Bonaparte’s Gull: Larus philadelphia

Last autumn, I had a research assistant who was really, really French, who would get fairly animated whenever the subject of Napoleon came up. At some point I was collecting data on Bonaparte’s Gull (Larus philedelphia), and she happened to look over my shoulder.

Her: “Ooh, is that bird named after Napoleon Bonaparte?!”

Me: “There’s no way that can be true…can it?”

141106-omalley-napoleon-tease_nkt8fv.jpgAn image of Napoleon looking very French, or something.

Turns out we were both right: Bonaparte’s Gull is named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. CLB was born in France, raised in Italy, married his cousin in Belgium, set off for the New World at the age of 19 (discovering a new bird along the way, Wilson’s Storm-petrel), traveled around the US studying birds, traveled around Europe talking about birds, got elected to the Roman Assembly, lead some Roman troops against his cousin Louis Napoleon, and at some point fathered 12 children.

(By the way, in case anyone reading this is from my hometown — Lake Bonaparte in Lewis Country, NY, is actually named after Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. He lived there after he got exiled from France. #uselessknowledge)

A Bonaparte’s Gull in breeding plumage. Photo by D Gordon E Robertson, via Wikipedia.

 The species name, philadelphia, comes from the US city, Philadelphia. I presume because our friend CLB lived there when he first came to the US? Looking at the range map, I’m not entirely sure that Bonaparte’s Gulls can be found in Philadelphia, but if not, it’s close.

The OED has entries for “Philadelphia lawyer” (which apparently can either mean “a very able and intelligent lawyer” or “an unscrupulous lawyer”, so I’m not sure if this is a compliment or not), “Philadelphia chromosome” (particular translocation between chromosomes 9 and 22), and “Philadelphia cheesesteak” (a delicious sandwich). And as any American who paid attention in middle school history class knows, the name “Philadelphia” means “brotherly love”, from the Greek philos for “love” (cf “philosophy” “love of knowledge”) and adelphos “brother”. Philly was founded by Quakers, what can I say.

campos-deli-philadelphia-cheesesteak1-920vpThis is a Philly cheesesteak. If you eat meat, it is delicious.

We have covered the word gull (it’s Welsh! for “gull”), as well as the the genus name Larus (Greek: “gull”), whence family Laridae. I seem not to have said anything about Charadriiformes (shorebirds), but Charadrius (plovers) comes from the Greek χαράδρα charadra meaning “canyon”. Apparently there’s some yellowish nocturnal bird that lives in ravines, supposedly cures jaundice, and is mentioned in the Vulgate Bible by this name, and someone at some point decided it was actually a Ringed Plover. Go figure.

(As a professional ornithologist I feel obligated to point out that Ringed Plovers do not live in ravines/canyons/etc, don’t cure jaundice or otherwise protect you from the evil eye, aren’t particularly yellow, and are cathemeral rather than nocturnal.)


Resplendent Quetzal: Pharomachrus mocinno

Resplendent Quetzals, Pharomachrus mocinno (Trogoniformes: Trogonidae) are highly excellent birds. The males are a bright, iridescent green, with tails about twice the length of their body. The females, however, look like pretty typical trogons — dull front, green back, black-and-white striped tail. Ohai sexual selection.

Resplendent Quetzals are found in cloud forests throughout Central America, from NW Panama stretching over to Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico. I’ve seen one, a male, outside of Boquete, Panama.

Resplendent_Quetzal_in_Costa_RicaResplendent Quetzal (image by Supreet Sahoo, via Wikipedia).

The word “quetzal” comes into English via Spanish from the Nahuatl quetzalli, meaning a quetzal feather. The Nahuatl word for a quetzal itself is quetzaltototl (“tototl” meaning “bird”).

Other English words that come via Spanish from Nahuatl (sometimes known as “the language of the Aztecs”, but spoken by around 1.5 million people today) include avocado (from āhuacatl, “testicle”), cocoa, chili, chipotle, coyote, guacamole, hoatzin (the bird), ocelot, taco, tomato, and shack (from xacalli, “a wooden hut”).

200px-Rundown_ShackI had never before thought about the origin of the word “shack”, but the OED backs up Wikipedia on this: it’s probably Nahuatl. For the curious, “shackle” comes from the Old English sceacul and has cognates throughout the Germanic languages.

