Author: Gary H. Meiter
Some 900 species of birds are known from North America, an avifauna made up primarily of native year-round residents and seasonal migrants, modestly enhanced by introduced exotics and neighboring vagrants. Bird is the Word is an unequaled compilation of the names of almost 800 of those birds and the record of how, when, where, and by whom those names were created and drawn into the history and science of the continent’s avifauna. The names of record date from the early years of European discovery, exploration, and settlement of Middle and North America through the emergence and evolution of science during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the enhanced purposeful search for and documentation of new species during the 19th century, and the consolidation of the expanded record during the 20th century.
Part I of Bird is the Word describes the scope, structure, and content of the book, focusing on an introduction to avian taxonomy, a listing of the avian orders that are represented in North America and its environs, and insights into the different categories or groups of names that are in use throughout the North American orders. Part II, organized by order, family, genus, and species — and making up most of the book — is devoted to the names of the individual species and the historical and/or cultural context of those names. Each species is introduced by its common name and Linnaean name and pronunciation, and accompanying information provides historical insight into the discovery and naming of the species, explanations of the Linnaean name, and other names for the species – French names, Spanish names, British names, Inuit/Eskimo names, and Other, or colloquial, names. A final chapter identifies and describes nine species or subspecies of birds that have become extinct since colonial times. Numerous sidebars are present throughout Part II to expand upon specific matters of interest. Part III of the book includes three appendixes, one providing a list of names for gatherings of different species of birds, a second providing a glossary of words used in the book, and a third that introduces the reader to more than a hundred naturalists and other persons who participated in the search for, finding, recording, naming, describing, or illustrating of birds of record for North America.
Bird is the Word is a rich and readily accessible collection of information about finding and naming the birds of North America. It is much more than a reference book; it is a journey of discovery that will enrich the reader’s birding experience.
Bird is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds by Gary H. Meiter. 2020; 8.5 x 11”, x+438 pages, color imagery throughout, bibliography, indexes, 978-1-935778-42-4; list price $39.95.
Meiter, GARY H. Bird is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds. Choice, 58:9, May 2021.
This is the best book on the subject, a work of scholarship. Similar titles are authoritative but dated. The bulk of this work features heavily annotated explanations of the names (common and scientific) for some 900 species, including pronunciations, plus names in Spanish, French, Inuit, etc. and exhaustive lists of colloquial names (e.g., 150 names for the northern flicker). Other sections feature detailed biographies of 138 naturalists and 15 additional historical figures, an excellent glossary, a list of references, and collective names (e.g., a bevy of quail). There are 42 sidebars, often entertaining as well as informative. A few included names may soon change, notably those identifying birds named after confederate figures. The book’s oversize format seems nonstandard (8.5×11 inches) and at 3.8 pounds it is heavy and floppy. The bibliography features one major omission: The Eponym Dictionary of Birds, by Bo Beolens (CH. May’15, 52-4516), and a few minor mistakes (i.e., Hermann misspelled as Herman several times). Many titles cited in the main text are not included, but collectively such errors detract little. The rich illustrations include (public domain?) reproductions of 198 color paintings by such masters as Allen Brooks and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, which add immeasurably to the attractiveness of this most highly recommended resource.
Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.
Review of Bird is the Word
July 5, 2020, Columbus Ohio Dispatch.
A-well-a ev’rybody’s heard about the bird
B-b-b-bird, b-birdd’s a word
— from Surfin’ Bird, by the Trashmen (1963)
What’s in a bird name? Lots of facts and history.
Names might commemorate historically significant people, or refer to places, anatomical features, or perceptions of intellect or behavior. Sometimes bird monikers are onomatopoeias: written derivations of the sounds that they make. And I finally got to use that word in a column.
For decades, the bible for bird nomenclature was “The Dictionary of American Bird Names,” by Ernest Choate. A slender volume released in 1973 and updated in 1985, it spanned 226 pages and was a favorite of birders.
Thirty-five years on, Choate’s book has been surpassed on an epic scale.
Author Gary H. Meiter has created an elegantly presented treatise on bird nomenclature that is the new standard. He treats more than 900 species in “Bird is the Word” — almost every species found in North America north of Mexico.
The starting point to learning birds — or nearly anything — is learning names. From there, knowledge can be linked into ecology, behavior, identification and history. And it’s the latter that “Bird is the Word” so artfully deals with.
A brief introduction describes the book’s layout, including an interesting summary of notable American ornithologists. Meiter concisely describes the science of naming things, and the history of how common and scientific names came to be. The reader will learn interesting trivia, such as what a tautonym is (there are 16 North American bird species with tautonymic names).
