“Spirited” Away?

alcohol_birds

If you want to sell something, stamp a bird’s image or name on it. This seems to best sum up the strategy of the alcohol industry. Goose Island Beer, Swan Draught, Woodforde’s Once Bittern Norfolk Ale, Emu Bitter, Kingfisher Premium Lager, Magpie Pale Ale, Bluebird Bitter, First Sparrow Smoked Wheat Ale, and Rude Parrot IPA are just a few examples in this sector’s extensive inventory.

Not only breweries, but liquor producers and winemakers seem obsessed, too. The Famous Grouse blended Scotch whiskey, Grey Goose vodka, Captain Morgan Parrot Bay flavored rum, Black Swan wines, and Kestrel Vintners. Why are dozens of alcoholic beverage manufacturers choosing birds to “hawk” their brands? For that matter, why do companies in general incorporate birds into their ads and logos?

Advertising from a “Bird’s-Eye View”

Relying on our feathered neighbors to promote certain types of products and services makes sense. For instance, the rationale behind the airline industry’s choice of bird-related imagery is easy. Birds fly. What better symbol than an avian one conjures the beauty of soaring through the skies? Hence, we have the eagle of American Airlines, the crane of Japan Airlines, the namesake of Germany’s Condor Flugdienst, the falcon of Air Arabia, and the goose of Turkish airlines.

Advertising also has worked for several products and services with no direct links whatsoever to birds. In commercials, AFLAC’s white duck repeatedly spouts the name of its insurance company—a humorous, off-beat reminder that rhymes with “quack.” Decades before, TV ads featuring Vlasic Pickles’ talking stork elevated that brand to iconic status. Folklore has long associated the stork with maternity (1, 2, 3). Vlasic continues to play on this idea, conjoining it with the craving for pickles that sometimes occurs during pregnancy.

A couple other brands come to mind. Twitter, an online technology company, enables a person to send out short bursts of info, likened to a bird’s “tweet.” That analogy is clever. Unilever’s Dove soap features an avian symbol and moniker. This also works, because these creatures have long been connected with beauty (e.g., Greco-Roman mythology) and purity (e.g., Christianity).

Several bird-themed ads for alcohol products have enjoyed immense success, too. Perhaps this is why so many beer and spirits brands keep flocking to avian themes. To better understand this phenomenon, let’s take a quick look at some of the most well-known ones.

An International Menagerie

Irish brewer Guinness ran one of the most memorable international advertising campaigns of the twentieth century. Featuring many animals (e.g., ostrich, pelican, penguin, sea lion, giraffe, etc.) throughout its series of ads, Guinness indicates that “the most famous of all” its unusual creatures was the toco toucan (4). The bird’s use in its advertising was so poignant that one may see similar images employed today by Irish pubs.

Regarding the bird’s appearance in Guinness’s advertising, British naturalist and author Mark Cocker sees a metaphor for that brewer’s ale, what he describes as, “This black beer…” topped with a “… delicious creamy white head…” (5) However, he also explains, “The bird’s simple colours echoed the graphic black-and-white nature of the drink itself, but otherwise there were no authentic connections.” (6) Moreover, while not native to Ireland, the tropical, large-beaked fowl may have helped the country’s iconic brewer reach out beyond European consumers.

Guinness discontinued using this South American toucan in its ads decades ago, but many brands today still rely heavily on birds to represent their alcoholic products. Captain Morgan recently introduced its Parrot Bay rum, which plays with the pirate-parrot link while incorporating the colorful psittacine to connote the product’s added tropical flavors. Also, several breweries and distilleries have long employed avian imagery evocative of heraldic symbolism. Smirnoff’s double-headed eagle, Anheuser-Busch’s eagle, Wild Turkey’s gobbler, and Hardy’s rooster evoke a kind of age-old, regal-like quality, not unlike the eagle for Barclays banking and financial services and the swan for Swarovski jewelry.

Folks in the beer, wine, and spirits business appear unable to resist the metaphoric power of birds. The appeal is understandable—to a certain degree. Birds are wild, some are exotic, and most are capable of flight. Alcohol possesses analogous characteristics, as a peculiar and distinctive “untamed” beverage. Though a depressant, it produces intoxicating, mood-elevating effects that could be likened at times to “flying.” While such associations still seem contrived at best, I do see them. From a marketing perspective, though, there’s a much larger issue.

