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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Painting the Town... brown??



During the week, following advice received, I managed for the first time to take some photos - albeit mediocre - of one of Australia's rarest honeyeaters. Painted Honeyeaters Grantiella picta are woodland mistletoe specialists, gazetted as threatened by habitat loss. Prior to last week I had only seen two, though their piercing 'taw-dee' call makes their presence pretty obvious when they're around. Fifty years ago they used to appear regularly in summer in the mistletoes in the River Oaks Casuarina cunninghamiana near the Uriarra Crossing of the Murrumbidgee River near Canberra; since then there have been few records. It would be exciting indeed if this were the beginning of regular annual returns, but maybe we simply haven't been looking in this slightly out-the-way location recently?
Painted Honeyeater in River Oak (above);
sitting on nest in mistletoe clump (below). The nest is a fragile hanging bowl of grass and casuarina 'needles', bound together and to the surrounding foliage with spider web.
 
When I got home and showed the photos to Lou, she was somewhat underwhelmed. "Painted? I thought they'd be rainbow-coloured!" That set me thinking. Why indeed should this handsome but not especially colourful bird be 'painted'? The vernacular name comes from John Gould's species name, but that of course simply begs the question. The generally sober and restrained Gould waxed quite lyrical about the 'beauty of their appearance'; fair enough too, but really there are honeyeaters more apparently worthy of being 'painted' than the yellow, black and white (plus lovely pink bill, granted) of this one.

So, I started to look at other 'painted' organisms, either by common name or having the specific name pictus/picta, and was a bit surprised.

Certainly I found a few that are colourful enough that the inspiration behind the name is pretty obvious.
Painted Locust Schistocerca melanocera, Sierra Negra, Isla Isabela, Galapagos. A glorious beastie.
African Pygmy Kingfisher Ispidina picta, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
I particularly like the mauve patch on the side of the neck.
Spot-legged Poison Dart Frog Ameerega picta, Machuguenga Lodge, Peruvian Amazon.
The vivid lime-green stripes are brighter than they appear here.
And unless you grew up with these highly toxic little gems, don't ever try to touch one!
Painted Dragon Ctenophorus pictus, Streaky Bay South Australia.
Maybe not so obviously painted, but in fact the paint is applied only by males during breeding season.
The blue flush on the legs seen here gets much brighter and extends to the chin, contrasting with bright orange-yellow up across chest and shoulders.
However when we look further into the world of painted creatures, we get the impression that many of the authors of their names associated 'painted' primarily with shades of brown. Please don't misunderstand me - I think the subjects of the following pictures are beautiful, and of course brown (plus black and white) is a perfectly valid colour for paint, but why see these creatures and immediately think of paint?? I have no good answer, but I see no reason why I should ponder it alone! 
Upland Geese Chloephaga picta, Punta Arenas, far southern Chile. An integral part of the Patagonian landscape,
not really geese, more closely related to shelducks. Males have white heads, the females brown.
Painted Button-quail Turnix varius, Dubbo, New South Wales.
Button-quails are not at all related to either Old World or New World quails;
all are coloured in themes of black, cream and brown.
Australian Painted Snipe Rostratula australis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
A very rare species (no relation at all to snipes) and rarely seen.
In this species the female is the more brightly coloured.
Painted Grasshawk Neurothemis stigmatizans, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory.
This dragonfly is found across near-coastal tropical Australia - along with many bright red and blue ones.


Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi on Pimelea ligustrina, Namadgi National Park near Canberra.
I hardly need point out the existence of butterflies in nearly any colour in the paintbox.
Cape Hunting Dog, or Painted Dog, Lycaon pictus, Perth Zoo.
It seems that mammal taxonomists are prone to it too!

Painted Fingers Caladenia picta (Petalochilus pictus), near Nowra, New South Wales.
Not brown, and a lovely pink flush to the edges, but other orchids might be reasonably seen as more painted.
My only plant example, though I'm sure there must be more.

Any thoughts welcomed, as always!

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11 comments:

Susan said...

I have two thoughts on this. One is that if the brown in question is burnt umber there may be a connection with the colour being ubiquitous on artists' palettes, especially landscape painters and especially in the 19th C when most of these creatures would have received their names.

The second is that many species called 'painted' have a very neat, graphic appearance, with clearly delineated, definite areas of colours (which don't have to be bright, just poster like in style).

A good question, and one I had never thought about before.

