The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Birds named after women


I've read many pieces about the people after whom birds are named, and it struck me recently that most of them are male. Not surprising, since there must have been many more male ornithologists than women; but there are nevertheless many birds named after women. Because of the regularity of Latin grammar, we can find a considerable number just by looking for names that end in -ae.

Alas, the majority of matching names are toponyms. Some of these names are obvious, like novaehollandiae and novaeseelandiae, which account for 23 species between them. But many more are obscure, and there's no way to exclude them en masse. One must go through the list one entry at a time to discard the place names. One notable example of this genre is adeliae, which refers to Adélie Land, named after Adélie Vicomtesse Dumont d’Urville, wife of a French Antarctic explorer. Another problem comes from male names which have been Latinised as -ae (e.g. Matsudaira, Fea). When these and other complications are eliminated, we are left with just under a hundred female eponyms.

Only a handful of these names belong to women whose contributions to ornithology are well-documented.

The remainder of the names belong to queens, princesses, and minor nobility; and wives, sisters, and daughters (with many overlaps; the wives of nobles inclined towards nature being especially likely to have birds dedicated to them). In particular, many species described in the nineteenth century mania for hummingbirds and sunbirds were named after women. A couple of people named birds after their mothers. I do not know the extent to which any of these ladies were themselves interested in ornithology, but more than a few of them are known to have participated in collecting expeditions to unexplored places; and one can only wonder how much more credit may have been due to them that they did not get. In any case, the list of women ornithologists above is certainly incomplete.

The wives of explorers and ornithologists are by far the most numerous source of eponyms. (Update 2015-11-01: I started writing this in March 2011, and gave up on doing justice to the list of wives four and a half years later.)

Many genera were named after women (Berenicornis, Dulciornis, Ethelornis, Rosina), but have been renamed since. A few such names have survived. Enriqueta Iñez Cherrie, daughter of ornithologist George Cherrie, lends her name to a genus of four South American Tyrant Flycatchers (whose common names are also Inezia). Prince Bonaparte, a French ornithologist, named a genus after daughter Bathilde, an imperial pigeon after his other daughter Charlotte, and a dove after his wife Zénaïde. The latter name is now given to a genus of doves, including the Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita. Two Antshrikes Mackenziaena spp. are named after Helen Mackenzie McConnell, wife of English collector Frederick McConnell. Claudia Reinard, wife of German ornithologist Ernst Hartert, had both her names given to birds: Claudia and Reinarda, but neither name is still in use today.

Edithornis and edithae were names given to unrelated species after unrelated Ediths (the latter being British botanist and entomologist Edith Cole). Neither is still in use. But Lady Mary Macgregor, wife of explorer Sir William Macgregor, apart from being one of the mariae mentioned earlier, also gives her last name to a Bird-of-paradise Macgregoria pulchra and a Bowerbird Amblyornis macgregoriae. (But the Small Niltava Niltava macgrigoriae is named after an unrelated Jane MacGrigor, daughter of an Army doctor.) Elizabeth Gould, artist and wife of prolific trochilidist John Gould, had a finch Gouldaeornis gouldiae and a sunbird Aethopyga gouldiae named after her (many of Gould's South American hummingbirds are given female names whose origins are unknown).

There are many female eponyms that do not end in -ae, while others are no longer in use. Such names can be discovered only by stumbling across them. I've included some of them in the list above. There are also many female names whose origins are untraceable. Some examples are adela, catharina, eva, francescae, georginae, heloisa, lydiae, and werae. The last is a subspecies of the Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola, Wera being the Polish form of Vera.

I have no useful data about subspecific female eponyms, but I know there are a few. One example I happened upon is Spelaeornis troglodytoides indiraji, named after Indira Gandhi, a former Indian Prime Minister. Another name I like is Strix [leptogrammica] indranee, but Sykes did not explain its origin, and it's probably named after the mythical wife of the god Indra, not a real woman.

