Thursday, 25 September 2014

Loony bird names

I recently completed a crossword puzzle in a British daily newspaper in which one of the clues was “Migratory seabird”. The answer turned out to be Arctic Loon. I found this annoying because no one on the eastern side of the Atlantic refers to Gavia arctica as an Arctic Loon. In the Old World its long-established English name is Black-throated Diver.

But even more annoying than this crossword puzzle’s Americanism is the attempt by the International Ornithological Committee to make everyone use the contrived compromise name Black-throated Loon. 

Why should we be forced to call the bird a loon when the name diver is a far better description? Dictionaries define a loon as someone who is clumsy, stupid or crazy (or, in archaic usage, a rogue or a person of low rank). In what way do birds of the Gavia genus fit this description? In contrast, the word diver describes them beautifully, since all five Gavia  species are excellent underwater swimmers. Changing the bird's name is loony. 

I have written previously about attempts to persuade birders to use artificially concocted new names for birds that can supposedly be confused with other species. A prime example of stupid new names is the ludicrous Zitting Cisticola, which the taxonomy wonks now expect us to use for the Fan-tailed Warbler (Cisticola juncidis). This bird has a wide range in the Old World, being found across southern Europe, Africa and southern Asia and down as far as northern Australia. Its English name is accurate: it’s a warbler and it fans its tail. 

So why does the International Ornithological Committee insist on changing the bird's name? Because some upstart American species (Basileuterus lachrymosus), normally confined only to the Pacific slopes of Mexico and Central America, has also been dubbed a Fan-tailed Warbler. 

Why can’t we just label the New World species as an American Fan-tailed Warbler and leave our Old World warbler alone? After all, the bird-name despots are happy for us to use the names European robin and American robin for two other species on either side of the Atlantic that have a vaguely similar appearance but are not closely related. 

In any case, where is the proof that confusion ever arises? If there is ever a risk of bewilderment, we can always fall back on the birds’ unique Latinised binomials. That is precisely why these specific names were devised.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Is that a pebbly shripp I hear?

Last year (1 July 2013), I wrote about popular transcriptions of bird songs, such as the Yellowhammer’s “A little bit of bread and no cheese”. A more accurate rendition would be something like “tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tseeee”, but the memorable bread-and-cheese version certainly helps any non-birder to identify a singing yellowhammer. 

Unfortunately, apart from a handful of species that have simple songs and onomatopoeic names  — such as Chiffchaff, Cuckoo and Hoopoe — few birds have a consistently rendered song that can be represented verbally. One of those few is Cetti’s Warbler (pronounced CHET-ti), whose strident song can be transcribed appropriately as “Hey! You! Cetti-Cetti-Cetti! That’s me!”
Even more difficult to describe are birds’ flight calls and contact calls. To return to the Yellowhammer, when I checked a random selection of bird guides on my bookshelves, I found the following descriptions of its call: 

  • a discordant “stüff”
  • a rather grating “twink” and “twit”
  • a metallic “chip” and “twitic”
  • a rasping “dzüh”
  • a “chick”
  • a distinctive “chinz”
  • a loud “tchick”
  • a ringing “tink”
  • a “twink” or “tweak
  • a “tsrik” or “trs”
  • a pebbly “shripp”

A pebbly shripp? Would any of those renditions actually help you identify a Yellowhammer? 

The best way by far to learn bird sounds is to get out into the field, preferably accompanied by an expert, and listen to the various calls until they are ingrained on your memory. Soon you should, for example, be able to distinguish the Chiffchaff’s soft and plaintive “hu-EET” call from the similarly plumaged Willow Warbler’s slightly slower and more forceful “HU-eet”.  
Nowadays, the next best thing to direct experience in the field is browsing the wonderful Xeno-canto website (, through which birders around the world share their recordings of bird sounds.