Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's on the House: A Repost

Two things I almost never do here are (1) repost material I've already written and (2) write seriously about natural history. I avoid the former because it's lazy and boring, and the latter because there are birders out there far more knowledgeable about the history and science of birding than I am (for instance, this guy and this girl.)

But today, I'll make an exception and repost a piece I wrote on the life of an important, but seriously under-appreciated figure in birding history—the only one I've ever attempted to do. As my friends in Oaxaca and Barcelona would say disfrutele!

Yesterday was the first day of the term at the school where I teach, so I got to campus early to gear up for my two classes of the day. (Nothing makes waking up on Mondays easier than the prospect of lecturing for 4 straight hours! Ha ha.)

But the great thing about getting to campus early is that I get to check out the birds. At 8 a.m., even my busy urban campus is loud with birdsong: Cedar Waxwings, Bushtits, Yellow-rumped Warblers, random parrots I can't ID. My third-floor office overlooks a stand of jacaranda trees that top out at about the second story of my building. I often see flocks of birds flitting about, but they're too tiny and far off to ID. I'm tempted to bring in my spotting scope and set it up by my window, but everyone thinks I'm weird enough as it is.

By mid-afternoon, my lectures for the day were over, and I found myself, uncharacteristically, sitting in my office without any urgent work-related tasks. So I decided to take a break, surf the web, and see what I could learn about some of the more routine birds I see on campus.

And I was surprised by what I found: as I've found out in my birding by ear class, nothing is ever as obvious as one would think. Birds do things one wouldn't expect. And people who work with birds aren't who we think they are, either.

For instance, take the House Sparrow: as all birders know, it's a European import usually seen Stateside foraging for muffin crumbs outside of any Starbucks. (On campus, they're usually seen eating hamburger bun and tortilla chip crumbs outside the food courts.)

What I didn't know, however, was that the little junk-food-junkies weren't named for their predilection for human edifices, but for the 19th-century birder who first studied and formally identified them as a distinct species: Gregory House, a British surgeon and amateur naturalist.

House was an avid traveller and taxonomist with an obsessive eye for detail: during his North American travels, he drew numerous sketches of, and wrote extensive descriptions of, two other seemingly unremarkable birds that everyone else thought too boring to bother with: these birds are now known as the House Wren and House Finch.

Unfortunately, House suffered from chronic pain brought on by a leg injury suffered during the Crimean War. He died of an opium overdose--perhaps accidental, perhaps not--at the age of 54.

And today--House's birthday, April 1--seems like a perfect occasion to honor this unheralded champion of the common bird.

1 comment:

Bill S. said...

Thanks for sharing your knowledge of the House sparrow. They are a pain at my feeders, but we tolerate them for the others that come. Have a great Easter weekend.