Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Another rant about the Zitter

A friend recently asked my local birding group about a small stripy bird he had photographed in Cyprus. It was identified as a Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis). 
I agreed with the identification, but personally I think that Zitting Cisticola is a stupid name and I would always use its original English name of Fan-tailed Warbler. After all, this small brown bird looks like a warbler, sounds like a warbler and displays a beautifully fanned tail during its song-flight.
The ludicrous name Zitting Cisticola seems to have been contrived for two reasons: firstly because birds in the Cisticola genus are not now considered true warblers (whatever that means); and secondly, because taxonomy despots wanted to avoid the preposterous risk of confusion with a rare Central American bird that has also been given the name Fan-tailed Warbler. 
But Zitting Cisticola is such a crass name. First, no one even knows what Cisticola actually means. The -cola element refers to an “inhabitant” (from the Latin verb colere, to inhabit) but the cist- bit could be derived either from Latin cista- (“of a woven basket”, perhaps referring to the fantail’s finely woven nest) or from Greek kistos (“a flowering shrub”). So the Cisticola is a bird that lives either in a fancy nest or in a pretty bush.  
And “zitting”? You won’t find any dictionary that includes “zit” as a verb. Zit is a well-known noun meaning a pimple, a small red swollen spot, especially one on the face. So far as I know, the Fan-tailed Warbler is not prone to facial blemishes, so “zitting” presumably refers to the bird’s song, which sounds a bit like scissors rapidly snipping.
Since the Fan-tailed Warbler is by far the most abundant and widespread species within its genus, most of the other 50 or so Cisticola species did not even have English names until the taxonomy tsars came along. And if you agree that the adjective “zitting” is silly, you will be astounded by the even more idiotic English names that have been offloaded onto on some of the other Cisticola species. Let me present the following:

  • Bubbling Cisticola (C bulliens)
  • Chattering Cisticola (C anonymus)
  • Chirping Cisticola (C pipiens)
  • Churring Cisticola (C njombe)
  • Croaking Cisticola (C natalensis)
  • Piping Cisticola (C fulvicapilla)
  • Rattling Cisticola (C chiniana)
  • Siffling Cisticola (C brachypterus)
  • Singing Cisticola (C cantans)
  • Tink-tink Cisticola (C textrix)
  • Tinkling Cisticola (C rufilatus)
  • Trilling Cisticola (C woosnami)
  • Wailing Cisticola (C lais)
  • Whistling Cisticola (C lateralis)
  • Winding Cisticola (C galactotes) 

So if you agree that "zitting" is ridiculous, what do you think about "siffling", "tink-tink"and "tinkling"?  
And some members of the genus that have managed to avoid stupid names derived from their calls or songs have instead been lumbered with equally wacky monickers such as the following:
  • Carruthers's Cisticola (C carruthersi)
  • Cloud-scraping Cisticola (C dambo)
  • Foxy Cisticola (C troglodytes)
  • Lazy Cisticola (C aberrans)
  • Rock-loving Cisticola (C emini)
  • Stout Cisticola (C robustus)
  • Tiny Cisticola (C nana) 
  • Wing-snapping Cisticola (C ayresii)

As mentioned above, another dubious reason for discarding the name Fan-tailed Warbler is that this name is also used for a rare American species. This upstart New world bird is a rare and shy forest-edge bird found along the Pacific slope in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. It was given its name comparatively recently, while the Old World Fan-tailed Warbler has been known for centuries as a common inhabitant of grassland habitats across southern Europe and the Middle East, throughout Africa and southern Asia and even right down to northern Australia. Indeed, the Old World bird is so widespread that it outnumbers all the other 50 Cisticola species put together.
Since our Old World bird clearly had first dibs on the name Fan-tailed Warbler, it should have been up to the Americans to find a new name for their own bird — even if they simply called it an American Fan-tailed Warbler. After all, they already accept the names American Wigeon, American Coot, American Woodcock, American Oystercatcher, American Avocet, American Golden Plover, American Kestrel, American Bittern, American Crow, American Dipper, American Robin, American Tree-creeper, American Goldfinch, American Tree Sparrow, American Redstart, etc.

