The Beethoven Bird

Vernacular names are the poetry of birding. Bobolink, tufted titmouse, groove-billed ani, crested auklet: many are fun to say, and any one of them may strike a reminiscent chord in us, calling to mind an eventful day or a special place where we saw the bird, perhaps once, perhaps a hundred times. The name reverberates, like a thrilling poem or a haunting melody.

The living bird, of course, infuses the descriptive words with magic, not the other way around. Some bird names are just weird. A skilled linguist would not have coined "oystercatcher." (How fast do you have to run to catch an oyster?) But that shorebird's eccentric mix of colors and features makes its odd name a good fit.

Who was the poet, the lyricist, who first gave the name to a particular bird? Often such origins lie lost in time. Some fisherman perhaps, speaking a primitive northern tongue, tried to imitate the cry of a white bird flying low over the water and uttered a mournful syllable that comes down to us as "gull."

Later, other mariners, gifted with a different set of perceptions, noted distinctions among the gulls they saw and composed descriptive compounds for them: "great black-backed gull," "laughing gull." Then the professionals got into it and we have "Heermann's gull." But I wonder if anyone ever again will know a gull as deeply as did that first  listener on the rim of the sea.

In any case, the namer must feel a special link with the named bird. Some years ago I knew an elderly couple who described to me, with rapture in their eyes, the dreamy song they often heard on foggy evenings in old fields. They had never seen the singer and didn't know its name, so they called it "the Beethoven bird."

I was walking with them one day at the edge of a woodland when they both stopped in delight, listening.

"That's the Beethoven bird," one of them whispered.

Full of my little store of ornithological knowledge, I decided to set them straight. "That's a white-throated sparrow," I said.

I saw the wonder fade from their eyes. I had given them a fact, but taken a fragment of poetry from their lives.

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