- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Albatrosses fly as if by magic, rarely flapping their long, narrow wings. At different heights above the ocean wind speeds vary dramatically. Albatrosses glide down swiftly to meet low-speed surface winds, which then thrust them up again, and they repeat this to soar almost indefinitely. To sailors long ago this seemed supernatural, and they thought the birds were incarnations of wandering souls. To kill an albatross, they believed, would bring bad luck to the ship and its crew.
"An albatross around one's neck" has been part of our language ever since Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the cursed seaman in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"; but in spite of his vivid description of the great bird circling the ship and perching on the rigging like "a Christian soul," it is unlikely that Coleridge saw a living albatross. The story probably originated from Captain George Shelvocke's account in 1759 in his Voyages, which described an albatross soaring around the ship, following it "as if he had lost himself" and making "our display with sail, reef and rudder" seem "clumsy and inept." His ship, the Speedwell, was battling to round Cape Horn in terrible weather, and one sailor had already been lost overboard in the icy sea. The second in command was Simon Hatley, who in a fit of "melancholy," shot the albatross in September 1719, and was blamed for the ship's continued bad luck. Hatley was taken prisoner by the Spaniards and punished for privateering by being "hanged until he was almost strangled and then cut down," a torture reminiscent of the heavy albatross around the Ancient Mariner's neck. Although sailors were in awe of these birds, they did sometimes kill and eat them, and even made purses out of their webbed feet. The albatross's common name has prosaic roots. It comes from the Arabic al-qudus, "bucket," describing seabirds that hold water in their bills (see Pelican). The Spanish altcatraz (which now means "gannet") may have been changed to "albatross" because the Latin alba means "white," and mature albatrosses of some species are largely white.
Albatrosses are in the order Procellariiformes, from the Latin procella, meaning a violent storm. These ocean birds live in turbulent southern oceans remote from land. Their bills are "tubed" to excrete excess salt from the seawater they drink (see Petrel). They can't fly when they are becalmed, and they find it hard to get airborne. Although they come ashore to breed, a pair often won't even wait for their chick to fledge; the parents will feed it enough so that it can survive alone on its fat until it can make its way to the sea.
The albatross family, the Diomedeidae, is called after Diomedes, the king of Aetolia, who fought in the Trojan War. On his way home he stopped on an Adriatic island; there his companions were punished for grumbling by being turned into birds, "like white swans, though they were not swans," wrote Ovid. Despite the wandering albatross's obvious difference from swans, Linnaeus named the legendary bird after Diomedes's men, calling it Diomedea exulans, or "homeless." This bird has a wingspan of up to twelve feet and travels hundreds of miles, but is now thought to return to favorite fishing areas rather than wandering aimlessly.
The only albatross that regularly visits North American waters is the black-footed albatross, D. nigripes, but few of us will see even this bird. Still, the albatross is with us, a powerful symbol of sin and retribution, and still we wonder, like Coleridge's Wedding Guest, what our duties to the natural world should be.
In June 1814, John James Audubon rose at dawn to watch nesting avocets on a lake in Indiana. "Now Reader," he writes, "wait a few moments until I eat my humble breakfast . . . and you and I will do our best to approach the sitting bird unseen by it." He does this successfully: "Lovely bird," he murmurs, "how innocent, how unsuspecting, and yet how near to thine enemy, albeit he be an admirer of thy race!" At this point the reader might prefer to be excused, leaving Audubon to shoot five avocets, including three incubating females. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that in those days, before photography and good binoculars, shooting a bird was the only way to examine it properly, and avocets, like other birds, once seemed too plentiful to ever become rare.
The American avocet, that Audubon described is a spectacularly beautiful bird. It is mostly white, with a chestnut head during mating season, and black markings on the wings. White birds often have black wing tips, because black feathers are stronger than pigmentless white ones and wear better on the edges of wings. The American avocet has long blue legs and an upward-curving bill, which accounts for the family name Recurvirostridae, from the Latin recurvo, "I bend backward," and rostrum, "beak." The members of this family include the stilts. The American avocet and the black-necked stilt breed in North America. Stilts have thin red legs, even longer than the avocets'. The stilt's name, Himantopus, is from the Greek himantos, "thong," and pous, "foot."
