Thursday, September 18, 2014

Let's Give Some Birds Their Dignity Back

Let's face it, the names of some birds are better than others.  In fact, one could argue (that one being me, perhaps, after a cocktail or two) that MOST common names of birds are pretty lame.  I'd put the common names of birds into eleven categories, ranked here from best to worst:

  • Originals: These are one-word English names unique to a single species.  Killdeer.  Whimbrel.  Anhinga.  Bufflehead.  Like humans with single names - your Madonnas and your Bonos - these guys are clearly the coolest.  No sharing.  No confusion.  When you look them up in the index, they are a single line, not indented and listed with their cousins under a family name. (Note: before Rick Wright corrects me, I get that a lot of these names were probably descriptive somewhere back in their etymological past, but I'm only concerned with modern English [er, not Modern English, though I do like that song, I mean the actual modern usage of the English language]).

  • People Birds: These are birds named after people.  Townsend's Warbler.  Ross's Goose.  Blackburnian Warbler (which I did not know were People Birds). These are close to something original, because the human name has nothing actually to do with the species.  I like these.

  • Description-Positive: These are birds that have a descriptive first name (first name? Is that the correct term?), but it's at least a positive description.  There are not many of these, unfortunately.  Magnificent Hummingbird.  King Eider. I am also including in this category birds that are named after colors OTHER than primary colors (I'm going with black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, and gray) because they're often cool words that people don't get to use very often, unless you work at a paint story or at Crayola.  Roseate Spoonbill. Cerulean Warbler. Dusky Flycatcher. Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

  • Location-Specific: These are birds named after geographic locations no higher than state-level.  Mississippi Kite.  Baltimore Oriole.  Savannah Sparrow.   They have a broad appeal but they aren't sellouts.  The Baltimore Oriole is like Natty Boh (ie cool), while an American Crow is like Bud Light (accessible and, frankly, very tasty [and I'm not going to get into an argument about it right now] but not "cool" no matter what their commercials try to say).

  • Song Birds: Birds named after the noises they make typically end up with cool names, so I'm going to list them separate.  Good on them.  Whooper Swan.  Song Sparrow.  Mourning Dove.

  • Diet and Habitat: We're getting into the lame ones now.  These are birds that are just named after something they eat or a specific type of habitat they live in.  There is at least some thought put into the specific species, unlike some of the ones below.  Snail Kite.  Sedge Wren. Wood Duck.

  • Description-Neutral: Most birds are in here, I'd say.  These are either birds named after primary colors (I'll do one for each of the colors I listed: Black Scoter; Gray Flycatcher; Yellow Warbler; Red Crossbill; Green Heron; Blue Jay; Brown Booby; White Ibis), or primary-colored body parts (Black-headed Grosbeak; Gray-crowned Rosy-finch; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; Red-tailed Hawk; Green-winged Teal; Blue-crowned Parakeet; Brown-headed Nuthatch; White-winged Scoter).  This also includes birds named after some physical feature, such as Crested Auklet, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel; Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, or Tufted Puffin.  These are just descriptions, nothing more, nothing less.

  • Location-General: Birds named after countries, regions, oceans and cardinal directions.  Snoozefest, am I right? American Crow. Boring. Western Tanager. Boring. Atlantic Puffin. Boring. Northern Hawk-owl. Boring.  Let's put a bit more imagination into it, no?

  • Comparative-Positive: These are birds named in relation to other birds.  Their identity only exists in relation to something else.  However, at least they came out on top.  It's mostly birds with "greater" in their name, as I include "kings" in the Description-Positive group because kings are important. Greater Roadrunner.  Greater-prairie Chicken.

  • Commoners: All birds called "common" somethings are just awful.  You know that feeling when you're on a bird walk and some novice birder sees a bird and gets excited and asks what it is and you're like "it's a common yellowthroat" and they're like "oh, just some common bird?"  Well that feeling sucks, for both of you.  I hate "common" birds.  Common Grackle.  Common Raven.

  • Comparative-Negative: But at least "common" isn't a straight up insult.  Comparative-Negative birds only exist in relation to something else, and that something else is better.  It was a jerk move by our birding ancestors to name these guys they way they did.  Least Sandpiper.  Lesser Goldfinch. Lesser Scaup. [Note: some birds - Elf Owl and Little Gull - can be named after their small size without being insulted.  I put these birds in the Description-Neutral category].
So, those are the categories.  It's not an exact science, but it's pretty inclusive in the end.  But I'm not just here today to break up bird names, I'm here to help.  I feel bad for all the birds in the Commoners and Comparative-Negative categories, and I want to fix them up right.  There are plenty of words that can get the same ideas across without being insulting - or at least without copying the first name of another bird.  Let's give it a shot.  Here's a list of formerly "common" species with new names that I found in some online thesaurus.  There may be SOME repeats, but there are a lot of commons out there (I'm not going to do rare ABA birds like Common Sandpiper).
  • Frequent Eider
  • Everyday Gallinule
  • Customary Goldeneye
  • Prevalent Grackle
  • Casual Ground-dove
  • Natural Loon
  • Conventional Merganser
  • Probable Murre
  • Daily Nighthawk (I like the irony in that one)
  • General Raven
  • Stock Redpoll
  • Accepted Tern
  • Familiar Yellowthroat
Aren't those better?  They're all unique names, without betraying the idea that they are abundant.  Let's be the change we want to see in ourselves.

