Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Interview with Rosemary Mosco of Bird and Moon Comics

Artists and scientists have something of an uneasy alliance.  Both pursuits find kinship in being frequently maligned by the public for their high-mindedness, but true bonds are hindered by the openness and aloofness that characterize artists, and the density and seriousness that characterize scientists.  To use a completely random an unnecessary analogy, they're like Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour: perceived opposites forced to join up to compete against larger foes.

Anyway, into this fray comes a peacemaker: Rosemary Mosco.  Rosemary is an artist and she's also a science communicator, someone who, in her words, works to connect people to science through creative communication projects.  Very cool.

Rosemary's comics - which are collected at Bird and Moon -  bridge the gap between biology and art with joy.  She does for biology what XKCD does for math and Hark! A Vagrant does for history: pull out the humorous voice from a field not known for expressing itself with much gusto.  Rosemary agreed to answer a few questions for me about her comics and the gaps between science and art.  (By the way, her brand new "Birding Is My Favorite Video Game" piece is my favorite of all things.)

Did your passions for science and art develop at the same time?  Did you ever feel that you had to choose between the two?

I think I've always been into both science and art. As a kid I liked to learn science facts and then tell them to people (my parents were really patient!). Drawing was just another way to share these facts, and I could do it in a way that made people laugh at the same time.

As I got older, I definitely felt like I had to choose between science and art. When I was starting college I asked my advisor if I could major in both of them, and he looked at me funny and said "Absolutely not". I've always tried to squeeze space for both of them into my schedule, which can be tough at times, but it's always rewarding.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Defining East Coast Pelagic Borders

I think most of us agree that if something's worth doing, it's worth doing right.  And that goes for listing.  Listers, and in this case state listers on this East Coast of the United States, have to operate by a set of rules in order for two people's lists to mean anything in relation to each other: the bird must have been alive; it must have been wild; and, most importantly, it must have been seen in the state.

However, when it comes to pelagic borders, the rules aren't so clear.  Determining a state's offshore border is not nearly as easy as it is on land.  Yet, these pelagic birds count just as much for a state's list as any other.

A recent exchange on the ABA Birding News - Seabird News List about defining East Coast pelagic borders has inspired me to try to put the different theories in one place.  Quite frankly, it's amazing to me that there isn't a nationally-accepted set of offshore boundaries.  I suppose the explanations are simple enough, however: it's more difficult for the average birder to determine his or her position at sea (until recent advantages with smartphones, etc., that is), and, more importantly, the fact that states want as much pelagic space as they can get.

Either way, I want to try to collect some info on the different systems.  I am very thankful to those who posted on the Seabird News thread, from whom I am cribbing: Paul Guris, Brian Patteson, Alvaro Jaramillo, Angus Wilson, William Bourne, Marshall Iliff, Nate Dias, Tom Robben and Tom Brown. 

The Nearest Point Of Land System

The American Birding Association wraps up the pelagic boundary question with a tight little sentence: "Birds observed on or over an ocean are counted for the area having the nearest land, if within 200 miles."  It's as easy as that.  If you see a bird out on the ocean, figure out which state's land is closest to you, and that's what state the bird should count for.

It's a system with a basis in federal law.  The federal agency with management responsibility over our Exclusive Economic Zone - the area which extends beyond the 3-mile state waters boundary to a total of 200 miles out to sea - is the mouth-numbingly-named Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (it used to be named the Minerals Management Service, but they wanted a fresh start after some post-Deepwater controversies).  Anyway, BOEMRE is responsible in part for getting coastal states their share of energy leases occurring off their coastlines, and in order to figure out which states deserve the money, boundaries need to be made.  So, boundaries were made, and they were done using the "closest point of land" system.  Here's how that looks, from the BOEMRE website (click to enlarge):

Now, the distaste for this system for some states is obvious.  Look at Delaware.  Look at Virginia and Rhode Island and Georgia and New Hampshire and poor poor Connecticut.  Listers in those states (depending on how they've listed previously) may have a lot less water to find birds in.