In contrast, the word “resplendent” is much more boring: it comes from the Latin resplendent, same meaning, with cognates in Old French, Old Occitan, Catalan, Italian, etc.

165150627_f592f9d32f_z.jpgThis is what comes up when you Google “resplendent.” It’s certainly very lovely? Image by Gaëtan Bourque.

I must confess to being originally perplexed by the genus name, Pharomachrus. The Handbook of the Birds of the World translates it as Greek for “long cloak” (φάρος pharos + μακρος macros). I’m totally with them on macros for some synonym of “big” — macroecology, macroevolution, macrophage, macroscopic, macrobiotic — but I’m confused about pharos. φάρος means “lighthouse,” or any sort of beacon. It’s where we get Latin pharus, French phare, Spanish and Italian faro, etc. It comes from the island of the same name, off the coast of Alexandria, upon which there was…a lighthouse. I’m finding lots of potential Greek words for cloak, such as μανδύας, but none of them look anything like pharos.

The OED does have an entry for the English word “pharos”, though, meaning “a cloak”, and claims that this word is from the Greek ϕάρος , so who am I to argue.

381f3fe3b75c92c1dc7b6b6bd539fb60This is Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange. He has a very long cloak (the “cloak of levitation,” not that I’m a Marvel fan or anything). He is not a lighthouse.

Anyway, the species name is very easy: mocinno comes from José Mariano Mociño, a naturalist from “New Spain” (now Mexico), who was the first to classify the Resplendent Quetzal.

The Trogonidae are the 39 species that make up the sole family in the order Trogoniformes, tropical things with short necks and heterodactyl toes. (Meaning digits 1 and 2 point backward and digits 3 and 4 point forward. They’re the only animals that do this. Most birds are anisodactyl, meaning that digit 1 is backwards and the rest forwards. Think about how you’d grip the monkey bars, then pretend your pinkie isn’t there — that’s anisodactyl.)

Anyway, the word “trogon” comes from the Greek τρώγων (trogon) meaning “to gnaw”, referring to the fact that trogons use their beaks to excavate their own nests in trees.

Cookie_monsterYou can gnaw on trees to build yourself a nest…or you can gnaw on cookies. Om nom cookies.

Common Chiffchaff: Phylloscopus collybita

These days, I work in the EXCD lab, where I am surrounded by fluent or near-fluent German speakers. (Not all  linguists are fluent in a bazillion different languages, but the ones I work with are. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.)

Anyway, this is relevant because I have a new favorite German word: der Zilpzalp. Or, as the English would say, “chiffchaff.” Which, as any North American will immediately point out, is a pretty goofy word in itself.

1024px-chiffchaff_-_phylloscopus_collybita Das ist ein Zilpzalp von Wikipedia. Andreas Trepte ist der Fotograf.

The Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita (Passeriformes: Phylloscopidae), is a small, insectivorous bird found throughout Europe and Russia in the summer and northern Africa through the Arabian Peninsula into India in the winter, with year-round overlap in western Europe, including the UK. They’re ground-nesters, which mean that they’re particularly vulnerable to predation by cats. (Domestic cats kill an estimated 55 million birds each year in the UK and between 1 billion and 4 billion each year in the US. Yes, billion with a “b.” I love cats, but please, take sensible precautions with your pets.)

The word “chiffchaff” is onomatopoetic, coming from their simple, repetitive, two-note song, which sounds like “chiff-chaff.” Or, if you’re German, “zilp-zalp.” The Oxford English Dictionary claims that the Chiffchaff is also known as the “Lesser Pettychaps,” which I think is a great name. (The OED thinks that “Pettychaps” is also onomatopoetic and attributes the origin to Yorkshire.)

220px-whiteandpinkpetticoat Petticoats. Almost like pettichaps? (Image source: Wikipedia.)

