Noisy and colorful, the eastern towheeappears to have been a well-known bird to early European settlers in North America. Indeed, this big and conspicuous sparrow was the subject of one of the first bird paintings ever made by a European naturalist on this continent.
The caption to this copy of John White’s sixteenth-century watercolor reminds us just how many folk names, and in how many languages, this bird has had over the centuries. I was reminded of another one this morning—one that I believe is attested in the writings of only one ornithologist.
In his manuscript list of the birds of Point Breeze, Charles Lucien Bonaparte calls the towhee “chitterwing.” On his return to Italy in 1827, he used the same name in the Specchio comparative, and it occurs again in the German-language reprint of that work in the 1834 volume of the Isis von Oken. In each instance, “chitterwing” is the only English name assigned the species.
It is very rare that a vernacular bird name turns out to be genuinely hapax in the ornithological corpus, but I think that this one is. Or have you run across it elsewhere? And if you have, what do you think its origin is?
Joan, Sally, and I met for a quick walk at Point Breeze this morning, hoping that the evening’s northerly winds had brought in some migrants. There were goodly numbers of blue jays and yellow-shafted flickers, but for whatever reasons, the smaller neotrops we’d been looking for just didn’t show themselves today.
For whatever reasons: the bird pictured below may have been one of them, hunting the low vegetation before flying up to perch in the twigs in front of us.
This fine adult (probably a male) Cooper hawk could hardly have chosen a more suitable place to show up, especially in this, the 225th anniversary year of the birth of the species’ eponym, William Cooper. For it was here, on the grounds of Point Breeze, that the type specimen was collected one late September day.
Charles Bonaparte, then living at Point Breeze with his wife and their family, had the bird drawn and engraved by Alexander Lawson, who, writes Bonaparte, had “outdone himself” in the “perfect accuracy” of his “delineation of this bird, in all the details of its plumage, bill, and feet.”
Bonaparte named the bird for William Cooper, the famous malacologist, who alongside other favors oversaw the publication of the American Ornithology on Bonaparte’s return to Europe at the end of 1826. Coincidentally, Bonaparte reports that Cooper himself collected what appears to have been the first female specimen of the species just a couple of months later on Long Island.
It would be too much by far to imagine that this morning’s bird was a descendant of Bonaparte’s type (especially given that that bird may have been shot before it was sufficiently mature to breed). But still I like to think that some accipitrine spirit dwells in the place.
I spoke to a pleasant woman in Bordentown this morning, who told me that accessto Point Breeze is at present limited to the sidewalks between the new visitor center and the town hall—which hardly counts as access at all. But as soon as the state opens the woods and the ruins of the Bonaparte estate to the public, we’ll put together an excursion to explore the place together.
The past 24 hours have been pretty dismal here in northern New Jersey, with oppresive humidity relieved only by spells of steady drizzle. The rain finally stopped midday, though, and southwest winds and chokingly soggy air notwithstanding, I set out to Clarks Pond to see what I might see.
Woodland passerines were, no surprise here, tough to come by, but I was happy to find that there was some genuine vismig going on overhead, no doubt birds stalled by the nasty weather eager now to have a meal and move on. Barn swallows and chimney swifts were never out of sight, and the afternoon’s highlight was easily the three purple martins that passed over at a height clearly meant to put the lie to the “vis” in “vismig.”
Raptors were moving, too. Not in big numbers by any means, but I wound up tallying half a dozen species, including single representatives of the black vulture and red-shouldered hawk. The final bird of my hour and a half out and about was a juvenile Cooper hawk, hunting the ball fields behind the middle school and being mercilessly harried by American crows. This is far and away our most abundant accipiter, winter, spring, summer, and fall, but always well worth looking at, especially so big and so dashing a bird as this female (she was exactly the bulk of the crows next to her, impressively large even for a hen).
As usual, the bird was not shy at all, hunger obviously overcoming whatever apprehension she may have felt in my presence. I took the opportunity to get great looks as she moved from backstop to fence to bleachers, and was struck above all by the pattern of her under parts.
Famously, juvenile Cooper hawks can usually be distinguished from their smaller (and their larger) congeners by the fine streaking of the breast and belly; sharp-shinned hawks and goshawks are characteristically blobby and blurry beneath, in the former species sometimes even creating the impression of adult-like barring.
