Nuthatches 1

Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch
Wondering where the nuthatch winters
Wings a mile long
Just carried the bird away

Eyes of the World by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
© Ice Nine Publishing

True Nuthatches can be found in three ecozones, Indomalaya, Palearctic and Nearctic, with most species present in the Indomalaya zone. The IOC World Bird List assigns 28 species to the Sitta genus.

Sitta is assigned to Linneaus (of course) while the name was used by Conrad Gessner in reference to Aristotle‘s Sittē in his Historia animalium. The latter described nuthatches as follows: ‘The bird called sitta is quarrelsome, but clever and tidy, makes its living with ease, and for its knowingness is regarded as uncanny; it has a numerous brood, of which it is fond, and lives by pecking the bark of trees’ (transl. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, 1910). This reference could be to any of the three species found around the Greece of Aristotle: Eurasian Nuthatch, Krüper’s Nuthatch and Western Rock Nuthatch.

The 28 species translate as follows.


NightingaleThe three species within the Luscinia genus in the Western Palearctic represent only one third of its total number worldwide; the remaining Luscinia species occupy the Eastern Palearctic region. Luscinia members are quite diverse and (up till now) closely related to the Erithacus robins and Tarsiger bush robins. Reference to both throat colour and robins in Luscinias is a remnant of the time when they were lumped with Erithacus robins. The non-true nightingales are all still classified within Luscinia on the IOC World Bird List for now – but for how much longer?

  • Bluethroat – Luscinia svecica = Swedish Nightingale – from Latin svecica = Swedish.
  • Siberian Rubythroat – Luscinia calliope = Calliope’s Nightingale – for Calliope, muse of epic poetry, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne.
  • White-tailed Rubythroat – Luscinia pectoralis = Pectoral Nightingale – from Latin pectoralis = of the breast.
  • Rufous-headed Robin – Luscinia ruficeps = from Latin rufus = rufous, red, and Latin suffix -ceps = -headed.
  • Blackthroat – Luscinia obscura = Dusky Nightingale – from Latin obscurus = dark, dusky.
  • Firethroat – Luscinia pectardens = from Latin pectus = breast, and Latin ardens = fiery, burning.
  • Indian Blue Robin – Luscinia brunnea = Brown Nightingale – from Latin brunneus = brown.
  • Siberian Blue Robin – Luscinia cyane = Dark-blue Nightingale – from Latin cyaneus = dark-blue, sea-blue.
  • Rufous-tailed Robin – Luscinia sibilans = Whistling Nightingale – Latin sibilans = whistling, hissing.

Etymologically, Luscinia seems to be a shortened form of luscicinia, referring to either canens in lucis, singing in the groves, or quod lugens canat, the lamenting singer.

Linnaeus made no distinction between Thrush Nightingale and Common Nightingale in the entry for Motacilla Luscinia in his 1758 Systema naturæ. He used the old epithet of Luscinia to name the bird, which was used previously by Conrad Gesner in his 1555 Historiae animalium. It could be suggested that Linnaeus’s description is of Thrush Nightingale. Earlier, in his 1746 Fauna Svecica Linnaeus seems to make a distinction between what is then not yet binominally called Motacilla Luscinia and a bird he refers to as Luscinia Minor. The latter can well have been Common Nightingale as opposed to the Thrush Nightingale described in the main entry. However, in the subsequent 12 years he seems to have changed his mind and reduced the variety to just Motacilla Luscinia, geographically distributed across Europe.

Common Nightingale was not described until German ornithologist Christian Ludwig Brehm‘s 1831 Handbuch der Naturgeschichte alle Vögel Deutschlands, and thus a distinction was made between Common Nightingale and Thrush Nightingale.

Both species are ultimately linked in namings all over Europe and further afield. As a general rule, where Common Nightingale is the only breeding species, it is referred to as (Common) Nightingale and Thrush Nightingale as Northern Nightingale; where Thrush Nightingale is the only species, it is called (Common) Nightingale, and Common Nightingale is referred to as Southern Nightingale.

