Book Review: The Urban Birder

Urban BirderThe Urban Birder
David Lindo
London: New Holland Publishers, 2011
222 pp. £9.99 hardback
ISBN: 978-1-84773-950-6

David Lindo is a rising star in the world of celebrity birders, due to his exposure in various BBC television and radio programmes, a column in Bird Watching magazine, as well as appearances in BBC-related wildlife/countryside publications. Now there is a book: The Urban Birder.

Avid self-publicist or man on a mission? After following his work for some time, thoughts should be placed firmly in the latter. David Lindo makes it perfectly clear: his goal is to demonstrate to readers why he calls himself the urban birder. The Urban Birder is an almost natural progression in his project by taking the readers on his own journey of discovery.

The book describes the story of becoming more and more involved in birding in cities and towns. Growing up in Wembley, West London, Lindo moves through various faces and places, arriving eventually back in the western half of London. His journey is nicely described with anecdotes and stories of childhood excursions, teenage trips and adult explorations. Although overall chronological, individual chapters might move back and forth a bit, never annoyingly, always within the frame of the story.

At first, it might seem that these are just fun stories of a black man growing up learning and making mistakes about birds. But there are two sides to this book. One is the journey of discovery that David Lindo himself has gone through and that has led him to become enthusiastic about urban avifauna. The other is about the idea of the urban birder.

So what is the Urban Birder? It is a moniker David Lindo has chosen for himself to emphasize the importance of birding in urban areas and the conservation of urban wildlife. Of course, he is not the first person to do this (he acknowledges Eric Simms‘s Birds of Town and Suburb), but he does stress that it is not so much about him as a person and more about the recognition of the possibility of birding in urban areas.

Overall, this is a fun book to read with an important message. The idea of the urban birder, although not new, is something that needs to be repeated over and over. If you want to go birding, you don’t need to go out to high-profile areas, there will be a bird around the corner, in the garden, the nearest park. Birds are everywhere and can pop up anywhere, in towns and cities like anywhere else.

Throughout the book, David Lindo sprinkles little bits of advice to the reader to stay alert: ‘keep you eyes peeled and your mind open then you would begin to see wildlife in urban areas that you just never expected’, ‘if you look then you will see’, ‘if you listen then you will hear’, ‘always question the identification of a bird’, ‘looking up is a major part of birding’. The latter is especially important and perhaps the single phrase to take away from this book: ‘look up’.

PS A completely different review could have been written about another aspect of the book. David Lindo mentions issues to do with being black and birding about three times in the book, every time with humour and understatement, but always with an undertone of concern. Birding is still predominantly an activity of white men; hopefully the statistics and attitudes towards this will change. At the end of the day, we need more birders!

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Anagrammatic naughtiness

anagramsAfter the strict scientific naming revolution of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century gave way to a bit more word-play. Anagrams, for example, became one way of lightening the mood and of stretching an existing scientific name into related species groups.

An example can be found in two kingfisher anagrams. Both Lacedo (L. pulchella, Banded Kingfisher) and Dacelo (kookaburras, e.g. D. leachii, Blue-winged Kookaburra) are anagrams of the Alcedo generic epithet. Other existing examples are the single-species genera Nilaus (African bushshrike Brubru, Nilaus afer) after Lanius shrikes and Tabara (Latin America’s Great Antshrike, Tabara major) after Batara (Giant Antshrike, Batara cinerea).

A further two generic names look like anagrams but are most likely unintended. Purnella, although seemingly an anagram of Prunella, is actually a patronym in honour of Australian naturalist Herbert A. Purnell. Cape Petrel (Daption capense) was given its generic name from the Greek daptes, little devourer, by James Francis Stephens, an English entomologist. Incidentally, it is also an anagram of the Portuguese name for Cape Petrel, pintado, for painted bird, although unintended.

And then there is the house martin epithet. The three species within the Delichon genus are blessed with an anagram of Chelidon, from Greek χελιδών, swallow. The first person to come up with this genius little word-play was one Frederic Moore, an English entomologist working as assistant curator for the museum of the East India Company. A specimen of a new species of Indian swallow had been taken to Moore by Brian Houghton Hodgson, naturalist and anthropologist, who has been homaged by many patronyms and described some 79 bird species (and discovered 39 species of mammals and 124 species of birds). Since Moore described the hirundine species, his name has been attached to the new genus. Although first published in the 1854 Catalogue of the Birds in the Museum of the Hon. East-India Company by Thomas Horsfield and Frederic Moore, it was intended to appear in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London first but was delayed. The notice in the Proceedings starts:

‘The subject that I beg to lay before the Meeting this evening, is a new form belonging to the family Hirundinidæ, lately collected in Nepal and presented to the Museum of the East India Company by B.H. Hodgson, Esq., which is allied to, but certainly distinct from, the genus Chelidon, and for which the following anagrammatic name is proposed. Delichon (nov. gen.).’

