Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Interview with James Sandrock and Jean Prior, pt. 3

James Sandrock and Jean Prior are the authors of The Scientific Nomenclature of Birds in the Upper Midwest, a Bur Oak Guide published just this month. Bur Oak Guides series editor Holly Carver asked them a few questions about the book.

HC: Now that you have mastered the nomenclature of all these species, what new connections among names, behavior, plumage, etc., have you discovered? What was the most intriguing?

JS: It is both interesting and amazing that the binomial system perfected by Linnaeus more than 250 years ago endures to this day, practical, resilient, and valid. As we worked our way through the research and writing of this book, it became more and more evident that the early taxonomists and ornithologists possessed a deep knowledge of classical languages and literatures; the names they assigned to avian genera and species reflect their easy familiarity with classical Greek and Roman myth, history, literature, geography, even geology, as well as with the languages themselves.

It surprised us that not all binomials were helpful; some were misleading, some inaccurate. We found at least one name to be a nonsense word. The genus Xema appears to be such a word concocted by William Elford Leach for the genus of Sabine’s Gull. (More about William Leach later.) Many species names are eponymous, such as henslowii or swainsonii, which do not describe any distinguishing marks of the bird itself—not much help to an observer in the field, but interesting as ornithological history.

Most binomials, however, augment and enhance the description of distinguishing marks. The binomial of the Red-eyed Vireo, for example, is Vireo olivaceus; the specific Latin term is a descriptive adjective that calls our attention to the olive-green plumage of this small bird. While the common name focuses on the red irises of this species, the Latin binomial affords the observer another important distinguishing mark to look for when identifying it.

These examples and many more served throughout this enterprise to deepen our interest in and appreciation of scientific nomenclature.

JP: I can’t say that I have mastered the nomenclature of these species, but I certainly learned a lot working alongside Jim. His special background for this enterprise awakened new insights into language, history, biology, art, and literature. Though Aristotle, Pliny, Nuttall, and Newberry were familiar names from other scientific studies, I found their contributions and connections to the naming of birds to be quite fascinating.

I was responsible for including the regional or folk names for these birds, and I found they often were more useful than the attributes provided by the scientific name or even the common name. Wilson’s Warbler, for example: Alexander Wilson was a remarkable scientist, writer, poet, and painter, but his name alone is not as descriptive and helpful as the regional name “black-capped warbler.”

Other useful, colorful, or humorous names include “thunder pumper,” “bog bull,” and “look-up,” which tells you a lot about the sound, location, and demeanor of an American Bittern. “High hole” and “yarrup” suggest where to look for the nest of a Northern Flicker and what to listen for. “Golden slippers” takes your eye to the feet of the Snowy Egret for a positive identification. Coming upon a “hang-nest” suggests the “hammock-bird,” the characteristic suspended home of the familiar Baltimore Oriole. The tree trunk antics of a “topsy-turvy-bird” help confirm both the White-breasted Nuthatch and the Red-breasted Nuthatch. But be careful, “fly-up-the creek” can apply to both the Belted Kingfisher and the Green Heron.

HC: What were the quirkiest factoids that you discovered?

JS: Two quirky things come to mind. The name of the Slovenian Ornithological Association (OAI) is IXOBRYCHUS, which is the genus of the Least Bittern. And the quirkiest? William Elford Leach (see above), a British zoologist, named many genera and species that occur under, on, and over the sea. While the numbers vary, it is said that he used anagrams of the name “Caroline” possibly thirteen times in scientific binomials. The identity of “Caroline” remains unknown.

JP: One of the quirkiest bits of information was that accompanying the ordinary and common European Starling. It seems that this bird from Europe was first released in Central Park, New York City, in 1890 and 1891 by a Eugene Schiefflin, a great fan of William Shakespeare and also president of the American Acclimatization Society. A goal of this group was to introduce all the bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to New York’s public parks. The group’s greatest success was the European Starling (see Henry IV, part 1).

JS: Thanks for the interview. We think that our book will be both helpful to birders and interesting on many fronts. It has been described as both scholarly and quirky. We hope its readers will find it to be all these things.

Featured Birds
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)
Spinus: This is a Latin form of the Greek word spinos, which was Aristotle's word for "a small, finch-like bird."
tristis: The Latin word for "mournful, sad" refers to the long, soft, sweet song, which Linnaeus apparently perceived as mournful.
Common Name: American Goldfinch, which distinguishes this species from the Eurasian Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
Other Names: wild canary, thistle bird, yellowbird

Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
Streptopelia: From Greek streptos = collar, necklace + peleia = a kind of dove or pigeon. "Collared dove" alludes to the small black and buff "scarf" on the nape of the adult.
decaocto: From the Latin prefix deca = ten (decem) + octo = eight. Several sources cite the Greek myth in which Decaocto (meaning "Eighteen"), a lovely handmaiden, prayed for release from her cheerless existence. The gods obligingly changed her into a dove. The call of this species is supposedly a version of her name, although perhaps not recognizable.
Common Name: Eurasian Collared-Dove, introduced to the United States from its native Eurasia
Other Names: None found

No comments:

Post a Comment