Matthew Dickerson: The naming of fish and birds
Identifying and naming creatures. It started many years ago for me with species of trout, but it has since spread — to birds, to trees, to flowers, and even to insects.
Not that I’m particularly good at it. Several years ago I was selected as artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park in Montana. On the first morning of my month-long residence in the park, an extravagantly colored duck swam past me just a few feet away while I sat in a camping chair along the riverbank awaiting the sunrise. The duck had a head of black with white markings and a rust-red crown (sometimes described as chestnut). It’s body and proud neck stood out in black and slate blue with pronounced white stripes. More rust red coloration was visible on the underbelly, especially in flight. The only part of its body with hues that could be described as understated were its muted brown wings.
I had no idea what duck I was looking at, but I managed to snap a few photos before it flew off. A day or two later I was able to ask one of the park rangers about it. It turned out I’d been wildly fortunate to enjoy a rare male harlequin sighting. For the next two weeks I kept bumping into park visitors who were eagerly — and in most cases, unsuccessfully — trying to spot one.
The beauty and uniqueness of the duck led to my effort to name it, and the effort of naming it led me to learn something about this species described as “a sea duck that lives in the mountains” — though in fact it really only breeds in the mountains, returning like salmon to the natal streams of the females for nesting season before heading back down to the sea. I learned that the male only appears in the northern Rocky Mountains for a couple weeks in the late spring. Although they tend to be monogamous (mating for life) the male stays in the mountains just long enough to mate, and then flies back to the coast, leaving the females to hatch and care for the young (usually along a turbulent thickly wooded mountainous river) before joining their partner again later in the summer. They are known to be fantastic swimmers, capable of diving up to 70-feet deep and of handling swift river currents or turbulent waters off a rugged coastline. Glacier National Park has the highest density of breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. They are also a declining species in many areas, as they are especially susceptible to oil spills.
More recently it was purple finches. Or, rather, a bird I’ve been seeing for years and misidentifying as purple finches. When I mentioned the presence of purple finches at my feeder to my friend Catherine, she asked how I could tell them apart from house finches. That question led me to read about both purple finches (which are native to Vermont and many parts of the U.S. and Canada) and house finches (which are an introduced species that have been driving out some native species such as purple finches). Both types of finches have on the chest and head tints of what might be called purple, which become more pronounced during mating season. Except in the purple finches, the photos in various bird guides show the color to be more on the lavender side of purple, while in the house finch it is more of a red purple — which, matched up more closely with the finches showing up at our feeder. And then I was contemplating once again the impact of invasive species on native species, and the resulting altering of an ecosystem.
The purpled-hued house finches showed up at our feeder in 2021 several weeks after another species showed up for the first time. When it first appeared, and before I heard it’s unique and almost unnatural-sounding call, I thought it was some sort of flicker. The flash of red and the soft gray belly made me think of a northern flicker. Then I got a closer look and saw that the red was not merely a stripe of misplaced lipstick extending backward from the beak, but rather a whole vibrant red crown. Identifying the bird as a red-bellied woodpecker (yes, it’s belly also showed hints of orange-red, though not nearly as richly colored as its crown) led me to learning that Vermont has been considered the northern edge of its historical habitable range; that climate change, however, has recently been pushing this species northward and it has recently become quite common in Vermont (and in our front yard).
It should be noted that there is a risk in learning the name of a creature. Being able to identify a red-bellied woodpecker (or a house finch, or a barred owl, or the differences between a white-breasted nuthatch and a rose-breasted nuthatch) makes me more likely to pay attention if I see another one — or see the same one later. And when I see them and also connect them with their life history, and with their ecological significance, I’m more likely also to be aware of what the creatures that surround us every day are able to tell us about our environment: about how it’s changing, or being threatened. Canaries are famous for telling people about the state of oxygen in a coal mine. It turns out that many other creatures can also warn us about the dangers and effects of oil spills, introduced species, and climate change. And that isn’t always pleasant news, though it may be helpful to those who want to act on the knowledge.
Fortunately, the effort to learn and pay a little more attention is also enjoyable when the creatures are as beautiful as a harlequin duck, a red-bellied woodpecker, or a purple finch. Or, as the case may be, even just a purple-tinted house finch.
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