Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 22, 2008

A Question of Translation

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:02 pm


 You’ll see Karl Linneaus’ name bandied about quite a bit in this column.  The 18th century biologist is the father of our current scientific naming system. His concept was to assign a specific two-parted specific name, usually in Greek or Latin, to all the world’s lifeforms. A scientific name is universal and one understood by scientists all across the globe regardless of their native tongue. For instance, the name Melanerpes carolinus refers to, and only to, the Red-bellied Woodpecker. The Chinese scientist understands this just as well as the Peruvian, Croatian, or Haitian scientist does.

  If we relied solely on the common name, everyone – including the English speaking scientists – would be confused. For instance, this Red-bellied Woodpecker doesn’t really have an obvious red belly. I could see a Peruvian scholar raising his eyebrow at this fact. You’d think that a red belly would be it’s most prominent feature, but it’s not (see above picture to verify this fact). Now, I’ve often kidded openly about the absurdity of this fact and ridiculed the lout that came up with that common name. I may even have insinuated that Karl was to blame, but upon closer examination I find that I must eat some humble pie. Please allow me to explain.

  First of all, let me make one thing clear: the Red-bellied Woodpecker really does have red on its belly. Take a look (here) at this recent road-side specimen and you can verify this for yourself. The belly on the bird is the part located below the breast and basically between the legs. There’s not much red there, but its there sure enough. Some might call this a mere blush, but it is a red blush.

  Mr. Linnaeus described this bird in 1758 and pretty much nailed it by concisely stating that this was a “woodpecker with a red cap and nape, a back with black & white bands, central tail feathers that are white with black spots, and Ani regio rubra punctata.” That last part, the one I slipped in as Latin- sorry – translates as an “anal region spotted with red.”  My man Karl never said it that it was red-bellied, he correctly stated that the red was scattered about the anal area! The challenge was to find a common name that said this simply and decently. “Red-a _ _ed Woodpecker” would have been starkly correct but impolite when used in mixed company. “Pimple Butt Woodpecker” had the same problem! So, our anal thinker used the technically correct “Red-bellied” and so here we are today. You can’t easily see the reddish belly, but its there and I will forever point that out.

  Now that we’ve got that mess out of the way, we can take some time to admire a road specimen of this bird a little closer. Take a look here at a side study in order to take in the whole creature (see here). Note the black & white banding on the back just like Karl said it would be. The red cap running from forehead to neck on this individual identifies it as a male. Even if you don’t like looking at dead animals, I think you have to agree that this scarlet hue is spectacular.  Females, by the way, only have red on the back of their heads.  The stiff tail feathers (see here) function as props when the bird is engaged in wood peck’n.  Even though one of the central tail feathers is missing, please note that the remaining one is “white with black spots.”

  Woodpecker feet are always incredible and these two views (see here and here) will confirm that fact for you. Unlike most birds, red-bellies and their kind have a toe arrangement in which two toes point forward and two point back. This toe set-up is called a “zygodactyl” arrangement. You are invited to forget that word, but I’m willing to bet it is worth a zillion points in Scrabble.

  Our blushbelly woodpecker chat is not yet tapped out. I consider it my job to bring up something that might not be obvious when performing an on-line examination such as this. We’ve already covered the red belly part, but I also need to pull out the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s tongue (see here) to exhibit one of its most important tools.  This appendage can extend out more than twice the length the bill and is equipped with a barbed harpoon to skewer wood boring grubs. Take a second glance at the previous picture and you’ll see that there are a half a dozen barbs at the pointy business end. The tongue is so long, in fact, that the root extends around the base and over the top of the skull, continues past the eye ridge and eventually anchors inside the right nostril!

  Hopefully all your future encounters with a Red-belly will be with a live bird. Their squirrel-like call (listen here to this Red-bellied Call) is a good sign that these common birds are overhead and ready to test your observation skills. You may point it out as a Red-a _ _ed Woodpecker if you wish, but never take Karl’s name in vain.

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