In the few countries where both are (common) breeding birds, their specific epithets are more descriptive. In Polish (PL) Common Nightingale is referred to as Rusty Nightingale (Słowik rdzawy), whereas Thrush Nightingale becomes Grey Nightingale (Słowik szary); in Romanian (RO) Common Nightingale is named for its nocturnal song (Privighetoare = one who never sleeps), whereas Thrush Nightingale is named for Greek Philomela (Filomelă), which is generally translated mistakenly as ‘lover of song’. In Ukranian (UK) Common Nightingale is known as Western Nightingale (Cоловейко західний) and Thrush Nightingale as Eastern Nightingale (Соловейко східний); in Russian (RU) Common Nightingale is also known as Western Nightingale (Западный соловей), whereas Thrush Nightingale is Common Nightingale (Oбыкновенный соловей).

Many names can be presented as sets of cognates:

  • BE Sałaviej; BG Slavej; CZ Slavík; PL Słowik; RU Cоловей = Solovej; SK Slávik – these names seem to stem from a proto-Slavic solvij, which means nightingale, and is probably related to words for colour, such as glaucitas (old-Slavic slavoočije) and isabelline (RU solovoj).
  • DE Nachtigall; DA Nattergal; IS Næturgali; NL Nachtegaal; NO Nattergal; SV Näktergal – singer of the night.
  • ES Ruiseñor; FR Rossignol; IT Usignolo; PT Rouxinol – all go back to Latin luscinolus, from the masculine diminutive of luscinia.
  • TR Bülbül; SQ Bilbili; AZ Bülbülü; FA بلبل – references go back to the Persian poetic images of gol and bolbol, rose and nightingale.

Two names are very different:

  • Hungarian (HU) Fülemüle (Common Nightingale; Thrush Nightingale = Nagy fülemüle, Great Nightingale) could be related to both IT Usignolo and TR Bülbül, since Magyar has taken on many influences from both the East and the West.
  • German (DE) Sprosser (Thrush Nightingale) – from DE Sprossen = spots.

Crows 1

Carrion CrowThere are currently 46 species of Corvus crows on the IOC World Bird List. Of these only 8 species show any amount of white or off-white coloration in their plumage. This leaves us with 38 different black crows, 38 shades of black. How have they been described? In short: with little reference to colour.

Taking all Corvus species, here is a list of the scientific names with translations.

