BOOKS: 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2002:

100 Birds & How They Got Their Names
by Diana Wells, illustrated by Lauren Jarrett
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (708 Broadway, New York, NY 10003), 2002.
297 pages, hardcover. $18

The title 100 Birds & How They Got Their Names is somewhat
misleading, because only a small part of each of Diana Wells’
species entries actually concerns how or why the likes of the booby,
goatsucker, and titmouse came to be identified as they are.
At that, some of the entries could be disputed, as Wells
consistently favors descriptive origins over the onamatopoeic, even
when the onamatopoeic explanation is seemingly obvious. Wells
insists, for instance, that the titmouse is named “from the Old
Icelandic titr, meaning ‘small,’ and the Anglo-Saxon mase, ‘small
bird,'” though she concedes that, “The chickadee’s name is
onomatopoeic, from the sound of its call; the Cherokee Indians
called it tsikililt.”

The titmouse makes a similar sound and scurries through the
brush like a mouse–but Wells claims “Tits are sometimes called
tomtits, although their call is often described as sounding like
‘Peter, Peter, Peter.'”
Explaining name origins is among Wells’ motifs, but 100
Birds & How They Got Their Names is actually more a cultural history.
Among the more revealing entries, coming just a page after the
discussion of tits, is the entry for the turkey. Apparently turkeys
from the New World were introduced to Spain circa 1511, but “were
confused with guinea fowl, which have the same flecked plumage and
had already been imported from Asia.” Somehow the English misassumed
turkeys came from Turkey, while the French believed they were cocks
of India: coq d’Inde, which became d’Indon, and then the modern
term dindon.
Eating turkeys was slow to catch on, due to a belief that
because turkeys’ main defense is flight, eating them might inspire
cowardice. Wells resists conjecture about any relationship between
the Puritan opposition to military service and their role in
relegating turkeys to the status of poultry.
Under other headings, Wells points out that though the
starling is maligned for an allegedly unmelodious song, among other
reasons, the composer Wolfgang Mozart bought one as a pet in 1784
because he so admired the song.
Hummingbirds, we are told, were believed by the Mayans to
be made from the scraps left over after the creation of all the other
Many anecdotes are told about the ornithologists who named
many bird species. Wells rightly hints that John Audubon was a
trigger-happy philanderer, but seems more appreciative of Thomas
Nuttall, who used his gun mainly as a tool to dig up plants he meant
to take home, and choked the barrel with mud on one occasion just as
his whole expedition was suddenly surrounded by hostile Native
Americans. He did, however, live to tell the tale.
Agree or disagree with Wells’ linguistic contentions, 100
Birds & How They Got Their Names is fun, easily read either at a
sitting or an entry or two per day.

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