The genus name Phylloscopus and the family name Phylloscopidae come from the Greek φύλλο “phyllo” meaning “leaf” and σκοπος “skopos” meaning an aim or a purpose or even a target. The Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive’s etymology of “Phylloscopus” suggests that “scopus” means “seeker.” Chiffchaffs and other so-called “Phylloscopus warblers” (yes, that’s what we call them) spend a lot of time in the leaves — HBW’s “leaf-seeker” seems like a great translation to me from a biological perspective, even if the Greek is a bit of a stretch.

phyllo is where we get “filo dough” — the dough is leaves of flaky pastry. Botanists will recognize this word: chlorophyll. Phyllophore. It doesn’t seem to be where we get “phylum” (as in “kingdom, phylum, class, order…”), as that would be ϕῦλον “phylon” meaning “tribe”, but I like the poetry of leaves on the tree of live. And despite the romanization of “phyllo” into “filo,” we sadly can’t make the leap to “fila” (“thread,” as in “filament”) — that seems to be a purely Latin root.

baklava (Delicious, delicious filo dough. Image source: Wikipedia.)

“Skopos” should be very familiar to us: microscope. Or, if you’re a bird watcher, a spotting scope. Outside the scope of a paper. Not actually related to a (now obsolete) use of the verb “scope” to mean “to make a horse jump or leap.” That etymology can be traced to the Old Norse skopa “to run.”

hqdefault You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him scope.

White-winged Diuca-finch: Diuca speculifera

The past few weeks have been a little Asia-heavy, so today I’ll return to the New World and focus on the White-winged Diuca-finch, Diuca speculifera (Passeriformes: Emberizidae). This finch is a high-altitude specialist, found in the Altiplano, or the plateau found in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. They’re the only bird besides penguins to nest on glaciers, a fact discovered by a 14-year-old, and their nests have been found as high as 5300 meters (17,000 feet).

White-winged_Diuca-Finch_-_Chile_(23392277235)White-winged Diuca-finch. Not the greatest picture, but it’s what’s in the public domain. Source: Wikipedia.

The word Diuca comes from Mapudungün, the language of the Mapuche people. (This language is also known as Araucano, for example in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, but this term is considered offensive.) Mapudungün is a language isolate, meaning that it’s not known to be related to any other languages on Earth — other examples of language isolates include Basque, Ainu, Korean, Sumerian, Tiwi, Natchez, and Zuni. Mapudungün is spoken in Chile and Argentina by around 260,000 people, though very few children are currently learning the language.

AltiplanoThis is the Altiplano. Isn’t it beautiful? Definitely on my list of places to go someday.

The word “white” I’ve already covered, and the word “wing” comes from the Old Norse vængir (cf Swedish and Danish vinge), which replaced the Old English feþra, a word at the time meaning “wing” but is now only preserved in the word “feather.” Remarkably, feþra is cognate with πτερόν (“pteron”), the Greek word meaning “wing” that was discussed along with the Flightless Steamerduck, Tachyeres pteneres, as well as the Sanskrit pet, leading us to the Indo-European construction *-pet .

VikingshipThose darn Vikings and their Old Norse loanwords! (Like, for example, the word “loan,” which came from the Old Norse lán.)

Finally, the word “finch” can be traced directly to Old English finc and might refer to the Chaffinch’s “pink” call. (Possibly cf Welsh pinc, Russian penka, Breton pintetc?)

Sumatran Niltava: Niltava sumatrana

During my final semester at Yale, I took for fun an upper-level anthropology seminar called “Himalayan Languages and Cultures.” (Yes, Yale’s the sort of place where they’ll let an undergrad from a different department take a postgrad-level class for no real reason beyond “it sounds cool,” though at the time I gave a more professional justificiation for why they should let me into the class.) This class was amazing — it was taught by Mark Turin, who is a seriously awesome dude — and as such, I get lots of warm fuzzies when I encounter a Himalayan language.


Last week’s bird was the Himalayan Monal, words that come from Sanskrit and Nepali respectively. Which got me wondering — are there any other bird names that come from Nepali?

Turns out the answer is yes — the word “niltava” comes from the Nepali niltau, the local name for the Rufous-bellied Niltava (Niltava sundara). Niltavas are small, colorful, old-world flycatchers, found mostly in southeast Asia. Today’s bird is one of the six species of niltavas, the Sumatran Niltava, Niltava sumatrana.

