‘It’s a nice name, but what does it mean?’

Have you ever noticed when you wander around a zoo or botanic garden that the animal or plant you’re looking at has two names? You may see a sign telling you that you’re standing underneath the canopy of a River Red Gum tree, but the same sign also tells you that you’re also standing under a Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If your curiosity goes beyond how beautiful the tree is it may prompt you to wonder what that secondary name is all about.

While those secondary names – known as binomial or scientific names – may seem challenging at first, you can be rewarded if you unravel them. Deconstructing a scientific name can unravel history and quirkiness that gives context to the time and events when European naturalists studied and described elements of our natural world. In this series we will deconstruct some of those strange names and find out that there is often quite a story – or at least a fascinating translation – behind them.

Podargus strigoides Tawny Frogmouth.

In this episode of the series I am being a little self-indulgent as the subject matter is my favourite bird species, The Tawny Frogmouth. And it’s not only my favourite bird. There are over 10,000 species of birds throughout the world and the Tawny Frogmouth is the world’s ‘most Instagrammable bird’. This curious-looking bird can be a master of camoflage. Tawny Frogmouths are surprisingly common, but seldomly noticed by most people. They are active at night, but stationary during the day blending into their tree roost.

A rather confusing bird.

For many of those who do have the pleasure of sighting this enigmatic bird their initial reaction is ‘oh, look, it’s an owl!’ For those of us with some knowledge of birds the automatic response is ‘no, it’s not an owl…it’s related to the Nightjar family’. The below exchange on a recent Facebook post is quite typical of the regular confusion:

Tawny Frogmouth meme photo
Tawny Frogmouth owl meme: unknown source.

Person A: ‘Is this beautiful owl a Tawny?’

Person B: ‘Tawny Frogmouth. A night bird, but not related to owls’.

Person C: ‘As mentioned above. It is a Tawny Frogmouth- which is in its own family, more closely related to the Nightjars.’ 

Person D: ‘Definitely not an owl. Definitely a Tawny Frogmouth from the Nightjar family.’

            Person C: ‘Nope, from the frogmouth family.’

Person D: ‘A beautiful nightjar, not an owl.’

            Person E: ‘While they are closely related with Nightjars, the Frogmouth are actually in their own family Podargus.’

As you can see, it’s a discussion that brings out the inner pedant in birdwatchers. The meme below is good symbolism of that pedantry.

Why all the confusion?

Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus…neither an Owl, nor Nightjar…or Frogmouth for that matter.

Perhaps the regular innacurate naming of the Tawny Frogmouth can be excused. An earlier common name of the bird was in fact Frogmouth Owl. There are similarities in size and shape between a Tawny Frogmouth and a Boobook Owl, which probably doesn’t help with identification issues.

The modern common name of the species is fairly literal and descriptive. Tawny refers to the grey/brown colour while it’s broad, gaping mouth is reminiscent of that of an amphibian species.

The scientific name of Podargus strigoides was given by the famed ornithologist John Latham in 1801. The bird was the first of the three species within the Podargus genus to be described by an ornithologist. As you will see below, there is quite some detail within the two words that comprise the bird’s name. As detailed as it is, the name probably doesn’t do much to clarify the ongoing confusion with owls.

A bird with origins in myths and legends?

So let’s break it all down to try make some sense of all this: Pod-argus strig-oides:

Pod: Greek for foot. Think podiatry, pertaining to feet.

Podargus: relating to the medical term Podagra. Podagra is the medical condition of Gout, relating to inflammation or arthritis of the foot. For the purpose of birds within the Podargus genus it translates to ‘weak-footed’.

Strig: derived from the ancient Greek and Latin ‘Strix’. In ancient mythology, the Strix (plural Striges) had a number of incarnations throughout different regions of Europe. These interpretations usually involve demons who would take the form of or transform into owls or owl-like creatures. These myths usually involved the demons – or witches – being women. And they would often feast on livers and other internal organs. If you’re interested in more reading on this please look up Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals by John Cuthbert Lawson, 1910.

The term Strix would be carried across these ancient times of folklore and would be applied to actual owls. The largest family of owls, Strigidae, are also known as ‘True Owls’.

Great Grey Owl, Strix nebulosa (a ‘true owl’)

Oides: Ancient Greek meaning likeness or resembles

How does this relate to our beloved Tawny Frogmouth?

We have deconstructed the scientific name of the Tawny Frogmouth, now let’s translate that deconstruction.

