Parrot of the Month

blue-headed parrot, orange-cheeked parrot

Of all the breathtaking lot of parrots, few are as likely to leave the birder agulp as the stunning blue-headed parrot, a widespread and common bird from southern Central America to Bolivia and Brazil.

The dazzling swarm in the photo above was at one of the famous clay licks of Peru, but this species burned its way into my memory years before I saw them there, when a single individual flew beneath me as I was perched high on a tower in Panama, its head out-bluing the tropical sky.

And being who and what and as I am, at the very same moment a question pierced my mind, one that has nagged me ever since: What’s so menstruous about Pionus menstruus?

blue-headed parrot

Nowadays, questions about the scientific names of birds are easily answered. We have James Jobling’s considerable store of erudition at our fingertips, and in the few cases where that doesn’t help, all the wealth of the Biodiversity Heritage Library is there for the mining.

But I’m stymied.

The name is Linnaean, appearing first in the twelfth edition of 1766.

1766 Syst nam Psittacus menstruus blue-headed parrot

The Archiater’s Latin diagnosis of the newly named parrot is quite thorough, beginning with the fact that Dr. Petrus Bierchen reports from Suriname that the bird has a voice like a jackdaw.

The body is the size of a turtle dove’s. The head and neck are bluish, the feathers dusky but blue at the tip. The back and wings are green. The wing coverts are yellowish green. The belly is greenish, the feathers bluish at their tips. The remiges are green, dusky on the inner vane. The rectrices are green, becoming blue at their tips, but numbers 1, 2, and 3 are blood-red on the inner vane, from their base halfway out; the outer vane is entirely blue. The crissum is red, the tips of the feathers yellowish blue. The bill is horn-colored: the upper mandible reddish on the edges. The eyes are black. The eye rings are bluish grayish.

No real onomastic clues here, and neither of the authorities Linnaeus cites — George Edwards’s 1758 Gleanings and the fourth volume of Mathurin Brisson’s Ornithologie — offers any hints. It is notable — if purely incidental to my question — that all three of the scientists relied on different sources for their knowledge of the bird: Linnaeus’s type had been supplied from Suriname, Edwards was working from a live individual in London, and Brisson had access to a specimen labeled as originating in Martinique.

Buffon and his collaborators likewise seem to know nothing about the odd Linnaean name. The OED and the Century are of no use, and we’re stuck with the prospect of a systematic search through “the older literature,” which in North American ornithology tends to mean anything before the publication of Ridgway, a scant century ago.

Johann August Donndorf’s Zoologische Beyträge, a commentary on Gmelin’s edition of the Systema, is one source Ridgway overlooked or declined to exploit for his North and Middle America (he would not have been the first to rail against Donndorf’s sloppiness as a bibliographer), but it is often productive of otherwise obscure eighteenth-century names and publications. In this case, it sends us to Statius Müller’s translation of Linnaeus, where the German systematist coins the name “Blauhals” (“blueneck”) for this species — and incidentally asks himself the same question that occurred to me more than 200 years later in Panama.

We have named it the Blauhals because we are unable to explain the name “menstruus.” I suspect that in the case of many names Linnaeus did not even intend that their meaning be understood, as otherwise he would have explained the more obscure among them himself, or assigned clearer names.

Vieillot, usually a bright light in the otherwise dim bibliographic jungle, has no comment on “menstruus,” but to make up for it, he tells us that in Paraguay the bird is called “siy,” an echoic name. Levaillant likewise says nothing about the Linnaean name; his two accounts of the species, though, are a really fine example of this explorer and ornithologist at his best, addressing everything from sex and molt to land use changes in coastal South America.

Barraband blue-headed parrot, Levaillant 1805 pl 114

And so it continues, right up to today: as far as I can find, no one seems to have known Linnaeus’s motivation, or even to have speculated about it in print. Time to widen the search, perhaps.

If I google correctly, the blue-headed parrot is the only bird in the world currently in possession of a species or subspecies epithet “menstruum/a/us.” In 1786, though, Giovanni Antonio Scopoli gave a formal diagnosis and Linnaean binomial to a woodpecker that had been collected in the Philippines by Pierre Sonnerat a decade earlier. Sonnerat described his bird:

… the green woodpecker of the Isle of Luzon [has] the entire body a somewhat dirty green; the top of the head is faintly spotted with gray; the flight feathers of wing and tail are blackish; the upper tail coverts are very bright scarlet red, forming a large patch; the feet and bill are blackish.

Sonnerat Nouvelle Guinée pl 36

Scopoli assigned this bird the name Picus menstruus, like Linnaeus before him offering no hint of an explanation. What do the two birds have in common, the parrot and the picid? Linnaeus distinguishes his parrot from the one that precedes it on the page by undertail color: he writes that the latter is “similar to P. menstruus, but its undertail is not red.” Scopoli adds to his summary of Sonnerat’s woodpecker account that “the rump and undertail are red” (my emphasis to show the addition).

Can it be that “menstruus” here means not simply “monthly” but “catamenial”? Entomology provides what may be a significant parallel: the sarcophagid name Syctomedes menstrua is a junior synonym of Syctomedes haemorrhoidalis, both names alluding to the red genitals, as if colored by flowing blood.

I know very little about Scopoli, the namer of the Luzon woodpecker and the eponym of a shearwater and a drug that helps when looking for the shearwater. Linnaeus, though, was more than capable of ignoring the blue-headed parrot’s blue head to reach for a more scurrilous name. His own contemporaries reproached him for the poor taste of some of his inventions, that notorious

Linnaean obscenity [and] licentiousness…. Science should be chaste and delicate. Ribaldry at times has been passed for wit; but Linnaeus alone passes it for terms of science.

Psittacus menstruus appears to be yet another example.






Boreal Bells?

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.






Other People’s Bird Books: Going to Roost with the Birds

Screenshot 2014-07-09 14.07.29

When I was young, we said of someone retiring early that he was “going to sleep with the chickens.”

In 1784 — antedating even my long-ago childhood — the English botanist and physician James Edward Smith purchased the library and collections of Carl von Linné.

Screenshot 2014-07-09 14.15.17

Most of those materials became, of course, the intellectual foundation of the Linnean Society of London. The Archiater’s personal copy of the 1766 Twelfth Edition of the Systema naturae, though, made its way into the library of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, and thence, by one of those now everyday e-miracles that still leaves me shaking my head in grateful disbelief, to the internet.


Like so many copies of the Systema in all its editions, this one is well annotated. Most of the notes are, as expected, bibliographic. But there are a few more substantive manuscript additions; my favorite is this one:

In the Arctic regions, the birds retreat once every twenty-four hours to sleep. In this they serve as a clock for the local inhabitants, whose night thus begins and ends with the roosting of the birds.

Plus ça change….