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SAY! MR. CASSIN!

By Nic.Korte

Previously in this column, I have riffed on bird-names, and how I prefer monikers such as Black-throated Sparrow—which actually is a sparrow with a black-throat—as opposed to nonsensical names such as Bushtit and Dotterel (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/what-comes-to-mind-when-you-hear-someone-yell-great-tits) (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/dunnocks-serins-and-shitepokes-oh-my-and-white-arses).

Worst-case names are those such as the Orange-crowned Warbler. An ornithologist friend has told me, “Well, if you shot one and ruffled the feathers on its head a bit, you might find a hint of orange.” Orange-crowned Warblers are relatively common in our area, but never having murdered one, I can’t vouch for the alleged orange in the crown.  Almost as frustrating for beginning birders, must be those birds ascribed to some long dead person. If you are a beginner, do you even know what a “phoebe” is? (No, not the late singer, Phoebe Snow, or a character on “Friends.”) What vision is conjured by considering the name Say’s Phoebe?

(Say's Phoebe by Jackson Trappett)

We have a great many birds named this way. John Cassin has especially been honored with Cassin’s Finch, Cassin’s Kingbird, and Cassin’s Vireo—all of which may be seen in Western Colorado. He is also commemorated with the Cassin’s Sparrow and Cassin’s Auklet.
( Cassin's Finch-Note the straight and longer beak relative to the House Finches found in our yards)


John James Audubon only has two birds named after him, an Oriole found along the Texas/Mexico border and into Mexico, and a Shearwater, a seabird that lives along the east and gulf coasts. Do these others deserve even one namesake species?

Thomas Say, who died in 1834, was an American entomologist and conchologist. Huh? Why is a bird named after him? A little research turned up that he was the official zoologist of an early expedition to the Rocky Mountains and tributaries of the Missouri River. That expedition reported the first description of his namesake bird. In his career, Say described more than 1,000 new species of beetles, more than 400 species of insects of other orders, and seven well-known species of snakes. He has had a lot of things named after him. I guess he deserves it. 

What about Cassin, who has five bird species named for him? Apparently, he was “a careful and talented taxonomist,” [who] named 198 birds not described in the works of his predecessors Alexander Wilson (he of five namesake species) and John James Audubon.
(Wilson's Warbler--high in the San Juan Mountains)

Wilson was a Scot who was apprenticed as a weaver, but was mostly known for writing poetry and strolling in the countryside. He used his poetry to deride the unfair treatment of weavers by their employers. Because the poems were considered libelous, he was in trouble with the law, lived in poverty and was forced to borrow money to pay court costs and other expenses (http://www.wilsonsociety.org/society/awilsoninfo.html).

In 1794, Wilson left for America where he met William Bartram, a famous early American naturalist who fostered Wilson’s interest in birds. Wilson traveled widely, observing and painting birds, and gathering subscribers for his nine-volume work, American Ornithology published in 1808-1814, which illustrated 268 species, including descriptions of 26 new species. OK, I will give him his due, five species for a man dedicated to poetry, human rights and birds. What’s not to like?

At least one bird named after a person seems to make immediate sense. Surely, the Lincoln’s sparrow must be named to honor our most famous president. Oops. No. It isn’t. It was named by Audubon after his friend, Thomas Lincoln who shot one while on a trip with Audubon in Nova Scotia in 1834. Tom Lincoln, apparently unrelated to the famous president and his family, was only 21 at the time. Sometimes “who you know” is more important than “what you know!”
 (Lincolln's Sparrow--as murdered by Thomas Lincoln)


This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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