Crowded Market

Here’s the problem. Related products using similar ad concepts make standing out from one another difficult, especially when the items and concepts are loosely connected. The American automotive industry demonstrated this point years ago. A plethora of vehicles once sported bird monikers (7), from the Ford Falcon and Plymouth Road Runner to the Buick Skylark and Eagle Talon. Several names for popular cars, such as the Ford Thunderbird, Pontiac Firebird, and Pontiac Sunbird, were based on imaginary avian creatures. Yet the industry’s long-running fascination with birds, even mythical ones, has not turned out well. Good luck today finding any new automobiles named after one.

The market for alcohol, a legal but regulated drug, is obviously different than most. The bird-inspired branding behind Yuengling lager, Grey Goose vodka, André Cold Duck wine, Campbeltown Loch blended Scotch whiskey, and many other beverages doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. But if the trend gets out of hand, beer, wine, and spirits producers will have to change course to differentiate themselves.

For the sake of comparison, just imagine if Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, Toucan Sam, Cornelius the rooster, and the Puffins had to contend with the likes of a Flakey the Finch, Granola Grouse, and a roster of other potential fill-in-the-blank cereal-aisle rivals. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Don’t let advertising go to the birds.

Sources:

  1. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. Delacorte Press Hardcover Edition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. pp. 131-132.
  2. Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, 2006. p. 72.
  3. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 122.
  4. “Factsheet: Gilroy and Animals”. Guinness Storehouse: http://www.guinness-storehouse.com/en/pdfs/factsheets/factsheet_pdf_7.pdf.
  5. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. p. 334.
  6. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. p. 334.
  7. Snyder, JB. “Thanksgiving List: 13 Cars Named After Birds”, 11/24/2010. Winding Road: http://www.windingroad.com/articles/lists/thanksgiving-list-13-cars-named-after-birds/

 

Sailors and Swallows: Clearing up a Tattoo Mystery

swallowTattoo

Why have seadogs long inked images of swallows on their chests? Tattoos of aquatic creatures or anchors make sense. Even gulls and albatrosses are not really a stretch. But swallows? What’s the connection?

To answer these questions, let’s back up a bit. We need to consider what swallows typically symbolize. We must also broaden our focus from not just maritime voyages but to all forms of travel. Only then will we be able to unravel the rationale behind this puzzling tattoo.

Good Migrations

First things first. What do swallows signify to most of us? This should be easy. Even folks generally unfamiliar with birds are acquainted with the common expressions, “One swallow does not make a spring” and “One swallow does not a summer make.” In other words, don’t expect the approach of consistently warm weather based on the lone sighting of just one swallow. The reasoning? The bird may simply be an outlier. Such a “forecast” is premature, and folks should wait for more to come. Nevertheless, due to such sayings, we know that people commonly associate swallows with migration, particularly around spring and summer. This link, too, holds positive connotations (1).

Since migration is a form of travel, we can now easily see why swallows are a popular symbol for roving adventurers. KNAUS, a German-based manufacturer of caravans and campers, includes a stylized pair of these birds in their logo. Also, the logo of a yacht racing organization called the Ocean Society—not to be confused with the Oceanic Society, a conservation group—features a swallow. So the association with long-distance movement is at least understandable. We’re getting somewhere!

Bon Voyage

Now on to the link between swallows and the sea. After all, how exactly do animals that fly—not swim—relate to life onboard a ship? This is the part of our exploration that gets really interesting.

Until fairly recently swallows were thought to hibernate under the ocean, as indicated previously on this site. A sixteenth-century European archbishop and historian actually noted in his writings that fishermen had been seen pulling slumbering specimens of these birds up from the sea in nets (2, 3, 4). The Portuguese entertained ideas that the swallow “Comes from the sea, flies to the sea,” while Belgians considered the birds “bringers of water to earth” (5).

No wonder the bird became connected with a sailor’s safe return (6). To the human imagination, swallows could tame the sea, even sleep under it. People obviously transferred powers associated with this bird to its inked likenesses. The transfer, though, was not accessible to everyone. Not just any seaman could get a coveted swallow tattoo.

More than Luck

Notoriously superstitious, seafarers once faced overwhelming forces. From turbulent storms and contagion to pirates and mutiny, the possibility of death—by drowning, illness, or conflict—loomed large. Sailors needed all the luck they could get. Back then tattoos were more than a form of personal expression; they served as charms for warding off misfortune and catastrophe. Inked images of swallows were good-luck symbols (7, 8), but in a roundabout way.