UntitledSumatran Niltava, Niltava sumatrana (Passeriformes: Muscicapidae). Source: Internet Bird Collection

Sumatra is an island in Indonesia, specifically the large island running northwest to southeast on the western side of Indonesia, just south/southwest of Malaysia and Indonesia. Sumatra is home to a tremendous amount of biodiversity — tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, orangutans, the world’s largest individual flower (Rafflesia arnoldii, aka the “corpse flower”, aka the thing that the Pokemon sequence Oddish/Gloom/Vileplume is based on), the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence (Amorphophallus titanum, titan arum, helpfully also known as the “corpse flower”), etc — though this biodiversity is currently threatened by heavy deforestation. The northern end of Sumatra is Aceh, a semi-autonomous region of Indonesia that is governed under very conservative Islamic law and was the site of years of nasty conflicts between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists. (Aceh is also desperately poor and was decimated by the 2004 tsunami. We’re talking around 170,000 deaths for the region, out of 230,000 deaths total.) (If your brain works like mine, Wikipedia’s lists of deadly natural disasters are fascinating and also very, very sad.)

Rafflesia_sumatraRafflesia arnoldii, via Wikipedia. The genus was named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore who took Java over from the Dutch in 1811. The species name comes from Joseph Arnold, a British surgeon who ended up stranded in what is now Jakarta and took up botany because why not. This Joseph Arnold is not to be confused with the Rhode Islander Joseph Arnold, who has a Wikipedia page because he had a lot of kids in the 1700s.

045VileplumeThe Pokemon “Vileplume.”

Titan-arum1webAmorphophallus titanum. Genus from the Greek άμορφος “amorphos” meaning “amorphous” (literally “without form” — think morphology, morphospace, morph, etc) and φαλλός “phallos” meaning “phallus.” See, Greek is not a hard language. The species name “titan” just means “big,” referring to the Titans, who in ancient Greek mythology preceded the Olympians (the Greek gods we know and love) — think Titanic (a big ship), Titan (the biggest of Saturn’s moons), etc. Titanium, the element, was discovered right after uranium, and in mythology Uranus was the father of the Titans.

The etymology of “Sumatra” seems complicated and politically fraught, so I’m going to say that it’s from the Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) name for the island, Sumatera, and call it a day.

2000px-LocationSumatra.svgThe location of Sumatra, via Wikipedia.

The family name Muscicapidae, referring to the Old World flycatchers, comes from the Latin musca meaning “fly” (the animal, like French mouche, Spanish mosca, possibly Greek μύγαmuga, etc) and the Latin capere, which both means and is the source of “capture” (via French, capturer).

Himalayan Monal: Lophophorus impejanus

I now bring us back from the land of the cool names over to the (related) realm of the pretty birds, and focus on the Himalayan Monal, Lophophorus impejanus. Monals are iridescent pheasants living in the Himalayas and the mountains of central China; the Himalayan Monal is the national bird of Nepal and the state bird of Uttarkhand. Look at all the shiny colors!


The species names comes from Lady Mary Impey, a natural historian in the late eighteenth century who made detailed notes on Indian birds, founded a menagerie in what is now Kolkata, and commissioned Indian artists to paint beautiful, detailed portraits of local birds, other animals, and plants. Some of these paintings are now apparently in Oxford’s Radcliffe Science Library, right down the road from my department, go figure, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the V&A in London.

(Lady Mary Impey’s husband, Elijah Impey, was the first Chief Justice of Bengal until was implicated in enough scandals and corruptions charges to force him to return to England, where he served as an MP for a while.)

Zoffany-Impey-family-Calcutta.jpg A portrait of the Impey family, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The genus name “Lophophorus” is Greek for “crest-bearing,” from λοφίο lophio “crest” and φέρω phero “to bear, to bring.”

The word “monal” comes from the Nepali monāl; the name was first applied in English by the Impeys, and then by John Latham (“the grandfather of Australian ornithology”), who ended up with Mary Impey’s ornithological notes.

Finally, the English word “Himalayan” comes from the Sanskrit Himālaya meaning “snow-dwelling” from hima “snow” and ālaya “abode.”


Mount Everest, in the Himalayas: a snow-abode indeed!

Fawn-bellied Whistler: Pachycephala orpheus

When I start to get bored with my seemingly endless avian data collection, I play a game of trying to guess the English  name  based on the scientific name before the relevant Handbook of the Birds of the World page loads on my computer. Because there’s the additional time pressure, I sometimes get my translations horribly wrong.

For example: Pachycephala. It does not mean “elephant head.”

Elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamuses are not actually each other’s closest relatives,  but Georges Cuvier (the “father of paleontology”) thought so in the early 1800s when he decided to group them under the category of “pachyderm.” It makes sense — they’re large, they’re grey, and they have thick skin, the meaning of “pachyderm” (from παχύς pachys “thick” and δερμα derma “skin” as in “dermatology” or “epidermis”).

indexA thick-skinned pachyderm. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Thus, the genus name Pachycephala actually means “thick head,” with cephala coming from the Greek κεφαλή kephali “head,” as in “hydrocephalus,” “cephalic,”  etc. And now I’m wondering if this word has any relation to the Indonesian word for head, kepala, whose etymology I can’t immediately trace?

Anyway, this brings us to this week’s bird, Pachycephala orpheus, the Fawn-breasted Whistler. It’s a small, insectivorous songbird that lives on Wetar (an Indonesian island) and East & West Timor in the Lesser Sundas.

fawnbreasted_whistler1_nk.jpgFawn-breasted Whistler, Pachycephala orpheus (Passeriformes: Pachycephalidae).

Pachycephalids are so named because their heads are unusually blocky.

The species name orpheus refers to the Greek prophet/poet/musician Orpheus, husband of Eurydice (daughter of Apollo, whom he tries and fails to rescue from the Underworld after her death). Much like the English name “whistler,” this is a reference to the birds’ songs, which are very musical whistles. My undergrad institution, Yale, has an a cappella group called the “Society of Orpheus and Bacchus,” commonly referred to as “the SoBs,” which according to their website are the second longest-running a cappella group in the US after the Whiffenpoofs, go figure. Orpheus and/or Eurydice also have a variety of operas and other media re-telling their stories, including  the film Moulin Rouge and some poems by Margaret Atwood.

The word “fawn” meaning a young deer dates back to Chaucer and comes from the Old French faon and Medieval Latin feton meaning “offspring” (whence English “fetus”). The use of the phrase “fawn-colored” in English to mean light brown seems to date from the early 1800s. The verb “to fawn” actually has a completely different origin, apparently coming in some roundabout way from the obsolete English word fain (“to rejoice,” from the Old English fægnian) — if you’re rejoicing, you’re showing delight, showing fondness, etc.

FawnAdorable fawn is adorable.

The first recorded use of the English word “breast” is in the West Saxon Gospel of Luke from around 1000 AD, with the Old English breost having lovely Germanic cognates in the Old Frisian briast, Old Saxon briost, Old Norse brjost, and so forth, but is not known in any non-Germanic Indo-European language.

Flying & Flightless Steamerduck: Tachyeres patachonicus & pteneres

I’m still collecting bird foraging and dietary data, a task which can get a little monotonous. There are plenty of avian facts that make me laugh, though, including the fact that there’s a bird called the “Flightless Steamerduck” as well as a “Flying Steamerduck,” both native to the Straits of Magellan (southern Chile and Argentina). They sound more like an invention of some mad scientist in a YA steampunk novel than a bird, but so it goes.

As you might guess, the Flightless Steamerduck does not fly, but the Flying Steamerduck does.

Flightless Steamerduck, Tachyeres pteneres (Anseriformes: Anatidae). Source: Wikipedia.

Flying_Steamer_Duck_(Tachyeres_patachonicus)_(5)Flying Steamerduck, Tachyeres patachonicus. Source: Wikipedia.

The word “duck” can be traced to the Old English duce (“duck”), which likely came from ducan (“to dive” or even “to duck”).  Yes, the informal verb “to duck” meaning “to make a sudden descent” has been in English for over a thousand years. This is also probably the source of the word “dove,” as in a type of pigeon: the Latin word for “dove,” columba, comes from the Greek κολυμβίς (columbis), meaning “diver.” Because I guess doves dive? It’s also the source of the word “duiker” (a type of antelope), from the Dutch duiker (“diver”), named for their habit of plunging into bushes when threatened.

A Common Duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) — so cute! Source: Wikipedia.

The word “steam” also has its roots in Old English: stéam (cf Dutch stoom, Frisian steam). “Steamerducks” are thus called because to move in the water they flap their wings in the water as well as paddling their feet, making them look like paddle steamers. Finally, the suffix “-er” meaning “thing that does X” or “thing from X” is also Germanic, with Old English –ere, Old Norse -ar (which can be related to the various Scandinavian ari, are, ere through various declensions), German -er (Ich bin Berliner = I am a person from Berlin, Ich bin ein Berliner = I am a pastry from Berlin, otherwise known as a jelly doughnut, thanks JFK).

