Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Bird Name Quiz

Posted by Kirk Mona
Part of what I teach as a naturalist is how to speak bird. Birds are superb communicators and it is fun to teach groups to listen and work to pick out the individual voices of different species of birds in the woods. We are fortunate that a number of birds have their common call or song as their name. For example, the call of the Chickadee is "Chick-a-dee dee dee." The same can be said for the Whip-poor-will, the Bobwhite, Phoebe and Pewee.

These are simply examples in English where the common name derives from the call or song of the bird. Often we follow taxonomic conventions that refer to the appearance of the bird rather than the sound. Still, birding by ear is so important that any birders reading would no doubt know what I was talking about if I said I heard a "Conk-a-ree," Peter Peter," or an "Oh Sweet Canada."

I've been interested in the phrases we use to remember and name birds so I was delighted when fellow naturalist, author and friend Tom Anderson sent me a link to a fun bird a name quiz online. Incidentally, after you take the quiz be sure to check out Tom reading his poem about bird calls on Minnesota Public Radio.

The interactive quiz on bird names is really interesting. It gives you a pair of words from the language of Peru's Huambisa people. One word is for a fish, the other for a bird. You have to guess which one is a bird name and which is a fish name. This is a small sub-set of words from a much larger quiz given by ethnobiologist Brent Berlin from the University of Georgia. He had students read fifty pairs of words and guess which were the bird names. It would be expected that they would get about 50% right just by guessing since none had any experience in the language. It turns out that they got about 58% right which is interesting and might say something about how we as humans name animals. When I took the condensed version of the quiz, I did better than the average of the students. I got 90% right, I only missed one out of the ten questions. I wonder if that has to do with my experience listening to bird calls? I also wonder how many of the bird names in the quiz are phoneticlaly linked to the sounds the birds make?

How many can you get right?

~Kirk

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