Friday, December 25, 2015

2015: favorite unexpected Christmas gift

2015: The Best & Worst! This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the holidays. So with that in mind:

My favorite unexpected Christmas present came from my Ijams friends Lynne and Bob Davis.  

Latin for Bird Lovers by Roger Lederer & Carol Burr has over 3,000 scientific bird names explained. (And it has a fair amount of Greek ones in it as well.) Every bird has a common name and a scientific two-part name or its binomial nomenclature (binomial for short) which denotes its genus and species. 

We do too. We are Homo sapiens, or wise humans. And let us hope we live up to that appellation.

Back to the gift: In addition to having the meaning behind the obscure scientific names explained, it's also a very beautiful book. 

The beauty you have to take my word on. But here are a few examples of the former.

Sometimes the scientific name is quite literal, as in American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos (COR-vus bra-kee-RAM-os), which translates in Latin to "crow with a short bill." Or, Wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo (mel-ee-AH-gris gal-lo-PA-vo), which translates to "guinea fowl peacock like."

The common song sparrow, Melospiza melodia (mel-o-SPY-za mel-O-dee-a), simply means "song finch melodious."

Sometimes the binomial denotes a bird's behavior. The now extinct passenger pigeon, noted for always "passing" through an area, is remembered as Ectopistes migratorius (ek-toe-PIS-teez my-gra-TOR-ee-us) or "wanderer moving." While the American robin is Turdus migratorius (TURD-us my-gra-TOR-ee-us). The generic name gets plenty of snickers. Get past that. It's Latin for thrush, which a robin truly is one. While the complete name translates roughly "thrush on the move." And to somewhat confuse things the angelic voiced wood thrush is not a Turdus, but rather Hylocichla mustelina (hy-lo-SICK-la mus-tel-EE-a), meaning "woods thrush weasel-like in color," which they are but the songster deserves a better descriptor.

If you are determined to snicker there's Falco longipennis (FAL-ko lon-ji-PEN-nis) which basically means "curved blade long feather," a reference to their long wings since penna means feather. It's the binomial for the Australian hobby, a small falcon. The inside joke is that the vast majority of male birds do not even have one, either long or short.  

Like New York, New York, some birds are so nice, they name them twice, like Cardinalis cardinalis (kar-di-NAL-is kar-di-NAL-is) or Northern cardinal. It means "principal principal." And then there's  Tyrannus tyrannus, (ti-RAN-nus ti-RAN-nus), "Tyrant tyrant" or the Eastern kingbird. 

And, sometimes the scientific name honors a person, often more obscure than the name itself, as in Zenaida macroura (zen-EH-da mak-ROO-ra), or mourning dove. The generic name honors Princess Zenaide Bonaparte, the wife of French ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte. Macroura is Greek for long tail, so I guess this name means long-tailed princess?

Go figure.

Many thanks, Lynne and Bob. The book is great fun.

Merry Christmas

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