The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Learning the Birds
Bird Words
Ruth Rogers Erickson, March 9, 2003, The Canadian Record, © 2003

A large part of learning the birds is the attempt to gain fluency in a new language. Bird words, I call `em. Memorable words like melanistic, pileated, accipiter, and axillar - none my spell-checker recognizes. These fine words permeate the bird books, meticulously staking out descriptive territory.

There's an intoxicating rhythm in the hyphenated phrases:
white-breasted, brown-crested;
ladder-backed, dusky-capped;
sulphur-bellied, scissor-tailed.
(The list of these is long.)

Birders are people for whom subtle differences are carefully noted, and it's important to get the lingo right. Colors are precise, with shades of tawny, bay, cinnamon, chestnut, and buff. I'm still figuring out the difference between ruddy and rufous, sooty and slatey, mottled and splotched.

Birds are chunky, dumpy, stubby, or stocky; richly spangled or semipalmated; chisel-billed or zebra-backed. Owls can be flammulated or ferruginous. Many birds are gregarious, colonial, or cosmopolitan.

Body parts are carefully articulated: there are upperparts, underparts, and outerparts; primaries and secondaries; mandibles, scapulars, and speculum. We hear about rumps, flanks, cheeks, napes, throats, chins, and vents.

Birds are found wearing things. They wear badges, masks, hoods, necklaces, bibs, and crowns; mustaches, whiskers, eye-rings, and spectacles. They sport ear-tufts, eye-stripes, wing patches, air-sacs, tail spots, and throat-collars.

There is bird-slang, too, though it's buried in the literature: Hummingbirds are hummers, Empidonax flycatchers are empids, and loggerhead shrikes are “butcher birds.”

Proper bird names can be as colorful as the slang is. Consider the Magnificent Frigatebird, the Elegant Trogon, or the Solitary Sandpiper. Names affect our perception of a bird despite ourselves. I'm still hoping to see a Blue-Footed Booby and a Chuck-Will's-Widow, but I'm not so keen on the Lesser Scaup, the Sooty Tern, or the Parasitic Jaeger.

Careful attention is paid to a bird's migratory status. There are residents, visitors, breeders, migrants, and vagrants. Some are abundant, others are casual, common, uncommon, accidental, or rare.

There are avian activities and proclivities, such as nomadism, albinism, dimorphism, and kleptoparasitism. Family life includes monogamy, bigamy, and polygamy; cooperative breeding, nest swapping, egg-dumping, and siblicide.

The world of birdsong may be where bird lovers outdo themselves in descriptive ecstasy. Songs can be:
bubbling, burbling, warbling, drawling;
nasal, sibilant, petulant, mournful;
harsh, hollow, guttural, ghostly;
plaintive, staccato, liquid, tremulous;
rolling, vigorous, emphatic, ecstatic!

You could go on and on, if you wanted to. Bird books are full of passionate description. Finding an excuse to talk this way is reason enough to study birds!

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