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.