  • House Crow – Corvus splendens = Brilliant Crow – from Latin splendens = brilliant, shiny.
  • New Caledonian Crow – Corvus moneduloides = Jackdaw-like Crow – from Latin monedula = Jackdaw (literally, money-eater) and Greek -oidēs = resembling.
  • Banggai Crow – Corvus unicolor = Plain Crow – from Latin uni- = single, and color = colour. (First described by Rothschild and Hartert in 1900, this Sunda endemic was ‘rediscovered’ in 2007 after a 100 year absence.)
  • Slender-billed Crow – Corvus enca = Enca Crow – enca is a Javanese name for crow.
  • Violet Crow – Corvus violaceus = Violet-coloured Crow – from Latin viola = violet, and -cues = like.
  • Piping Crow – Corvus typicus = Typical Crow – from Latin typicus = typical, type.
  • Flores Crow – Corvus florensis = for Flores, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands.
  • Mariana Crow – Corvus kubaryi = patronym for Polish naturalist Jan Stanisław Kubary (1846-1896).
  • Long-billed Crow – Corvus validus = Strong Crow – from Latin valere = to be strong.
  • White-billed Crow – Corvus woodfordi = Woodford’s Crow – patronym for British naturalist Charles Morris Woodford (1852-1927).
  • Bougainville Crow – Corvus meeki = patronym for English bird collector and naturalist Albert Stewart Meek (1871-1943).
  • Brown-headed Crow – Corvus fuscicapillus = from Latin fuscus = brown, and -capillus = capped.
  • Grey Crow – Corvus tristis = Sad Crow – from Latin tristis = sad.
  • Cape Crow – Corvus capensis = for Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
  • Rook – Corvus frugilegus = Fruit-eating Crow – from Latin frugis = fruit, and leger = to pick.
  • American Crow – Corvus brachyrhynchos = Short-billed Crow – from Greek brakhus = short, and rhunkhos = bill.
  • Northwestern Crow – Corvus caurinus = from Latin caurus = north-western wind.
  • Tamaulipas Crow – Corvus imparatus = Unprepared Crow – from Latin imparatus = unprepared.
  • Sinaloa Crow – Corvus sinaloae = for the Free and Sovereign State of Sinaloa, Mexico.
  • Fish Crow – Corvus ossifragus = Bone-breaking Crow – from Latin os, ossis = bone, and frangere = to break.
  • Hispaniolan Palm Crow – Corvus palmarum = Palm Crow – from Latin palma = palm tree. (A recent split, endemic to Hispaniola.)
  • Cuban Palm Crow – Corvus minutus = Little Crow – from Latin minuere = to make smaller. (A recent split from Corvus palmarum s.l., endemic to Cuba.)
  • Jamaican Crow – Corvus jamaicensis = for Jamaica.
  • Cuban Crow – Corvus nasicus = Large-nosed Crow – from Latin nasus= nose.
  • White-necked Crow – Corvus leucognaphalus = White-mouthed Crow – from Greek leucos = white, and gnaphos = mouth.
  • Hawaiian Crow – Corvus hawaiiensis = for Hawaii, U.S.A.
  • Carrion Crow – Corvus corone = Crow – from Greek korōnē = crow (derived from onomapopoeic krōzō = to croak).
  • Hooded Crow – Corvus cornix = Crow – from Latin cornix = crow (synonymous with corvus).
  • Collared Crow – Corvus torquatus = from Latin torques = collar. (Was Corvus pectoralis = Pectoral Crow – from Latin pectoralis = of the breast.)
  • Large-billed Crow – Corvus macrorhynchos = from Greek makrorrhunkhos = long-billed.
  • Eastern Jungle Crow – Corvus levaillantii = Levaillant’s Crow – patronym for French ornithologist François Levaillant (1753-1824). (A recent split.)
  • Indian Jungle Crow – Corvus culminatus = Culmen Crow (Thick-billed Crow) – from Latin culmen = culmen. (Split from Corvus levaillantii.)
  • Torresian Crow – Corvus orru = unknown, probably based on a Papuan name for crow.
  • Bismarck Crow – Corvus insularis = Island Crow – from Latin insula = island. (Split from Corvus orru.)
  • Little Crow – Corvus bennetti = Bennett’s Crow – patronym for Australian naturalist George Bennett (1804-1893).
  • Forest Raven – Corvus tasmanicus = Tasmanian Raven – for Tasmania.
  • Little Raven – Corvus mellori = Mellor’s Raven – patronym for English chemist Joseph William Mellor (1869-1938).
  • Australian Raven – Corvus coronoides = Carrion Crow-like Raven – from Corvus corone = Carrion Crow, and Greek -oidēs = resembling.
  • Pied Crow – Corvus albus = White Crow – from Latin albus = white.
  • Brown-necked Raven – Corvus ruficollis = Rufous-necked Raven – from Latin rufus = red, rufous, and collum = neck.
  • Somali Crow – Corvus edithae = Cole’s Crow – matronym for British bortanist and entomologist Edith Cole (1859-1940).
  • Northern Raven – Corvus corax = Raven – from Greek korax = raven.
  • Chihuahuan Raven – Corvus cryptoleucus = Covert White-feathered Raven – from Greek kruptos = hidden, and leukos = white.
  • Fan-tailed Raven – Corvus rhipidurus = from Greek rhipis = fan, and oura tail.
  • White-necked Raven – Corvus albicollis = from Latin albus = white, and collum = neck.
  • Thick-billed Raven – Corvus crassirostris = from Latin crassus thick, heavy, and rostrum = bill.

Gulls 3

Great Black-backed GullFor non-birders, the fact that there is no such a bird as a sea-gull is sometimes hard to comprehend. Looking at the scientific names, Sea Gull is in fact Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus, from Latin mare = sea). However, proper sea-gulls are quite possibly just Sabine’s Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake, as they tend to be truly pelagic during the non-breeding season.

There is some fun to be had with gull names. Take, for instance, the next quartet of misnomers: Mediterranean Gull, Black-headed Gull, Laughing Gull and Black-tailed Gull.