Tattoos were, in essence, badges of honor signifying one’s skills and achievement. Only sailors, after 5,000 nautical miles at sea, could acquire an inked swallow image on their chest (9, 10). After 10,000 nautical miles, that person could add another swallow tattoo; however, variations on the theme existed (11). In general, for others onboard, having a fellow sailor return with a high level of experience must have been reassuring. As British writer Jonathan Eyers muses in his book on maritime beliefs and lore, “Perhaps the sailors who originated this tradition were worried anyone who hadn’t already proved themselves a good seaman might ruin the plausibility of the [good-luck] superstition” (12).

So, what’s the take-away message about swallow tattoos? They were as much a status symbol as good-luck charm. And you can still find such imagery today, in the resurgence of old-style sailor tattoos as well as in marketing.

Sources:

  1. Green, T. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2003. p. 231.
  2. Armstrong, J. Lienhard. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration”, Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  3. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration”, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  4. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  5. Pitre, G. The Swallow Book: The Story of the Swallow Told in Legends, Fables, Folk Songs, Proverbs, Omens and Riddles of Many Lands. Camehl, A.W. (Translator). New York: American Book Company, 1912. pp. 114, 95.
  6. Green, T. p. 231.
  7. Green, T. p. 231.
  8. Eyers, J. Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. London: A & C Black, 2012. p. 31.
  9. Green, T. p. 231.
  10. Eyers, J. p. 31.
  11. Barkham, P. “Tattoos: The Hidden Meanings”, 6/26/2012. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/jun/26/tattoos-hidden-meanings.
  12. Eyers, J. p. 31.

Cartoon Quackers and Other Wacky Fowl

quackers_JML

Research on global humor indicates one critter has a knack for “quacking” folks up. This would come of little surprise, though, to the animators responsible for Donald and Daffy and other zany bird cartoon characters.

British Psychologist Richard Wiseman, whose studies have revealed the hilarious appeal of the small, waddling waterfowl, says that “if you are going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck” (1). Maybe folks are humored by the way it walks or sounds. Illustrators, of course, know that all sorts of birds—not just ducks—have the potential to bring levity to their comics and cartoons. Hence, we have Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy (a penguin), Buzz Buzzard, and Homer Pigeon (all from Walter Lantz Productions); as well as Heckle and Jeckle (a couple of mischievous magpies), Gandy Goose, and—another cartoon duck—Dinky Duck (all from Terrytoons).

The Ducks Have It

Donald and Daffy came onto the scene during the 1930s, but neither was the first cartoon bird on film. For example, a chicken who tries to frame Felix the Cat appeared in the 1928 animated short The Oily Bird (2). However, introduced a few years later in the 1934 Disney classic The Wise Little Hen, Donald made the bigger splash, quickly becoming the foremost major animated avian personality to appeal widely to audiences (3). And Daffy came along three years later in Warner Brothers’ Porky’s Duck Hunt (4). Both characters, the white feathered Donald with his naval uniform sans trousers and the oft unattired black drake Daffy, are now household names throughout the world.

“Being a duck, he likes water,” Walt Disney once explained regarding Donald’s choice of apparel. “Sailors and water go together” (5). By 1942, this irascible, half-clothed waterfowl had garnered Disney’s production studio an Oscar for the animated anti-Nazi propaganda short film Der Fuehrer’s Face (6). (For a detailed and intriguing account of “Donald Duck and Wartime Propaganda”, please check out the link to ArtLark’s blog article.) Of course today, Daisy Duck, Scrooge McDuck, Darkwing Duck, Huey, Dewey, Louie, and a waddling of other family members and friends join Donald, living in the fictional Duckburg. Furthermore, Disney has given flight to a few more fowl since the 1930s, characters such as Owl from Winnie the Pooh, Orville and Wilbur (sibling albatrosses) of The Rescuers movies, and Iago (a parrot) from the Aladdin franchise.

Meanwhile, Daffy and his pals are doing quite well. Today he rivals Bugs Bunny in popularity among the stable of cartoon characters at Warner Brothers. There he also joins other funny-bird personalities, such as Road Runner, Tweety Bird (a canary), Foghorn Leghorn (a rooster), and Henery the Chicken Hawk. I must admit that I have fond memories of watching all these characters on Saturday morning TV as a young child, especially the many escapades involving Daffy and Foghorn.

Still Drawing Applause

Over the years, cartoonists have brought all sorts of feathered entertainers to life. Decades ago, animated short films were common on the big screen, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics like Jerky Turkey and King-Size Canary. Pixar put its own stamp on this format in 2000 with the studio’s film For the Birds. However, most high-profile animated cinema today consists of feature-length flicks. Recent notable examples include the Penguins of Madagascar; the Antarctic adventures of penguins, skuas, and a puffin in the Happy Feet films; and an assortment of feathered personalities, such as macaws, a toucan, and a cardinal, in the Rio movies.