The avocet's common name comes from the old European Recurvirostra avosetta, first used by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi. In 1678 The Ornithology of Francis Willughby (published posthumously by Willughby's friend and collaborator John Ray) described the bird as "The Avosetta of the Italians." This might be from avis (Latin for "bird"), a fondly diminutive description of the avocet, a bird of peculiar beauty and grace. Its harsh cry is less bewitching than its appearance, and in Dutch the avocet is kluut, in imitation of this. In northern England they were also called "clickers" (because they sometimes click their bills) and "awl-birds."
The awl-shaped beak, thin and curving upward, is swept from side to side to collect food from the bottom of ponds. Avocets often feed in stagnant water, and consequently are very prone to tapeworms. Alexander Wilson described an avocet he took as "infested with tape-worms and a number of smaller bot-like worms."
Wilson also said that the avocet, "from its perpetual clamor and flippancy of tongue, is called by the inhabitants of Cape May, the Lawyer." It is rather tempting to connect this with the Latin stem avocatio, "a diversion," the origin of the French avocat, "Lawyer." But there seems to be no traceable link here, and, regretfully, we must relinquish the "flippancy of tongue" required to make one!
Bird of Paradise
It might seem that birds of paradise were deservedly named for their beautiful plumage. Instead the name more likely comes from a sixteenth-century misperception that they had no wings or feet with which to fly or perch, and therefore floated ethereally in the heavens.
When dried skins of birds of paradise were first brought to Europe from New Guinea, they were described by Antonio Pigafetta (the chronicler of Magellan's expedition) as being without feet or wings. Such was the way they were used in New Guinea for decoration. But Europeans, who had never tried this way of preserving birds, assumed that the dried skins were complete.
The first skins from New Guinea were brought to Madrid by Juan Sebastie wrote, demonstrating more than a touch of political disillusionment. Bonaparte also named the paradise crow, or Lycocorax pyrrhopterus ("red-winged crow"). But until recent DNA testing it was not definitely established that the bird of paradise's nearest relative is the crow, not the bowerbird, as had always been thought.
Male bowerbirds build elaborate ornamental "bowers" to attract females. Both birds of paradise and bowerbirds live in Australasia, where there are few predators other than humans. In this avian paradise they don't have to be able to move quickly or be constantly on the alert: They are unlikely to have their wooing interrupted and so can afford to indulge without danger in the luxurious sexual lures of cumbersome plumage or painstakingly constructed bowers.
Although it's not a large bird, the cry of a bittern can echo for miles. Thoereau wrote that American bitterns were sometimes called "belcher-squelchers," and they seemed to be calling, "Slug-toot, slug-toot, slug-toot." They move back and forth when sounding, using their whole bodies to choke up their booming cry, and are commonly called "thunder pumpers." The European bittern has an even more powerful voice, described by Oliver Goldsmith as seeming to come from "some formidable being that resided at the bottom of the water."
Bitterns are closely related to herons but have short necks and stout bodies. They live solitary lives in marshes, spearing their prey, mostly frogs, with pointed bills and nesting on the ground. Bitterns' eyes are positioned so they can see in front of them when their bills are turned vertically and beneath them when horizontal. There are two kinds of bittern, the Botaurus and the Ixobrychus, and both names derive from the birds' peculiar bellowing cries. Botaurus comes from the Latin butire, "to cry" (which also gives us "bittern"), and taurus, "a bull."
The name Ixobrychus (from the Greek ixos, "reed," and brukho, "roar") was devised in 1828 by Gustav Johann Billberg, a Swedish naturalist (for whom a popular houseplant, the billbergia, was named). Bitterns have learned an extraordinary protective strategy. They can "freeze," with their bills pointing directly upward and their striped bodies exactly matching the reeds surrounding them. Sometimes if there is a breeze they even sway a little to imitate their reedy camouflage. "This was its instinct," wrote Thoreau, "whether it implies any conscious artifice or not."
|Bird of Paradise||7|
|Emu and Cassowary||63|
|Gannet and Booby||79|
|Mockingbird and Catbird||146|
|Pigeon or Dove||193|
|Titmouse and Chickadee||253|
|Woodcock and Snipe||266|