A woodpecker lands just outside the entrance to his new cavity, looks around, then disappears into the void. Moments later, her head appears in the entrance, beak full of wood chips which, with great dramatic flair, she scatters to the wind. After four of these housekeeping rounds, she is back inside to stay for a few minutes during which I can hear the wood-rending knocks of excavation resonating through the surrounding soundboard.As I listen to her handiwork, I realize how remiss I was before, if not downright rude, and when she reappears in the doorway with another load of debris, I am quick to greet her: “Good morning, Three-toed Woodpecker!” She glances in the direction of my voice, but, as expected, does not respond.Greeting birds this way is something I have done for a long time. If I know a common name, I most often use it. Occasionally, if a scientific name is particularly pleasing, I will choose that instead. I can’t resist calling great horned owls “Bubo,” for instance. If I am unable to identify a bird, I will use some descriptor or another—“Little Brown Bird,” or “Mysterious Hawk,” or my favorite, “Confusing Fall Warbler.” I can’t tell you how pleasing it is to look at a drab little October migrant and cheerfully call out, “Good morning, Confusing Fall Warbler!”
This morning, there is no confusion. When, fifty feet from the cavity, atop the splintered remains of a windfallen tree, a tiny little bird celebrates spring with a long, rambling song, I wait for a break in his oration, then say, “Good morning, Pacific Wren!” His response is even less enthusiastic than that of the woodpecker, and he moves to a new perch to continue his confabulation.
When the female woodpecker trades off excavation duties with her mate, he receives the same greeting as his partner, and I receive the same expected response. My addresses are not intended to be the starts of conversations. Rather, they are celebratory recognitions of the mere presence of these feathered friends who give me such great joy.
I have, in the past, been chastised for my calling out to every bird I see. Once, while out doing fieldwork, I was lectured by my boss—a trained environmental educator—for my enthusiastic, “Hello Goldfinches. Good to see you!” His ensuing lecture drifted from “Why do you think you have to prove to me that you know everything?” to “When you name it, you don’t get to know it.” He was quite confused when I explained that I was not talking to him, but to the birds, and that I would be having the this one-sided conversation whether he was there or not. As for the getting to know them part, I told him that following a proper greeting, I have been known to sit for hours watching one bird build a nest.
“Tell me again, then, why you say good morning to birds?” I couldn’t expect him to understand.
There is a school of thought in environmental education circles that teaching children the names of birds, flowers, insects, etc. discourages them from the act of discovering. If, rather than telling a child a name, they are encouraged to observe and get to know a species, they will learn much more than just a monicker. It makes sense.
Decades ago, when I was a nature center camp counselor, I had campers make up their own names for unknown species. Based on appearance, behavior, habitat, etc, what I know as a great blue heron, would, to them, become a long-legged gray fish spearer. A bumblebee might be a fuzzy-bottomed pollen muncher, and the aster it is visiting might be a purple-petaled pollen producer.
Those same campers might look at my two bird friends this morning and call them “dagger-beaked wood carver” and “stubby-tailed tree singer,” and if you know nothing about woodpeckers or wrens, those creative names given by children tell you more about the birds than just how many toes one has and in what region the other one lives.
On the other hand, there are times when we need names that everybody knows. If a conference brochure listed a talk on the foraging habits of a short-tailed, swimmer bobber, attendees might ascertain the session to be about an American dipper, but who could possible know which raptor a session about a hooked-billed, pointy-toed mouse grabber is about?
The wren flies from a singing perch to the edge of the pond where he fills his beak with grass and moss which he fetches away into the forest. He, too, is building a nest. Fortunately for him, he does not have to chisel a cavity out of a tree to create a nesting place. He might build his brooding chamber in the upturned roots of a fallen tree, or in a rotting log, or he might takeover an old three-toed woodpecker cavity. He is not too particular. Once the main construction is complete, his mate will join him in lining the stick and grass nest with animal hair and feathers to create a soft bed for eggs.In between excavating for the woodpecker, and sculpting for the wren, these two little birds seek out and consume as much insect protein as they can to fuel their work.
The woodpecker raps, listens, raps some more, occasionally uses his beak to chip off pieces of bark to reveal delicacies underneath. He is looking and listening for beetle larva feeding on the dead and dying trees.
The wren, on the other hand, browses the surface, or probes into rotting wood for ants, beetles, spiders, just about anything creepy crawly. He has neither the beak, nor the built-in shock absorption of a woodpecker for boring into hard wood. His long, curved beak would never stand up to the pounding. From a layered skull, to the neck of a bodybuilder, to a tongue that wraps around its skull, woodpeckers are engineered for beating their heads against walls.
Of course, to an avian academic, all I would have to say is that I watched a three-toed woodpecker and a pacific wren this morning, and every bit of the information about how and where they are nesting, the anatomical differences that allow woodpeckers to do what they do, and much more, would be known. Therein lies the power of names. We need them. And, sometimes, they change.
Wanting to sound a little more grown up, when I graduated from high school I stopped going by Jimmy, and became Jim. Following a religious conversion, Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali. In response to a heated battle with his record label, Prince became… well, anyway, the point is that sometimes names change.
Of course birds are not known for religious conversions or contract disputes, but for other reasons, they occasionally get name changes, too. In 2003, the three-toed woodpeckers of North America got a new name. Once called Picoides tridactylus, they became Picoides dorsalis. Discovered differences in mitochondrial DNA and vocalizations led to a split: American three-toed woodpeckers on this side of the Atlantic, and Eurasian three-toed woodpeckers on the other side. Just like that, a whole population of birds got a new name; a new species was born.
A decade ago, there was a similar split that birthed the pacific wren. This new title was not due to DNA or song, but to avian social distancing. Separated primarily by the Rocky Mountains, it was discovered that where eastern and western winter wren populations overlapped, they did not interbreed, and the ones in the west became pacific wrens
With the publishing of a new North American species list in 2010, many birders who keep life lists were able to add a new species to their tally without ever leaving their arm chairs, while others were inspired to head out in search of an easy add.
I have never kept a list, but I have talked to a lot of birds, and I worry that when I was backpacking in Arizona shortly after the great wren split, I might have dissed a pacific wren when I looked her squarely in the eye and proclaimed, “Good morning, Winter Wren!” Come to think of it, she did not respond favorably, but turned her head and never looked my way again. Perhaps I should return to apologize.
The little wren is back at the edge of the pond, foraging in the moss along the shore. This time looking for food instead of nesting material. Soon, he will be back on a prominent pinnacle singing his love song again.
After an hour at the three-toed tree, I walk past the dam and along the outflow toward the next pond. Along the way, I find several yellow-rumped warblers hunting mosquitos among a stand of skunk cabbage. “Good morning, Butter Butts!” I proclaim, as I pass by. Not one of them responds, and suddenly feeling embarrassed, I lower my head, pick up my pace, and move on, hoping I do not offend.