New Caledonian Crow, Corvus moneduloides (Passeriformes: Corvidae)
One of my dear friends, Cody McCoy, now a PhD student at Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, studies, among many other things, New Caledonian crows.
Why would one want to study a New Caledonian crow?
Glad you asked.
New Caledonian crows are famous for their tool use, using twigs to make hooks which they then use to dig out various delicious insects from crevices or to poke at potentially dangerous objects. They also can use mirrors to help them search for food, though they, unlike elephants, cannot recognize themselves in these mirrors. They’re the hot topic in animal cognition right now, hence why scientists like Cody are willing to schlep all the way out to New Caledonia.
New Caledonia, 750 miles off the coast of Australia. Aka, really darn hard to get to.
I’m not as big of a fan of crows for one really specific reason: they smell bad. Or, rather, their museum specimens smell bad. Generally, the larger the bird, the harder it is to preserve, and when I was going through the passerines at Tring, the week I measured the crows was my least favorite week in the museum. Some larger birds are morphologically interesting enough to be worth the trouble — birds of paradise, say, or lyrebirds, or the day Rebekah and I got to go into the “large room” to measure some pelicans. But crows? They are, for the most part, solid black. There are 40 species, and they all look the same. This is awesome from a speciation perspective, but unbelievably dull from the point of view of the PhD student trying to measure the entirety of the passerines.
Anyway, the word “crow” dates all the way back to the Old English crawe and is related to the Old Saxon kraia, Old High German chrawa, Dutch kraai, and so forth.
The genus name Corvus, and its derivative of family name Corvidae, is the Latin for “raven.” There’s a constellation called “Corvus”, too…thus named because it apparently looks like a crow.
Now comes the truly boring part of this blog post: I have no idea where the word moneduloides comes from. If you have any idea, please let me know!
The word “new” goes all the way back to Indo-European: compare Hittite neua, Sanskrit nava, Welsh newydd, Gothic niujis, Latin novus, etc, etc, etc.
I am a child of New York and New England, so I’m well used to locations in former British colonies named after places in Britain. Caledonia is, indeed, the old Roman name for what we call “Scotland.” Yes, New Caledonia is part of France these days, but it was the Brits (specifically, Captain Cook) who named it first. Why exactly New Caledonia would remind anyone, even a homesick Brit, of Scotland remains unclear.
Fun fact: New Caledonia contains about 25% of the world’s known nickel.
Caledonia itself is a Latin word, as, for that matter is Scot (from Scottus or Scotia), though the name briefly meant “Ireland” and then “Ireland and Scotland” before Hibernia became the preferred term for “Ireland.” According to the OED, this confusion was the source of much amusement to medieval scholars. Helpfully, the people we now know as “Scots” were originally from Dalriada…which was an ancient kingdom in Ireland.