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Jack Smith

February 13, 1985|Jack Smith

What arrogant flights of fancy are there in the

granting of the greater or lesser names of birds

Shortly before I was so rudely snatched away, I printed here a list of bird sightings reported by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and published in the Boston Globe, and I sympathized with a reader who had sent it to me, complaining that The Times has no such column.

"You don't have to be a bird watcher," I said, "to be fascinated . . . . Don't the very names give wings to your imagination? Most of them, I believe, are birds that we do not see here, either because they don't like it here, or nobody is watching for them. I know we have conscientious birders here in Southern California, but with no newspaper of record publishing their reports, perhaps they are not as numerous or as vigilant as the birders in Massachusetts."

I have since heard from many vigilant Southern California birders, and it seems that most of the birds on the Boston Globe's list are indeed found here, if you know where to look.

I said that as far as I knew I had never heard a loon, much less seen one. I am informed that the red-throated loon and the common loon are regularly seen in Southern California, along with the snow goose, green-winged teal, northern pintail, northern shoveler, lesser scaup, ruddy duck, dunlin, semipalmated plover, pectoral sandpiper, long-billed dowitcher, peregrine falcon and northern harrier.

As far as I know, I still have never seen a loon, but I can no longer say that I have never heard one.

Elizabeth Moulton, formerly of Boston, who now lives in the Bunker Hill Towers, has sent me a phonograph record called "Voices of the Loon," with a note saying, "This may tell you more about the cries of the loon than you and Denny possibly want to know . . . the uncanny voices of lost souls. The loon's wail scared the bejeesus out of me the first time I (age 8) heard it at Camp Wabunaki on a lake in Maine . . . . "

I played the record last night while we were having dinner by candlelight, as usual, and it was like dining by candlelight in the northeastern woods, in a cabin beside a loon-haunted lake.

The loon makes four distinct kinds of calls--the wail, the tremolo, the yodel and the hoot; and sometimes combines them. To the human ear they are all lonely, eerie, ghostly sounds; I imagine they deepen the sense of wilderness and mystery that men must feel in the north woods, not to mention 8-year-old girls.

Alas, the population of the loon has dropped alarmingly in recent years. Lakes that once had thousands now have but a few hundred.

Consequently, loon preservation groups have sprung up in north-country states from Maine to Wisconsin, and, naturally, they call themselves, unofficially, the Loon Rangers.

The loon goes back in history to the Pleiocene epoch, before the saber-toothed tiger. It is being driven out, of course, by man; by his boats, his violence, his numbers, and his debris.

"Loons are to be found in Southern California," writes Sylvia J. Ranney of Santa Ana. "Every winter we have three species in fairly large numbers: common, red-throated and Arctic. That you've never seen one is probably because you wouldn't recognize it in its drab gray and white winter plumage. The beautifully marked patterns, as well as the calls, are reserved for the breeding grounds, far to the north."

You may remember that I also complained about some of the crazy naming of birds by the American Ornithological Union, which, as I pointed out, isn't even answerable to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Specifically, I pointed out that they had taken two close cousins known as the red-shafted flicker and the yellow-shafted flicker, both colorful, evocative names, and because they had started breeding together had stripped them of their names and called them both common. The common flicker. Which sounded not only arbitrary but moralistic.

This practice is defended by Kimball L. Garrett, collections manager, birds and mammals, Natural History Museum: "It is still perfectly acceptable to call a bird a red-shafted flicker; but when two forms are undeniably conspecific, as in the case of the flickers, it is essential, and handy, to have a name which encompasses the species as a whole.

" Common is often a convenient modifier; (but) the AOU checklist committee has, in fact, strived to avoid the modifier common whenever possible. You'll be pleased, but no doubt chagrined, to learn that the name common flicker has been replaced by the name northern flicker.

I am rather pleased, not chagrined-- northern being somewhat more respectable than common ; but the AOU should be chagrined. Why didn't they name it northern in the first place?

If you think they're loose with the modifier common , look what they do with greater and lesser .

Ranney also points out that the Coues' flycatcher, named for an eminent early ornithologist, has been renamed the greater pewee. She says, and I agree, "That seems the ultimate misuse of great ."

She also notes that "the common gallinule has been renamed the common moorhen, because that's what the British call the bird, and they're highly unlikely to change their name. Unfortunately, the birds live in marshes, not moors, and half of them aren't hens."

Of course ornithologists have no more of a constitutional right to name birds than astronomers have a right to name stars. I'm for them, for the sake of international unity; but they needn't be so arrogant.

So I'm going to go on calling our backyard jays blue-gray jays, instead of scrub jays, whether the AOU likes it or not.

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