Crescent Swallows

cliff swallow

Beautiful birds, such as these most indisputably are, deserve beautiful names, and it’s hard to imagine a label lovelier than Hirundo lunifrons, the crescent-fronted swallow.

Alas, we’re stuck nowadays with the prosaic cliff swallow and the hardly more evocative Petrochelidon pyrrhonota (“red-rumped rock swallow”). But it took us a good long time to get there.

It isn’t at all clear when this abundant and widespread swallow was first “discovered” by European science. According to Elliott Coues, this is the bird Forster published in 1772 as “Swallow No. 35,”

which answers in some particulars to the description of the Martin, Hirundo Urbica, Linn. but seems to be smaller and has no white on the rump.

Forster does report that these swallows nest under eaves and on riverside cliffs, but there is little else here to indicate that he is writing of the bird we know as the cliff swallow; you’d think he might have mentioned some of the salient plumage features of this well-marked species. As it is, I suspect, contra Coues, that the skin Forster received was that of a tree swallow. In any event, Forster goes on to note — tongue perhaps ever so slightly in cheek — that

the Indians say, they were never found torpid under water, probably because they have no large nets to fish with under the ice.

More than half a century later, in 1823, Thomas Say, working with specimens from near Canyon City, Colorado, gave the cliff swallow a detailed formal description and the Linnaean name Hirundo lunifrons, commemorating the bird’s “large white frontal lunule.”

That species name, lunifrons, “crescent-fronted,” made its way into the AOU Check-list in 1886, and persisted in that authoritative work for decades. In 1912, though, Samuel Rhoads obtained copies of two items published in the Kentucky Gazette by Samuel Rafinesque, one of them dated — fatally — February 14, 1822, a year earlier than the publication of Say’s account. Rafinesque reports that

There are two species of Swallows in Kentucky…. The second species I shall now describe and call it the Blue Bank-Swallow. I have given it the scientific name of Hirundo albifrons which means the Swallow with a white forehead. It is very remarkable by its unforked tail…. Its face or the space surrounding the bill is black, the forehead white, the top of the head blue; the cheeks, throat and upper part of the rump of a reddish chestnut colour, or rufous…. This bird is to be seen preserved with its nest in the Museum of Cincinnati.

Rhoads, obviously in fine fettle, comments:

it seems a bit humiliating for [the scientific name of the species] to be snatched from the laurel crown of Thomas Say and transferred, by the rights of priority, to a man whom he undoubtedly despised and certainly ignored. Say was one of the coterie of Philadelphia naturalists that eventually drove Rafinesque and his literary contributions from any recognition by the Academy of Natural Sciences…. That eccentric naturalist [Rafinesque] had stolen the march on all his contemporaries by a little squib in the Kentucky Gazette.

Five years after Rhoads’s discovery, the proposal was made to change the scientific name of the swallow to Petrochelidon albifrons albifrons, “since Rafinesque’s name is clearly identifiable as Hirundo (= Petrochelidon) lunifrons Say and is of earlier date.”

AOU 1931

The proposal was accepted, and the 1931 edition of the Check-list was the first to use the new old name.

And the last.

Beginning as early as the 1840s, beginning, it seems, with George Edward Gray’s Genera of BirdsEuropean ornithology had begun to use yet another name, Petrichelidon pyrrhonota. When in 1894 that name was preferred in Richard Bowdler Sharpe and Clyde E. Wyatt’s Monograph of the Hirundinidae, it was time — one might think — for the Americans to react.

Sharpe and Wyatt, Mon.Hir.

Not so fast.

In 1902, the AOU committee dismissed the name pyrrhonota, finding no “evidence to show that the change is necessary.” Not until 1944, fully fifty years after the name had been ratified by Sharpe and Wyatt, did the AOU finally accept pyrrhonota as both applying to this species and enjoying priority over lunifrons and albifrons alike.

What changed their mind was Charles Hellmayr’s footnote in the eighth volume of his Catalogue of Birds of the Americas. It was Louis Pierre Vieillot who coined the name pyrrhonota in 1817, taking his description from the Sonnini translation of Azara’s Apuntamientos. Hellmayr explains that

with the exception of the blackish lower belly [“le bas-ventre noir”] which may easily be construed as referring to the dusky under tail coverts, Azara’s description, upon which Vieillot’s name was based, is quite accurate.

Quite why it took so long to reach this conclusion is a mystery. Had no American ornithologist looked seriously at Azara and Vieillot? That seems hardly likely: we know, for example, that Robert Ridgway knew the 1817 description, and nevertheless accounted it “doubtful.” We can assume, too, that the AOU committees from 1886 to 1944 were conscientious bibliographers.