Deceitful use of bird images

While idly flicking through a brochure for a cruise holiday company I noticed that the illustrations accompanying the blurb for two of its cruises included misleading images of birds. Both these cruises follow the southern coasts of South America, and both illustrations show species that would never be seen during these voyages.
The first cruise, labelled “Sensational South America: Santiago to Rio”, is a voyage south from Valparaiso (Chile), round Cape Horn and back north to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), with stop-overs in various mainland ports and a detour to the Falkland Islands. 
The illustration for this cruise shows three different birds — flamingoes, penguins and a toucan. 
Now the flying flamingoes could well be Chilean Flamingo, a species found throughout temperate South American. So no problem there. 
And the penguins are clearly King Penguin, which cruise-goers may certainly see around Tierra del Fuego or possibly in the Falkland Islands — although the illustration stupidly manages to depict them on a white sandy beach in front of Rio de Janeiro’s outlandish statue of Christ the Redeemer, even though this species has never been seen so far north. 
But the most absurdly misplaced bird in the illustration is the toucan. There are more than 40 species of toucan, but not one of them can be found so far south. 
And the species depicted is clearly a Keel-billed Toucan, which is a bird of Central America. Its range just extends into northern Colombia and north-western Venezuela, but its southern limit is still well within the Northern Hemisphere and some 2,800 miles (4,500km) short of Santiago or Rio.

The Keel-billed Toucan may be badly out of place, but even more ludicrous is the choice of bird to illustrate the second cruise. Listed as “Buenos Aires Stay and South America Explorer”, this option is similar to the first voyage but travels in the opposite direction. And its brochure image clearly — and preposterously — shows two Atlantic Puffin. 
Don’t be fooled by the word “Atlantic”. The Atlantic Ocean may well extend down the east coast of South America, but the Atlantic Puffin is restricted to the colder northern waters of the North Atlantic, where it breeds on the coasts of north-west Europe, the Arctic fringes and eastern Canada. In winter an intrepid Puffin may venture as far south as the North Carolina coast — but that is still well inside the Northern Hemisphere and no less than 5,000 miles (8,000km) north of the cruise’s starting point in Argentina.
To make matters worse, when I investigated the cruise company’s website I found a page about South American cruises on which was an image of a Blue-and-yellow Macaw. Now, unlike the toucan and the puffin, this macaw is a genuine South American bird. It can even be found south of the Equator. But, once again, it is a species that cruise-goers have virtually no chance of seeing during their trips around the continent’s southern fringes. 

The Blue-and-yellow Macaw occurs only across the northern regions of South America and is rarely found anywhere near the ocean other than on the shores of the Caribbean Sea. It may also be seen on the Atlantic coast, but only as far south as Brazil’s most northerly outposts — some 1,500 miles (2,400km) short of any cosy port visited on the cruise company’s itineraries. 
Could cruise passengers spot any other macaw species instead? Almost certainly not. South America hosts a further 18 species of macaw, but several of these are just clinging on to existence, if not already extinct. As with the 40 species of toucan, their restricted range means that, barring a miracle, cruise passengers will not see any of them.
My initial intention was to spare the cruise company any embarrassment by not identifying it. But I have changed my mind mainly because of the company’s name — Imagine Cruising. Imagine! It certainly needs plenty of imagination to promote South American cruises with images of birds that could not possibly be seen on any of the hyped itineraries.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The “inornate” warbler