Mythology, mostly Greek, is another rich source of female names both generic (e.g. Alcyone, Atthis, Sappho) and specific (e.g. amphitrite, andromedae, antigone). But, like indranee, mythological names are technically not eponyms but autochthonyms, or indigenous names. (Speaking of ancient Greece, Xanthippe, wife of Socrates, had a bird named after her too.)

Finally, an inversion of the principle—the painter (of birds, among other things) Dafila Scott was named after a bird, Dafila being the genus of Pintail ducks (now absorbed into Anas as a subgenus). I know of bird-watcher's daughters named Irena (from Greek mythology) and Yuhina (from a Nepali name). I wonder if there are any women named after birds who were named after women.

If you know of other names that belong on this page, please write to me.

The Madrass Jay


Of the twenty-four illustrations contributed by Edward Buckley to John Ray's "Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium", the first one whose identity is not reasonably obvious is the "Madrass Jay", in the bottom left corner. From the illustration, I guessed that it was a Brahminy Myna, but a glance at the description showed that it could only be an Indian Pitta Pitta brachyura.

I wrote to the delhibirdpix list to ask for photographs of an Indian Pitta to post on this web page, and once again, Sharad Sridhar sent me a selection of photos (including one from Tamil Nadu, although the one below is from Karnataka).

Indian Pitta

Here is Buckley's description, followed by my translation:

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The Partridge Snipe


One of the many treasures on is a copy of the 1713 book "Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium" by the British scientist John Ray (or "Joannis Raii" in Latin). The book is interesting not only because it predates and influenced Linnaean taxonomy, but especially because it includes a few illustrations and descriptions of "Indian birds about Fort St. George" (near Madras) at the end, contributed by Edward Buckley, a surgeon at the Fort.

Appendix from Synopsis Methodica Avium

There are twenty-four captioned illustrations, most of which can be identified easily (e.g. the Madras Sea-crow is obviously an Indian Skimmer). But the illustrations aren't very lifelike—beaks in particular being suspiciously similar—and some species (e.g. "Small Blue Jay" and "Red Jay-Dove") aren't readily recognisable. Some of the descriptions are quite detailed, however, and I tried to translate a few of them just to see if I could identify the species involved. I meant to post some of these translations, but never got around to it.

One of the species described is the Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, which the book calls the Partridge Snipe. This is a common species that I somehow missed seeing for many years until Hassath and I encountered a pair in a puddle by the road at Basai. It is one of the few species where the female has a much more striking plumage, and is polyandrous to boot, with the offspring being raised by the male. I was reminded of the description in the book by the lovely photographs Sharad Sridhar sent me today.

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Birds named after their habitat


One of the most interestingly-named birds regularly seen around Delhi is the Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis. It has an onomatopoeic common name—its call being a loud "zit zit"—that includes its Latin generic name Cisticola, from the Greek name kistos for the "rock rose" (a small red-flowered shrub) and Latin cola for "dweller" (from colere "to dwell"). The specific name is from the Latin iuncus for reed. (For some reason I can no longer remember, I used to think that cistus meant basket, and referred to the bird's basket-shaped nests, but I was wrong.)

Cisticola is the most familiar such name, but there are many other birds named after their dwellings (a special case of bionyms). Thanks to a borrowed copy of James A. Jobling's wonderful "Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names", I can look up all of the -cola names (both generic and specific) extracted from a checklist. Here's a selection of the interesting ones.

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Bird watchers and purple prose


Speaking of bird-watching and poetry, I've noticed that bird-watchers, at least on the few Indian bird-watching lists I subscribe to, adore purple prose. They applaud it when they see it in other people's trip reports, and do their best to put it in their own.

It is always entertaining to see things like this written with no apparent sense of irony (in this case, about a photograph of a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls):

Reminded me, in fact, of a pair of elegant aristocrats, somewhat puffy-chested with ‘stale airs’, a touch stern in demeanour, necks and crests craning back with a stiff pride.......