The pages are punctuated with beautiful illustrations by some of America’s most accomplished avian artists. It’s a visual delight to turn a page and face a rendering of a pair of pileated woodpeckers by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, or a magnificent frigatebird in full swoop from the hand of John James Audubon. The inclusion of artwork is a nice touch, and one that reinforces this book’s attention to detail.
Interesting sidebars are peppered throughout the accounts. There are 42, and they serve as intellectual nuggets breaking up the main text. Sidebars cover all manner of intriguing trivia, as suggested by headers such as “Bird of Fire,” “The Trickster of the North Woods” and “Birds as Weather Prophets.”
Each bird family is prefaced with an introductory description. Perhaps you have wondered why whip-poor-wills are known as goatsuckers. You will find the answer here.
The purpose of “Bird is the Word” is the species accounts. Each species begins with a well-crafted description of how the bird’s common name came to be. Meiter often includes fascinating historical nuggets, and the reader quickly gains a sense of how much research must have gone into these accounts.
Species accounts include the meanings of the scientific name, French and Spanish names, and one of my favorite sections, “Other Names.”
Bird lore is rife with fanciful colloquial names, and this book seems to have them all. For instance, a woodpecker common in Ohio, the northern flicker, has about 160 nicknames. These include cotton-rump, high-hole, and yellowhammer. A wonderful sobriquet for the American bittern is belcher-squelcher, but if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, Meiter lists dozens of other nicknames for this heron.
Learning a bird’s name is just the start of getting to know it. “Bird is the Word” will decode that name and in the process expand your knowledge of the species. Anyone who enjoys the feathered crowd should have a copy of this book. To order, visit: mwpubco.com.
This capacious book is a confectionary for bird watchers, historians and anyone who enjoys the lively interplay of Latin and English, as found in the names of our birds. Each page reveals a slew of utterly unpredictable tidbits. A brief example: The long-billed Wilson’s Snipe is usually defined in popular literature by its odd role in the “snipe hunt,” in which a naive person is given a sack, sent into a swamp at night, and told to wait (in vain) for someone else to chase the bird toward him. Or one reads of the snipe’s evocative display flight, during which it produces a rapid ululating whoop via the vibration of its narrow outer tail feathers. In Bird is the Word, the snipe’s Latin name, Gallinago delicata, leads to a lengthy dissertation on the taste and texture of its flesh– something one won’t find without digging through older literature.
Author Gary H. Meiter is an Ohio educator and natural historian who, it seems, was born to dig. And, with the twin guides of Latin and history, he hits vein after rich vein of information and arcane knowledge. Meiter’s text excerpts the best ornithological writing from the likes of Edward Howe Forbush and the tireless avian biographer, Arthur Cleveland Bent, along with a host of lesser-known but equally poetic writers. Forbush’s description of the Roseate Tern bears mention: “Its elegant form tapers and swells in lines of beauty. Its lustrous plumage reflects the yellow rays of the sun and the pale refracted light of sea and sands in evanescent pink and rosy tints. These are seen in perfection only in the living bird and fade when the light of life fades from its eyes. The stuffed and distorted specimen on the museum shelf has lost the grace, beauty, and color of the living thing and remains but a sorry travesty of the life that is gone.” Indeed, most of the excerpts are from “shotgun ornithologists,” for whom field study, followed by collecting a specimen, was the core of their work.
An unexpected delight of this work are small, full-color reproductions of paintings by John James Audubon, Allan Brooks, and many little-known works by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, dean of North American bird artists, which beautifully compliment the text. One might guess that they have been scanned directly from old books, as securing use of so many obscure paintings would be the work of a lifetime. However they were obtained, they are a treat to stumble upon.
One might flip back and forth for hours, researching the meaning of Latin names, snapping up tidbits of natural history, digesting lyrical descriptions, and enjoying alternate folk names of birds, before stumbling on Appendix III, “An Introduction to the Naturalists Mentioned in the Book.” Herein lies a valuable reference and another fascinating wormhole for the reader. Bird is the Word is a labor of inquisitiveness and love, a gift to the curious bird student, and well worth a place on any reference shelf.
This review has been prepared by Julie Zickefoose, author and illustrator of Letters from Eden, The Bluebird Effect, Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest, and Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay. Awakening readers to the astonishing things birds and animals think and do is her job. She writes and paints from Indigo Hill, an 80-acre sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio.
Gary H. Meiter is a life-long resident of northeastern Ohio who has held an appreciation of nature, and especially birds and insects, from his earliest days growing up on his grandparent’s farm. A college degree in Biology from Mount Union College and an education-focused career working in agriculture and natural history allowed continuous involvement with the outdoor world. Ten years ago Gary started building a data base that has now allowed completion of his first book — Bird is the Word.