Not limited to just the motion picture business, birds are also featured in comic books and comic strips. The most iconic of these is Woodstock of Peanuts, a mainstay of newspaper comic sections. While clearly not as famous as Snoopy’s sidekick, Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck remains a cult favorite in his respective print medium. These are just the biggest names; there are many more. You’ll even find in today’s newspapers several polarizing examples, among them the title character of Mallard Fillmore, a politically conservative comic strip, and Sparky the Wonder Penguin of the left-leaning This Modern World (7).

By the way, comics that delve into political and social issues are nothing new. Pogo, Bloom County, Shoe, and many others, entered that territory long ago. One of the main figures in the swampland setting of Pogo, of course, was an owl (8). Opus the penguin graduated from Bloom County to land a couple of comic-strip sequels (9). Out of these strips, only Shoe still runs in syndication today. It features a cast of avian-anthropomorphized characters, most notably a newspaper-industry osprey named “Cosmo”.

The End                                                                                                                        

As you can see, all sorts of birds have animated cartoon history. Waddling ducks quacking about are wildly funny. But penguins, chickens, and canaries are more than capable of eliciting their share of chuckles. Don’t expect cartoon birds to flock south anytime soon.

Meanwhile, as the curtains close here briefly, please stay safe and have fun. In other words, that’s all folks—‘til two weeks from now. For those of you in the U.S., have a wonderful upcoming Memorial Day!

Sources:

  1. Wiseman, R. “Fun Facts from LaughLab”, RichardWiseman.com: http://www.richardwiseman.com/LaughLab/Documents/funFacts.html.
  2. Crafton, D.C. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 329, 331.
  3. Gabler, N. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. p. 201.
  4. Hunter, M. “What Makes Daffy Duck? A History of Daffy Duck”, TooLooney: http://toolooney.goldenagecartoons.com/daffy.htm.
  5. Gabler, N. p. 201.
  6. Online Awards Database, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: http://www.oscars.org.
  7. Booker, M.K. (Editor). Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2014. pp. 1181-1182.
  8. Booker, M.K. pp. 719-721.
  9. Booker, M.K. pp. xxx (introduction), 1501.

Just a Few of My Favorite Blogs

First Post Pic-Triptic

Since I started blogging, I’ve had the good fortune of getting to see the incredible work of so many talented individuals. Artists. Humorists. Photographers. Scientists. Writers. All here on WordPress.

One of these people surprised me a few weeks ago. Marcy Erb made a special announcement on her award-winning blog Illustrated Poetry. There as part of “Award Wednesday”, she included nominees for two honors. And among the sites she listed was A-wing and A-way. I am grateful to Marcy for her vote of confidence and continued support. She just recently completed five illustrated posts dedicated to the theme of “Poetry of the Everyday”. So I encourage you to visit her site!

To continue in the same vein as Marcy, I would like to nominate a few of my favorite sites today for the “No Strings Attached Award”. What I really like about this honor is that it expresses one blogger’s special appreciation towards the work of another. But no entry fees, contests, or special tasks are required.

In alphabetical order, my four nominees are…

Create Art Everyday

A relatively recent blog, Laura’s Create Art Everyday launched late last year. Her mission, as aptly stated in the site’s title, includes demonstrating a new piece of artwork every day. But this blog is much more than that! Laura is dedicated to discussing the creative process and, moreover, inspiring others. And her enthusiasm is contagious. Since its debut, Create Art Everyday has amassed more than 400 followers and 10,500 hits. In that time, the site has explored collage, portraiture, painting, quilt-making, and mixed media. Laura also has provided a step-by-step tutorial for creating illustrations of birds and promoted “Draw a Bird Day” as a monthly event.

eMORFES: Art Design & Oddities

This ranks among the most unusual sites I’ve ever encountered. As eMORFES explains, it’s “a photo blog focused on the unique and bizarre things of the world. Its articles explore a number of different subjects such as art, photography, architecture and travel.” The site’s quirky entries span from a “Stone-shaped Wooden Cabin in the Swiss Alps” and “The Mysterious Fairy Circles of Africa” to “Owls—Masters of Disguise” and “Frozen”, the latter showcasing a photographer’s images of ice-encased objects such as a lighthouse, flower buds, and even bubbles! If you haven’t visited this blog before, prepare to be amazed!