As if, As if.... somehow the couple is steeling to bear the gathering autumn of an erstwhile many-splendoured life, now stripped of privy privileges, purses and titles!

Very picturesque, but when I think of an aristocrat stripped of privy privileges, I can't help but imagine an old butler, neck stiff with spondylosis, saying I'm sorry, Sir Neville, but they took away the outhouse.

But any literary allusion, no matter how trite or overused, is cause for celebration. Comparisons to poetry are frequent followups; and sometimes a phrase catches someone else's imagination, and reappears in their own reports. Someone once responded to a post, which was relatively subdued in comparison to the above, with a comment that Ruskin Bond was quaking in his boots, presumably from fear of competition (though the post didn't rule out, say, uncontrollable laughter).

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Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher


I came across a quotation from Nissim Ezekiel's poem, "Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher" in a book, and the title was so interesting that I just had to look it up. I found it in the minstrels archive, and it's such an intriguing poem that I'm quoting all twenty lines here.

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher

To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering—
In this the poet finds his moral proved
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.

The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart's dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
But poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.

— Nissim Ezekiel

I have read some other poems by Nissim Ezekiel (one was a part of my high school English curriculum), but I can't remember another one that made me sit up and pay attention. I love the idea of tying poetry, love, and bird-watching together through the patience and caring that each requires; and I love the unhurried, graceful way the poem segues between each activity and the feelings it evokes. I think the ending is a bit forced (did anyone mop the heart's dark floor or were they too busy eyeing up the slowly turning women?), and detracts from the light tone established by the first stanza. I notice, too, that poetry, love, and bird-watching are presented as implicitly male pursuits.

Myths of light with darkness at the core? Not so much. But patient love relaxing on a hill is a different feeling, one that I can recognise and will remember.

Greek and Latin Scientific names


My recent comment on names which mean the same thing in different languages reminded me of something slightly different: generic and specific names that mean the same thing; one in Greek, the other in Latin.

The Common Raven Corvus corax, revered in ancient cultures around the world, bears its own name in both languages, Corvus being the Latin name for the Raven, and corax likewise the name in Greek (even the name "Raven" comes from an ancient Proto-Germanic name applied to the bird). The related Carrion Crow Corvus corone and Hooded Crow Corvus cornix both take their specific names from Greek words for "crow". All three names were assigned by Linnaeus in 1758.

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Overloaded generic names


The Slender-Billed Scimitar Babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris has always felt somewhat mystical while flipping through the Babblers in any field guide. I've never seen one, but the photographs posted to the delhibirdpix list by Sujan Chatterjee in May 2008 and Ramki Sreenivasan a year later, both taken in Arunachal Pradesh, have stayed in my memory.

Unfortunately, I can find only one of these photographs on Google Groups now, and I can't figure out any sane way to link to that post here. But Google Images finds many photos of the species, including Sujan's photo.

Anyway, Xiphirhynchus superciliaris was somewhere at the back of my mind when I recently encountered a casual reference to the unrelated South American genus of Woodcreepers: Xiphorhynchus. These are essentially the same word, derived from the Greek xiph- (for "sword") and -rhynchus ("snout" or "nose", meaning beak)!

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Dual-use scientific names


A long time ago, I was delighted to notice—by accident—that the Yellow-Footed Green Pigeon Treron phoenicopterus has, as its specific name, the same name given to the genus of Flamingos. And what a name it is! Phoenicopterus, meaning "crimson-wing", from the Greek φοίνικ- (phoenic-, for "blood red", the root of Phoenix and Phoenician; itself derived from φόνος, fonos, for "slaughter") and pteron (for wing).

This weekend, armed with a not-terribly-recent checklist of birds and a little spare time, I wrote a small Perl script to look for other names given to both a genus and a different species (that is to say, I ignored the relatively better-known examples of one bird having the same generic and specific name, such as Coccothraustes coccothraustes and Pica pica). Here are some of the most interesting results.

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