The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

The Hour of the Furnaces

2009-08-24

What does this mean?, asked Hassath, pointing to «La Hora de los Hornos» in an article about documentary films.

The hour of the… something.

Furnaces?

And just like that, a flood of memories swept me twenty years back in time to the Argentinian pampas, which I had experienced time and again through Gerald Durrell's marvellous writings. I remembered the story of a tough gaucho moved to tears as he recounted how he—in a moment of uncharacteristic sentimentality—rescued a small bird whose leg was stuck in the wet clay with which it was building its nest. The bird, once freed, perched a few feet away and poured its heart out in song, as if to thank the enraptured cowboy.

The bird's name, Hornero, was what triggered a memory so vivid that, just for an instant, I could almost smell the clay and feel a dry, dusty wind stinging my cheek. Horneros, named for the resemblance of their round clay nest to a horno, an old wood-fired oven. Ovenbirds.

Furnaces. That's it. The Hour of the Furnaces.

The Hour of the Furnaces is a 1968 documentary by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino about the struggle against neo-colonialism in Argentina. The title quotes Che Guevara who, in turn, was quoting the nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary leader and poet José Marti: "Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen." The film is in three parts, and is 260 minutes long. Hassath, who has seen it, recommends it highly.

My treasured collection of Gerald Durrell's books is long gone, given away over the years; and now, I have a film to watch that will teach me very different things about Argentina. But it will also always remind me of a small brown bird celebrating its freedom with a song.

Greek and Latin Scientific names

2009-07-23

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

2009-07-22

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

2009-07-13

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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