The establishment was not amused. Word-play in general had been condemned as early as 1842 by a Committee appointed ‘to consider the rules by which the nomenclature of Zoology may be established on a uniform and permanent basis’. It had appointed 13 members, among whom was Charles Darwin. Under the heading ‘Nonsense names’, which includes anagrams, the Committee states:

‘Such verbal trifling as this is in very bad taste, and is especially calculated to bring the science into contempt. It finds no precedent in the Augustan age of Latin, but can be compared only to the puerile quibblings of the middle ages. It is contrary to the genius of all languages, which appear never to produce new words by spontaneous generation, but always to derive them from some other source, however distant or obscure. And it is peculiarly annoying to the etymologist, who after seeking in vain through the vast storehouses of human language for the parentage of such words, discovers at last that he has been pursuing an ignis fatuus.’
H.E. Strickland et al., Report of the Twelfth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science for 1842 (London: John Murray, 1843).

Many anagrams have since disappeared and only exist in the shadow-world of synonyms.

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Great (White) Egret

Great White EgretIn a recent query on the Glamorgan Rarities Committee blog regarding Great (White) Egret, John Wilson asked whether Great White Egret should be down in the East Glamorgan Bird Report as Casmerodius albus, following the Collins guide, or as Ardea alba, following the BOU list. Both the BOU and the AOU have been convinced by DNA findings going back to the 1970s that Great White Egret belongs in Ardea, with all the larger herons, thus making Casmerodius albus obsolete.

That seems straightforward. Now for the confusion parts. The British English name for this heron is Great White Egret, whereas the international English name is Great Egret. Dutch Birding Association lists as the English name Western Great Egret, due to their recognition of the split from Eastern Great Egret in the Antipodes. (They do list Western Great Egret as Casmerodius albus though.) The IOC World Bird List has gone back to Great Egret Ardea alba since a relump with A. modesta. Further, there are some who call Great Egret Egretta alba, such as the Swedish Sveriges Ornitologiska Förening.

It does look like Great White Egret is prone to confusion. This is confirmed by the Association of European Record and Rarities Committees, who asked for clarification of placement in an earlier taxonomic recommendation document. Without quoting the entry verbatim, it seems that there are differences of opinion within the taxonomic subcommittee of the AERC. The BOU seems to be content about positioning Great White Egret in Ardea. The Dutch Commissie Systematiek Nederlandse Avifauna and the French Commission de l’Avifaune Française seem less satisfied with this conclusion. They follow the line that Great White Egret takes up a place half-way between herons Ardea and egrets Egretta. Because Great White Egret is not the only species to be in this position (Intermediate Egret and Cattle Egret are the other two species), they deem it better to place GWE in a separate genus Casmerodius until relationships between the various species have been clarified. Although the AERC seems to support the latter position, the Swedish SOF supports the status quo of Egretta alba.

Taking the three names, the language is not particularly dazzling. All three species names refer to the colour white of the bird (albus/alba). The genera are a bit more interesting:

  • Ardea = Latin for heron;
  • Casmerodius = contraption of Greek khasios, treasure, and erōdios, heron – referring to the value of the display feathers;
  • Egretta = from French aigrette, egret.

Heron and egret are related, egret being a small heron – from French aigrette being a diminuitive of aigron. Most European languages follow patterns into similar definitions.

There are references to the colour white: volavka bílá (CS), mjallhegri (IS), airone bianco maggiore (IT) – white heron; czapla biała (PL), garça-branca-grande (PT) – great white heron.
In addition, the adjective silver relates to the colour white (silver white, bright white) not to any valuable assets: sølvhejre (DA), Silberreiher (DE), egretthegre (NO), ägretthäger (SV) – silver heron; grote zilverreiger (NL) – great silver heron.
Further, great egrets are so named in Spanish (garceta grande) and French (grande aigrette), with Greek silver egret (αργυροτσικνιάς).

