Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 5: Ground Woodpecker

This is the Ground Woodpecker, Geocolaptes olivaceus, which, as the name suggests, is a large southern African woodpecker species that lives on the ground:

There are quite a few woodpeckers species that spend a lot of time on the ground; the Green Woodpecker in Europe, and the various flickers in the Americas, for example. But the Ground Woodpecker takes it the furthest because it doesn’t even nest in a tree; they excavate a burrow from a riverbank.

It’s an interesting example of the way that evolution works. Woodpeckers are so highly specialised for living in trees: they have two toes pointing forward and two back, to improve grip; they have a stiff tail so they can brace themselves against tree trunks; they have highly developed neck muscles to generate the power needed to chisel away wood, and their head anatomy is adapted so that their eyes and brains can withstand the enormous G-forces generated; and they have barbed tongues to fish out wood-boring insects which are so long they have to be coiled inside their heads when they are not in use.

And yet, after millions of years of evolution to produce animals superbly adapted to living in trees… some of them start hopping around in the grass instead. Presumably the long tongues are equally useful for finding ants and other insects living underground, but otherwise, all that adaption is cheerfully discarded by evolution. If you were a Creator starting from scratch to design a ground-living bird, you wouldn’t end up with a woodpecker; but they are adapted well enough to make a living, and that’s all that matters.

This isn’t a completely original observation, btw; Darwin refers to a ground-feeding South American woodpecker in the Origin, although I’m not sure which species he’s referring to: possibly the Campo Flicker.

» Ground Woodpecker is taken from Flickr; it is © Francois Dreyer.

Digiscoping woodpeckers

I was having a go at photographing the juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker that comes to the birdfeeder, but it’s kind of tricky. My success rate when digiscoping is never that high at the best of times; and as you can see, it’s not temperamentally inclined to stay still:

Still, the motion blur can be a fun effect:

And it makes it all the more gratifying when one of the pictures comes out just right.

In your face, folk wisdom!

A green woodpecker has been calling all day, and the sky is clear and blue. There’s a slight haze, but I think that’s all pollen and exhaust fumes rather than cloud.

So that’s one data point against the ‘rain bird’ theory.

Birding the dictionary 3

Today we start with the word ‘plover’.

plover (‘plʌvə(r)). [ME. and AF. plover = OF. plovier, later L. *plovārius belonging to rain, f. L. pluvia rain; in mod.L. pluvārius pluviārius; cf. Sp. pluvial plover, ad. L. pluviālis rainy, also Ger. regenpfeifer, lit. rain-piper, and Eng. rain-bird.]

Belon, 1555, said the birds were so called because most easily taken in rainy weather, which modern observation contradicts.

I’ve never tried to take a plover myself, so I couldn’t judge. I’d like to believe that the OED have a crack avian behavioral research squad who were sent up into the Peak District in rainy weather with strict orders not to come back until they checked this. But probably not. It carries on with more suggestions:

…because they arrive in flocks in the rainy season… because of the restlessness of the bird when rain is approaching… Others have attributed it to the appearance of the upper plumage, as if spotted with rain-drops.

The most appealing of these, the last one, strikes me as the least likely. But judge for yourself:

Pacific golden plover, originally uploaded by Doug Greenberg.

As the caption says, that’s actually a Pacific Golden Plover, whereas the original plover was presumably either the European Golden Plover or the Grey Plover (what Americans call Black-bellied Plover). But the appearance is very similar.

Plovers aren’t the only birds to be associated with rain, of course. In Britain, the obvious one is the Green Woodpecker, Picus viridis, known as the rain-bird because its call is supposed to mark the approach of rain. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this to be true myself. The call is one of the classic sounds of the English countryside; you can hear it here. It’s often described as laughter, although if you heard a person laughing like that you’d be a bit worried. Their other common name—yaffle—is derived from the call. This is typical yaffle behaviour; hunting for ants in someone’s garden lawn:

Yaffle II, originally uploaded by vlad259.

The dictionary has two other entries for ‘rain-bird’. The first is a bit vague: ‘A Jamaican cuckoo’. A little detective work narrows it down to the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Saurothera vetula. I don’t know what the connection is with lizards, but I can tell you that it’s also known as Old Woman Bird because of its cackling laugh.

