by Peter Tango
February 10, 2011
We're getting ready for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count here in the Chesapeake Bay region! The Great Backyard Bird Count, taking place Feb. 18-21, creates a real-time snapshot of where all the birds are across North America. Bay Program monitoring coordinator and expert backyard birder Peter Tango helps us get into the bird-counting spirit with his two-part blog series on birding at his home in Deale, Maryland.
January 29th. 40 degrees. There are house finches singing and mourning doves flying by. A roadrunner is perched on a fence just a dozen yards away, preening in the morning sun. For the first time ever, I watch one make a really cool deep-toned call. On the ground below the roadrunner, green-tailed towhees feed. In another area, gila woodpeckers sound off. There is a bit of a surreal sight when a pair of cactus wrens go dumpster diving. There are plenty of saguaros around, but alas, the dumpster seems to be more attractive to them this morning.
I've taken a break from the snow and cold of our Chesapeake Bay area and landed in southern Arizona for a few days. There is a little sunshine, and the late spring-like temperatures are chilly by night and sometimes cozy, sometimes t-shirt weather by day. It’s a brief but invigorating reprieve from the incessant frosty weather and bulky clothes I’ve needed at home this winter.
Home is, after all, along the Bay, south of Annapolis, in a little house my wife and I call "The Loveshack" out on Carr's Creek. From a birding perspective, creekside living is wonderful because it is a transition zone. The woods and wetlands melt into shallow, protected coves. You can sit on the dock and hear rufous-sided towhees or Carolina wrens while looking out at a flock of ducks that may include a bufflehead visiting with the mallards. Flocks of geese move off the Bay into the creek shortly after sunrise, then lift off and head for their daily feed in the surrounding farm fields. They return at dusk, flying over our home and navigating down the gut of the creek back to the Bay for the night. It's a great rhythm of Bay life to be in tune with.
It's winter. It's cold. There's snow. The groundhog gave us his prognostication that we might see spring come early. Even with his message, winter will linger with us a bit longer and so will some of our favorite birds.
We love to watch our feeders and track the bird community through the year here in Deale. Feeders of thistle seed, another with a coarse seed mix of peanuts and sunflowers, and third safflower-only feeder cater to the likes of goldfinches, house finches, energetic chickadee pairs, noisy tufted titmouse duos, cardinal families, white-throated sparrows, and more. An occasional downy woodpecker stops to grab a seed, while generally only the male red-bellied woodpecker will come in and grab a nut.
My wife constantly feels that those who originally gave names to birds must have been drunk while doing it. Red-bellied woodpeckers, for example, have barely a wash of red on their bellies but wonderfully brilliant red plumage on their heads. "Why isn't it called a red-headed woodpecker?" she asks.
I seize on the opportunity to spin a story answering this question -- sort of – and start in…
"Well honey, a long, long time ago there was this guy, Linnaeus. He liked organizing things. So he decides to organize the plant and animal kingdom under one system."
"Kind of like Noah and the Ark, eh?"; she says.
I continue, "Yeah, kind of like that, without being limited to two of everything. OK, and for this organization effort, Linnaeus gives things names, Latin names."
So far my wife is on board. She knows botany, she knows Linnaeus. The hook is set, so I continue.
"Well, a couple of hundred years after Linnaeus, there are a couple of guys roaming the American countryside, also very interested in naming things. They were JJ and Rahg. That was how Roger Tory Petersen and John James Audubon referred to each other."
"Bingo!"; I said, "Yes. So you see, binoculars weren't particularly good back in the day, and these guys needed to see things up close. They collected birds to figure out what they were and decide on names.
"Not so good for the birds, eh?"; she says.
"Not so much." I replied. "Then, one day they come upon some birds clinging to the sides of the trees. JJ says to Rahg, "Rahg, you see those birds pecking away at the trees? Let's collect some of them today. We'll name them Dendrogapus or Picoides or something like that." Rahg replied, "I am so dang tired of these Latin names, let's give them some English names. They peck wood so let's call them wood peckers. Whaddya think?"
JJ asks, "Can we just combine that into one word, woodpecker?; Rahg replies,"Yes, woodpeckers. One word. Write that down."
And that's how they got to be named woodpeckers.
My wife is on the edge of her seat, intrigued. I move along in the story.
"OK, now it gets really interesting. You see, that night they got back to the campfire, sipped a little local shine together, and pulled out their collection of birds to continue naming them. JJ pulls out a bird and says, "Rahg, this one has a red head, let's call it a red-headed woodpecker." Rahg says, "JJ, that head is crimson-colored, it's not really red! You sure you want to call it a red-headed woodpecker?" JJ replies, "No one is going to want to say ‘crimson-colored,’ let’s keep it simple. It’s the red headed woodpecker’. Rahg gives in and writes ‘red-headed woodpecker’ in his book, adding a little drawing beside it as best he can in the firelight.
“JJ pulls out another bird. ‘Uh, Rahg, this one has a red head too and doesn’t look anything like the last one.’ Rahg perks up and says, ‘It’s a red nape, not a red head, JJ. No one knows what a nape is, though.’ Rahj takes another swig of ‘shine, grabs his magnifying glass and jumps up. ‘JJ, Come here! C’mere, c’mere, c’mere! LOOK! See those two specks of red on each of them belly feathers? We are going to call this the red-BELLIED woodpecker!’ JJ rolls his eyes, ‘Can’t we call it a cream-bellied ladderback woodpecker or gray-bellied zebra striped-backed woodpecker? I mean, look at this bird, no one will ever see them red flecks except with a magnifying glass.” Rahg sticks to his guns, ‘Nope, you named the last one, I got this one.’ And so red-bellied woodpecker went into the book, with a little drawing and some notes on those tiny belly flecks of red.’
My wife is silent, pondering the birds we see. I jump in and continue my tale.
“By now the bottle of ‘shine is gettin’ kinda low, and the boys are tired. But there’s one more bird in the bag. JJ pulls it out. “WOW, look at the size of that woodpecker! Oh NO, it has a red head too!” Rahg says. ‘Actually it’s a red cap, Rahg, kind of a red-capped woodpecker. I’m really tired of red-this and red-that. We got this one deep in the woods, right? What if we just keep it simple and call this one WOODY: woody woodpecker.’ Rahg has had enough for the night. ‘That will never stick as a name, JJ, but I’ll jot it down and we’ll think about it more tomorrow.“
“And that, my dear, is how the birding name game went back in the day. Honest.”
I end my story and hold my poker face.
She looks at me, gets that glare in her eyes and says, “Dude, you are SOOOOO full of ‘shinola yourself!” She throws a couch pillow at me, and we both cackle with laughter.
“OK, ok, ok – I guess I have some research to do about where those common names were derived. I’ll get back to you.”
There are many excellent bird guides out there now: National Geographic, Sibley, Petersen, Stokes and more, not to mention all the web resources available. And if anyone gets concerned about common names, by all means dive into the Latin names. That opens up a whole new world about birds. You won’t run into two birds with the same very confusing Latin names; they’re all confusing.
Check back next Tuesday, Feb. 15 for the second part of Peter's entry!