By no stretch of the imagination could this afternoon’s bird be described as “pencil-streaked.” Instead, from every angle, she was clearly coarsely barred on the flanks and lower breast, more heavily marked on the sides and center of the upper breast. I cannot recall ever having seen a juvenile Cooper hawk marked like this, though, of course, some individuals are more broadly streaked below than others, and a quick “image search” finds birds not dissimilar.
Still, a nice reward for venturing out into the tropical stickiness.
The red osier dogwood, with its fiery twigs and creamy drupes, has long been one of my favorite trees—and has alway ranked high on the list of those preferred by frugivorous birds. And not just them: I have happy memories of watching southbound Philadelphia vireos and Canada warblers prying into the fruit clusters in search of hidden prey.
Alison very generously planted a small stand of stolonifera when she was designing our back yard, and it has thrived. These past days, as the late summer crop of fruit has begun to ripen, the dense foliage and bright red branches have been covered with birds, some of them on their way to the nearby seed feeders, most of them, though, concentrating on those fleshy “berries.” Gray catbirds, American robins, house finches, blue jays, common grackles, song sparrows, American goldfinches, and as many as five (!) northern mockingbirds at once have kept our little thicket lively, and it’s time for the warblers and vireos to show up, too.
This afternoon’s prize was a cedar waxwing, a lone adult which spent long minutes looking sulky as the mimids and robins created their usual bustling stir. Here in our yard, we often see waxwings overhead, but only rarely does one deign to land at this season. Hoping that this one is followed by many more—a hope firmed up by our lovely dogwoods.
I’ve mused elsewhere on the unsatisfying explications given the “official” English name of Spiza americana, that cheerful black-throated wire-singer of the American Midwest. “Dickcissel,” I firmly believe, was never a genuine folk moniker, but rather a contrived book name masquerading as the product of a naive agrarian ear.
But what about the other English name adduced by Robert Ridgway, “Judas bird”? Of ancient usage for live decoys—birds that betray their fellows—that name is cited for the Dickcissel in books published well into the twentieth century. There is no record of Dickcissels being kept as decoys, so there must be another explanation.
And in fact, the earliest sources to ponder the question say that the bird’s odd name is “in allusion to its song.” Elliott Coues, quoted here from the Birds of the Northwest, declines to go further, or even to take any responsibility himself for what he writes of the name and its origin: he carefully identifies his authority, “Mr. Ridgway tells me.”
All roads lead to Ridgway. Ridgway’s own early works, though, offer no clue about how the name “Judas” should allude to the bird’s song. Not until 1881, in an updated list of the birds of Illinois, published seven years after the first edition and seven years after Coues’s Northwest, did Ridgway add to his list of vernacular names “Judas Iscariot,” a painfully obvious bit of post hoc backfill permitting the concoction of an improbable etiology: this “indefatigable songster[‘s] notes . . . are variously interpreted as ‘Dickcissel,’ ‘Judas Iscariot,’ &c., whence some of its various local names.”
That seems more than a stretch, but it was clearly the only way that Ridgway or, more likely, some impish informant could come up with a way to understand “Judas bird.” There is a better, simpler way to explain the name, though—assuming, of course, that it ever existed im Volksmunde.
Iconographically, Judas is depicted carrying a moneypurse, filled with the thirty pieces of silver.
Even at table during the Last Supper, Judas clutches the thirty pieces of silver. And he knows there are thirty because he has counted them.
It seems virtually certain to me not that our Judas bird speaks the name “Judas Iscariot,” but rather that its jangly, metallic song brought to mind the monotonous clang of silver coins striking a tabletop; it was but a short metonymic step from there to the most notorious coin counter of all time.
There is an instructive parallel in the names of an Old World species known, like the dickcissel, more for its voice than its appearance. The common chiffchaff is—or has been—known in French as the “apothicaire” (say Cabard and Chauvet, “shopkeepers are well known for ceaselessly counting their pennies”) and as the “compteur d’argent”; that last, Norman label was adopted by Louis Pierre Vieillot in 1817 as the bird’s species epithet, collybita, meaning “banker” or “money changer.” (One assumes, with the Italians, that Vieillot’s name was a printer’s error for collybista.)
It will never be possible to prove this one way or the other, I’m afraid. But if you do happen to encounter a barefoot farmboy on a hot Illinois afternoon, ideally a time traveler from the mid-nineteenth century, you might try asking him what he calls that sparrowy bird with the buzzy voice singing above the cornfield.