The specific epithet of Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) refers to its black head (from Greek melas = black and kephalos = head), which would make it, literally, Black-headed Gull. At some point in the second half of the twentieth century the then-known Mediterranean Black-headed Gull had its ‘black-headed’ adjective dropped to avoid confusion with ‘Common’ Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). The latter’s scientific epithet (ridibundus) translates, generally, as ‘laughing’, i.e. Laughing Gull. However, Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) is a locally common New World species, whose scientific name refers not to laughing but to a black tail (from Latin ater = black and cilla = tail). Black-tailed Gull (Larus crassirostris), on the other hand, is a mainly Pacific species with a black tail in adult plumage; crassirostris, however, stems from Latin crassus (thick or heavy) and rostrum (bill), which would make this Thick-billed Gull.

Looking at the names of two of these species in a bit more detail, a few surprises appear.

Black-tailed Gull was first described by French ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot in 1818 as Larus crassirostris (Thick-billed Gull) and Goéland de Naugasaki (Nagasaki Gull) in French. Ten or 20 years later, it was Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck who named this gull Larus melanurus and Mouette queue noir (Black-tailed Gull) without any reference to Vieillot. Long known as Temminck’s Gull, it is from his description that the English name of Black-tailed Gull stems. A second name is widespread, Japanese Gull, although, perhaps not surpisingly, not in Japan.

  • Black-tailed Gull = Gaviota Colinegra (ES), Goéland à queue noire (FR), Gabbiano codanera (IT), Juodauodegis kiras (LT), Zwartstaartmeeuw (NL), Чайка чернохвостая (RU), Čajka čiernochvostá (SK), Svartstjärtad mås (SV), นกนางนวลหางดำ (TH), Mòng bể đuôi đen (VI), 黑尾鸥 (ZH).
  • Japanese Gull = Racek japonský (CS), Japanmåge (DA), Japanmöwe (DE), Jaapani kajakas (ET), Japaninlokki (FI), Japanmåke (NO), Mewa japońska (PL).
  • Sea Cat = ウミネコ (JA).

The description of Mediterranean Gull by Temminck can be found in his Manuel d’ornithologie as Larus melanocephalus and Mouette à capuchon noir, from a bird collected by Austrian naturalist Johann Natterer (who, like Temminck, has been blessed by various patronyms, such as Natterer’s Slaty Antshrike – Thamnophilus stictocephalus – and, more widely known, Natterer’s Bat – Myotis nattereri). Mediterranean Gull is mainly known around the Western Palearctic as Black-headed Gull, although Black-Sea Gull seems to be quite widespread – but not so much in languages around the Black Sea. It is known as Mediterranean Gull in Turkish, Ukranian and Welsh.

  • Mediterranean Gull = Gwylan Mor-y-Canoldir (CY), Akdeniz Martısı (TR), Мартин середземноморський (UK).
  • Black-headed Gull = Чорнагаловая чайка (BE), Малка черноглава чайка (BG), Racek černohlavý (CS), Sorthovedet måge (DA), Schwarzkopfmöwe (DE), Μαυροκέφαλος Γλάρος (EL),
    Gaviota Cabecinegra (ES), Mouette mélanocéphale (FR), שחף שחור-ראש (HE), Crnoglavi galeb (crnoglavi also means ‘pied’) (HR), Juodagalvis kiras (LT), Melngalvas kaija (LV), Zwartkopmeeuw (NL), Mewa czarnogłowa (PL), Чайка черноголовая (RU), Pulëbardha kokëzezë (SQ).
  • Black Sea Gull = Mustanmerenlokki (FI), Svartehavsmåke (NO), Gaivota-de-cabeça-preta (PT), Čajka čiernohlavá (SK), Svarthuvad mås (SV).

There are quite a few unique names for Mediterranean Gull:

  • Arabic: المتوسط, نورس البحر = Common Gull;
  • Estonian: Karbuskajakas = Hooded Gull;
  • Hungarian: Szerecsensirály = Saracen Gull;
  • Icelandic: Lónamáfur = Lagoon Gull;
  • Italian: Gabbiano corallino = Coral Gull, after its bill colour.

Black-headed Gull and Laughing Gull will be dealt with another time.

Gulls 2

Comparing English and scientific names can be confusing in gull species. The agreed classification for gulls at this point in time is to have four larger genera, and a set of smaller ones. The gulls that have been classified by the IOC on their World Bird List as non-single or non-dual genus species have been grouped into Chroicocephalus, Leucophaeus, Ichthyaetus and Larus.