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, originally uploaded by Langooney.

Finally, the OED also mentions a couple of Australian usages. This is one of them, the Grey Butcherbird, Cracticus torquatus:

Grey butcherbird, originally uploaded by pierre pouliquin.

The other is the Channel-billed Cuckoo. In fact, though, Google turns up another Rainbird in Australia, the Asian Koel, also known as Stormbird; ‘Stormbird’ in turn can also refer to the Pheasant Coucal. For some information about the Stormbird’s place as an aboriginal storytime character, go here.

I know it might seem like I’m being too thorough here, but bear with me. Under the entry for rain, we also learn about the ‘rain crow’. Which isn’t actually a crow:

Dry Tortugas April 2006 Yellow Billed Cuckoo, originally uploaded by Jay Bass.

To quote Meriwether Lewis’s journal entry for 16th July 1806 from the Lewis and Clark expedition (which is one of the dictionary citations)

I saw both yesterday and today the Cookkoo or as it is sometimes called the rain-craw.

And yes, it does appear to be ‘craw’ unless there’s a typo in the dictionary, though all the other citations are for ‘rain-crow’. I guess you don’t employ explorers for their spelling.

As I said earlier, I am sceptical about the claim that the woodpecker’s call is an accurate predictor of rain. Some people have a disproportionate respect for traditional wisdom; in my experience it’s rather hit and miss, and weather lore is exactly the kind of area that’s likely to attract a lot of dubious theories. However, it’s very striking that of the seven birds I’ve mentioned, no less than five are cuckoos or their relatives: koels and coucals are both members of the Cuculidae. And in separate parts of the world people have, presumably independently, decided that they call more before the rain. It seems like more than a coincidence. If anyone reading this lives in one of the places where these birds live, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Returning to plovers; the dictionary lists no less than 60 from ‘bastard plover’ to ‘yellow-legged plover’. A few of them—Crab Plover, Ringed Plover—are still standard species names, but most are old or local names for waders we now know as something else. It really makes you appreciate standardised naming. There are ten names for ‘Golden Plover’, and eleven for ‘Grey Plover’; a few can mean either. Least helpful of all is ‘stone plover’ which can apparently mean Stone Curlew, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dotterel, ‘any shore plover of the genus Aesacus‘, Bar-tailed Godwit, or Whimbrel.

One last thing before I finally put an end to what was originally intended to be a short post. One of the dictionary’s citations for plover is this:

1486 Bk. St. Albans F vj b, A Falle of Woodecockis. A Congregacion of Pleuers.

The Book of St. Albans, by Dame Juliana Berners, is a book about hawking, hunting, and ‘fysshynge wyth an angle’, and is presumably one of the sources for all those irritating lists of collective nouns: a murder of crows, a heckle of alligators, a flashback of policemen. I don’t care if it does go back to the fifteenth century, I just don’t believe that anyone has ever actually called a flock of plovers anything other than a flock. All it proves is that whimsical linguistic pedantry is a 500 year old English tradition.

Stuffing, woodpeckers and James Brown

Well, both stuffings were good. The (more experimental) ginger one tasted great, though a little unexpected in an otherwise very traditional Christmas meal.

The local Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming this morning. They are always a very early sign of spring, but December still seems freaky. It’s been a weird old winter, weatherwise, and my woodpeckers are hardly the only sign of it. The newspapers have been going through one of their periodic phases of interest in climate change as a result, but I daresay they’ll move on to something else soon enough, and no-one’s behaviour will have changed much.

The other curious nature observation of the week was a heron in the garden with a pair of crows taking turns to sidle up behind it and try to tweak its tail feathers. Apparently for no reason other than a bit of fun.

The death of James Brown was sad news to wake to on Christmas morning. I listen to a variety of music – pop, soul, reggae, hip-hop, soukous, techno – but what it all has in common is that it has a bit of a groove to it. So as you can imagine, James Brown, the most sampled man in the world, has an important place in my personal musical pantheon. One of the great artists and great entertainers of the twentieth century. From a groove point of view, perhaps the greatest of them all.

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