Early in April last year (2016) I was lucky enough to catch up more than once with a rare Yellow-browed Warbler at my birding “local patch” in north-west London — Brent Reservoir, also known as the Welsh Harp. 
The Yellow-brow can be hard to observe, since it is almost constantly in motion, flitting short distances from branch to branch. Luckily it is not shy, and I had close views of it and also heard its distinctive call, a piercing “tsee-WEET”— strikingly loud for one of the smallest Old World warblers.
The Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) breeds across much of northern Asia and normally winters in tropical south-east Asia. But on leaving the breeding sites some young birds take a wrong turn and head west across Europe instead of south to the usual wintering grounds. In Britain the bird is normally seen only in small numbers in autumn, mainly on the east and south coasts of England or on northern Scottish islands. 
Most of the birds that reach Britain move on, probably to continue west and drown in the Atlantic, but a few — usually only in single figures — attempt to winter here. One of these rare overwintering birds was found at Brent Reservoir on 23 December 2015. It lingered for a few days, allowing some regular local birders and a number of twitchers to see it. (I missed it because I was away over Christmas.) It obligingly stayed until 1 January 2016 so that New Year’s Day birders could include it on their next year list. 
The bird then vanished but, to our surprise, it reappeared (or was it a different bird?) three months later, on 3 April 2016, at another part of the site, where it stayed for a fortnight, showing itself daily. I may be wrong, but so far as I know our spring bird was the first Yellow-brow ever seen in London in April. It was certainly one of only a couple of individuals known to have survived into spring 2016 anywhere in Britain.
According to my bird books, the Yellow-browed Warbler is also known as the Inornate Warbler. Inornate? Have you ever come across this word? I hadn’t, so — as always when confronted by an intriguing word — I turned to the metadictionary website OneLook (, which searches for words across a range of online dictionaries and encyclopaedias. In this case, OneLook offered just a single reference to “inornate”, in Collins English Dictionary, which gives the definition “simple, or not ornate”.
Now so far as I am concerned, the Yellow-brow does not deserve to be labelled “simple, or not ornate”, since it is a pretty little thing. It has greenish upperparts, whitish underparts and two prominent yellowish-white wing bars. Most strikingly, it has a long yellow supercilium, an eyebrow stripe running from the base of its bill and above its eye and finishing towards the rear of its head. This can be clearly seen in autumn, when the bird is most often encountered in Britain, although by April our bird’s supercilium had become worn and less pronounced.  
The Yellow-brow’s closest relative is the equally rare Hume’s Warbler (P humei), which is similar but generally duller (even more “inornate"?). Better-known near relatives found in Britain are three slightly larger birds — the Common Chiffchaff (P collybita), the Willow Warbler (P trochilus) and the Wood Warbler (P sibilatrix). These three are also eligible to be described as “inornate”, since they have shorter and less obvious eye-stripes and they lack wing bars, although they may have yellower tummies than the Yellow-brow. 

Our Brent Reservoir superstar was last seen on 17 April 2016. I hope it managed to make its way back to its birthplace and find a mate.

An expert birder who has never seen a bird

I learnt recently about a remarkable South American birder who is recognised as one of the continent’s leading bird experts. He can identify hundreds of species, but he has never seen any of them. 
Born in 1986 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Juan Pablo Culasso has been blind since birth. But a gifted sense of hearing has allowed him to memorise more than 3000 different sounds from more than 720 bird species. He is helped by having perfect pitch, which means that he can hear a tone and immediately identify it as F-sharp, B-flat or whatever. Only one in about 10,000 people has this ability. 
Culasso’s interest in birds dates from a young age, when his father read to him from a bird guide that was accompanied by audiocassette recordings of bird calls. The youngster found that he could easily memorise these sounds, and this ability inspired an enduring love of birds. 
In 2003, as a teenager, Culasso was invited to join an ornithologist on a field visit to record  Uruguayan birds such as Tawny-bellied Seedeater (Sporophila hypoxantha) and Rufous-rumped Seedeater (Sporophila hypochroma). This experience led to an obsession with documenting the sounds of nature, and he went on to study bioacoustics in Brazil. 
In 2014 Culasso’s facility for recognising birds through their voices alone won him a prize on a National Geographic television programme. In the final test, he had to identify 15 birds chosen at random from recordings of 250 species, and he recognised every one. He   spent most of his $45,000 winnings on audio equipment.
After a decade in Brazil, Culasso is now back in Montevideo, working — not surprisingly — as a nature sound recordist. His career has even taken him on a two-month trip to Antarctica, where he recorded the wildlife of the Southern Ocean and the sounds of melting icebergs.
Although blindness may seem a major obstacle for birding, Culasso embraces it. He points out that those who rely mainly on sight have a visual field of only 70 degrees ahead of them, while a lack of vision allows one to concentrate on the sounds received from every direction — left and right, front and back, above and below. When he accompanies sighted birders on field trips he regularly identifies birds by sound long before his companions have managed to recognise them by sight. 
Culasso’s success at sightless birding offers a lesson for all birders. It is all too easy to rely mainly on visual identification, but remaining alert to the sounds around you can make a big difference to any birding expedition. 