Berliners-1-of-3Om nom Berliner nom

This bird name is on a roll with the Old English names: “flight” comes directly from the OE flyht (cf German fliegen, Old Norse fljúga , etc, which are not cognate with either “to flee” or “to flow”). The Old English léas meant “free from” (whence “loose” meaning “unattached” or the Middle English les/lease meaning “lying” or “free from truth”), but only survived into Middle English, and thus Modern English, as a suffix.

The genus name Tachyeres comes from the Greek ταχυηρης (tachyeres) meaning “fast rowing,” again referring to the ducks’ wing-paddling behavior.

The species name for the flightless duck, pteneres, comes from the Greek πτηνος (ptenos), meaning “feathered” or “winged,” which shares the same root as “pterodactyl” (“winged fingers”) or “helicopter” (“spiraled wing”, as in “helix”). The species name patachonicus is just a Latinized version of “Patagonia,” the region where the birds are form. The precise origin of the word “Patagonia” is a bit obscure, though after Patagonia was discovered, a version of the word entered Spanish and Portuguese to mean “giant” (as the people of Patagonia were said to be very tall).

Lava Gull: Larus fuliginosus

Gulls are white, right? Well, not the Lava Gull (Larus fuliginosus).

Lava Gull, Larus fuliginosus (Charadriiformes, Laridae). Sooty-colored. Source: Wikipedia.

Lava. Red, orange, yellow, and black, which I guess is close enough “sooty.”

The Lava Gull is found in the Galapagos, and at somewhere between 300 and 600 individuals is the world’s rarest gull. They’re fairly rubbish fliers (hello island dispersers), though have been recorded riding on boats. They eat eggs and chicks of other birds, as well as iguanas, fish, and human rubbish; they’re also kleptoparasites of Magnificent Frigatebirds, meaning that the gulls steal food that’s been caught by the frigatebirds.

The English word “lava” meaning cooling molten rock — along with Spanish/Portuguese/German/Dutch/Swedish/etc lava and French lave — is a loan from the Italian lava. According to the OED, this word meant “a stream or gutter suddenly caused by rain,” which was then applied to streams of lava from Mt. Vesuvius. “Lava” in the water sense comes from the Latin lavare meaning “to wash,” whence French laver (to wash), English “lavatory,” archaic English “lavabo” (when the priest washes his hands before the Eucharist), etc. This root also has Germanic origins, such as the Old English lafian (“to pour water”). The meanings of the cognates in Middle Dutch, Old High German, etc, mostly refer to food/drink “refreshment” rather than to washing per se, and it’s unclear if this is a true cognate or just a coincidence. (Convergent evolution ftw!)

Remarkably, the OED also has an entry for a “lava-lava,” which is a Samoan word for a type of skirt/dress that missionaries made female Pacific islanders wear to preserve modesty. Live and learn.

(If you’re into amazingly adorable short Pixar animations, here’s a link to the “Lava” song, which was at the beginning of Inside Out. You’re welcome.)

maxresdefault (1)

Adorable volcano is adorable. Also, fun fact — the word “volcano” comes the Sicilian island/volcano VulcanoJust like “geyser” comes from the Icelandic geyser Geysir.

The word “gull” apparently comes from Welsh. (As does the word “penguin”: pen meaning “head” [same root as the mountain names starting with “Ben”, e.g., Ben Nevis] and gwyn meaning “white,” originally used to refer to the Great Auk, which did have white on its head.) Welsh gŵylan, Cornish guilan, Old Irish foilenn, etc all refer to gulls. One of the French words for “gull” has Celtic roots as well — goëland is a loan from the Breton goelann.

The other common French word for a gull is mouette, which has the same roots as the German Möwe, Dutch meeuw, Old English meau, traditional English “mew” or “seamew,” and the modern English name “Mew Gull,” the North American name for what the Brits call the Common Gull (Larus canus).

 Larus is Latin for “gull,” from the Greek λάρος (laros, “gull”). This is also the source of the family name Laridae.  The genus name fuliginosus is Latin for “sooty,” again referring to the color of the gull, not to be confused with the Sooty Gull, Larus hemprichii, named after the German explorer Friedrich Wilhelm Hemprich.

