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"Naming of birds proves baffling at times"

A "murder of crows" settles in to roost

Columbus Dispatch

NATURE
December 1st, 2013

Jim McCormac

May 13, 1851, was a big day for Charles Pease.

But the date turned out to be more momentous for his father-in-law, Jared Kirtland.

That spring morning, Pease was collecting birds on Kirtland’s farm near Cleveland and bagged a warbler unknown to him or anyone else. The specimen made its way to ornithologist Spencer Baird, who named it Kirtland’s warbler in honor of the great Ohio naturalist and politician.

Kirtland’s warbler is one of many birds with honorific titles. Of about 425 species seen thus far in Ohio, the names of 41 recognize an individual. Some are justified, such as the aforementioned warbler (although the collector might have hoped for “Pease’s warbler”). Others are not as deserving.

One of our showiest songbirds is the Blackburnian warbler. The male’s throat is brilliant orange, as if the bird is aflame with glowing embers.

What, though, is a “Blackburne”? Ashton Blackburne was a naturalist who collected animals around New York in the 1700s. One of his specimens wound up with Thomas Pennant, who named the stunning bird for Ashton’s sister, Anna Blackburne, a British botanist. Ms. Blackburne never visited the Americas or saw her namesake in the wild.

Blander are bird names that commemorate a region. Seventy-four of the species found in Ohio are tagged with “Northern,” “Eastern,” “American” or some such locational descriptor. One of these is a woodpecker, the former yellow-shafted flicker. In 1983, ornithologists redubbed the bird “Northern flicker” — a nomenclatural tragedy.

The most common modifiers used in bird names involve color. One hundred forty Ohio species collectively describe a palette of color.

Sometimes these monikers make sense; other times, less so. No one would quibble over the titles of blue jay or yellow warbler.

But an observer might look askance at a red-bellied woodpecker. What red belly? The species has one, but an observer must have a bird practically in hand to see the subtle pinkish feathers.

All of our birds were named during the shotgun era of ornithology, when collectors blasted their target, then described it. Thus, the red belly of the aforementioned woodpecker was obvious to the original describer even if not for us, looking from afar.

Most people are far more attuned to visual senses, and that explains the scarcity of birds named for the sounds they make. Only 24 of our birds are named for their melodies, such as the song sparrow, even though all of them produce sound. Early ornithologists weren’t following their ears nearly as much as their eyes.

Congregations of birds are sometimes given whimsical names.

A flock of crows is a “murder of crows.” You’ve heard of a “gaggle of geese,” but what about a "charm of finches”? A roost of owls is a “parliament.” Wrens are musical, and a group is aptly named a “chime.” Perhaps the “quarrel of sparrows” raiding your feeder is irritating. As an antidote, visit the zoo to discover a “flamboyance of flamingos” or “ostentation of peacocks.”

And my favorite, if not that of the fishy crowd, is a “siege of herons.”

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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