Jul/Aug 2018  •   Reviews & Interviews

Mrs. Moreau's Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names

Review by Ann Skea

Mrs. Moreau's Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names.
Stephen Moss.
Faber. 2018. 357 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78335 090 2.

Mrs. Moreau's warbler is a small, slender bird, "Brownish buff, with a long, thin bill, and an orange chest, throat, head and neck." It looks, Moss tells us, "rather like a robin whose red breast has extended upwards to cover its whole face and neck."

As a ten-year-old boy, reading about it in his weekly issue of Birds of the World magazine, its name caught Moss's imagination and set him wondering about its origin. Fifty years later, we find him trekking through forest on the Uluguru Mountain in Tanzania, trying to see one of the few remaining birds which bear that name. I will not spoil the story by describing the outcome, but he beautifully captures the excitement, anticipation, and disasters of the trip in a few brief paragraphs.

And Mrs. Winifred Moreau, it seems, was the beloved wife of Reginald (Reg) Ernest Moreau, and an equal partner in his study of African bird migration patterns. Together, while living in Africa, they discovered an obscure and endangered songbird which Reg, "in perhaps a surprising act of marital devotion," named Scepomycter winifredae. And after their 30 years in Africa, Reg acknowledged her support, knowledge, and ornithological expertise in his superb 1972 book, The Paleoarctic-African Bird Migration Systems.

Reg and Winifred Moreau were, according to their son and others who knew them, an unpredictable and most unusual couple. Moss recounts some of the anecdotes about them and about some of the many other colorful characters associated with the naming of birds. He tells of the early tradition of naming newly discovered species after a particular person, of the accepted rules for this, and of the rivalries this engendered. He also writes of the men—and the few women—who have made important discoveries and collections, and of the long-running and often heated debate among birders about the best way to regulate and classify the names.

Mrs. Moreau's Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names may be focused on British birds, but the use of English bird names amongst birders around the world, whatever their native language, is common. Local species may have local names and as in Australia may be unique to a particular country, but common English bird names (as opposed to specific Latin names) are, Moss tells us, the global lingua franca. Moss's passion for birds is obvious, and his wide-ranging exploration of how folk-names for birds originated, evolved, and have lasted through the centuries is full of fascinating details that will interest any general reader who loves birds.

How, for example, did the dirty underwear of Princess Isabella of Spain come to be linked with three English birds? The popular story (probably fanciful) is that during the 1601 siege of Ostend by Spanish troops against the Dutch and English occupiers, Isabella vowed not to change her underwear until her husband, Archduke Albert, had won the city back. That took three years, by which time her underwear was, understandably, a dirty shade of greyish brown—just the color of the birds that now incorporate "Isabella" in their names.

Although the English language has evolved through centuries of invasions and cultural change, many English bird names have remained unchanged. Moss identifies some which are unchanged, some which still survive in some country areas, like the name "gowk" for what is more generally know as a "cuckoo." And he refers to the many references to birds in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and in particular, John Clare.

He also tells of international meetings of birders and of competitions like the biannual Champions of the Flyway, in which teams from around the world gather at the Red Sea resort of Eilat to see which team can count the most species of birds as they fly, on a single day in Spring, across the narrow migratory route dividing the land between the Middle East and Africa.

Towards the end of the book, Moss tells of the latest developments in naming birds. New species are still being discovered, and DNA analysis and other scientific methods have resulted in much discussion about whether particular birds belong to the species to which they have been assigned or to another, new species altogether. This, as Moss tells us, can cause long-time birders some anxiety.

"The good news is that there are suddenly all sorts of new birds to go out and see—or if they are lucky, to 'tick off' their list while sitting at home, as they have seen them without hitherto realising that they were actually separate species."

The bad news is that unless the birder has kept meticulous notes on the birds they have identified on their birding travels, it may be "impossible to work out which of two or more new species they have actually seen."

Many of the birds Moss discusses are endangered, and he is ambivalent about the latest practice of selling the naming of a newly discovered species to the highest corporate bidder. On the one hand it provides money for the protection of birds; on the other hand suggested potential names, like "Kellogg's corncrake" or "Durex Shag" have prompted responses which "ranged from outrage to laughter."

Finally, as an appendix, he lists a number of English bird names under headings such as "Long and Short Names," "Politically Incorrect Names," "Birds Named After States in the US," and, best of all, "Thirty Three Amazing Names," which includes the "bearded mountaineer," the "giant cowbird," and the "bokikokiko."


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