Graceful Press Poetry

Anyone who believes poetry is dead hasn’t been checking out blogs. The sheer abundance of passion and talent is more than awe-inspiring. Among the many sites I follow, Jennifer G. Knoblock’s Graceful Press Poetry stands out with a style that merges modernist tendencies with neo-romanticist symbolism. One of her poems that first grabbed my attention is “At Yeats’ Grave”, a must-see entry. A prolific writer that regularly experiments with form, her most recent poem “Heartsease for Desire” conjures a vivid bucolic realm of haunting magic featuring a “blackbird boy”. Although all of her poems are gems, here are a few of my other favorites: “J.W. Booth”, “Sun/Child”, and “Grace Speaking”.

Red Newt Gallery

Last but definitely not least, Red Newt Gallery is a blog that’s dear to my heart. Sure, the author is my wife. And she also happens to be the artist and inspiration behind my blog, providing ideas and valuable feedback. So maybe I’m a tad bit biased. But I think she’s more than deserving of special recognition. Dedicated to both science education and biological illustration, her site briefs readers on nature’s oft overlooked treasures—and occasional pests, like the Oak Scale insect eggs inadvertently spilled on our kitchen table! Topics range from the beautiful, such as seasonal changes in the colorful feathers of the American goldfinches and the deceptively disappointing mock strawberries, to the peculiar—the reproductive systems of mushrooms and certain animals (bacula). I continue to learn a lot!

So many great blogs are out there, but the above are a few of my favorites. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you have a wonderful week!

Fowled Up: Funny and Offbeat Names for Birds

catbird

Many of our chosen monikers for birds are nothing short of odd. At times, they’re outright humorous. Even several scientific terms are not immune to chuckles, especially for folks with a limited acquaintance of Latin. Then there are those familiar bird nicknames that have evolved into coarse slang. Indeed, at times our winged neighbors and human language have tangoed to form quite an intriguing pair.

Rolling off the Tongue

Although many of the names we have for birds make sense, the words themselves often seem strange at first to the ear, names such as bobwhites, chickadees, killdeers, kittawakes, rufous-sided towhees, whippoorwills, and willets, among a plethora of others. However, the source for these monikers could not be any more natural. All of these birds are identified by the calls that they produce, as if they were simply introducing themselves by saying, “My name is…so-and-so”.

This my-name-is-approach holds true as well for the coot and cuckoo. Both of these birds are dubbed for their peculiar cries. However, in their cases, their distinctive call-based names interestingly hold other connotations. Due to the offbeat sounds they generate, these birds have been associated respectively with idiocy and madness (1, 2). A “mad old coot” remains a common pejorative for describing a silly or stupid elderly man (3). And advertising, of course, has taken up the crazy cuckoo idea. Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, the cartoon personality on the Cocoa Puffs cereal box, famously goes loco in commercials, dramatically giving in at last to his wild cravings for the cereal. Oh, Sonny!

More Etymological Oddities

As discussed in last week’s post, several birds were named for the way they look rather than how they sound. Relying on this strategy, European explorers and naturalists often adopted Old World bird names for those they encountered in the Americas. A few birds, though, were named for affinities they share with other things. For instance, the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church provided inspiration for the northern cardinal’s moniker, as the bird’s color and crest were evocative of the cloaks and galeri already worn by those clerics (4, 5).

In several circumstances, other animals played roles in the labels bestowed upon our feathered friends. The catbird, for example, is named for the manner in which its call is thought to resemble that of a small, young feline (6, 7); the cowbird for frequently feeding off the insects near grazing cattle (8); and the anhinga or “snakebird” for the way its long S-like neck, when swimming for food, extends out of a lake or marsh, bobbing forward (9).

Mousebirds also exist, but strangely enough they are not named after the rodent—nor are they pursued as prey by catbirds! Diana Wells, the author of 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, explains that “mouse” in this case comes from mase, the old Germanic, Anglo-Saxon word for “small bird” (10, 11). As for dogbirds or “dirds”, they only exist online such as on websites like sadanduseless.com!

Bird Names Gone Wild

Not only are some common names unusual, quite a few of the scientific ones are seemingly peculiar as well, at least initially to someone like myself who doesn’t know Latin well. For example, Circus cyaneus is not related at all to traveling, big-top, blue-tent amusement; this is the name for the marsh hawk. Sturnus vulgaris has nothing to do with stern warnings about crude, profane language; it’s the formal term for a starling. And while Turdus maximus sounds bad, like some archaic form of schoolboy bathroom humor, that term, too, is rather innocent—just the scientific name for the Tibetan blackbird.

