March 25, 2019
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Pet peeves: Bird name changes, missing birds and misused sound effects

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
These Canada jays enjoy the view from their perch. They're indifferent about what they are called, but the birds formerly known as gray jays were renamed again last year.

It’s the winter doldrums. Even though I don’t want them to, this is the time of year my pet peeves creep up on me. Frankly, there are some things about birding that annoy me. Here are a few.

Squirrels. Enough said.

Unnecessary name changes. In case you didn’t hear, the gray jay was renamed the Canada jay last year. That name has been swatted back and forth more than a volleyball. The species has many nicknames, but its official name was Canada jay up until 1957, when the name was changed to gray jay.

This rankled Canadian birders. A name was taken away from them, and nothing was offered in return. For instance, the robin, wigeon, coot, oyster-catcher, golden-plover, avocet, woodcock, bittern, three-toed woodpecker, kestrel, dipper, pipit, goldfinch and redstart all retained “American” as their first names. Canada lost the jay, and gained nothing. Sure, they still had the Canada warbler and the Canada goose to brag about, but that’s it.

The American Ornithological Union is in charge of naming birds on this continent. By a vote of 9-1, they accepted the argument that the name should revert to the original. I’m sure there were good motives. In fact, there are some Canadians who want to designate the bird as Canada’s official bird, and hoped the renaming would help. We’ll see. Otherwise, lots of guidebooks were suddenly rendered incorrect for no good reason.

Another pet peeve: No birds at the feeder. For the last month, I’ve been getting messages from readers, wondering why they’re not seeing many birds in the backyard. Indeed, the same thing is happening at my house. I stocked up on bird seed for the winter, and now it is sitting untouched. When readers ask about it, I usually reply that there are two possibilities: 1) either there is lots of natural food in the woods and the chickadees don’t need the feeder; or 2) there is not enough natural food in the woods, and they’ve all left.

There are ways to tell. Go for a walk in the morning. If you hear them, they’re still around. Wait for the snow. If they suddenly swarm the feeder during a blizzard, they’re still around. But if you don’t hear them, and weather is not forcing them to the feeder, they’ve left — gone for greener pastures. That’s actually normal. Chickadees and nuthatches don’t migrate in the typical way, but they will head farther south if there’s not enough food up here. This hasn’t been a bad winter, but it did start early. I have relatives in Massachusetts who report that even their birds seem to have gone south, starting right after Thanksgiving.

Another pet peeve: Black flies. Enough said.

And then there is this one: Birds inappropriately used as sound effects in movies. I just watched a weird movie on Netflix called “Velvet Buzzsaw.” It’s a supernatural slasher that victimizes the snooty art world. But never mind that. Near the end, when most viewers are being horrified by the actual plot, I’m being horrified by the sound effects. One character is at home in the California desert, about to meet her fate. However, before the ominous music starts, birds are singing. Clear as day, a wood thrush is singing. In the California desert! That’s so far away from where an actual wood thrush would be, that I just roll my eyes in disgust. Movie ruined.

This happens a lot. The classic case is the old Western. It’s hot. The sun is blazing. An eagle, or maybe a vulture, is circling overhead. Instead, you hear the “kreee” of a red-tailed hawk. Another classic is the jungle scene where tropical birds are screeching a multi-syllable laugh. That’s actually an Australian kingfisher called a “kookaburra.” Or try this one: I swear, in every backyard scene of every sitcom, there’s the song of a savannah sparrow. In the real world, this would only happen if your backyard in Manhattan is a hayfield.

In 2000, CBS admitted dubbing bird sound effects into the audio during live coverage of the Masters Golf Tournament in Georgia. The network owned up to it after birders pointed out that some of the birds being heard between drives could not possibly be in Georgia. That included one clearly audible canyon wren, a bird of western canyons. If you believe that, then you probably believe that the announcers have to whisper during putts — even though they’re actually in the broadcast truck two miles away.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 



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