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Today is the 1st round of #NameThatBirdSong since my last post, so the game was on hiatus for about a month! The bird of week is field sparrow, inspired by Rick Wright‘s generous preview of his upcoming book.

Rick’s collection of accounts seems indeed to suggest that the song of some creature of the field (perhaps an insect?) was being incorrectly attributed to the field sparrow. This caught my attention because of my prior post about the seeming contrast between habitats for Indigenous communities’ bird naming schema. Specifically, onomatopoeia seems to be used more often to name forest birds than grassland birds in Indigenous languages.

I was initially surprised by this, thinking song is more often what you encounter first in grasslands, but then I realized it can be difficult to link a song you hear to cryptic grassland birds that may be vocalizing far away. Similarly, often North American warblers are lumped together with one name relating to their appearance. Even in Kaluli language, which has a rich lexicon of onomatopoeic bird names, small birds are often lumped together and not given specific names (Feld, 1991).

Small birds would have been difficult to hunt using traditional methods, not to mention probably not worth it for the little food provided by a tiny bird. So, linking the song to the bird would not only have been difficult, but perhaps unimportant. Again, surprising to my sensibilities, larger grassland birds with dramatic displays (e.g. prairie chicken, sage grouse) often did have onomatopoeic names! It isn’t surprising, though, in the context that I’m learning: these were food species. So, cuing in on the sound (and thus by extension naming as such) would have been important to locate and ultimately harvest them.

So, did grassland songbirds “accomplish their goal” of staying well-hidden and undetected, even with the humans that first encountered them? Rick’s collection of accounts seems to suggest they evaded early settler naturalists of the 18th century, who sought to specifically document their song through the lens of European views of taxonomy and natural history. Indeed, visiting the central grasslands this summer helped me better understand experiencing birds through soundscapes and visuals in that habitat. As one can imagine, you often don’t see grassland birds, but more often hear them. Had I not had labeled recordings on my phone for comparison, how would I have known “who” was singing in relatively dense cover and with perfect camouflage? Often, the birds we heard were far out in a field, with no hope of approaching them. Had we been able to try, the bird likely would have stopped singing and flushed long before we identified the songster.

So it goes, I continue to investigate and learn both in the field and through whatever resources I can find. That said, please leave a comment if this sparked any connection for you of a resource you would recommend on the topic! Thanks, as always, for reading.

Feld, Steven. “To you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.” Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. 2nd ed., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

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