But now that we’re on the subject of monikers-that-appear-to-be-offensive-but-aren’t, let’s not overlook several bird names that lend themselves erroneously to sexual innuendo. A couple obvious ones are well-known for their share of adolescent chortles: tits and boobies. As William Young notes in his The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat, neither of these terms has anything whatsoever to do with the female human anatomy. Titr, from which the former bird’s name derives, is simply Icelandic for “small” (12). Meanwhile, the other birds are known as “boobies” due to how explorers deemed the creatures’ appearance and behavior as comical (13). Incidentally, the celebrated ornithologist and artist John James Audubon thought the name more fitting for folks who belittled these or any other birds as stupid (14).

Nowhere to Go but up?               

Before ending this post, I’d be remiss to at least not touch upon a couple bird nicknames that actually have evolved (or perhaps, more aptly, digressed) into sexualized expressions. For example, here in the U.S., the nickname for owls has become slang for the female breasts. This appropriation is probably due to the prominence of the creatures’ eyes; however, the age-old connection between these birds and witchcraft, as a mysterious feminine power, may play an important secondary role.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the owl euphemism is relatively recent—late 20th century—as opposed to another common one, the name for a rooster that’s synonymous with a part of the male human reproductive system. The website notes the latter word’s contextualized usage as far back as the early 17th century (15), as does another source, tracing it to a pun used in Shakespeare’s play The Life of King Henry the Fifth (2.1.53) (16).

The strange ways in which we identify with birds, right? At this point, what more’s to be said? With these last few looks into the offbeat connections between linguistics and our winged neighbors, this post may have delved as low as decency permits. Next week, let’s take flight from the gutter!

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 33, 48.
  2. Young, W. The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2014. pp. 54, 68-71.
  3. Farmer, J.S. Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: C to Fizzle. Volume 2. London: Harrison and Sons, 1891. p. 178.
  4. Wells, D. pp. 25-26.
  5. Young, W. p. 34.
  6. Wells, D. p. 148.
  7. Young, W. pp. 39-40.
  8. Wells, D. pp. 37-38.
  9. Wells, D. pp. 229-230.
  10. Wells, D. p. 253.
  11. Young, W. p. 44.
  12. Young, W. p. 42.
  13. Young, W. p. 42.
  14. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 367-368.
  15. Harper, D. Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com.
  16. Farmer, J.S. p. 135.

WANTED: The “Real” Robin

robins

Just about everything—no matter its size, location, or value—has a name. After all, the process of getting to know something involves identifying it. Your street and city have names. Days, months, and years have them, too, as do galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, plants, atoms, viruses, etc.

Obviously, some folks more than others need a precise and well-established system of naming things. This is true in particular for those working in scientific fields, such as ornithology. As specialists studying birds, many of which migrate from one region to another, ornithologists around the world must be in agreement on what to call a particular bird; otherwise, misunderstandings are bound to ensue. Below is a look at just how easily problems can occur.

A Case of Stolen Identity?

Confusion easily arises when two different species of birds have the same common name. This happens more often than you may think. The popular robin is a prime example. The one chirping in the backyard of an American home is not the same robin singing around the English countryside. In fact, as far as birds go, they’re not even closely related. The American robin—on the left in the line-up above—belongs to the thrush family, while the European robin—the one on the right—is considered a chat (1). This means that 19th-century poets Emily Dickinson and John Clare, both well-known for their poems involving robins, were actually referring to two different kinds of birds.

The two songbirds do possess similar characteristics, mainly the red breast amid an otherwise dark-feathered body. The likeness in their appearance is primarily why the American bird came to be known by the same moniker as another across the Atlantic. Overall, European explorers and settlers encountered lots of birds overseas that were unfamiliar to them. And in many cases, these folks referred to the New World creatures with Old World labels, based primarily on similarities in how the birds looked (2). Unfortunately, the American robin is just one of several birds with a borrowed name.

Borrowed Names Hatch Confusion

In Europe, the yellowhammer is a bunting known for its golden color and erratic flight. The poet John Clare wrote at least a couple poems about the bird, including “The Yellowhammer’s Nest” where he describes the female creature’s most peculiar attribute, laying what looked like “pen-scribbled” eggs (3). On the other hand, when reading Clark Ashton Smith’s short poem “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest”, one can’t help but notice a critical discrepancy—he describes the eggs as “porcelain-white” (4).

It’s as if the two men are writing about two different types of birds. And, in fact, they are. Though better known today as the yellow-shafted northern flicker of the woodpecker family, the creature in Smith’s poem is also often regarded in the U.S. as the yellowhammer—perhaps in part due to the hammering sounds produced by the wood-pecking bird. Alabama, nicknamed the “Yellowhammer State”, has even named this flicker its official bird (5, 6). However, these two creatures, just like the aforementioned robins, are not closely related.

