What’s In A Name? Respect For The Bird Or Vanity Of Its Late-coming Discoverer?

In field guides, this species is listed as Swainson’s Thrush, with a note that they are often called Olive-backed. And a case can be made for Salmonberry Bird, at least for the population on the NW coast of the U.S. and the coast of Canada’s Inland Passage.

Olive-backed Thrush aka Salmonberry Bird aka Swainson's Thrush
Olive-backed Thrush aka Salmonberry Bird aka Swainson’s Thrush

I’m going with Olive-backed because it could be more universally adopted, but really prefer Salmonberry Bird. This is not a statement of ‘wokeness’ regret about William Swainson’s personal life. It is just me thinking that a name for something in the natural world should be, well, natural.

I also think it was exceptionally arrogant that many New World species were ‘discovered’ by European 18th-19th century naturalists. I think these naturalists should be honored in scientific literature for their collecting, cataloguing, & classifying. All contributions on which ornithology & ecological disciplines are built & essential to conserving the natural world. But, they should not be honored with eponymous bird names. In my opinion.

I just wish these naturalist had ‘honored’ indigenous peoples’ naming practice & names. These names often distill the essence of the species’ appearance and\or behavior. Following this practice in turn honors people who have known the birds for millennia and revered birds so much that many names reflect the species’ integral importance in understanding natural preservation.

For example, Northwest Coastal people know Swainson’s Thrush as Salmonberry Bird. A name derived from their annual arrival in the Pacific Northwest in May, when salmonberries ripen. For these people, appearance of the berries & birds & their health & abundance are important indicators of the coming salmon run.

Olive-backed Thrush aka Salmonberry Bird aka Swainson's Thrush

This is now not just a Native American ‘myth’. Western science has caught up. A recent published paper, studied how salmon and the nutrient subsidies they bring into riparian systems impact the reproductive output of plants such as salmonberries. The authors determined what the Native Americans already knew: Strong salmon runs fertilize salmon systems. Increased salmon density in one season leads to increased density of salmonberries per bush in the next season. And vice versa.

Explaining one factor in the rapidly declining population of Olive-back Thrush’s russet-back sub-population in the NW – the rapid decline of salmon runs.

These Fall visitors to our yard are enjoying a variety of berries, including Spring and Autumn serviceberries, beautyberries, black cherry laurel, and dogwood berries.



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