Rollo’s regrettable legacy

Although it is dispiriting to read about birds that have become extinct in recent times or are heading for oblivion, it is also heartening to learn about species that reappear long after they have been assumed to have died out. 
One example is Beck’s Petrel (Pseudobulweria becki), which was refound a few years ago after being overlooked for 80 years. However, this species still faces a high risk of extinction. Much research is needed if we are to detect, respect and protect its breeding sites, believed to be on small Melanesian islands.
While relishing the re-emergence of this species, I find it irritating that its English name and its scientific binomial both commemorate a man whose activities threatened its survival. Until its rediscovery, Beck’s Petrel was known only from two specimens “collected” during a 1928/29 South Pacific expedition by Rollo Beck (1870–1950), an American ornithologist who seems to have made a living by selling the corpses of vulnerable birds to museums.
Although the petrel that bears his name still survives precariously, Rollo Beck may have contributed to the extinction of at least two other creatures. One of these was the Guadalupe Caracara or Quelili (Caracara lutosa), a bird of prey endemic to Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. Once common on the island, its numbers plummeted towards the end of the 19th century, mainly because of an extermination campaign by goat herders who believed that the bird predated their kids. In 1900, when the caracara had already been almost wiped out, Beck visited the island and found 11 birds. Having no land-based predators (other than goat herders), they were tame and approachable, and Beck shot nine of them to supply to museums as scientific specimens. Since Beck’s fateful trip to the island there have been no confirmed sightings of this species.
In 1906, Beck also “collected” three of the last four known specimens of Pinta Island Tortoise (Geochelone nigra abingdonii) — even though he knew that, like the Guadalupe Caracara, this subspecies of the Galápagos Tortoise had already been almost wiped out. 
After Beck’s testudinal butchery the Pinta Island Tortoise was believed to be lost. But in 1971 a lone male was discovered. Dubbed “Lonesome George”, he was taken to a research station for protection. He died of old age in 2012, after failing to mate successfully with females of a closely related subspecies. 
In view of Rollo Beck’s appalling record, surely it is time to award Beck’s Petrel a less cynical name?   

Sunday, 25 December 2016

A rotten Christmas Robin

Every year the Royal Mail issues a collection of Christmas postage stamps. Its set for 2016 depicts six of the corniest Christmas clichés — snowman (2nd class post), robin (1st class post), tree (£1.05), lantern (£1.33), stocking (£1.52) and pudding (£2.25). 

Unfortunately, the representation of the Robin on the first class stamp is far from first class. The image may be roughly the right shape for a Robin, but the bird has been given a breast of a garish pillar-box red rather than the more subtle orange-red of a real adult Robin. Even worse, the chocolate brown around and below this bib is quite wrong. In real life the Robin’s colourful breast patch has a delicate bluish-grey margin either side of it, and the bird’s undercarriage is whitish from the belly to beneath the tail, shading into pale reddish-brown on the flanks. Only the upperparts and wings are actually brown.

The stamp also gives its Robin yellow legs, a yellowish bill and a conspicuous white eye with a tiny black pupil. In fact the legs and bill should be brown and the eye is entirely black, surrounded by a fine white eye-ring. 

Examining this rotten representation of a Robin set me thinking about why the bird has become a Yuletide symbol. One alleged origin for its association with Christmas lies in maudlin folklore linking its red breast to either the birth or the death of Jesus. One legend says that when ickle baby Jesus was in his manger in the stable, the fire lit to keep him warm began to die down. A little brown bird flew in and flapped its wings to make the embers glow and re-ignite the fire. A stray red-hot ember flew from the hearth, landing on the bird’s breast to make it glow bright red. An alternative version has the fire flaring up and the bird scorching its breast by placing itself in front of the fire to protect the baby Jesus. In either case, Mary supposedly declared that the reddened breast was a sign of the bird’s kind heart and that the bird and its descendants would wear a red breast proudly for evermore. 

Equally nauseating is the story that when Jesus was dying on the cross a Robin flew up and tried to remove his thorny crown. But it was not strong enough and its passionate attempts led to its breast being stained red with Jesus’s blood. 