20110920_burningoilThis is an image of “soot” from the BP Oil Spill, but the burning oil does almost look like lava?

Snoring Rail: Aramidopsis plateni

Long time, no post — sorry folks! Turns out trying to finish one’s thesis (now done), find a job (now done), and work enough part-time jobs to pay rent  (ongoing) results in very little time for anything else. Now that life has calmed down a bit, though, I’ll try to get back on a one-post-per-week cycle.

I spent a large part of today reading about birds that eat both terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, a task both very fun (getting paid to read about birds!) and somewhat monotonous (so…many…rails…). By far and away the best English name I’ve encountered so far in this endeavor, though, is the “Snoring Rail,” Aramidopsis plateni.

800px-Aramidopsis_plateni_1898 Snoring Rail, Aramidopsis plateni (Gruiformes, Rallidae). Source: Wikipedia

The Snoring Rail is a flightless bird found in the bamboo and liana forests of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Like all rails, it is “secretive” — shy, and thus difficult to find. In fact, there’s only been a handful of recorded sightings of this species since 1992, and given the problems that its habitat is having with deforestation and feral cats, it may not be long for this world.

Sulawesi_TopographyThis is Sulawesi (formerly known as the Celebes), a “K-shaped” island east of Borneo/Kalimantan, northeast of Java and Bali, south of the Philippines, and west of Papua. According to Wikipedia, Sulawesi is the 11th-largest island in the world, a surprisingly cool list.

The “snoring” moniker refers to the bird’s call, an “ee-orrrr” noise that, well, sounds like a snore. The verb “to snore” is itself onomatopoetic — that is, named after the sound it makes, along with the verb “to snort” and “to snork.” No, I didn’t know that “to snork” was a thing either, but the OED claims that it is, so who am I to argue. These words can be compared with the Middle Dutch snorken, the Dutch snorke, the Middle Low German snarken and Middle High German snarchen, North Frisian snarke, Swedish and Norwegian snarka, and so forth. Presumably from one of these Germanic vowel shifts, we also get the English word “snark,” which used to mean the same thing as this mysterious “snork” (i.e., to snore or snort), but now is either a portmanteau of “snide remark” (Urban Dictionary) or a verb meaning “to find fault with, to nag” (OED). When the word’s not being appropriated as a noun by Lewis Carroll fans, of course.

The word “rail” to mean the bird, dates from at least 1450, when it was borrowed from the French rale (itself a descendant of  the Latin rallus, from which we get the family name Rallidae). It is possible that rale came from the verb râler, meaning “to make a rasping sound when breathing,” because rails sound like this, or something. Anyway, this is the root of the medical term “râle,” meaning a crackling or bubbling sound in the lungs.

If you’ll forgive other uses the of the word “rail,” it traditionally (Old English through 1800s) meant a cloth worn on a woman’s upper body, like a scarf, shawl, or drape. This is cognate with the Old Norse hræll, or “weaving batten” (the thing you hold to pull the yarn/thread through the weft) (when you’re weaving a rail), which is in turn cognate with the Greek κρέκειν (krekein, “to weave”).

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All the pretty weaving!

The order name, Gruiformes (cranes, rails, trumpters, limpkin, sunbitterns, kagu, etc) is Latin for “crane-like,” from grus meaning “crane.”

The genus name Aramidopsis, aside from being disturbingly close to “arabidopsis” (the genus name of a species of small flowering plant popular as a model organism), appears to come from the Latin aro meaning “plough” + Greek -ιδές (ides meaning “son of”) to get Aramides (a genus of rails, which kind of look like plows when they forage?), + Greek όψης (opsis meaning “resembling”). All together, we have “thing that resembles the son of a plough.”

The species name plateni comes from Carl Constantin Platen, a German physician who along with his wife Margarete traveled throughout what is now Indonesia and the Philippines in the 1870s-1890s, killing birds and butterflies (aka preparing specimens for the Staatliches Naturhistorisches Museum Braunschweig). Other birds named after Herr Platen include the Palawan Racket-tail (Prionochilus plateni), the Mindoro Bleeding-Heart (Gallicolumba platenae), and the Palawan Flycatcher (Ficedula platenae), as well as at least nine species of butterflies.

The Branded Awlking, Choaspes plateni, also named after Carl Constantin Platen.