David McDonald said...

Hmm, interesting. I note that one of the definitions for 'painted' given in the OED is 'Forming the names of brightly coloured or variegated animals and plants'. Perhaps the 'variegated' part of this definition provides part of the answer?

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Susan and David; both those suggestions are persuasive, though we'll probably never really know what was in the mind of someone who lived in such a different world. I'm sure that the answer, if indeed it was a valid question to start with, must lie in art history, and changing concepts, as you've both suggested. Anyway, I'm glad you both found it worth contemplating.

David Nash said...

The OED's sense quoted by David McDonald is the last to have arisen; apart from 'Painted Grass, or Ladies Laces' (1597,1714), the sense began with the painted Finch (Fringilla tricolor) 1731 http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/136083 Further instances of pictus/picta species listed in the OED are
painted bat Kerivoula picta (family Vespertilionidae)
painted finch Emblema pictum (family Estrildidae)
painted longspur Calcarius pictus
painted partridge Francolinus pictus
painted turtle Chrysemys picta (family Emydidae)
and further common names with 'painted' listed in the OED are
painted beauty Cynthia virginiensis
painted bunting Passerina ciris
† painted clam Macrocallista nimbosa (family Veneridae)
painted cup Castilleja (or, formerly, of the related genus Bartsia)
painted duck Tadorna variegata, Aix galericulata, Histrionicus histrionicus
painted finch Emblema pictum (family Estrildidae); = painted bunting Passerina ciris
painted goose Anser canagica
painted grass Phalaris arundinacea
† painted mallow family Malvaceae, (prob.) Sphaeralcea miniata
painted quail, Chinese painted quail Coturnix chinensis
painted ray Raja microocellata
painted terrapin Callagur borneensis (family Emydidae).
painted top, painted top-shell Calliostoma zizyphinum
painted tortoise = painted turtle
painted trillium Trillium undulatum
painted vulture perh. a variety of the king vulture, Sarcorhamphus papa, or a separate species (named as S. sacra), now extinct

So, 'painted' is as often as not matched with a pictus/picta species. And as shown by Tadorna variegata (Painted duck), pictus/picta doesn't need to extend to 'variegated' (though clearly it can). 'Painted' tends to make us think of 'colourful' but it is only one sense.

David Nash said...

A further thought, well, a question for someone with your knowledge of the subject, Ian. When Gould named the Painted Honeyeater (1838?), what were the already named honeyeaters that he was distinguishing the new one from?

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks again David - where were you when I was (co-)writing my recent Australian bird names book?! :}
There's no doubt that the 'colourful' sense is implied by some of the Coloured names, but I think that the variegated sense, as suggested by David and yourself, must be the answer to the others; I simply didn't think of that - and didn't look up a dictionary!
Re Gould, good thought, but by then he knew of most of the honeyeater species that we do - there are 58 listed in his Birds of Australia, wherein he described the Painted (though a few of those are not now recognised). He and his contacts and collectors (especially Gilbert) were very assiduous. See here for his description and account. http://www.nla.gov.au/apps/cdview/?pi=nla.aus-f4773-4-s111-e

Ian Fraser said...

And I should have commented that it's often not easy to say if the vernacular Painted, or the Latin pictus/a came first, but often one simply followed the pre-existing other. Gould was notorious for coining common names - often throat constrictors - that were direct translations of his Latin. He introduced Painted HE from his pictus - the bird was apparently too inconspicuous and from such remote country that it hadn't hitherto attracted an English name.

Flabmeister said...

I'v come in late on this one, following your email on honeyeaters. I'm interested in the comment about them being inconspicuous. Visually I would tend to agree, but walking around Hoskinstown last week the calls were very obvious and distinctive.

I wonder whether the indigenous people had a special name for them or if they were just one of many components of "bird".

Martin

Ian Fraser said...

I always hesitate to speculate on what indigenous Australians might have thought - given that we never bothered to ask when it might have been pertinent - but I can't imagine that PHEs were ever abundant enough, or of significant economic interest, to warrant specific naming. But I'm not the right one to ask; sadly, nor is anyone...

Flabmeister said...

An even later comment! I happened to be browsing through HANZAB today and found in V5 an Appendix of Aboriginal names for the families covered by that volume. While quite a few honeyeaters get a guernsey the Painted species doesn't.

Martin

Ian Fraser said...

Good research Martin - I should have thought to look there. Thanks for that.