Ted set a quiz the other day:
What widespread and common bird has the number EIGHTEEN in its name? And for a bonus: Without googling it, WHY is that bird thus named?
The first question isn’t that hard. Though it’s not widespread or common in New Jersey yet, the Eurasian Collared-Dove bears the remarkable species epithet decaocto, “eighteen,” assigned to it in 1838 by the Hungarian botanist and entomologist Imre Frivaldszky.
As James Fisher reminds us, Frivaldszky’s odd choice of name was inspired by a story about the bird and its voice, said to be current in the 1830s in what is now Bulgaria:
A poor girl was in service to a very hard-hearted lady, who gave her only eighteen para a year as salary. The girl implored the gods to make plain to the world how miserably her mistress rewarded her. Zeus thereupon created this dove, which still today cries its recognizable deca-octo to the entire world.
That’s the story I “knew.” I can’t hear those syllables myself, and the chain of transmission — from the collector Carl Hinke, to Frivaldszky, to Johann Friedrich Naumann, to Fisher, to posterity — is uncomfortably attenuated, but I’ll buy it.
There’s more, though. Though this is the story made canonical by its endless (and irresponsibly embellished and unattributed) repetition on the internet, Hinke, in Naumann’s summary of Frivaldszky’s letter to him (see what I mean?), goes on to report another circumstance:
They are shot in the autumn, but by only a few of the Turkish inhabitants; most of the Turks spare them, as do to an even greater extent the Christian inhabitants, who even think them holy birds and never do anything to harm them. Thus I attracted considerable annoyance when I shot these birds at Filibe, not so much from the Turks as from the Christians.
The significance of the dove in Christian iconography is obvious, but is there something else going on here? Maybe.
There is a different story making the e-rounds about how this bird got its scientific name:
The Greeks say that when Jesus Christ was in agony on the cross, a Roman soldier took pity on him and tried to buy a cup of milk to ease his thirst. The old woman selling the milk asked for eighteen coins, but the soldier had only seventeen. There was no way to bargain: she kept repeating eighteen, eighteen, eighteen. Jesus cursed her, changing her into the dove that can say nothing but eighteen, eighteen, eighteen in Greek. When she consents to take seventeen coins, she will be changed back into a human being. But if she ever raises the price to nineteen, that will mean that the end of the world is near.
I haven’t been able to find an authentic source for this “Greek” story, which seems to be out there only in Spanish. If it is not entirely contrived, and Hinke/Naumann/Frivaldszky’s allusion to the bird’s odor of sanctity makes me think it is not, this tale suggests that there is more than one strand of Balkan folk narrative behind the very strange scientific name of what will soon be, if it isn’t already, one of the most familiar birds in your neighborhood.