Saturday, October 06, 2007

Some Curiosities in Bird Names

Bird names are often curious. The rules of nomenclature say that once a bird has been named, it keeps that name, even if the name has no bearing on what is subsequently learned about the bird. That explains why, for example, the robin has never been renamed the reb-breasted thrush but remains the (American) robin, because it bears a similarity to the (Eurasian) robin which has a red breast. Or why the American Redstart does not have warbler in its name in some fashion, because it bears a superficial resemblance to European redstarts, all of which are in the thrush family.

A curious aspect about bird names is that many of the common birds which we know in the East are descriptive names, while many of the birds found in the West belong to someone; they are so and so’s bird.

Consider our eastern warblers. In the East we find the yellow, chestnut-sided, black and white, black-throated green, black-throated blue, blue-winged, cerulean, bay-breasted, and others. If not descriptive of the bird, the name may suggest their diet or where they are found: myrtle (now yellow-rumped), worm-eating, magnolia, and pine. By contrast, among the western warblers we find Virginia’s, Lucy’s, Townsend’s, Grace’s, MacGillivray’s, and Audubon’s (now lumped with the myrtle as the yellow-rumped).

The names of our eastern sparrow, all nondescript little brown birds, are descriptive. Chipping Sparrows chip, Song Sparrows sing, Field Sparrows are found in fields, Swamp Sparrows in swamps, White-throated Sparrows have white throats, and White-crowned Sparrows have white crowns. Go out West and you will find sparrows that also have descriptive names (sage, or rufous-crowned), but you will also find sparrows that “belong” to Botteri, Cassin, Brewer, Baird, Harris and Le Conte.

Not a single one of our local woodpeckers has a proper name in its name (downy, hairy, red-bellied, pileated, flicker, yellow-bellied sapsucker), but in the West you will find Lewis’s and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers and Williamson’s Sapsucker.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only regularly occurring hummingbird in the East; other species occasionally show up, especially in the Fall, but they are usually juveniles and are notoriously difficult to identify as a different species, even for many very experienced birders. In the West you can find many species of hummingbirds and most have names descriptive of their plumage. But among those western hummingbirds there is also Anna’s, Costa’s, and Allen’s.

In the East, many common birds have a slue of folk names, a situation which often caused confusion until the American Ornithological Union began imposing some order. I pick just a few by way of example. The Northern Flicker has been known as High-hole; Wake-up; Harrywicket, and Yellow Hammer. The Chipping Sparrow has been called Chip-bird and Hair-bird and is still referred to as Chippy. The Common Yellowthroat is still, and will continue to be, called the “Wichety-wichety,” and no amount of officialdom is likely to change that.

So why does the West have so many birds named for forgotten people? It goes back to the history of Europeans in North America. The Spanish came to the Western Hemisphere for gold; the French came for furs. The English came to stay. It was the early 1800s before curious naturalists began describing the flora and fauna of North America in any serious or systematic way. Alexander Wilson, considered the father of American ornithology, and John James Audubon, were self-taught artists and naturalists, often pursuing their interests in neglect of making a living. By the time they began their work, people of European descent, mostly English, had been living in the eastern states for two hundred years. They were clearing the forests, struggling with the native peoples they were displacing, contending with a far-away monarch, and creating a new form of government. In the course of making a living, they noticed the potato bird which ate the bugs in their garden (Rose-breasted Grosbeak). They scattered the rice-birds eating their rice with bird-shot (Bobolinks). They enjoyed partridge (Ruffed Grouse) and gobbler (Wild Turkey) on the dinner plate. And they listened to Stake-driver, Thunder-pumper, and Dunk-a-doo in the marshes (American Bittern). When the naturalists went to work describing the birds of the East, many of those birds were already very familiar. The naturalists provided some system and order.

At the beginning of the 1800s, President Jefferson pulled off the greatest land purchase in history, but had no idea what he had bought. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first of many organized excursions by the English-speaking Americans to discover what lay westward. These expeditions were all sent out with instructions to record the plants, animals, birds, geography, and people to be found in these new lands. Accompanying the expeditions were naturalists (albeit often self-trained naturalists) charged with fulfilling these instructions. Hundreds of new species were recorded and collected, and eventually found their way back to the East. This continued as the frontier pushed its way to the Pacific coast and exploratory expeditions gave way to permanent settlers. Western species were new to everyone. With no folk names, the naturalists were free to do the naming.

Modern science was still in its developmental stage in the early nineteenth century, but already it was well-established that the person who discovered a new species - that is, described a new species for science - had the right to name it, and the name would continue thereafter. It was not appropriate to name a species after oneself, but you could honor someone by giving that person’s name to a species you discovered. Audubon, for example, named a rare eastern warbler (non extinct) and sparrow after his South Carolina friend, Dr. John Bachman. Other Audubon friends and companions were honored in Harris’ Sparrow and Harlan’s Hawk (now a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk). It fell to others to honor the pioneers of American ornithology. Alexander Wilson fared quite well; his name is attached to a warbler, plover, snipe, and storm-petrel, and also to a genus of warbler. Audubon did not fare quite so well. An Atlantic shearwater is named for Audubon, and the western warbler which is now a sub-species of the Yellow-rumped Warbler. The western species called so and so’s, were discovered and described by various naturalists and named by them, often honoring someone.

Eastern species which are named for a person are typically unusual or rare species; they were not well known to the general population and therefore could be discovered and named (Kirkland’s Warbler, for example). In the East, birds bearing a place name, like Cape May, Tennessee, Connecticut or Nashville Warblers recall the place where they were first “discovered,” not where they live. The four warblers just named winter in the tropics and breed near or north of the Canadian border. They merely pass through their place names during migration. On the other hand, western birds named for a place are likely to be residents of the place, like California Thrasher, California Quail, and Arizona Woodpecker (previously known as Strickland’s Woodpecker).

I haven’t begun to exhaust this topic of bird names, but I have run out of space for this week. Good birding!

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