The odd one out here is the Finnish jalohaikara, noble heron. The nobility element refers to the egret’s elegance, but haikara refers to more birds than just herons (including bitterns and night herons). Storks (e.g. katohaikara – White Stork) and spoonbills (e.g. kapustahaikara, Eurasian Spoonbill) are named haikara too. This could be a result from it having a very long etymology, from possible pre-Germanic haigara or even pre-Proto Germanic kraikr, an onomatopœic representation of the harsh calls.

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Gulls 1

Of the 54 gull species on the IOC world list, 24 are Larus gulls, 12 are Chroicocephalus, 5 Leucophaeus, 6 Ichthyaetus; the remaining 7 are single or dual species genera. The latter’s names are not always what they make out to be.

Pagophila eburnea = sea-ice loving ivory-coloured bird (Ivory Gull)
Generally, this gull is graced with the adjectives ivory (English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese), white (French), or ice (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic). It was first described as Larus Eburneus by British explorer Constantine Phipps in his 1774 A Voyage towards the North Pole. Subsequently, German naturalist Johann Jacob Kaup separated Ivory Gull from Larus and placed it in the monotypic genus Pagophila.

Xema sabini = Xema is a made-up name, sabini is a patronym (Sabine’s Gull)
Irish scientist Edward Sabine is often honored in this gull’s name (Norwegian, Czech, French, Spanish). Other European languages seem to refer to the forked tail and (more general) tern-like characteristics (Finnish, German, Dutch, Icelandic). Mysteriously elusive is the Polish ‘mewa obrożna’, plover gull.

Creagrus furcatus = hooked fork bird (Swallow-tailed Gull)
In most languages, reference is made in the name to the forked or scissor-like or swallow-like tail. One, rather obscure, exception is the Finnish ‘yölokki’, night gull.

KittiwakeRissa tridactyla = three-toed kittiwake (Black-legged Kittiwake)
Famous for its three toes, it is thus named three-toed gull or three-toed kittiwake, apart from in Nordic languages (sans Swedish):

  • Icelandic: rita = onomatopœia? (the origin of the scientific genus);
  • Danish: ride = from Icelandic rita;
  • Faroese: rita = from Icelandic rita;
  • Norwegian: krykkje = onomatopœia?
  • Finnish: pikkukajava = little kittiwake (kajava is also an old Finnish word for gull);
  • North Sami: skierru = onomatopœia?

Rissa brevirostris = short-billed kittiwake (Red-legged Kittiwake)
Spanish and West Slavic languages follow the scientific (short-billed gull: gaviota piquicorta – ES; racek krátkozobý – CS), but it is generally referred to as red-legged gull/kittiwake, except e.g. in Swedish (Beringmås = Bering gull), German (Klippenmöwe = cliff gull), French (mouette des brumes = misty gull).

Hydrocoloeus minutus = small web-footed water bird (Little Gull)
It doesn’t look like any language refers to the webbed features of the Little Gull’s feet – generally, the adjective to ‘gull’ refers to ‘little’ or ‘least’ or ‘pygmy’, as in minutus.

Rhodostethia rosea = rose-breasted bird (Ross’s Gull)
The scientific name is essentially a partial tautology, a combination of the Greek rhodon, rose (with stēthos breast), and the Latin rosea, rose-coloured. Incidentally, the patronym is only used in English and Dutch, other languages follow the scientific and refer to colour. It was Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray who first described this gull as Larus roseus in 1824. MacGillivray was very interested in taxonomy and the distinctions between species, and assigned this gull to its own monotypic genus Rhodostethia in 1842. James Clark Ross was an explorer of both the Arctic and the Antarctic and has had Ross Seal named after him as well.

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Plant and Bird Names

There are quite a few examples of scientific names stretching across plants and animals (hemihomonyms). Most of the animals in question are insects and invertebrates, though some are fish, and occasionally mammals (Nelsonia) and birds (Archboldia, Leptosomus).

DunnockIn the Western Palearctic, we are blessed with two bird/plant hemihomonymic genera. Prunella can refer to either accentors (birds, e.g. P. modularis, Dunnock) or self-heals (plants, e.g. P. vulgaris, Common Self-heal). Similarly, Oenanthe can refer to wheatears (birds, e.g. O. oenanthe, Northern Wheatear) or water dropworts (plants, e.g. O. crocata, Hemlock Water Dropwort).

The origin of Prunella (plant) is uncertain, though most likely derived from Latin prunum (plum), thus transposing the colour of red plums to the flowers/petals. Prunella (bird) is first mentioned in Gessner’s 1555 Historiae animalium liber III qui est de Avium natura – the scientific term seems to be a Latinization of the German Braunelle (Dunnock).