However it happened, I’m sorry in a way that we’re stuck — apparently for good this time — with the boring pyrrhonota. Say’s name lunifrons is evocative, romantic, beautiful.

Almost as much so as the bird itself.


Poor Thekla


Wage Du, zu irren und zu träumen….

Ted’s finally done it. Read (and enjoy) his “Big Night” carefully, and you’ll discover that he’s finally carried through on the threat to eliminate the possessive ‘s in the English names of birds.

I like it.

Of course, he’s not the first resident of Boulder to have an opinion about such things. In 1907, Junius Henderson (who seems to have had no objection to barbarous capitalization) posed the rhetorical question

why on earth should it be Baird’s Sparrow? In many such cases, the man whose name is given to the bird has never even seen the species, has had nothing to do with its discovery…. Baird is as much honored by speaking of the Baird Sparrow as by using the possessive.

Six years earlier, Richard C. McGregor had argued more soberly for the practice of dropping the offending ‘s: he quotes a letter from C. Hart Merriam in which it is pointed out that

the species are not in any way the property of the persons whose names they bear, but are merely named in honor of these persons…. the National Board on Geographical Names has for many years abandoned the use of possessives in all geographical names…. the Forestry people in their catalogue and checklist of forest trees of the United States have dropped the possessive….

Joseph Grinnell summed it all up in his review of the 1910 edition of the AOU Check-list:

We are disappointed to observe that the useless possessive is retained in personal names,

a matter noted expressly in the Supplement immediately preceding the new list’s publication.

It took forty-three years (!), but W.L. McAtee responded specifically and, as usual, confidently to all the current arguments:

the English possessive is equivalent to the Latin genitive…. It is true that the United States Geographic Board has abandoned the use of the possessive… but… those names are not based on Latinized genitives…. The most common objection to the use of the possessive case is that the bird does not actually belong to the man… a puerile [argument] at best.

McAtee also took up an argument Gerald H. Thayer had offered as early as 1910: such common surnames as Black, White, Moor, Fish, and so on are

as likely to belong to naturalists as to anybody else. Surely this is a sufficient rebuttal of the arguments in favor of dropping the possessive ‘s and apostrophe from the common names of birds and beasts named for men.

Apparently it was sufficient — if specious — and the AOU, and most English-language lists, have retained the possessive ‘s ever since.

There is one persistent and incomprehensible exception, though.

When Christian Ludwig Brehm received a series of larks his sons had collected in Spain, he found that the birds

differ on even the very first glance so much from all the other crested larks that there can really be no dispute about the validity of this new species,

a species he named Galerita Theklae, “Thekla’s Haubenlerche.”

We have named this lark for our unforgettable daughter, who died on July 6, 1858, in her twenty-fifth year.

Thekla Klothilde Bertha Brehm

Touching indeed — especially given that the bereaved father was writing no more than three weeks after the young woman’s death.

Touching, but largely ignored in English-speaking ornithology, which almost with one voice calls this bird the Thekla lark, flouting the otherwise carefully preserved rule of the possessive ‘s.

I suspect that a misunderstanding of the German “Theklalerche” is behind this lapse — that someone at some time failed to recognize a personal name in “Thekla” and read it instead as, say, a geographic label.

And that is an injustice to both Brehms, father and daughter. If we’re going to have “Baird’s sparrow,” let’s also have Thekla’s lark — or better still, let’s lose all those possessives consistently.


Little Bird, Big Name

Black-throated Green Warbler

This charming black-throated green warbler — an adult female, I believe — was busily picking nearly invisible bugs from Alison’s aster bed this morning.

The species ultimately owes its long English name to none other than William Bartram, who listed it in the Travels as

P[arus] viridis gutture nigro, the green black throated flycatcher.

In June 1756, the very young Bartram had sent skins of this species and of the black-and-white warbler from “the province of Pensilvania” to George Edwards, who described and painted them in the Gleanings of 1760.

Edwards, Gl 2, black-throated green warbler

Edwards called our bird the black-throated green flycatcher, and it was his account that Gmelin drew on to assign the species its formal Linnaean name, Motacilla [later Sylvia, then Dendroica, now Setophagavirens.

Interestingly, it seems that in the later eighteenth century there was resistance to the unwieldy English name adopted by Edwards. In France, both Buffon and Brisson called this bird simply “black-throated,” while across the Channel Pennant, Turton, and Latham all preferred to emphasize the color of the upperparts by calling it the “green warbler.”

wilson, Plate 17, green black-throated warbler

It was up to Alexander Wilson, Bartram’s grateful friend, to restore his master’s English name, which he did in only imperfect faithfulness to the original: the charming bird in the upper lefthand corner of Wilson’s plate 17 is labeled “Green black-throated Warbler,” as in Bartram, though his text reads — the first instance of the modern English name in print — “black-throated green warbler.”