Here are some for Lesser and Least birds, trying to give them some damn dignity back.  I'm ditching the whole "comparative" angle here when I can and just giving them names based on their small size.
  • Wee Bittern
  • Toy Flycatcher
  • Dinky Grebe (still kind of an insult, but wouldn't you want to see the Dinky Grebe?)
  • Mini Sandpiper
  • Bantam Tern
  • Scant Black-backed Gull
  • Elfin Goldfinch
  • Peanut Nighthawk
  • Petite Prairie-chicken
  • Minute Scaup
  • Snub Yellowlegs
I wish all those birds were real so I could go find them.  They're all turned from losers into hipster winners.  Let's make it happen.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Brown Booby Blown By

Rant time, friends.

I have just returned from a week's vacation in my beloved home state of Maine, with a few days spent visiting family in Burlington, Vermont and upstate New York.  Despite my usual tendencies I wasn't able to do a whole lot of birding (aside from successfully dashing after a Prothonotary Warbler to add to my Maine state list on the first day), and I was jonesing by the time the end of the week rolled around and my girlfriend and I were driving from Burlington to Saratoga Spring, NY.

But we were running late.  We had to meet my girlfriend's aunt in Crown Point, NY at 9am, and so there wasn't any time for me to check out Lake Champlain.  Because times are important here, let's run things down timeline style.

8:50am We cruise over the Lake Champlain bridge, connecting Vermont to New York.  It's a damp, smoky morning and I snap the below photo because the bridge is cool and there's some fog around and because I'm a goddamn artist.  This is the version I later put on instagram.  Only 10 likes, probably because there are no food or babies in it.

I frantically swing my head around as we crest the bridge and I can see the lake on both sides, looking for birds.  I don't see much on the water, but I see a large group of gulls on the NY side, in a park that I soon learn is the Crown Point State Historic Site.  Upon seeing the flock I make the whiny grunting noises commonly heard from pre-speech infants to indicate "want."  Though we are due at her aunt's in 10 minutes, my girlfriend says "sure, you can stop!"  By this time we are almost over the bridge, and I look quickly for a place to turn out to drive to the birds.  I don't see one (even though Google maps clearly indicates one).  Frustrated at the lack of immediate access and at the rushed pace of the morning, again whining like a child, I say "ahhhhhhhhh, forget it."  And keep driving.  They were probably just Ring-billed Gulls, I tell myself.

9:00am We're right on time for a delicious breakfast.  I see a Canada Warbler in the aunt's yard, a state bird for NY! (Woah, checking eBird right now I see that the Cedar Waxings, Carolina Wren, Common Yellowthroat and House Finch were also state birds!  Huh?  Didn't I spend my entire first 6 months birding in NY?  Anyway.).

sometime, like, a couple hours later I post that photo to Instagram during a break in the 90th birthday party for my girlfriend's grandfather an hour and a half south of the lake.

a very small amount of minutes later I check Instagram to see how many sweet delicious Likes the photo has received (as I said, not many).  Little orange info comes up to tell my it's received a few likes and, what's this? a comment.  I see that the comment is from my birding friend Doug Hitchcox, who said, and I quote: "There's a Brown Booby there right now!"

Come again?  What do you mean by "there"?  In New York?  In Vermont?  What's happening here? Confounded, I thumb my way over to and take a gander at the Vermont listserv, to find this, a post forwarded (immediately, as far as I can tell) from the Northern NY bird listserv:

Can you guys read that OK?  Do you see this?  OK.  So, at 9:39 am a birder from New York posts that he is looking at a Brown Booby - a Vermont state record, I believe, sitting in the water on the VT/NY border at Crown Point State Historic Site.  According the Mr. Chapin, the bird was originally (not sure when) found "with the gulls on shore on the NY side."  With the gulls.  With the gulls that I grunted at.  With the gulls that I knew I should be looking at but just rolled by like some moron.  Here's a photo.

I was in shock.  Still on a tight schedule, we had no time to go back up and see the bird.  A state record and awesome extralimital just out of view!  The odds of me getting so close are astronomical.

Birding is a game of inches played on an infinite field.  I'm sure I've blown by state firsts other times - I bet all of us have.  But you can't identify what you don't look for, so next time I'm going to look a little harder for that pull-off.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Inquiring Minds Want To Know: Answering Google Questions About Birds

The auto-fill feature of Google's search bar provides an incredible wealth of national sociological information.  What are people really wondering when we aren't worried about what we're asking? What are the answers we're searching for?  

