Saturday, August 9, 2008

Whose Bird? Common Bird Names and the People They Commemorate

On a pelagic trip earlier this summer, someone asked me who Cory was, referring to the flock of Cory's Shearwaters Calonectris diomedea that were artfully catching flyingfish as they leaped clear of some hungry tuna below us. Hmmm. I knew that he was an American collector of some kind but had to admit that I wasn't really sure of his connection to these graceful seabirds.

I've always be interested in bird names, wanting to know who birds are named after and why. There are many reasons, and at times this is a topic of controversy. Obviously some names are given as a celebration of the contributions of great naturalists - think of Darwin's Rhea Pterocnemia pennata and Wallace' Bird-of-Paradise Semioptera wallacii to name but two. Similarly, eminent museum curators and explorers are frequently immortalized in the vernacular (common) names or more often, the scientific names of birds. Others are a little less meritorious, honoring spouses, expedition sponsors or their families and so on. The real controversy arises when these names contain imperialistic overtones, examples are Victoria Crowned Pigeon Goura victoria named after Britain's Queen Victoria or the self-explanatory Queen of Bavaria's Conure Aratinga guarouba. There is no evidence that either lady tramped through the steaming tropical forests with a shotgun over their shoulder but perhaps they had some role in enabling the expedition that discovered them. There is a trend in modern times to switch to more descriptive names Darwin's Rhea becomes Lesser Rhea or to adopt local names, especially for endangered species where the support from local people is often so important.

In this handy volume, Beolens and Watkins have systematically tracked down the origins of some 1,400 avian eponyms and provide in alphabetical order brief biographical sketches of the people behind the names. Some entries include a photograph of the individual concerned.

One can explore this remarkably rich topic in more detail by visiting the scholarly works by Barbara and Richard Mearns [Biographies for Birdwatchers: The Lives of Those Commemorated in Western Palearctic Bird Names (Academic Press, 1988), The Bird Collectors (Poyser, 1998) and Audubon to Xantus: The Lives of Those Commemorated in North American Bird Names (Academic Press 1992)].

Title: Whose Bird? Common Bird Names and the People They Commemorate
Authors: Bo Beolens and Michael Watkins
Publication Date: January 2004
Publisher: Yale University Press
ISBN-10: 030010359x
ISBN-13: 9780300103595
Softcover, 384 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, 150 black and white illustrations.
Retail Price: $40.00 (US)

1 comment:

John said...

Yeah, I like this one, too. The books by the Mearnses are fine...a great record of the sacrifices some of the old collectors made.

Can't believe no-one commented earlier.... but the internet generation just don't read print !

Regards from Hong Kong