Audubon, who was the first to depict the female of the species, followed Edwards and Wilson’s letterpress in using the sequence “black-throated green” rather than the more logical “green black-throated”:

Screenshot 2014-10-01 18.03.21

And so it has remained ever since, a long name for a tiny bird.


It’s Not Easy Seeing Green

Green Heron

I can’t see it. No matter how many I’ve watched in the field, no matter how many skins I’ve handled, I just can’t see the green on a green heron. And I’m not alone: this name regularly shows up on those lists of “worst bird names of all time,” and I can’t count the times I’ve had to soothe sputtering colleagues in the field who, like me, can see blue and gray and purple and red, but not green.

It’s just a name, of course, and names don’t “mean” in the same way that real words do. There’s nothing to stop us from calling this bird the orange heron or the apricot egret or, for all I care, Hortense. Names can’t be “bad.”

But that doesn’t stop me from wondering why we call it green.

Hans Sloane seems to be the first European to have described this bird, which he encountered in Jamaica in 1687/88.

Screenshot 2014-06-13 08.32.02

Sloane’s description of his “small bittern” leaves no doubt as to the species under discussion, but he has very little to say about his bird’s colors — and he never mentions any shade of green. He does half-apologize for the engraving:

I know not but that some part of the odd Position of the Neck may be owing to the carrying of it, after it was kill’d.

Screenshot 2014-06-13 08.50.18

It was Mark Catesby who, in word and in picture, first convinced the scientific world that this bird was green.

A Crest of long green Feathers covers the Crown of the Head. The Neck and Breast of a dark muddy Red. The Back cover’d with long narrow pale-green Feathers. The large Quill-Feathers of the Wings of a very dark Green, with a Tincture of Purple. All the Rest of the Wing-Feathers of a changeable shining Green….

Given that description to rely on, it only made sense for Linnaeus to christen the bird Ardea virescens, “a heron with a somewhat crested crown, a green back, and a reddish breast.”

Screenshot 2014-06-13 08.58.52

Catesby, like Sloane, still knew the species under the name “small bittern,” as Mathurin Brisson confirmed in 1760 in the Ornithologie. Rejecting the binomial Linnaeus had published two years earlier, Brisson assigned the bird the Latin label Cancrofagus viridis, which he translated in his French text as “le crabier verd,” the first time, so far as I know, that such a name was used in a European vernacular.

Green Heron, Martinet in Brisson 1760

Martinet’s illustration is not what one might call overly successful, combining as it apparently does the body of a green heron with the legs and neck of another species or two. He does much better with the bird Brisson calls “le crabier verd tacheté,” occasionally considered in those long-ago days a distinct taxon or, later on, the female of the green heron. Martinet’s drawing is as delightful as it is readily identifiable, as a juvenile green heron.

Screenshot 2014-06-13 15.28.15

Twenty years later, Buffon retained Brisson’s “crabier vert” in the heading for his account of the species, and he continued, too, to recognize the “spotted green heron” as a distinct species.

Screenshot 2014-06-13 15.53.53

So far as I can tell, the first ornithologist to have rendered Ardea virescens or “crabier vert” in English was Thomas Pennant, in his Arctic Zoology of 1785. Not content just to call the bird “green,” Pennant goes lavishly, extravagantly out of his way to justify the name, describing the little wader as a

H[eron] With a green head, and large green crest … coverts of the wings dusky green, edged with white….

Pennant’s name appears to have been made canonical by its use in John Latham’s General Synopsis and Index ornithologicus. One holdout was William Bartram, who in his 1791 Travels used “green bitern” or “lesser green bitern” for the bird — an obvious nod in the direction of Catesby, whose itinerary largely inspired Bartram’s journey. 

Screenshot 2014-06-13 17.13.10

Bartram’s friend and disciple, Alexander Wilson uses the name “green heron” as the title of the species account in his American Ornithology; no doubt as a compliment to his patron, though, the text itself refers to the bird as “the Green Bittern.” Wilson also alludes in disgust to the “very vulgar and indelicate nickname” with which the bird is saddled by “public opinion”; “shitepoke” and similar names are still current today over much of this species’ US range, a rare example of the survival of a genuine folk name.

Screenshot 2014-06-13 17.31.34

Bartram and Wilson were on the wrong side of onomastic history. It has been green heron ever since, except for that brief period when this species and the striated heron were “lumped” under the English name green-backed heron (intentionally or not, a direct translation of Linnaeus’s Ardea dorso viridi).

striated heron Guyana 2007 019

Once again, though, green heron it is, and green heron it will remain. Whether I can see it or not.

Green Heron 1