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.


The Stork and the Hippopotamus

This bizarre pictura, part of an emblem from Hadrian Junius’s 1565 Emblemata, is made hardly more comprehensible by the texts that claim to explicate it.

The inscript is straightforward enough, “Faithlessness must be overcome and rooted out.” But what does that have to do with the creatures in the picture? And what are these beasts, anyway?

In his poetic subscript, Junius fills us in — just a bit.

The bird, enemy of serpents, perches atop a scepter,

Which pushes down on the back of the horse of the Nile.

It conquers the haughty and stamps out the faithless,

This scepter of justice, and it destroys the wicked.

The “enemy of serpents” is, its crane-like raised foot notwithstanding, the white stork, and the horse of the Nile, of course, is the hippopotamus, which Junius’s engraver seems to have imagined as something like a perissodactyl bear. The moral signification of these animals and their awkward pose is explained only somewhat less allusively in the prose explication that follows:

The faithlessness of the hippoppotamus is so unbounded … that it will not even spare the life of the father that gave it birth…. But the stork is most certainly the death of snakes … the scepter is the sign of kings …. And it is indicated by this emblem that faithlessness (the foundation of all vices, which contains in itself all sins and crimes) must be suppressed and punished by the sword of retribution and removed from all things, just as storks do to the race of serpents.

All very obscure. Fortunately, though, we know where to look when the early modern creators of emblems reach to Egypt for their inspiration.

The study — “study” — of hieroglyphics before Champollion and Young was dominated by fanciful works, inspired by the apparent forgery attributed to a certain Horapollo, in which members of the humanist elite vied with one another to see who could pile up the most learned lore in explanation of a given symbol. This led inevitably to the creation of hieroglyphic encyclopedias, great sources for the emblematizers and even greater resources for us as we seek to understand just what they were on about half a millennium ago.

One of the most useful is Piero Valerianus’s Hieroglyphica, first published in 1556. Looking under the chapter headings “Stork” and “Hippopotamus” tells us everything we need to know, with an extremely strange illustration as a bonus.

Valerianus begins his interpretation by observing that coins from the reign of Hadrian show a stork with the inscription “pietas augusta,” “the highest faithfulness.” Those words

meant that the noble man should be faithful to his parents … and never desert them, caring for them in their old age…. Storks do not let their parents wander here and there in search of food but bring them what they have, so that the old birds, which bore them and raised them, can stay in the nest and feed from the young birds’ labor…. And the ancient Law of the Stork, commemorating the name of these birds, requires that elderly parents be supported, as we have said.

The Roman lex ciconaria was a frequent subject of sermons on the fifth commandment, as Valerianus points out at length.

And the hippo?

Egyptian priests were quite right to depict a hippopotamus when they meant to indicate that someone was faithless, unjust, and ungrateful….  As soon as the hippopotamus begins to mature, it grows hostile to its father and tries to see whether it can defeat its father in a fight, often challenging it: if it happens that the younger animal comes out the victor, it seeks to copulate with its mother … but if it is defeated by its father or otherwise prevented from accomplishing its criminal desire, its depravity persists for so long that once it is mature, and stronger and more powerful, it attacks its father, now weakened by age, and tears him to pieces.

Valerianus explains his illustration as a reminder to always put faithfulness above ingratitude:

The Egyptians made the scepters of their kings with the image of a stork at the top and the hooves of a hippopotamus at the bottom, desiring to remind us that faithfulness was to be embraced, highly valued, and readily undertaken, but faithlessness, as represented by the hieroglyph of the hippopotamus, was to be done away with entirely.

All makes sense now, doesn’t it?