More Birds in Name—but Not the Same

As with the yellowhammer, New World versions of orioles, warblers, and blackbirds belong to different families than their Old World namesakes (7). For a couple common examples in literature regarding the latter, the North American subject of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is different from the thrush “blackbird” of the popular English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”. But despite issues such as these, the most confusing instance in identification has to lie with the nightingale. This is because that name has been applied on several continents to a host of different birds.

The songbirds mentioned in the poems of John Keats, Ryokan, and Hafiz of Shiraz are all called nightingales, yet each are from different avian families. A chat’s “plaintive anthem” inspires a terminally ill Keats to write what perhaps is his most famous ode (8). This is the bird we here in the West, of course, still commonly regard as the nightingale. Meanwhile, the uguiso, a Japanese warbler renowned as well for its vocals, is the nightingale cited in the verse of Ryokan, a contemporary of Keats (9). And then there’s the bird featured in the work of Hafiz, the 14th-century Persian poet. His nightingale is the bulbul, a songbird in the Middle East celebrated as the unrequited lover of the rose (10, 11).   And to further complicate matters, some Americans have thought of the virtuoso mockingbird as a “nightingale” (12). Interestingly, 17th-century English ornithologist Francis Willughby even refers to the cardinal as a “Virginian Nightingale” in his Ornithologiae libri tres (13).

Some Simple Solutions

One can easily see that a nightingale is not always the same nightingale another person may have in mind! Location, of course, dictates language, but less so when global communication is at stake. For worldwide conversations, relying on common names can be problematic. But what’s one to do, outside of learning the Latin-based scientific nomenclature? Well, one helpful approach entails cultivating an awareness of possible discrepancies in usage when looking back at historical documents, literature, art, and the like. This method particularly seems feasible for dealing with past occurrences in writings.

For present-day usage, many people, especially scientists, have introduced another solution. To help thwart the confusion that has arisen due to such nomenclature issues, the International Ornithologists’ Union has established a standard set of common English names for all birds (14). This group’s recommendations ensure that no two birds end up sharing the same name. Overall, the uniform standards are helpful. I’m still acclimating myself to the guidelines, a few of which I may continue to skip (e.g., capitalizing names). Nevertheless, at least there’s some clarity available when attempting to speak about two different birds with the same common moniker.

Next week, we will look a little bit deeper at bird names, exploring some of their more unusual and humorous aspects.

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 212-214.
  2. Wells, D. p. xiv of introduction.
  3. Clare, J. “The Yellowhammer’s Nest”. Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179904.
  4. Smith, C.A. “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest”. PoemHunter.com: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/boys-rob-a-yellow-hammer-s-nest/.
  5. Wells, D. p. 72.
  6. “Official Symbols and Emblems of Alabama: State Bird of Alabama”. Alabama Dept. of Archives and History: http://www.archives.state.al.us/emblems/st_bird.html.
  7. Wells, D. pp. 12-14, 156-157, 263-266.
  8. Keats, J. “Ode to a Nightingale”. Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173744.
  9. One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Stevens, J. (translator). New York: Weatherhill, Inc. 2004. p. 40.
  10. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 49.
  11. Wells, D. p. 151.
  12. Wells, D. pp. 147, 150.
  13. Page, J. and Morton, E.S. Lords of the Air. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1989. p. 49.
  14. Gill, F. and Donsker D. (Editors). 2014. IOC World Bird List (v 4.4). doi: 10.14344/IOC.ML.4.4.: http://www.worldbirdnames.org/.

“Tweeting” Before Twitter

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For more than two thousand years, birds have played a critical role in the conduit of human communications. People have used winged messengers for delivering notes to their lovers, relaying time-sensitive news to fellow reporters, and dispatching crucial strategic information to troops during wartime—saving perhaps thousands of lives in the process! One could say that long before instant messaging and social media, these were the original, old-school forms of “tweeting.”

A Little Bird Told Me…

Many of us today are acquainted with fictional accounts of bird messengers, such as the owls in the Harry Potter books and films or the ravens in the Game of Thrones TV series / A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Parrots feature prominently in Chinese folk tales. In one story from Szechwan province a talking parrot plays matchmaker between a beautiful servant girl and an unmarried aristocrat (1, 2). In other stories, such birds frequently divulge partners’ infidelities (3, 4). All in all, despite the fictional nature of these depictions, the idea of humans using avian messengers is not far-fetched.

