The Osprey’s Secret

The FISH HAWK … receives his name from his food, which is generally fish; it skims over the lakes and rivers, and sometimes seems to lie expanded on the water, as he hovers so close to it, and having by some attractive power drawn the fish within its reach, darts suddenly upon them. The charm it makes use of is supposed to be an oil contained in a small bag in the body, and which nature has by some means or other supplied him with the power of using for this purpose; it is however very certain that any bait touched with a drop of the oil collected from this bird is an irresistible lure for all sorts of fish, and insures the angler great success.

– Jonathan Carver, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America


Patronymic Naming, ca. 1807

It is safe to say that never in the history of systematic ornithology has there been so much talk about English names as now. And rightly so: the stakes are higher and our responsibilities graver today than ever before. Words matter, names matter, and there should be nothing easier in the difficult matter of inclusivity than simply changing a few—restoring some, creating others—to make more of us feel more welcome in the field. 

This is not, however, the first time that the process of assigning vernacular names to the birds of North America has been the subject of serious discussion. Conducting field work in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in the 1790s, the French ornithologist Louis Pierre Vieillot found himself forced to name, and in a number of cases rename, many of the birds he encountered. A decade before Wilson and a quarter of a century before Audubon, Vieillot set out to prepare a handbook to all the continent’s birds; two volumes were published, the remaining two extant only in fair copy. 

It is in the Avertissement to his first volume, dated 1807, that Vieillot addresses the matter of naming. The text includes English names where they are available, transcribing them more or less phonetically. But Vieillot found himself obliged to change, or to create, vernacular French names for many species that were still unknown to European scientists or that had been coined with an inadequte knowledge of the birds’ habits and appearance. His comments clearly attest to the care he devoted to the task.

I am aware that changing names is greatly disadvantageous to the study of natural history; but that cannot apply to the names given to birds that have been incorrectly classified…. As to the names borne by foreign birds in their home country, that is to say, the names imposed on them by the human natives of the place, one should adopt them in preference to the designations, so variable, that have been fabricated for them in Europe: for the native names almost always reflect the bird’s song or the call, a behavior or a characteristic food. These local names being primitive, they must never vary, regardless of the language one is using them in; and since they are more meaningful than arbitrary names, the concept affixes itself with greater clarity to the object perceived.

Vieillot’s reluctance to change the received European book name of a bird is based not just in his respect for nomenclatural stability, but in a faith in the authenticity of “primitive” names, which he seems to consider not only original but essential, linked realiter to the species in ways discernible only in the living animal.   

On the same basis, Vieillot also rejected the folk names assigned American birds by European colonists and their descendants.

I shall also disregard the names that the European inhabitants of America have given the birds, since those names are not expressive [as are the “primitive” names of the native peoples]. That happens because they are hardly at all concerned with the study of nature.

It is knowledge that makes a name authentic, and Europeans in America, seeking only material advantage, refuse to learn anything about any natural object that is not immediately useful.

If by chance a tree, a plant, a bird, an insect does catch their eye, their first thought is to compare it with a European counterpart. As soon as they discover an overall or even a partial similarity, without considering details, they give it the same name as the European object.

This, Vieillot points out, is why America, too, has its orioles, its blackbirds, its goldfinches, its nightingales, and its ortolans. In the United States and British Canada, “any bird in which yellow predominates” is a “yellow-bird,” those that are chiefly blue are called “blue-bird,” and the name of “snow-bird is given indiscriminately to every bird that appears only in winter.” 

lapland longspur

Another group of book names is rejected with equal vehemence. Vieillot is at particular pains, he says, to avoid names that invoke a bird’s geographic origins to distinguish it from other species. He agrees with Montbeillard, writing a generation earlier in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, that such names are necessarily less authentic than those invoking the characters inherent in the living animal; furthermore, a species may have a range much wider than the single country it is named for, and it is not infrequent that a specimen received from one place in fact originated in another. Vieillot takes as one example the yellow-green grosbeak, named by Linnaeus canadensis for its supposed home:

But no traveler has found it there, and might it not instead have been brought from Cayenne or South America, and then shipped from French Canada to Europe?

This case is notorious even today, and Vieillot was right; Linnaeus had simply misread his source’s name cayenensis as canadensis and assigned that name to a bird whose genuine range comes no closer to Canada than Panama.  

One category of names—the category most contentious today—goes entirely unmentioned by Vieillot. Patronyms, based on the name of a person (the eponym) more or, often, less somehow connected to the organism named, simply do not feature in his discussions here. Patronymic naming in the vernacular was not entirely unknown to Vieillot and his contemporaries: George Edwards had named the Pompadour cotinga in 1764, and the well-known orange-throated warbler was graced with Anna Blackburn’s surname as early as 1785. As those examples suggest, however, and as a cursory review of the early European names for American birds appears to tentatively confirm, the practice was at first largely an anglophone one. Elsewhere in Europe, patronymic naming practices seem to have become fashionable in the vernacular only in the 1830s. The authors of most early names in scientific Latin, too, seem to have eschewed naming birds for people; the 1758 edition of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae, for example, transmits only one patronymic bird name, Psittacus alexandri, along with four other species named for mythological figures. 