A more plausible origin for the Robin’s association with Christmas derives from the nickname “Robin” given to Victorian postmen because of their red tunics. (Red is, of course, still used by the Royal Mail on its logo, postboxes, vans, etc.) Because people expecting Christmas mail eagerly awaited the arrival of the red-breasted postman, some greeting card artists illustrated their cards with images of postal delivery. However, one artist decided that instead of drawing Robin the postman, he would draw Robin the bird with letters in its little beak. The trend caught on and, as Victorian tastes grew more extravagant, Robins were even slaughtered to provide red feathers for decorating cards.

But despite these alleged origins, it may be that the Robin's association with Christmas is simply because, like Yuletide evergreens such as holly, ivy and mistletoe (which become more obvious once deciduous plants have lost their leaves), it is more noticeable at this time of year. Robins become more conspicuous by December partly because UK numbers are boosted by birds from colder climates migrating to Britain in the autumn and partly because, unlike most garden birds, the Robin draws attention to itself by singing regularly in the winter.  

Incidentally, the name Robin is a fairly recent acquisition, only officially accepted by the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1952. The bird’s Anglo-Saxon name was Ruddock, but by the Middles Ages it had become known as Redbreast. In the 16th century there was a fad for giving common birds personal names, so that the Daw became Jack Daw, the Pie became Mag (Margaret) Pie, the Wren became Jenny Wren, tits became Tom Tit, etc, and the Redbreast became Robin Redbreast. Over the years, Jack Daw and Mag Pie condensed to Jackdaw and Magpie, and the Wren and the tits dropped their adopted forenames. But the Redbreast went on to lose its “surname” and become just plain Robin.

Monday, 19 September 2016

The migrant Greylag is no laggard

The Greylag (Anser anser) is a large grey goose, the Anser ancestor of most domestic geese and the bulkiest of the geese found in Europe. It can be distinguished from other grey geese by its large head, thick neck, dull pinkish legs and heavy pinkish-orange bill.

In the UK, truly wild Greylag occur only as winter visitors to Scotland and Northern Ireland, to which they migrate in autumn from their breeding grounds in Iceland. Elsewhere, particularly in eastern England, the Greylag has become established as a resident species after being released in suitable areas. These non-migratory birds tend to be semi-tame and can be found around gravel pits, lakes and reservoirs, just like the introduced Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese with which they often associate.

By now, the more prescient readers will have noticed that I call the species Greylag rather than Greylag Goose. That is because I have always understood that the “lag” part of the name is an old word meaning goose, so that referring to the bird as Greylag Goose is tautological. 

But recently, after coming across a couple of Greylag at my local birding patch, where they are not regularly found, I started wondering whether I was right about the origin of the name. So I checked a range of online dictionaries (via the wonderful OneLook metadictionary) and was surprised to find that only two sources seemed to agree with me. 

One of these, the mighty Oxford Dictionary, states that the name has its origin in the early 18th century and that lag is an old dialect word for goose, of unknown origin. The other, Wiktionary, says that lag is an old name for a goose “derived from the call used to move such animals along”. Oxford agrees that “lag” was formerly used in calling or driving domesticated geese but suggests, not unreasonably, that the call was derived from the name rather than the other way about.

But apart from those two sources, every online dictionary that ventures to offer an origin for the name states that “lag” is a reference to the bird’s supposed habit of remaining in Britain relatively later than other migratory wild geese before setting off for its breeding grounds. 

This claim seemed to me to be nothing but crass folk etymology, since I was not aware of any evidence for a delayed spring migration for this species. So I decided to check. And what did I find? I came across a study carried out for the British Trust for Ornithology suggesting that, rather than lagging behind other wild geese, Greylag actually tend to leave their winter quarters in Scotland significantly earlier than their grey goose relatives. 

Combining records for Scottish departures and Icelandic arrivals between 1950 and 1997, the study reported that the greatest Greylag movement was from April 11 to 15, compared with April 17 to 21 for White-fronted Goose, April 25 to 28 for Brent Goose, April 26 to 30 for Pink-footed Goose and April 27 to May 1 for Barnacle Goose. 

I rest my case. Far from being castigated as a slowpoke, the wild Greylag should be lauded as a migratory pacesetter. Labelling it a laggard is clearly wrong. The Oxford/Wiktionary etymology must surely be right and the other dictionaries are all mistaken. 

So I am justified in continuing to call the bird just a Greylag rather than a Greylag Goose.