What's in a name?
"The Barber of Seville," Square Dancing, Jimmy Cagney, and the term "Yellow Bellied Sapsucker"... Nothing brings to mind images of sitting in front of the TV on Saturday morning and watching Bugs Bunny cartoons quicker than these terms, sounds, and entities! I can almost hear Yosemite Sam strolling into a saloon and calling everyone in the place a "Yellow Bellied Sapsucker." I don't know if he ever used that term exactly, but if he didn't, he should have!
So, what do Bugs Bunny cartoons and a birding blog have to do with each other? Well, not too long ago I was hiking and birdographying around Enchanted Rock National Park with my daughter and her friend. It was the middle of the day and I hadn’t had much luck capturing any good bird poses, when (while ironically not birding at all but rather sitting at a picnic table visiting and enjoying a cold drink) the prettiest bird landed on a tree not three feet away from where we were sitting. I quickly grabbed my camera and proceeded to follow him all over the picnic area snapping photos before he got annoyed with the paparazzi treatment and flew off. I knew he was a woodpecker based on his coloring and behavior so quickly pulled up my e-bird app to help me identify which woodpecker he was. To help speed things along, I typed “Woodpecker” in the search bar and scrolled through the different options. What the heck? My bird wasn’t on the list. E-bird has almost a thousand birds in their database, how could my bird not be among them?? Well, identification would have to wait until later when I could grab a beer and get down to some serious researching by consulting my handy-dandy National Geographic Field Guide!
Later than evening, with beer and field guide in hand, I flipped to the woodpecker section and scanned through the options. Again, nothing. I scrolled through my photos again. Yup, definitely a woodpecker! Not to be stymied, I pulled up my e-bird app again and rather than searching by name, I searched by description, and, Voila! Up popped my bird, a “Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker!” Huh? A “Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker?” Really? There’s really a bird called a “Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker”? Who the heck came up with a name like that? I thought that was a cartoon slur and not the name of a real thing!! Honestly, that’s just the silliest name for a bird that I’d ever heard! Being curious, I decided to read up on the particulars of the “Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.” Here’s what I discovered:
“Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are fairly small woodpeckers (HA! It was a woodpecker!) with stout, straight bills. They perch upright on trees, leaning on their tails like other woodpeckers. They feed at sapwells—neat rows of shallow holes they drill in tree bark. They lap up the sugary sap along with any insects that may get caught there. Sapsuckers drum on trees and metal objects in a distinctive stuttering pattern.”
This description got me rethinking the bird’s name: He did have a yellow belly so that fit (unlike the “Red-Bellied Woodpecker” who DOESN’T have a red belly, but that’s a rant for a different blog), and apparently he does like to drink sap, so I guess the name is actually a pretty accurate fit for my handsome new friend. This got me to thinking about other bird names and their descriptions. Mockingbirds are known for mocking (ha!); Eastern Wood Pewees are described as making a “peewee” sounding tweet when they chat it up with their buddies; same with the Eastern Phoebes who make a “phoebe” sound; and woodpeckers do indeed peck wood. I guess if you’re an ornithologist out in the wilds identifying birds, descriptive names are the way to go. And it makes me wonder if the guys who named birds things like “Neotropic Cormorant” and “Whip-Poor-Will” where just trying to show off... Really why would you name a bird “Whip-Poor-Will”???
Bird names… A whole new thing for me to now ponder!