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Latin for Bird Lovers: Over 3,000 Bird Names Explored and Explained Hardcover – May 6, 2014
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Book Review: 'Latin for Bird Lovers' by RogerLederer and Carol BurrThe often delightful stories behind birds'scientific names.By
May23, 2014 3:46 p.m. ET
By Roger Lederer and Carol Burr
Timber Press, 223 pages, $24.95
Scientific names, thosesometimes cumbersome binomial identifiers, can be more entertaining than we mayimagine--a point driven home by "Latin for Bird Lovers," a book by thehusband-and-wife team of Roger Lederer, an ornithologist, and Carol Burr, anartist and former English professor. Their handsomely illustrated account ofabout 3,000 bird names tells us, among many other things, that the quail genusname Excalfactoria means roughly "source of heat" and derives from theChinese practice of using these tiny birds as hand-warmers. Almost as oddly,turkey vultures travel under the genus name Cathartes,from the Greek katharsismeaning "cleansing" or "purifying." The namehonors their work clearing away the dead. There's a genus of flycatchers namedAttila, "because of their aggressive nature, as in Attila the Hun."And such is the richness of avian biodiversity, there's also a bird genus namedafter Bleda the Hun, the brother Attila is said to have murdered en route topower.
Most birders nervously avoid scientificnames but paying attention to scientific names "opens up a wholenew way of looking at and understanding birds." It revealsrelationships and reminds us thatsimilar-sounding common names--American robin and European robin, or meadowlarkand lark--can give us false ideas about taxonomic connections. Though Mr.Lederer and Ms. Burr don't make this point, scientific naming also gives us theopportunity to utter the inexplicably delightful words Upupa epops, the name given to the common hoopoe, in imitation of its call.
The best part of this book, for a beginningbirder, will be the sidebars on biology and behavior that are liberallysprinkled among the dictionary-like name entries.
Surprisingly, the actual name explanations that the authorsoffer are often less satisfying. It's useful to learn that bald eagles, whichare of course not actually bald, get their common name from the word"piebald," meaning a patch of white. And I had not realized thatrobins are called "red-breast" because "orange was not a knowncolor until the sixteenth century." Not all the entries have that much todo with Latin, you will note, and most run for little more than a sentence,with the co-authors explaining that they have been able to make room forfurther detail "only when we think the reader's curiosity might bepiqued." So when they tells us that the scientific name Limosa comes from the Latin for "full of mud" while thecommon name "Black-tailed Godwit" seems to derive "from OldEnglish, meaning good to eat," they offer no explanation of this apparentculinary contradiction. Likewise, we learn that the genus name of the ostrich, Struthio, "does not quite fit," because in classical Greek itmeans "camel sparrow"--but not how it got that name.
One delightful exception to this parsimoniousapproach has to do with the naming not of a species, but of a spy. The writerIan Fleming was living in Jamaica and birdwatching with the help of the fieldguide "Birds of the West Indies," when he decided that the author'sname--James Bond--had the right strength and simplicity for the hero of hisnovels. When the real Bond, a Philadelphia ornithologist, discovered thisidentity theft years later, Fleming joked that he could retaliate by puttingFleming's name in an insulting fashion on "some particularly horriblespecies of bird."
--Mr. Conniff is the author of "TheSpecies Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth."
Shortened from the original The Wall Street Journal article
From the Back Cover
Latin for Bird Lovers uncovers the secrets behind more than 3,000 scientific names. It also delves into bird behavior and reveals the fascinating discoveries of ornithologists: one debunked the myth that robins sing because they are happy, while another found that birdsong is regionally distinctive.