Gout tends to be a medical condition that affects the feet of people who drink too much beer or eat too much red meat and are generally overweight. While I have seen some large Tawny Frogmouths I am not aware of any whom drink any amount of alcohol. Their diet is certainly carnivorous, but I don’t suspect them of overeating red meat. Tawny Frogmouths are considered to be ‘weak-footed’ though.

Their feet give them great balance and stability for roosting over many hours. But Tawny Frogmouth’s feet are not strong enough to catch or tear at prey. They use that broad mouth to catch their prey in flight or as the prey passes the bird’s roost.

The species name of strigoides simply translates to ‘like Striges’, effectively ‘like an owl’. The Tawny Frogmouth’s scientific name of Podargus strigoides means a bird that has weak feet and is ‘like an owl’… but it’s not an owl of course!

The Joy of Birds: My first time

Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua

Discovering birdwatching and the open road of new species is an exciting and addictive past-time. It’s still exciting to find a new bird of course, but early on just about every species is a new discovery. The world of the internet has made it much easier to stay on the pulse of significant bird sightings. I’d keep an eye on various forums and birdwatching feeds for reports of anything that I was yet to encounter and was reasonably close. Being easy to find wasn’t always part of the deal, but sometimes you would be fortunate to have clues to a fairly finite area.

My first sighting of a Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) couldn’t have been much easier back on the 27th of May, 2009. It happened to have been living in a tree in Flagstaff Gardens, one of central Melbourne’s parks where office workers would have lunch or undertake physical training. I commenced a game of find the owl amongst the dense Autumn foliage of the giant Elm trees. Although my photographic equipment was limited to a 300mm kit lens it still enabled me to get a view of this wonder of nature. Here it was, a silent killer living in the middle of the city while hundreds of people would walk directly underneath unaware that they were being watched. But the humans need not worry. Powerful Owls do not have humans on the menu.

I stood there on that day, craning my neck for an angle to point my lens between leaves and branches. A gentleman sidled up beside me and asked ‘are you looking for that Powerful Owl’? I excitedly told him that I had managed to sight it, but for this man the novelty had already worn off. He introduced himself as the secretary of the City of Melbourne lawn bowls club, which is based within the grounds of Flagstaff Gardens. The man then continued ‘that thing causes a mess. I need to get here early to make sure that I collect the possum heads that it leaves on the bowling greens’. Yes, that’s right, the Powerful Owl has an appetite for possums, fur, bones and all.

A Powerful Owl’s ability to decapitate or otherwise dismember a possum is certainly enough justification for its imposing name. Besides Brushtail and Ringtail possums Powerful Owls’ diet can extend to fruit bats and even large birds such as Australian Magpies or Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

The second time around

I didn’t have to wait too long for my second sighting of a Powerful Owl, and one that was pure chance. My first sighting was in the middle of Melbourne on the 27th of May, 2009. The second came while on a study field trip on the 28th of May, 2009 in the Yarra Ranges, beyond Melbourne’s metropolitan boundary. Whereas the previous day’s owl was up high and tricky to spot owl number two was in the open, a little above head-height. The few photos that I took of this moment were worse than dreadful. I put this down to a number of factors: the terrible, overcast sky, my photographic inexperience or a panic to keep up with my class group.

And there was that stare. Having an eye-to-eye moment with a Powerful Owl is a wonderfully intense moment. Part of you is transfixed that you have this moment, while you wonder if there is the potential to learn how this owl got the name ‘Powerful’. There have been reports of Powerful Owls not taking kindly to human intrusions into their territory. Dr Beth Mott, Birdlife Australia’s Powerful Owl Project Officer, summarised a Powerful Owl/human encounter as ‘generally (been) scratching, but there’s definitely a risk of psychological trauma from getting swooped by such a big bird’. Personally I’d rather be attacked by a family of Australian Magpies than take my chances with one Powerful Owl. At approximately 67cm and over 2kg in weight

Thankfully I have had more encounters with Powerful Owls since those back-to-back days of 2009. And thankfully my photography has improved since then. Powerful Owls tend to be creatures of habit and will return to their favourite roosting trees each year, particularly when adding to their family. For a bird so cryptic and shy it is possible to find them in regular annual roosting areas. Even if you visit a roosting sight several years apart there is a good chance to find a Powerful Owl in that same spot.

Regardless of the photographic evidence, each encounter with one of these amazing birds is a special memory that one doesn’t forget. Those of us who live in Australia’s east coast cities are fortunate to have these special birds living amongst us. And we should do what we can to ensure that future generations keep returning to our suburbs to watch over us…and eat possums.

Graham, Wild Ramblings