It was perhaps inevitable that Vieillot himself has had his name pressed into service as eponym for half a dozen species. Just as those epithets have assured the French ornithologist a sort of immortality, so too have the standards he set forth for the naming of birds long outlived him, still thoughtful and still worth considering more than 200 years later. 


What Happened Here?

More than 1200 pages in to his massive completion of the Abbé Bonnaterre’s Tableau encyclopédique et méthodique, Louis Pierre Vieillot offers an account of the bird he calls the “buse cendrée,” Falco cinereus, known to English speakers today as the northern harrier. His description of the bird, occupying slightly less than a column of text, is an expanded version of the terse entry prepared fifteen years earlier for the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l’Amérique septentrionale.

Northern Harrier

The Histoire naturelle had not illustrated this species, a miss made up for in the Tableau, where, the author tells us, we can find the harrier’s portrait on Plate 203. And there it is, as promised, Figure 1 in the lower right-hand corner.

But wait. Something seems not quite right.

With its short, hooked bill menacingly agape, I suppose the bird looks suitably predatory, but no amount of squinting and good will can turn it into a harrier. Instead, this is only too clearly a nighthawk.

Vieillot knew the common nighthawk, sort of. Like most of his predecessors in the North American field, he confused it with the continent’s other goatsucker species, and even as late as 1823, when the Tableau appeared, he seems not to have known that Alexander Wilson had managed to sort them all out a decade and a half before.

None of that, however, explains how the nighthawk came to masquerade under the name of the buse cendrée. Might there be a clue in the signature on the plate?

Rather than the usual “delineavit,” “drew,” or “sculpsit,” “engraved,” here we have a notice that the plate was prepared under the supervision of the prolific engraver Robert Bénard. A suspicion begins to form, one confirmed by a comment Vieillot makes in his introduction to the effect that the figures in the Tableau are not original but rather reproduced from other sources.

Vieillot says nothing about just how the originals were collected, and by whom, and how they were copied, and by whom. But he does warn his reader that “some of the bird engravings are incorrectly placed,” a wry understatement if he was referring in part to our harrier/nighthawk.

The text is not without its own problems, either. Two of the three citations at the end of Vieillot’s account of the buse cendrée are, at best, misleading: the reference to Brisson is to the 1763 Latin edition rather than, as expected, the 1760 bilingual original; and the page number given for the account in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle is off by a whopping 133.

The reference to George Edwards, on the other hand, is right on. Page 53 in his Natural History of Birds indeed describes the ash-colored buzzard, though in terms so general as to make it impossible to tell whether his bird is a goshawk, a buteo, or a harrier.

The bird on the accompanying plate, drawn, etched, and colored by Edwards himself, is only slightly more identifiable, more closely resembling a gyrfalcon than any harrier. In any event, Edwards’s Plate 53, the explicit citation in the Tableau notwithstanding, cannot possibly have provided the exemplar for the buse cendrée.

Leaf through a few pages in Edwards, though, and we come to his Plate 63, depicting “the whip-poor-will, or lesser goat-sucker.” The description, as expected in the mid-eighteenth century, conflates at least two species of nocturnal birds, but the plate is what’s important here.

This, one of Edwards’s more appealing works, is unmistakably the source of the engraving in the Tableau. The extreme faithfulness with which it was copied–the number of visible toes, the misplaced tertial, the exact shape of the tail tip and open bill–suggests that Bénard and his artists had recourse to the camera lucida or a similar optical device when they reproduced their exemplars.

My guess is that when Bénard direxit his staff to prepare an illustration to accompany Vieillot’s buse cendrée, he gave them the wrong plate number in Edwards, namely, 63 rather than 53; or that whoever was charged with the copying made the mistake on their own. Soixante-trois, cinquante-trois: it was easy to be off by ten. And Edwards’s nighthawk, with those long wings and short, curved bill, was sufficiently hawk-like as to raise no alarms for the engraver who copied it as a harrier.

It’s a vanishingly small detail, but in combination with the garbled citations in Vieillot’s Tableau entry, a heartening reminder to the rest of us mortals that even Homer nods–and that book production has always been as difficult as it is complex.

Birders are a scrappy lot, and I’ve seen plenty of confrontations in the field that verged on the violent. But I can’t remember a time that the disagreement brought the parties before a judge.

European blackbird

Feelings ran deeper in the eighteenth century, it seems, and back in the days when every middle-class household had a pet bird or two, the financial stakes could be high.

In the third volume of the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, Buffon, or Montbeillard writing in the voice of Buffon, offers this curious anecdote:

The similarity between young common starlings and young common blackbirds is so great that I have actually witnessed a case, a lawsuit between two private parties. The first party was suing for the return of a starling that he claimed to have given into the other party’s care so that it might learn to speak, whistle, sing, and so on. That second party, however, having produced instead a healthy, full-grown blackbird, countersued for his fee, claiming that he had in fact been originally given only that same blackbird.

Can you imagine the excited high hopes of sending a smudgy grayish fledgling off to finishing school, and the disappointment of having it returned not as the eloquent starling of your dreams but a mere blackbird?

No word, alas, on who won or what damages were awarded.

Eurasian Blackbird
A pretty bird and glossy, but the common blackbird doesn’t hold a candle to the vocal attainments of a properly trained starling.