Turns out it's mostly pictures of actresses' feet.  But sometimes it's answers about birds!  I began a number of bird-related queries and let the auto-fill tell me what the inquiring minds of this nation were pondering, and I'm here now to provide answers to what, clearly, and, sadly, are our most pressing bird-related questions.

  • Do Birds Pee?
Nope! Unlike mammals, birds don't have a urethra.  They turn everything into uric acid and let it all go from the anus.
  • Do Birds Have Sex?
You bet your dirty mind they do! Here's a gross photo gallery with proof!
  •  Do Birds Sleep?
Yes they do!  I've covered this topic in depth on another website.
  •  Do Birds Fart?
Wow great question!  I have no idea, so I had to go to Popular Science for an answer (and thank god they've got their best men and women on it).  The answer is that they could but they don't.  They have the anatomical structures for it, but lack the gas-forming bacteria in their guts that couch potatoes like you and I do. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Birds at Large: Commercials - August 2014

I've noticed a couple birds in commercials recently.  Time to tell you how crappy they all are.

Mountain Dew - Dale Earnhardt Jr. Call

Just a couple of dudes out duck hunting.  One guy blows his duck call indiscriminately and gets no response.  Frustrating!  His hunt-bro has other plans.  He breaks out his gas-spewing Dale Call and gives is a rev.  Out of nowhere, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car plows into the swamp!  It's a clear violation of the Clean Water Act, but don't worry about that, he does a bunch of donuts!  It'd be funny if they just shot him.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Put A Bird On It. Any Bird.

The Major League Soccer All-Star Game is going to be held in Portland, Oregon* this year, and they've just released images of the jerseys the players will be wearing.  Portland, OR being Zany Quirky Portland, OR (TM) (c), they stuck a bird on the inside of the shirt, a reference to the Put a Bird On It skit from the tv show Portlandia.

That's all well and good and Portlandians can check the "delightful irreverence" box that's probably required for anything officially done in Portlandia.  But something sticks in my craw.  The MLS release about the jerseys says that the bird on the jersey is a western meadowlark, the state bird of Oregon.  Let's take a closer look.

You've got to be shitting me.  That's not a meadowlark.  It's blatantly not a meadowlark.

Why even bother?  Does it cost more to print the silhouette of a meadowlark instead of that sparrow-type thing?  If you want it to be a meadowlark, make it a meadowlark!  If you don't care, then don't say it's a meadowlark!  Lord.  The stupidity of state birds is something I've discussed at length, but apparently my rantings have not changed anything.  Screw you, Portland, Oregon, and go Sounders.

*In 1845, two dudes with two very-1845 names, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove, wanted to name their new settlement on the Pacific coast after their respective hometowns.  Lovejoy was from Boston, Massachusetts and Pettygrove was from Portland, Maine, also the beloved hometown of yours truly.  They decided that the only way to fairly choose a name was a best-of-three coin flipping contest.  Francis, using those strong Maine thumbs, flipped a winner, and proudly proclaimed this new site Portland, of the Oregon Territory!  Fast forward to today, and everyone's all "Oh, I am going on vacation to Portland" or "Today, the weather in Portland is..." without clarifying that they're talking about the also-ran city in Oregon and not the original American city in Maine.  It's bullshit and I hate it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How Far Is Migration?

Okay.  Just thinking about things here for a second.

  • Let's take a Blackburnian Warbler.  Cornell says that these guys weigh 0.3 - 0.5 ounces.  We'll use a heavier, pre-migration weight of 0.5 ounces.
  • Then, for fun, let's take one of the most southerly wintering Blackburnians, like maybe these guys who were found at Machu Picchu, Peru.  Then, let's find some breeders.  How about these guys, found along the piney shores of Moosehead Lake in Greenville, The Great State of Maine.
  • Google Maps has a new "measure distance" tool that shows a plausible Machu Picchu-Dominican Republic-Cuba-Florida-Greenville, Maine migration distance as coming in at 4,522 miles.
  • Using the field of study known as "math," I can multiple 4,522 x 0.5 to get a miles-per-ounce distance of 9,044.  OK.
  • The Information Superhighway says that the average human weight across the globe is 137 pounds.  There are 16 ounces in a pound.  So, using "math," I can calculate that that average earthling weighs 2,192 ounces.
  • So, if a human were to travel the same miles-per-ounce distance as a Blackburnian Warbler does during its twice annual migration, we'd have to go 9,044 x 2,192 = 19,824,448 miles.  Twenty MILLION miles.  
  • The moon is 238,000 miles away from us.  Venus is 26 million miles away from Earth.  On a per-ounce basis, a Blackburnian Human's migration would take us within a stone's throw from frigging VENUS.
  • Has anyone ever traveled 20 million miles from Earth, you ask?  Why, in fact, yes.  In the 1950s, and it was a complete unmitigated disaster.  And it was all caught on film.  See for yourself:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Interesting Historical eBird Checklists

I love looking at old eBird records to see weird records or historical distribution patterns.  I've uncovered some really unusual old checklists during the course of some recent research.  I've taken screenshots of the most interesting ones, click to embiggen.

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