Latin for Birdwatchers

Timber Press

My wife and I wrote a book on birds. This one was a bit more challenging than others I have written. It’s called “Latin for Birdwatchers.” Nunc hoc in marmore non est incisum …

Like every scientific discipline and related endeavors, there are many words derived from the Latin that form the official language of the discipline and its offshoots. Ornithology and bird watching are perfect examples. The scientific names of birds define the identity and relationships among the approximately 10,000 known species. They are predominantly descriptive, identifying genus and species name by color, pattern, or size, parts of the body, the name of an ornithologist or other person, where it is found, its behavior, or some characteristic that may not make sense now but did in the days of Linnaeus or the eye of the person who named it. In any case, it is often interesting. For example, Falco mexicanus, the scientific name of the Prairie Falcon clearly means a falcon from Mexico. Less obvious perhaps is Anas acuta, the Northern Pintail, whose scientific name means “sharp duck,” referring to the male bird’s tail. Birdwatchers don’t often pay much attention to scientific names, but bird feather anatomy such as “superciliary” and “auricular” are crucial to identification, as is “furcula” to those banding birds and estimating fat stores on the birds. “Pelagic” is a term not known to most people but often used by ocean-focused birdwatchers.

Birds’ names are often based upon the color of the whole body or just a part, for example, Piranga rubra, the all red Summer Tanager, and Gygis alba, the all white Fairy Tern. Common names also often include color descriptions such as the White-headed Woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus, which loosely means an enchanting (larvatus) white (albo) woodpecker (Picoides.) The Red-belled Woodpecker, Melanerpes (black creeper) carolinus (from Carolina) actually has a partly red head and a subtle reddish spot on its lower abdomen. Obviously this bird was named by someone holding a specimen in his or her hand as the red belly is almost invisible in the field. And Piranga olivacea means olive-colored tanager, but refers to the Scarlet Tanager, the male of which is brilliant red with black wings; the describer apparently referred to a male or an immature female specimen.

Some common names also derive from the Latin or Greek. Phoebe is a Latinized form of a Greek word, phoibos, meaning “bright or pure.” Phainopepla is Greek for shining robe. Cuckoo comes from the Old French “cocu,” echoing the bird’s call. The Greater Adjutant’s (Stork) name comes from the Latin adiuantem, meaning an assistant to a superior military officer, likely referring to the bird’s straight and tall posture.

Of all the courses and classes I took in high school and nine years of university, the four years of Latin I took in high school have been by far the most useful to me in life. It helped me immensely in learning definitions and spelling as 66% of the English language is derived from Latin. Die dulci fruimini.

 

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