Montezuma Oropendola: Psarocolius montezuma

Between my sophomore and junior year at Yale, I spent a month on an island called Isla Colón off the eastern coast of Panama, near the border with Costa Rica. This place is about as absurdly Caribbean as you can get — meaning that it’s a tropical paradise, but also fairly touristy. There’s some decent rainforest on the quieter parts of the island, though, and so I spent a few weeks catching poison dart frogs and watching manakin leks, learning what this whole “field biologist” thing was all about.

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Boca del Drago — really obnoxiously beautiful. (Photos mine.)

There is essentially one road on this island, from the party town of Bocas del Toro all the way across to the beautiful, quiet beach of Boca del Drago, and along this island, there are Montezuma Oropendolas. And their nests. There are Montezuma Oropendolas and their nests absolutely positively everywhere.

This is a Montezuma Oropendola:


These are its nests:


The people who run the awesome citizen science project Mark my Bird to study avian beak evolution also run a Twitter competition called “Beak of the Week,” in which they post a 3D scan of a beak of one of the world’s birds, and Twitter ornithologists, twitchers, and avian enthusiasts try to guess which species it came from. I only check twitter a couple times a day, so I usually miss the #beakoftheweek posting, but I have won the competition twice, and I always enjoy trying to guess even if someone else got the right answer hours ago.

Anyway, this week the #beakoftheweek was the Montezuma Oropendola, Psarocolius montezuma (Passeriformes: Icteridae), so I thought it would be a great entry for today’s #namethisbird.

Confession: I had to look up just who Montezuma was, beyond “some Aztec leader.” (Neither AP European nor American spends much/any time in Latin America, and, well, beyond those two classes, my grasp of history is decent up until the fall of the Roman Empire but then fails spectacularly after that. Unless, of course, said history was covered in one of my linguistics or language classes at university, meaning that I can tell you a lot of awesome things about early Icelandic law, a lot of terrible things about the colonization of Australia, and a lot of random things about East Africa in the past 60 years. \end{digression})

Moctezuma II was the ninth Aztec Emperor, and he ruled over large parts of what is now Mexico until the arrival of the Spanish. Specifically, Moctezuma II was killed when Hernán Cortés finally conquered the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City now stands, in 1521, after having been a guest of Moctezuma’s for several months. Apparently “Moctezuma” is Nahuatl for “he who frowns like a lord,” but I’m getting that from Wikipedia and aren’t familiar enough with Nahuatl to know how to fact-check it, so who knows if that is correct.

Incidentally, yes, Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec empire, is still spoken today by the Nahua people in Mexico and El Salvador. English words with Nahuatl origins include “chili”, “chocolate”, “avocado”, “coyote”, and “tomato.”

Should you ever need a delicious vegan gluten-free dessert, I’m a huge fan of chocolate chili avocado pudding. Seriously, it’s amazing, and we have the Aztecs to thank for 3/4ths of this dessert name! (The word “pudding” can be traced to the Anglo-Norman bodeyn meaning “intestines,” but before that, it’s unclear if the etymology is more Old French boudin “sausages” or Old English puduc “swelling.” The reason for the shift in meaning from “entrails” to “dessert” has to do with the way both types of pudding are made, by sticking the relevant ingredients in a cloth and boiling them. Now you know.)

The word “oropendola” comes to us from Latin via Spanish: oro meaning “gold” (Latin aurum) and péndola meaning “feather” (Latin pinnula, cf rather archaic English “pinnule”). The Latin aurum is why the element gold has the atomic symbol Au.

Psarocolius I’m having some trouble with. κολιός  (“kolios”) is Greek for “mackerel”, which doesn’t seem relevant, and κολιέ (“kolie”) means “necklace”, but that’s also not particularly promising. There seems to be a number of sites claiming that κολιός is also Greek for a type of green woodpecker, but I can’t substantiate that, and, though close to an oropendola than a mackerel, is still not terribly helpful.

These are mackerel. These are not oropendolas.

Going on this mackerel theme, Psaro– might be related to the Greek word for “fish”, ψάρι (“psari”), or according to Google Translate but unsubstantial elsewhere ψαρό (“psaro”) is the Greek word for “grizzly.”

This is a grizzly bear. This is neither a mackerel nor an oropendola.

So basically I’m no help.

The family name, Icertidae, is really cool, though. Icterus is Latin for “jaundice,” from the Greek ἴκτερος, also meaning “jaundice.” The sight of the Golden Oriole, Oriolus oriolus, was said to cure jaundice, possibly because of its yellowish color, the color of, well, jaundice.

Now you know.


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