Archive for the ‘trivia’ Category


Swainson’s Hawks – A Meditation

August 25, 2010

[Note: this is a slightly-modified version of a posting I made originally to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program listserv]

If you attended rounds last night or just read Joelle’s Rounds Notes, you know that this promises to be a great day, as 16 Swainson’s Hawks, many of which have spent an entire year or more in our care, will be released to take part in one of the great natural spectacles that our world has to offer. I will be tagging along for the release today, helping where I can of course, but also there to catch a glimpse of the birds which will depart in the next month for the pampas region of northern Argentina, a one-way trip of nearly 5,000 miles. Along with migrating Broad-winged Hawks, Mississippi Kites, and Turkey Vultures, they fly over places like Veracruz, Mexico on their way south in astonishing numbers – the so-called “River of Raptors” in Veracruz in the fall regularly documents as many as 50 THOUSAND Swainson’s Hawks flying through a *day* during fall migration. The total number of raptors passing overhead there in a season is over 3 million.

Now, if you’ve been with the program for any length of time, and helped with any of the programs or exhibits or just overheard the handlers talk about our educational birds, you’ve likely heard the stories about the Swainson’s Hawks and their epic migration. You may already know these birds spend their summers in North America, largely in the American West ranging from northern Mexico up into southern Canada, from as far east as the high plains to as far west as the Central Valley of California. Starting around now they begin to assemble into larger and larger groups, as recently-fledged young disperse from their nesting locations. The young however need to find these groups, because they don’t know the way to go. Apparently past experience with rehabilitating first-year Swainson’s Hawks has shown this to be the case. It’s quite a testament I think to how some birds, even those who we tend to think are not very intelligent or socialized, actually DO use their brains, cooperate at least in some way, and have the ability to be very receptive to new knowledge.

As a handler I’ve often heard other handlers refer to the juvenile Swainson’s Hawks as “young and dumb”, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that, having seen how they behave in their flight cages. But think about it — after these birds have completed an annual migration cycle, where they’ve paid attention to landmarks along the way, and having been guided by seasoned adults, they are then in subsequent years able to do the trip themselves, and even lead the way for the next generation. That’s called LEARNING. That means they have good memories, that they were paying attention to where they were, to whatever other sky phenomena they may use to guide themselves on this remarkable journey through vast desert, urban, rainforest, and savanna biomes. How is that any different from how WE are? Who among us is so inherently brilliant to have mastered so many life skills without the guidance of at least someone at some point? Well, maybe a couple of us, I don’t know, but certainly not me. For my part, I can say that in this specific way, I identify with the Swainson’s Hawk. Inasmuch as the birds we are about to release today are going to embark on the epic journey that will define the rest of their lives, I salute them and admire them for what they are about to do, and for the symbol of freedom, exploration, and determination for survival that it represents. What better demonstration of the capacity for growth and change and self-improvement is there, than to answer the call of one’s inner nomad like this?


This weekend I helped out at New West Fest, and on Saturday we had the female Swainson’s Hawk on display at the booth. At one point, I was relating the great Swainson’s migration to a booth visitor, describing the migration route they take. I told him that they assemble in North America, fly together in enormous kettles through Central America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, etc.) and then reach the Darien Gap which connects Panama to Colombia and the rest of South America. I then said that after that we don’t really know where they go next, just that after another couple weeks they are in northern Argentina.

But I was mistaken. We now actually DO have a pretty good idea about where they go. Take a look at this map:

Swainson's hawk migration route. Data from USGS, Snake River Field Station, from 30 birds fitted with satellite tracking devices.

This is a map compiled recently from a study involving the fitting of satellite tracking devices onto migrating hawks. What is astounding to me is how, once they arrive in South America, these birds take as direct a route to their wintering grounds as possible. They’re not spreading out over the vastness of the Amazon, lost or confused or distracted – no, they know exactly where they need to go, and they’re not messing around. And don’t be misled by that little bend they take in their path around central Bolivia – that is a strategically smart detour they take, because that allows them to not waste energy flying over the unforested high Andes and the resource-sparse altiplano. It’s brilliant really, but it’s only in the past few years that we now have the scientific data to demonstrate just what these birds do on their southbound trip.


Back to the booth this weekend. I got to give my own Swainson’s spiel of course, but also listen to other handlers’ spiels, which was very interesting to me. In general, and this applies for any booth experience, people are initially confused by the mere name “Swainson’s Hawk”, as most laypersons have never heard that name before. Handlers tend to then explain, myself included, that the bird was named after someone named Swainson, which seems true enough, but then also add in, only half-jokingly perhaps as a way to bond or connect with the person we’re talking to, that Swainson must have had a big ego to name a bird after himself. After hearing that apocryphal explanation several times that afternoon, I got to wondering, what’s the real story there? Did Swainson really name a bird after himself? So, that night after I got home I did a little research…..

