Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: The Eponym Dictionary of Birds

Birders are familiar with a lot of names. We have to be: we're obsessed with identification, classification, distribution, and every other conceivable manner of parsing and juxtaposing all 10,000 extant bird species, and we need to know what to call each separate type. While some birds' names clue you in to a field mark or a characteristic behavior, thousands(!) of them bear the name of an actual historical person. This latter group includes homages to such titans of ornithology as John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson. Many more contain references to lesser known figures, whose names are so unfamiliar to us that we rarely, if ever, stop to think about the person behind the name.

But I'm happy to report that this particular form of apathy now has a cure. Bloomsbury has published an excellent and comprehensive new resource for anyone who has ever wondered about some of our most familiar birds' namesakes: The Eponym Dictionary of Birds. Over the more than 4,100 entries, you can find information on everyone who's been immortalized in this way, whether in a bird's common name, genus, species, or subspecies. For all of those names we use so often, this is the go-to reference for getting to know the "who" and "why" of the people that birds have been named for.

The entries are short (they have to be, with 4,100 of them), but they almost always contain the person's occupation, contributions, and/or an anecdote or two. This book is filled with fascinating historical footnotes, like Queen Victoria's contribution to bird conservation; the connection between Darius Couch (Couch's Kingbird) and the Gettysburg Address; and the occupational hazard that killed both John Cassin and John Townsend. To me, this all adds another layer of appreciation for the birds, by understanding more about the context of their discovery, and the relationships between the great naturalist-explorers of the 19th century.

We might be tempted to assume that the names behind our common birds all came from accomplished ornithologists, or intrepid collectors. One surprise for me was in finding how often this isn't the case. Anna's Hummingbird, for instance, is named for the wife of the son of one of Napoleon's marshals (her husband, Prince Victor Massena, owned a bird collection that contained the specimen used to describe the species). Then there's La Sagra, Bullock, and Wurdemann, who were an economist, goldsmith, and a meteorologist, respectively. A further surprise was learning that Ross's Gull and Ross's Goose are named for different people; ditto (probably) for Le Conte's Sparrow and Le Conte's Thrasher.

It's not always clear when reading this book quite what the connection is between the bird and an individual (in the introduction the authors state that this information simply isn't available in some cases). For example, the entry for William Swainson demonstrates beyond doubt that he had an adventurous and accomplished life (among other things, he served as Australia's first Attorney General, and his contributions to ornithology were many). It's wonderful to learn more more about a man whose name is so familiar, and no one can doubt that he deserves to have had birds named for him, but unfortunately we're not told why the Swainson's Warbler (named by Audubon) or the Swainson's Thrush (named by Nuttal), in particular, bear his name, nor do we learn what his relationship to these other great men was.

Still, I had so much fun flipping through these pages. Keeping a Sibley guide next to me to feed me suggestions of who I should look up next, I excitedly made my way through our ABA-area birds, before venturing into unknown territory. The characters and the stories behind birds' names are engrossing, and the brevity of the entries will keep you buzzing from entry to entry like one of Louis Marie Panteleon Costa's namesake hummingbirds.

The retail price ($86.00; currently $55.55 on Amazon) is steep, and is sure to dissuade plenty of would-be buyers. Not everyone will be able to squeeze that much value out of a reference book of this sort, but there are certainly others who will come back to it again and again. The Eponym Dictionary of Birds is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the history of natural history. It's a book I had wanted to see published for a long time and one that is sure to give new significance to familiar names that I use nearly every day.

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