is John Gould, the English artist and entrepreneur, a frequent go-between for Bonaparte and his colleagues in Britain.

This little book passed through some pretty famous hands before it somehow made its way to Madison.

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