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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.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Classic Birds

Last posting was about some plant names derived from classical mythology; I promised that this time I'd do the same with some animal names. Well, yes and no... In practice I discovered that there were far too many good classically-based stories to be found in the world of animal names, so this mini-series has evolved into a three-parter - birds today, other animals next time. 

The kingfisher families are especially rich in such allusion, because the Greeks were quite excited about kingfishers - even though they only knew one species initially (at least until they got into Africa). Ceyx was the son of Hesperos, the Morning Star, married to Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, the wind guardian. Blissfully happy, they made the mistake of comparing themselves to Zeus and Hera - big mistake actually, as Z and H turned out to be not at all happy, and punished their presumption by drowning them both with a storm. The other gods felt that this was a bit over the top and turned them into halcyons, birds generally agreed to be kingfishers. (I can't help but think they might have preferred to have been themselves again, but what would I know?) Not being very experienced in such things, Alcyone opted to nest on the beach near the waterline - her dad arranged for windless days to allow her to get away with it. These were of course the original Halcyon Days. So, let's meet some of their etymological descendants, starting with the obvious.
Azure Kingfisher Ceyx azureus, Barmah Forest, Murray River, Victoria.
Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica, Budonga Forest, Uganda.

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Ceryle was an alternative name for the Halcyon.
Other kingfisher genus names, including the American ones, build on this name.
Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata, Isla de Chiloe, Chile.
A handsome big kingfisher, found from southern USA to the Strait of Magellan;
there is no evidence that it has ever heard of ancient Greece or Alcyone though.

Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Alcedo seems to have been the Latin equivalent of Alcyone.
 Many other bird groups bear similar burdens, though apparently blithely.

The tropicbirds comprise three species of glorious white seabirds, with no close relatives, found throughout tropical waters. For no evident reason (Linnaeus rarely deigned to explain his names, though he probably didn't have time to do so) their genus is Phaethon, 'shiner', named for the son of Helios the Sun God, who gave in to nagging and lent the boy the family vehicle for the day. Oops, he lost control, set the world alight and died in the crash. Not the birds' fault!

Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda, Lord Howe Island.
Some other birds are also named for Phaethon, though whether directly or via the 'shining' implication is unclear.
Crimson Finch Neochmia phaeton, Darwin.
White-whiskered Hermit Phaethornis yaruqui, Alanbi, Ecuador.
Phaethornis is 'shining bird' - or 'cocky teenager bird', as my friend and co-author Jeannie Gray would have it.
 Back at sea, there are several other classically-named birds. The great Wandering and Royal Albatrosses are Diomedea, for Odysseus's companion in his Boys' Own adventures, Diomedes. Other albatrosses have been monickered similarly. Phoebastria was a Greek prophetess (though not necessarily a specific one).
Waved Albatross pair Phoebastria irrorata, Espanola, Galapagos.
Pandion was a king (or perhaps two kings) of Athens; he (or they collectively) had three children, all of whom were turned into birds - there was a lot of it about. He didn't share their fate then, but now has been, in name at least.
Eastern Ospreys Pandion cristatus at nest, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
Terns are regular classicists too, though the exact identity of the mythical Greek nocturnal bird Gygis remains a mystery, as does the thinking of the genus' German author Johann Wagler (actually he was primarily a herpetologist, which might help explain it). Certainly the exquisitely delicate White Tern doesn't eat other birds at night, as its namesake was alleged to do.
White Terns Gygis alba, Lord Howe Island.
Procne was the very ill-fated daughter of Pandion - see above - and you really don't want to know what happened to her! However in the end she was turned to a swallow, which helps explain the use of her name in a couple of tern genera.
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia, Moulting Lagoon, Tasmania.
Hydroprogne is of course 'water swallow'.
The Nereides, daughters of Nereus, were Mediterranean sea-nymphs, and surprisingly nothing especially bad seems to have happened to them - being transformed into a delightful Fairy Tern certainly isn't bad!

Fairy Tern juvenile Sternula nereis (right; the big blokes are actually relatively diminutive
Silver Gulls Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae), Goolwa, South Australia.
Back to Pandion again - his son was Nisus, turned (of course) into a bird, apparently a sea-eagle; later his name was associated with the European Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus. And here's a really weird story; the Australasian hawk owl or boobook genus is Ninox, a blend of Nisus and Noctua, an owl! Who knows??
Southern Boobook Ninox novaeseelandiae, Nowra, New South Wales.
A more familiar type of mystery is the 'what does this bird have to do with her?' type. Amytornis, the grasswrens, are 'Amytis birds', Amytis being either the daughter of Medean king Astyages, or the later daughter of Persian King Xerxes, renowned as 'the most beautiful and licentious woman of Asia' according to one source. The French ornithologist Rene Lesson saw no reason to explain his thinking in naming the not-very-evidently licentious birds for her.
Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, Desert Park, Alice Springs.
To end, something of an anticlimax - a god, Myiagra, whose sole role was apparently chasing flies away from sacrifices to more significant Roman deities. How humiliating must that have been?! Needless to say, the Australian flycatchers named for him do chase flies, but not 'away' if they can help it.
Leaden Flycatcher Myiagra rubecula, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
My thanks again to Jeannie Gray, co-author of our Australian Bird Names; a complete guide, on whose work much of the above material on Australian bird names in based.

Back next time with more weird and wonderful stories from times fortunately long gone, as they have insinuated themselves into the names of other animals - especially insects, with some spiders and mammals thrown in.

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