Here is a list of generic and specific scientific names with their translations.

Chroicocephalus = coloured head; from Greek chroa = colour, and cephalus = head.

  • Slender-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus genei = Gené’s Gull – patronym for Italian naturalist Giuseppe Gené (1800–1847).
  • Bonaparte’s Gull – Chroicocephalus philadelphia = Philadelphia Gull – for Philadelphia, PA, USA.
  • Red-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus scopulinus = Cliff Gull – from Latin scopulus = cliff.
  • Silver Gull – Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae = Western-Australian Gull – name given to Western Australia by early Dutch explorers.
  • Black-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus bulleri = Buller’s Gull – patronym for New Zealand ornithologist Walter Lawry Buller (1838–1906).
  • Andean Gull – Chroicocephalus serranus = Mountain Gull – from Portuguese serra = mountain (range).
  • Brown-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus = from Latin brunneus = brown, and Greek kephalos = head.
  • Brown-hooded Gull – Chroicocephalus maculipennis = Spotted-winged Gull – from Latin macula = spot and penna = wing.
  • Black-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus ridibundus = Laughing Gull – from Latin ridere = to laugh.
  • Grey-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus = from supposedly fake Latin cirrhus following Greek kirrhos = grey, and Greek kephalos = head.
  • Hartlaub’s Gull – Chroicocephalus hartlaubii = patronym for German ornithologist Karl Johann Gustav Hartlaub (1814–1900).
  • Saunders’s Gull – Chroicocephalus saundersi = patronym for British ornithologist Howard Saunders (1835–1907), an authority on gulls.

Leucophaeus = brown and white – from Greek leucos = white and phaios = dusky.

  • Dolphin Gull – Leucophaeus scoresbii = Scorebi’s Gull – patronym for English Arctic scientist William Scoresby (1789–1857).
  • Lava Gull – Leucophaeus fuliginosus = Sooty Gull – from Latin fuligo = sooty.
  • Laughing Gull – Leucophaeus atricilla = Black-tailed Gull – from Latin ater = black and cilla = tail.
  • Franklin’s Gull – Leucophaeus pipixcan = pipixcan seems to be an Aztec word of unknown meaning.
  • Grey Gull – Leucophaeus modestus = Plain Gull – from Latin modestus = plain, modest.

Ichthyaetus = after syn. Larus ichthyaetus, Pallas’s Gull – from Greek ichthys fish and aetos eagle.

  • Relict Gull – Ichthyaetus relictus = from Latin relictus = relict.
  • Audouin’s Gull – Ichthyaetus audouinii = patronym for French naturalist Jean Victoire Audouin (1797–1841).
  • Mediterranean Gull – Ichthyaetus melanocephalus = Black-headed Gull – from Greek melas = black and kephalos = head.
  • Pallas’s Gull – Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus = Fish-eagle Gull – from Greek ichthys = fish and aetos = eagle.
  • White-eyed Gull – Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus = from Greek leukos = white and ophthalmos = eye.
  • Sooty Gull – Ichthyaetus hemprichii = Hemprich’s Gull – patronym for German naturalist Friedrich Wilhelm Hemprich (1796–1825).

Larus = from Greek laros = gull or other seabird.