Oenanthe‘s etymology is straightforward: it is a combination of the Greek oinos (wine) and anthos (flower). Its interpretation when applied to birds or plants is different though. The plant name is interpreted as scent: the flowers of water dropworts have a wine-like smell. The bird name is supposedly first mentioned as oinanthe in Aristotle’s History of Animals, although unidentified; it was thought to appear in the vintage season (Horace) when the dogstar appears (Aristotle), probably in the vicinity of vineyards.

Apart from these scientific hemihomonyms, an English-language species name is applied to two (related) birds and two plants in the British Isles. Redshank is generally used to refer to a bird with red legs (Tringa totanus, Common Redshank, and Tringa erythropus, Spotted Redshank), a plant with red stems (Persicaria maculosa) and a moss with red stems (Ceratodon purpureus). Incidentally, only the scientific name of the moss refers laterally to the colour red (in purpureus), with no reference to the shanks.

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The The

Definite articles shouldn’t cause any difficulty in the English language. Unlike in German, for instance, where a plethora of definite articles is used depending on gender and case, the English language knows only one: ‘the’. Easy.

Recently, however, ‘the’ has become a bit of an annoyance in certain publications. Every now and then ‘the’ seems to be capitalized when used in relation to the Netherlands. An example:

‘Moltoni’s Warbler is already split in The Netherlands and Italy from Subalpine Warbler’.

This example is lifted from Birdwatch magazine, a UK monthly; it is common practice here. Where is this strange usage coming from? Is it the idiosyncratic behaviour of a copy editor? Maybe Birdwatch uses a Dutch person to read their copy, as I have seen ‘The Netherlands’ used by Dutch people writing in English. Or maybe, they have been reading too much of the KLM in-flight magazine Holland Herald, another culprit. What is the justification of the misuse of ‘the’?

In a word, none. Unlike The Gambia, the only country that uses ‘The’ as part of its official name, the Netherlands do not add an article to their official denomination. In fact, like country names such as France, Germany and Italy, there shouldn’t really be an article preceding it. Since it is a plural noun, a preceding article is of course de rigeur.

Elevating ‘the’ to capital status almost makes it look like it has become part of the noun. It is not. We might end up with the The Netherlands, The-Netherlands or Thenetherlands.

A thorn in the flesh.

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Marmora’s Warbler

Marmora's WarblerThe Marmora’s Warbler found near the Blorenge, Gwent, 3 June, is the latest in a series of megastar birds to hit the British Isles in the past weeks. If accepted it will be the fifth record for Britain and the first for Wales. A resident or short-distance migrant of Sardinia, Corsica and the western Italian islands, it is remarkable that this bird has arrived here. As it is a second calendar male, it is more understandable that it has overshot its migration course, most probably due to a lack of experience.

This is a species with a curious linguistic geography. First described by Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck on Sardinia in 1820 as Sylvia sarda, where Sylvia means ‘inhabitor of the woods’ (in this case, ‘wood warbler’) and sarda refers to Sardinia. The species is known in almost every European language as Sardinian warbler. Avibase lists 20 languages in which this is the case. The exceptions are:

  • English: Marmora’s Warbler;
  • Estonian: Vahemere-põõsalind = Mediterranean warbler;
  • Greek: Μολυβοτσιροβάκος = pencil warbler;
  • Hebrew: סבכי כהה = dark warbler;
  • Icelandic: Eysöngvari = island warbler;
  • Maltese: Bufula Griża = grey warbler;
  • Slovenian: otoška penica = island warbler;
  • Welsh: Telor Marmora = Marmora’s warbler.

A varied list, though colour and geography seem to dominate as adjectives. In English (and in its translation into Welsh) the bird is described through a patronym, in honour of Italian naturalist Alberto Ferrera La Marmora, who had associations with Francesco Cetti and Franco Andrea Bonelli, both of whom have been homaged by eponyms and patronyms.

The recently split Balearic Warbler, Sylvia balearica, has a range restricted to, indeed, the Balearics (excl. Menorca). Described by Jordans in Mallorca, in 1913, it was considered subspecific to Marmora’s Warbler for decades. Not so surprisingly since its recent split and restricted range, it is known in many European languages as Balearic warbler; apart from in Catalan, the language spoken in the Balearics, where it is known as Busqueret coallarge, i.e. long-tailed warbler. As Balearic Warbler is the only species within the longer-tailed clade of the genus Sylvia to occur within the Balearics, its Catalan name does make sense.

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