With no recent sightings of the Black Bears which earlier seemed to be around every corner, the LSLBO can again open our nets. Yet most migration continues as a stream of overhead Myrtle Warblers with some new faces. These new observations include Greater White-fronted Geese, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and American Pipits – all tundra breeders we only see on migration.
We take for granted that anything we come across, be it a plant or an animal, has a common name. These names let us easily discuss species and their behaviours. When it comes to birds, some are named after the places they are discovered, some by their distinct physical features, and some for their habits or vocalizations. As deciding names often ends up in the hands of the one who discovered the species, it is unsurprising that so many species have taken on rather human names.
For example, our current second most banded species: the Swainson’s Thrush. This bird was named after the English ornithologist and illustrator, William Swainson, but he did not claim this species for himself. Another zoologist and botanist from the 1800s, Thomas Nuttall, named the thrush after Swainson. And it is not the only “Swainson’s” species, Charlies Bonaparte named the Swainson’s Hawk and John James Audubon named the Swainson’s Warbler. Similarly, neither the Nuttall’s Woodpecker, the Bonaparte’s Gull or the Audubon’s Warbler were declared by their namesakes. Even more surnames are hidden in scientific names, such as the Common Poorwill, or Phalaenoptilus nuttallii, named after Nuttall by Audubon.
However, these names are not set in stone. In 2020, the McCown’s longspur was renamed the Thick-billed Longspur by the American Ornithological Society. The change was due in part because McCown was a confederate general during the American civil war. The new name, though lackluster, is a translation of its scientific genus Rhynchophanes. Several other common names are set to follow, both to move on from potentially unsavoury human history and to streamline naming conventions.
Of the aforementioned species, only the Swainson’s Thrush is a common occurrence locally, with the Swainson’s Hawk and Bonaparte’s Gull a rare sighting. Among our more likely species is the Wilson’s Warbler, another recent migrant we are seeing at the observatory. Originally named the Green Black-capped Flycatcher by Alexander Wilson himself in 1811, it was renamed both to honour and to correct him. As it is due to be renamed again, we may yet see Green Black-capped Warblers in the near future.
Even more common locally is the Lincoln’s Sparrow named after a friend of Audubon’s, Thomas Lincoln. If it is to be renamed like the McCown’s/Thick-billed Longspur, the first half of its scientific name (Melospiza) can be translated to mean “song finch”. Yet, since there is already a Song Sparrow, a different feature may have to be used.
Although it can cause confusion when species are renamed, we look forward to new names which may ease the learning curve for new birders and foster appreciation for these remarkable creatures.
By Bronwyn Robinson, LSLBO Assistant Bander