Herring Gull

  • Pacific Gull – Larus pacificus = for Pacific Ocean.
  • Belcher’s Gull – Larus belcheri = patronym for British naval explorer Edward Belcher (1799–1877).
  • Olrog’s Gull – Larus atlanticus = for Atlantic Ocean.
  • Black-tailed Gull – Larus crassirostris = Thick-billed Gull – from Latin crassus = thick or heavy, and rostrum = bill.
  • Heermann’s Gull – Larus heermanni = patronym for US field naturalist Adolphus Lewis Heermann (1827–1865).
  • Mew Gull – Larus canus = Grey Gull – from Latin canus = grey.
  • Ring-billed Gull – Larus delawarensis = for Delaware River, USA.
  • California Gull – Larus californicus = for California, USA.
  • Great Black-backed Gull – Larus marinus = Sea Gull – from Latin mare = sea.
  • Kelp Gull – Larus dominicanus = Dominican Gull – for black and white habits or robes of the Dominican Order.
  • Glaucous-winged Gull – Larus glaucescens = Blue-grey Gull – from Latin glaucescens = somewhat glaucous, bluish-grey.
  • Western Gull – Larus occidentalis = from Latin occidens = west.
  • Yellow-footed Gull – Larus livens = Bluish Gull – from Latin livens = bluish.
  • Glaucous Gull – Larus hyperboreus = Northern Gull – from Latin hyperboreus after Greek hyperborea = northern.
  • Iceland Gull – Larus glaucoides = Glaucus-like Gull – from Larus glaucus (syn. Larus hyperboreus = Glaucous Gull) and Greek oides = resembling.
  • Thayer’s Gull – Larus thayeri = patronym for US ornithologist John Eliot Thayer (1862–1933).
  • European Herring Gull – Larus argentatus = Silver Gull – from Latin argentatus = ornamented with silver.
  • American Herring Gull – Larus smithsonianus = patronym for British mineralogist and chemist James Smithson (1765–1829).
  • Vega Gull – Larus vegae = named for exploration vessel Vega used by Finnish Artcic explorer Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskjøld (1832–1901).
  • Caspian Gull – Larus cachinnans = Laughing Gull – from Latin cachinnare = laughing loudly.
  • Yellow-legged Gull – Larus michahellis = misspelling of michahelles, patronym for German zoologist Karl Michahelles (1807–1834)
  • Armenian Gull – Larus armenicus = for Armenia.
  • Slaty-backed Gull – Larus schistisagus = from Latin schistus = slate, and sagus = cloak.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull = Larus fuscus = Dark Gull – from Latin fuscus = dark, swarthy.

Robin 2

Novitates ZoologicaeGerman ornithologist Ernst Hartert (1858–1933) was the first to describe the subspecies of Robin present in the British Isles (Erithacus rubecula melophilus). The German description appeared in the 1901 issue of the zoological journal of the Tring Museum (now the Natural History Museum at Tring) in London, Novitates Zoologicae, vol. VIII, p. 317.

Hartert was a master of systematic ornithology, with particular detail for subspecific features. He travelled far and wide to collect birds in the late nineteenth century and wrote extensively for various publications, such as Novitates Zoologicae, Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, Ibis, Journal für Ornithologie, Genera Avium. An elected member of the BOU since 1893, he published the second version of the British List in 1915. His magnum opus, Die Vogel der paläarktischen Fauna, was published in three volumes between 1910 and 1922. It is a highly descriptive work, shorter than Johann Friedrich Naumann’s Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands, still as impressive. Both titles are precursors to Urs Glutz von Blotzheim’s Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas and Stanley Cramp’s Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palearctic, which were published in the late twentieth century.

Hartert’s description of the British Robin is part of a larger account of his journeys through ‘Africa, Asia and America’. In a chapter about the breeding birds of the Canary Islands, a large section is devoted to Robins, with most space devoted to Tenerif Robin (E.r. superbus). The debate at the time was whether this subspecies was different from the ones found in the British Isles and the nominate form.

The following is an English translation of the original German text.

Erithacus rubecula melophilus subsp. nov.
Differs from [E. r. rubecula] by deeper, russet upper parts, particularly obvious on the rump and uppertail coverts, and by a much darker, rusty throat in fresh plumage. The flanks are a deeper colour and there is more extensive brown, resulting in less white coloration on the belly; the undertail coverts are light rusty. The song is very well developed. This form is an indefatigable singer, especially during the ‘autumnal song’, which is sung with perseverance and much fire. Starting in September, it is already in full song by October. It has a preference for sitting on the roofs of buildings and on fences, and belts out its delightful song into the autumnal air. In general, it does not reside solely in forests and woods but occupies also gardens and likes the vicinity of houses. The nest is often placed in a higher spot, and can be found against buildings, in haystacks, in ivy against walls and tree trunks, in open tree holes, even in greenhouses, and to a lesser extend in unused barns, if it can enter through an open window. It is one of the commonest birds in England, and very much loved by the population, known and loved by everyone, and to which no one wants to bring harm. It plays a widespread role in poetry and nursery rhymes. Because of its conspicuous love of singing, I have attached the above-mentioned name.
Breeding area: To my knowledge only the British Isles.
I do not know the Andalusian specimen mentioned by Tristam.
At times the throats of older birds are so dark that they resemble closely the Canary Islands superbus, but they can always be identified by other features when the throat colour does not suffice.
Ernst Hartert, ‘Aus den Wanderjaheren eines Naturforschers. Reisen und Forschungen in Afrika, Asien und Amerika’, Novitates Zoologicae, VIII (1901), 221–355, 383–393 at 317.

