Male Chauvinism and Birds' Names

Male Chauvinism and Birds' Names

Frank Graham Jr.
Published: 06/10/2008

"I'd like you to meet my friend, John Jones. And this here is John's wife."

Hello? I didn't get that. Is there a man with brain so numb that he'd make such an introduction today? Yet that's how the field guides present songbirds to us.

"Behold, this resplendent organism is a vermilion flycatcher. And this dingy creature skulking in the background is the female."

The compilers of guides are generally quite civilized people (ah, there! Kenn), but woefully constrained by the results of evolution. And so it goes: scarlet tanager, black-throated blue warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak-the colorful male reaps the nomenclatural glory.

Yet, in the naming game, alternatives seldom cover all bases, either. Nashville warbler, Philadelphia vireo? They don't make much sense, often being based on the place where an unfortunate individual met his fate at the hands of an old-time, gun-toting collector and became a "type specimen." In such cases, a different sort of chauvinism prevails. Alexander Skutch, the expatriate Baltimorean who first illuminated Central American birdlife for science, pointed out that a more appropriate name for the Tennessee warbler would be "coffee warbler;" after all, this species spends more of its life in the neotropics frequenting shade trees on coffee plantations than during its brief breeding season in North America.

Harris' sparrow, Townsend's solitaire? They take their names from old-time, gun-toting collectors or some pal of theirs, most likely of the masculine gender.

But for me there's a silver lining. Given a simple book about birds as a child, I looked out a window and saw a black bird with red on its wings. I dutifully turned the pages until I came to "Red-winged Blackbird." So, I had reached my first milestone in ornithology by putting a name to a bird. It may have been some years later that I discovered his mate looked diferent, but at least I was on my way to becoming a birder.

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