Birds have long been known to report the goings-on of folks to others and at least thought to have the ability to do so. The author of one book in the Old Testament exhibits a wariness towards birds for this reason, stating that they could potentially disclose what one has said back to the powerful and affluent (Ecclesiastes 10:20). According to Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who would return regularly to report back to him the news and events of the day (5). And the Greek god Apollo supposedly learned about his lover’s unfaithfulness from a raven (6).

Avian Express Messaging Systems

While a few species of birds can be taught to speak human languages, training birds to carry written messages has been widely demonstrated as the most practical means of long-range communication. In the South Pacific, islanders have used frigatebirds to transmit attached messages between locations separated by sea (7, 8, 9). More than a century ago, a few folks in France explored the possibility of using swallows to carry letters and military-related notes (10). However, the most celebrated avian courier traditionally has been the dove or pigeon, with a history dating back to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome (11).

Throughout centuries in Europe and the Middle East, people have employed pigeons for transferring information. The ancient Greek city-states used them for relaying results of Olympic events (12). In the twelfth century, the Sultan of Bagdad established communications via pigeons between territories in Syria, Egypt, and what is today Iraq (13). Later, in the 1800s, P.J. Reuters, founder of the news agency that bears his name, briefly relied on pigeons to pass stock price info from the European cities of Brussels and Aachen (14).

War Pigeons

Relaying wartime messages was perhaps the most important use of pigeons. The French utilized them extensively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 (15). By the time of both World Wars, many countries, including the United States, either had a war pigeon program or were developing one. When other forms of communication could be easily compromised, these birds proved quite reliable and as a result prevented countless casualties. Of the WWI pigeons, Cher Ami is probably the most famous, completing his mission despite suffering several serious injuries from enemy fire, including losing one leg (16). G.I. Joe ranks as the most illustrious war pigeon of WWII. Arriving in just the nick of time, the bird’s message thwarted a planned U.S. bombardment of an Italian town recently held by the Germans, sparing the lives of allied soldiers and residents there (17).

As to the homing pigeons’ incredible ability to navigate to their “home” site, scientists have proposed several hypotheses. The birds may use a variety of “compass” and “mapping” methods (18). Some research indicates that pigeons find following the streets and highways below helpful for navigational purposes (19). And a study published in early 2013 suggests that the birds rely on low-frequency sound waves to “map” their way to their destination (20). As more research accumulates during the next few years, a greater understanding of this amazing skill is sure to emerge.

Sources:

  1. Yolen, J. (editor) Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 90-94.
  2. Roberts, M. Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. pp. 9-14.
  3. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 317.
  4. Tresidder, J. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997. p. 153.
  5. Hamilton, E. Mythology. New York: Mentor, Nal Penguin Inc., 1973. p. 308.
  6. Hamilton, E. pp. 279-280.
  7. Werness, H.B. p. 188.
  8. Brinkley, E., Humann, A. in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Elphick, C., Dunning Jr, J.B., and Sibley, D.A. (editors). New York: Alfred A. Knopf / Chanticleer Press, 2001. 167 ff.
  9. Terres, J.K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf, 1980. 402 f.
  10. Harting, J.E. “Training Swallows as Letter Carriers”. Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History. Third Series, Vol. XIII. London: West, Newman and Co., 1889. pp. 397-399.
  11. Greelis, J. “Pigeons in Military History”. The American Pigeon Museum: http://www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org/military-pigeons.html.
  12. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. “The Use of Pigeons as Messengers in War and The Military Pigeon Systems of Europe”. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Whitehall Yard. London: W. Mitchell and Co. 1886-1887. p. 111.
  13. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. p. 111.
  14. “Chronology: Reuters, from pigeons to multimedia merger”. Reuters (U.S. Edition): http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/19/us-reuters-thomson-chronology-idUSL1849100620080219.
  15. Dash, M. “Closing the Pigeon Gap”, 4/17/2012. Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/closing-the-pigeon-gap-68103438/?no-ist.
  16. Dash, M.
  17. Razes, J. “Pigeons of War”, August 2007. America in WWII magazine: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/pigeons-of-war/.
  18. “All About Birds: Navigation”. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/navigation.
  19. Davies, C. “How do homing pigeons navigate? They follow roads”, 2/5/2004. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453494/How-do-homing-pigeons-navigate-They-follow-roads.html.
  20. Ghose, T. “Mystery of Lost Homing Pigeons Finally Solved”, 1/30/2013. LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/26714-how-homing-pigeons-navigate.html.