Robin 1

RobinIt’s coming on Christmas, and there will be Robins everywhere. Cards decorated with this chat in snow, in trees, in Holly, will grace many a room and mantelpiece.

Robin taxonomy is fuzzy and in flux. Current debate seems to focus on the Western-Palearctic, European Robin belonging to an African-based subfamily named Cossyphinae, part of the larger Old-World Flycatchers family of Muscicapidae. The other two species traditionally grouped into the Erithacus genus, Japanese Robin E. akahige and Ryukyu Robin E. komadori, might well become part of a different genus. John Boyd summarizes the debate openly and with erudition. Time will tell what and where these birds will be and end up.

Robin morphology is seemingly clinal. The orange-red frontal colour features most prominently in names across the Western Palearctic.

Scientific name:
genus: Erithacus, from εριθακος – an unidentified bird, later assigned to Robin;
species: rubecula – red breast.

Linnaeus described Robins first in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae as Motacilla Erithacus, where Motacilla stems from Greek μύττηξ (myttēx) an unidentified bird mentioned by Hesychius in his lexicon. Erithacus is first mentioned by Aristotle in his History of Animals, where he describes Robins as the ‘winter version’ of Redstarts, birds that appear as Robins in winter and as Redstarts in summer – a misidentification of migration, as Redstarts would migrate south at about the same time when Robins would move in from the north.

Zoonomen recognizes 8 subspecies, differentiating them geographically (caucasicus = Kaukasus, Trans-Kaukasus, west of Caspian Sea; hyrcanus = referring to Caspian Sea (Mare Hyrcanus), North Iran, distr. south of Caspian Sea; tataricus = West Siberian lowlands, east of Caspian Sea), descriptive (nominate = red breast; microrhynchos = small bill; superbus = splendid, referring to the darkest breast colour; valens = powerful, the largest subspecies, Crimean subcontinent), and patronymical (witherbyi = Harry Witherby, English ornithologist).

The only reference to the song is in the subspecies breeding in the British Isles, where E. r. melophilus = song-loving redbreast, so named by German ornithologist Ernst Hartert.

Further references to the colour red:

  • Red breast: roodborst (NL), readboarstke (FY), brongoch (CY), petirrojo europeo (ES), pettirosso europeo (IT), אדום החזה (HE), mалиновка (RU), punarinta (FI), glóbrystingur (IS).
  • Red throat: Rotkehlchen (DE), rougegorge (FR), kοκκινολαίμης (EL).
  • Red crop: Vörösbegy (HU), guşă-roşie (RO), rödhake (red chin) (SV).

An interesting name is the Portuguese pisco-de-peito-ruivo, as here redbreast is an adjective to pisco, a name used for a number of old-world chats such as robins, bluethroats, robin-chats, alethes. But there are exceptions to this naming tradition.

  • Czech: červenka = ruddock (červenka -ka diminutive suffix, červený relates to ruddy).
  • Slovak: červienka.
  • Polish: rudzin = ruddock rudz (-in seems to be a diminutive suffix).

These West-Slavic languages refer to older, probably more widespread names, which are etymologically related to the English naming tradition of Robin. ‘Robin’ is a fairly recent invention. In 1100 the bird was called ruddock (rudduc, Old English), where rud(d) = red and -ock a suffix; by 1401 it was recorded as redbreast (Middle English).

Ruddock remains in use locally. Robin is first recorded in combination with redbreast in the first half of the fifteenth century as robyn redbreast, a bit of alliterative fun. Whether robin is a diminutive of Robert or was transferred from Frisian robyntsje (which actually denotes Linnet) is unclear. Robin and Redbreast existed as names alongside each other until the late-nineteenth century, by which time Redbreast became less used and Robin became the established name. The first, 1883 BOU British List still carried Redbreast; by the second British List of 1915, it had been replaced by Robin.

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!

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.

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.