There was indeed in the early 1800s a British man named William Swainson. He was one of many amateur naturalists in that era who essentially were professionals, once they had a regular source of income that could pay for the time it took to collect specimens and participate in nature societies like the Linnean Society, of which Swainson was a part. In his case, he “retired” young on a military pension, and spent the rest of his life indulging his real passion, which apparently was studying animals and making illustrations. He became quite accomplished at making lithographs. He was one of the first if not *the* first person to make pictures like this, and I encourage you to do a Google image search on “Swainson’s lithographs” to get an idea of the kinds of illustrations he made. John J Audubon was an admirer of his, for good reason. Swainson worked with another naturalist named John Richardson and in the late 1820s they produced a volume called Fauna Boreali-Americana, which featured hundreds of Swainson’s excellent depictions of birds observed and collected by Richardson in North America. From what I can tell, Swainson himself never visited North America, although he did spend a fair amount of time in Brazil.

Anyway, one of the birds depicted in the book was indeed what we now call a Swainson’s Hawk, but of course it wasn’t identified as such in it. Richardson had described the bird as a form of Buteo vulgaris, which is now called Buteo buteo, basically the Common Buzzard of Eurasia. (The Common Buzzard is a close relative of all buteonine hawks, which if you aren’t aware, includes Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and many others.) A different naturalist some years later, Charles Bonaparte, noticed this and corrected this error. He knew that the bird in Swainson’s illustration was a different species, and it was he, NOT William Swainson, who was the first to give a scientifically correct description of it. However, he too was an admirer of Swainson’s work, and in tribute to his great lithographs, he named the bird after Swainson, Buteo swainsoni. And THAT is how the Swainson’s Hawk got its name.

In this manner, Swainson had other types of birds named after him too, including the Swainson’s Thrush, Swainson’s Warbler, Swainson’s Flycatcher, and Swainson’s Toucan (now usually referred to as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, although the scientific name still bears the swainsoni tag). From what I can tell, in that era of discovery and exploration in the 1800s it was actually quite rare for a naturalist to name a bird after himself – instead, he usually named it after someone else who he admired, or otherwise though deserved mention in some way. That’s still generally true I think.

That all said, I did also learn though that it’s not unfair to posit that Swainson probably did have a big ego. In an unrelated matter, Swainson later in his life moved to New Zealand, and a few years after that was offered a position as a “Botanical Surveyor” in Australia, based largely on his sterling reputation as a naturalist and illustrator. However, Swainson had little or no real experience with plants, and other more knowledgeable and experienced botanists of his day were more than a little annoyed at his simplistic and casual approach to describing new plants in Australia, where he took it upon himself to name hundreds or even thousands of species of plants, many of which weren’t really separate species in the first place.

In my book, that takes some cojones and an ego, to go into a field that you know you’re not an expert in and just go all willy-nilly on a naming spree, just because you can.


Give me Gallinule

June 29, 2008

This is one of those topics that doesn’t really matter a whole lot in the scheme of things, yet seems to bring out the strongest and most fiercely guarded opinions – the names of things.

The species Gallinula chloropus has been a problematic one apparently with regard to its name, although for as long as I’ve been birding, I’ve known it as the Common Moorhen. I’ve been blissfully unaware of the history of the naming of this bird until recently, where I’ve learned that it used to be known as the Common Gallinule. In fact, on some web pages including the very Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology page that I referenced in the link to Common Moorhen, under Cool Facts, the last bullet item uses the old name ‘Common Gallinule’ whereas the rest of the page uses Common Moorhen. Obviously the content writer still hears the old name in his or her head.

But change is afoot again! Just last month the South American Classification Committee, a subcommittee of the American Ornithological Union, passed proposal #335 which will return the name Common Gallinule to the species. This will be a reversal of the naming convention adopted in 1983, as stated in the proposal’s background section:

Gallinula chloropus was known in the W. Hemisphere as “Common Gallinule” in the 1957 AOU checklist but was changed to “Common Moorhen” in a Supplement sometime in advance of the 1983 AOU checklist. For more than a century prior to the 1983 list, it had been known as either the Florida Gallinule or Common Gallinule, but always a Gallinule. The change was a concession to the BOU to keep the “Moorhen” in the name; the species there had been known “forever” as the Moorhen.

The ‘BOU’ referred to here is the British Ornithological Union, which oversees among other things the English naming conventions for Old World birds, like those in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Gallinula chloropus is a wide-ranging species with subspecies in the Old World, and those birds have long been called ‘moorhens’. There are also several other species of closely-related birds in the genus Gallinula, also commonly called ‘moorhens’. Still, as the proposal states:

The breaking point for me came when, at the Neotropical Ornithology Congress in Venezuela this year, even the Spanish-first speakers were ridiculing it and using it as an example of an absurd common name. To make matters worse, the endemic Neotropical species of Gallinula still retains the name Gallinule (Spot-flanked Gallinule, G. melanops). The credibility of NACC as a body capable of governing English name usage was questioned. [Yes, I mentioned to them that this change happened before I was on NACC.]

