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 nineteenth-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 fourteenth-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, seventeenth-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/.
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Look but Don’t Touch: Watching out for Nesting Birds

nest_JMLandin

Look but don’t touch. This was a lesson I learned early on as a young boy, staring intently along with my grandmother at a bird nest. Inside a shrub-like tree, a bowl of straw lay almost hidden. Within it, several nestlings, their mouths wide open, were awaiting their next meal.

After a quick look, we hurried away, soon noticing that the mother robin returned with sustenance for her young. Folklore, of course, advises people to not harm bird nests, for doing so was commonly thought to bring bad luck (1). However, for many children, superstitious appeals are not necessary, as a simple reverence for nature may be more persuasive. Why disturb a nest? Instead, by just watching, all people, no matter their age or occupation, can spend days learning about the behavior of our winged neighbors.

A Few Famous Nest Watchers

Such appreciation is expressed eloquently in the beginning of Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, which notes his frequent engagement afar with a pair of nesting mockingbirds: “… every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.” (2)  The perils of nature may have eventually laid claim to one of the birds, but the poet’s powerful connection to them, especially the surviving bird, is undeniable.

As a few literary examples demonstrate, birds do sometimes choose risky locations for their nesting spots. Robert Frost’s poem “The Exposed Nest” relates an amazing find within a freshly cut hayfield—a nest of young birds somehow surviving untouched by a passing blade (3). In John Clare’s “The Pettichap’s Nest”, a narrator marvels at a warbler’s eggs precariously placed by a well-traveled horse-and-wagon road. “Yet,” he remarks in the poem, “like a miracle, in Safety’s lap / They still abide unhurt, and out of sight,” housed in a nest “Built like an oven.” (4)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Emperor’s Bird’s-Nest” presents perhaps what may be the worst place imaginable for most birds—the outskirts of a battlefield. However, in this poem, the sixteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, while planning a military campaign, decides to protect a swallow nesting on the ruler’s makeshift dwelling. Even when his army finally packs up its belongings, the tent is ordered to remain, “Loosely flapping, torn and tattered, / Till the brood was fledged and flown.” (5)

Birdhouses and Backyard Birding

People, having an affinity towards nesting birds, usually desire to offer some form of protection to the winged caregivers and their offspring. This is a big reason for the introduction and success of birdhouses. We enjoy watching and hearing bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, finches, wrens, and many other of our feathered friends. In fact, it’s not uncommon for folks to have several nest boxes set up near their home, a practice commonly referred to today as “backyard birding.”

The use of human-made birdhouses actually goes back at least five centuries to parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. These structures were often, and still are, freestanding entities placed near human residences. They’re typically constructed out of wood, but materials over time have varied, including clay, gourds, and, most recently, concrete (6). Designs tend to be simple and box-like for housing one bird nest. Ornate assortments also exist, consisting of decorative models with multiple nesting compartments made to resemble castles, palaces, ships, and other elaborate abodes.

Not all birdhouses are built as isolated units. Enclosures for nesting birds are sometimes constructed as part of a building’s façade. The country of Turkey, especially the city of Istanbul, is renowned for such architectural structures (7). Of course, several kinds of common birds are notorious throughout the world for nesting in parts of human dwellings not intended as “birdhouses.” Pigeons display a fondness for ledges, for instance, while certain swifts like to use chimneys.

Some Quick Guides for Getting Started

Birds generally don’t require fancy amenities, but they do need a dry, well-ventilated space that’s just the right size for a particular species’ entry and residence. Using the interactive tools on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch’s site, you can quickly determine which types of birds, based on region and habitat, are found in your area. Out of those, think about which ones you’d like to attract.

Also, to help you offer a safe, sturdy, and accommodating home for your avian guests, an illustrated guide with tips and information on birdhouses is available, as are step-by-step instructions on the proper way to install a camera within a nest box and monitor nesting activity.

Teachers can even download a NestWatch lesson plan packet for their students. Course information includes how to identify local birds by their song and type of nest, guidelines and legal requirements for observing nests, and methods for collecting and reporting data.

With the lesson plan packets and latest technology, you can look all you want. But still, no touching.

Happy watching!

Note: This post first appeared a few weeks ago on the Your Wild Life science website.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. 8, 114, 115.
  2. Whitman, W. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178710.
  3. Frost, R. “The Exposed Nest,” Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt, 1920. New York: Bartleby.com, 1999: http://www.bartleby.com/119/21.html.
  4. Clare, J. “The Pettichap’s Nest,” John Clare Info pages: http://www.johnclare.info/sanada/4Rm2.htm#PETTICHAPS.
  5. Longfellow, H. W. “The Emperor’s Bird’s-Nest.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Maine Historical Society Web Site: http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=134.
  6. Cranmer, T. “Nesting Cavities and the History of the Birdhouse,” Cranmer Earth Design: http://www.earthdesign.ca/bihi.html.
  7. “Bird Houses in Turkey,” Turkish Cultural Foundation: http://www.turkishculture.org/architecture/bird-houses-104.htm.