Not surprisingly, then, other systems have sprung up so that birders states with less-than-ample coastlines can enjoy the open seas.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Avian Etymologies

I like thinking about bird names.  I've written about them before from different angles: about ones that are named after people; about what names they should have; about how they should be written; and maybe others. 

What I've been thinking about recently is the words for birds themselves.  It seems to me that words for birds are particularly interesting - from the unusual words (Owl, Osprey) to silly ones (Tit, Booby, Goatsucker), to obvious ones (Woodpecker, Stilt) to mysterious ones (pretty much everything else). How did these words evolve?  Are there trends?  Stories?  I did some digging through the OED - Online Etymology Dictionary to see what I could find.

The major trend - one I probably should have seen coming - is that a lot of bird names are echoic, or onomatopoeic.  In other words, the birds were named after the sounds they made.  It makes a lot of sense: naming a bird is great for when when there is a bird with either a) a unique call or b) not really another obvious thing to name it.  Here are some of the birds whose names originated because of their call:

  • Owl - The word "owl" derives from the Latin word ulula, which, sure, sounds like an attempt at a hoot.
  • Jay - from Late Latin's gaius, which is likely imitative.
  • Crow - from Old English's crawe.
  • Heron and Egret - These are sorta related.  The origin of "heron" is uncertain, but it's likely derived from the Proto-Indo-European word qriqi, which is thought to be echoic.  When that word reached the Old Provincal language in southern France around 1500, it had become aigreta, from which "egret" derived. 
  • Finch - from a couple old German words like vinke and Fink, all thought to be imitations of the birds' call note.
  • Goose - not really a surprise here. 
  • Killdeer - not surprising, either.
  • Warblers - not echoic in the correct sense, of course, but named after the fact that they sing.
  • Curlew -  may be imitative of its cry, or also from an Old French word corliu meaning "runner, messanger" because they're good runners (?)
  • Auk - of Scandinavian origins.
  • Shrike - Yup, and probably related to "shriek"
  • Chickadee - Obvi, first recorded in 1838.
  • Bobolink - first used in American English in 1774, when it was known as bob-o-Lincoln.  Odd.
Some other birds were named, interestingly, after names for people:
  • Petrel and Parrot -  Seems both dervice from the name Peter.  Petrels, so the (unconfirmed) story goes, were named for their habit of flying with their feet on the surface (think Storm-petrels): "walking on water" like the apostle Peter did on the Sea of Galilee.  Parrot, on the other hand, likely stems from a perrot, a version of Pierre.  
  • Magpie -  These chattering birds were simply called pie in the original Latin, and the "Mag" part was added because it was a shortening of the name Margaret, a c. 1600 English slang term for talkative women. 
  • Robin - a relative of Robert.  The term dates back to at least the 1300s, when the legend of Robin Hood was born.
Some other random interesting ones:
  • Cormorant - results from the joining of corvus marinus, or Sea Raven.
  • Mallard - likely came from the Latin masculus (which became mallardus in Middle Latin), which referred to any drake duck.
  • Plover - from the Latin pluvia meaning "rain," because their spring arrival coincided with the start of the rainy season. 
  • Vireo - The word is used by Pliny in Latin to describe some kind of green bird (from the root virere), and apparently was just later used to describe the North American birds by accident.
  • Wren - from something Germanic, but no one's really sure what.
  • Flamingo - from the Greek phoinikopteros meaning "red-colored."
  • Bunting - the word bountyng was used to describe the bird in the 1300s, but no one's really sure why.  According to this valid internet source, if might from from the Welsh bontinog, which means "big-assed."!
Cool stuff, huh?  But what about the word "bird" itself?  Well, it's not really clear how we English-speaking folks came to use "bird" to describe all these winged creatures.  Typically, Old English speakers used fugol to talk about birds, and used bridd to talk about "young birds or nestlings."  Bridd somehow became bird, but no one really knows where bridd came from, as it has "no cognates in any other Germanic language."  Fine with me, I'll keep the mystery.   

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