Although most Old World Gallinula are now called Something Moorhen, two Australian species are called Native-hen, so the genus itself already does not go by a single English name.

The globalizers will go ballistic if we backtrack on this one, and there will be some who say that, heck, we’ve lived with Moorhen for 25 years and to backtrack now looks bad. I am reasonably certain, however, that the vast majority of our clientele, professional and amateur, will welcome a return to a better and historically traditional name. In fact, many of you may have noticed that many people refuse to use Moorhen in the field anyway except to fill out official checklists, and that many state game agencies retain Gallinule.

Makes good sense to me. Although I do have affinities for some bird names, ‘moorhen’ is not one of them. It has always struck me as a strange name, and I like that it now shares a common name with the Purple Gallinule, even though the latter species isn’t even in the genus Gallinula. It visually makes more sense, given the similarities between the two North American gallinules.

And maybe it’s just my naivete, but I am struck by the arguments against changing the name, made by a few of the committee members:

Comments from Stotz: “NO. I voted against this return to Gallinule in the North American committee, and I will vote against it here as well. I didn’t like the change in 1983 and it took me a long while not to think of this bird as a Gallinule, but it has been 25 years now, and a large number of birders and ornithologists have never known it as anything other than a Moorhen.

Yes, and I am one of them. And yet, I love this name change, so please don’t think you’re doing me some kind of favor by voting against the name change in this instance! Honestly, it’s this kind of argument that drives me bonkers: “Yes, we made a bad decision a while ago, but it’s too late now to do anything about it, so let’s ignore it.” Good grief! You’re the naming committee! That’s what you do. I understand about the ‘optics’ of reversing a name change made only 25 years ago, but if it was a bad decision then, I see no problem of correcting it now. And really, of all the birds that people are likely to get huffy and defensive about, Gallinula chloropus is kinda low on the list. Are there really legions of birders who would ‘go ballistic’ by changing it back? Really?

NO. We made our bed, and we need to lie in it. Too many have switched to the dark side, but it would give our committee a lot less credibility if we whimsically switch back and forth without any real reason aside from personal opinion.

This is another variant of the previous argument, but it does raise an interesting question, that of ‘committee credibility’. I can at least understand the concern about name changes like this as it pertains to credibility, but again, as the proposal states, there are already state game agencies using the old term anyway, despite AOU official convention to the contrary. I really don’t think the SACC is sacrificing any credibility here, because on the issue of Gallinula chloropus, they were being ignored anyway.

I think the worry here is way overstated, and that the gallinule-moorhen question is not going to be generalized and become a slippery-slope into ornithological common-name chaos like it is with botany. I think it is plain to see here that this is a very special case, and although it is a reversal of a position taken a short time ago, I really can’t see it as having any significant impact on the seriousness with which the ornithological and birding community at large takes the committee’s work. With all the highly technical taxonomic work they do, are there really people out there who would use the gallinule name-change as a reason to ignore, say, the removal of Saltator from Cardinalidae? I dunno.

In any case, this only applies for now to the South American lists – it has no bearing (yet) on the North American committee, until at least someone in the committee proposes changing its name to maintain consistency in the Western Hemisphere. But I would have to think that proposal will come within the next several months to a year, and after that we should start seeing ‘Common Gallinule’ back on the official state checklists and in bird guides. I’m fine with that, really.

I can understand the reluctance to change common bird names wholesale, for sure. I agree that there needs to be some measure of continuity, even if the current common name isn’t fully accurate or sensible. But at the same time, that desire for continuity shouldn’t rule out every single name change, especially when the change is actually to set it back to what many people are still using out in the field.


The original spy-cam

January 18, 2006

Nothing too deep here, just a funny story about a girlfriend caught cheating with another man, with help from the cuckold’s African Grey Parrot:

LONDON, England — A computer programmer found out his girlfriend was having an affair when his pet parrot kept repeating her lover’s name, British media reported Tuesday.

The African grey parrot kept squawking “I love you, Gary” as his owner, Chris Taylor, sat with girlfriend Suzy Collins on the sofa of their shared flat in Leeds, northern England.

But when Taylor saw Collins’s embarrassed reaction, he realized she had been having an affair — meeting her lover in the flat whilst Ziggy looked on, the UK’s Press Association reported.

Ziggy even mimicked Collins’s voice each time she answered her telephone, calling out “Hiya Gary,” according to newspaper reports.

On a related note….did you know that “cuckold” is derived from “cuckoo”? The etymology reflects knowledge of Old World cuckoos nesting habits, wherein the female lays eggs in other species’ nests, to be raised by those birds. The modern technical term for this is brood parasitism, but in olden days it was imagined that this was a reflection of the female having ‘cavorted’ with birds other than its presumed mate.