‘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!

Meet the Locals

When it comes to Australia’s wildlife it seems that Kangaroos and Koalas get the bulk of the world’s attention in the cute and cuddly category. Some of our reptiles such as Saltwater Crocodiles and our varied snake species tend to evoke some strong reactions of being anything other than cute or cuddly. But our country has many more species than Kangaroos and Koalas.

Australia’s birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs are estimated to total 2470 species. Given that Australia evolved in isolation for much of the last 65 million years, our country has many unique fauna species. Most of them are cute in their own right and they all deserve to be known about; it’s easier to save species while we know about their existence and what they need to survive. They all deserve to live, regardless of how cute they may or may not be!

In this series we will showcase some of the lesser known Australians, talking about where they live, what they eat and how they are coping in modern Australia.

The things that we ‘collect’

As a resident of inner-Melbourne I confess to having fallen for the incidental pastime of ‘collecting’ UooUoos. You may well be wondering what a UooUoo is at this point, which is quite understandable. In case you’re unaware of the existence of these, they are a collection of 100 fictional fibreglass quadrupeds, each decorated. The official description of a UooUoo is ‘an imaginary Australian creature whose shape is loosely drawn from the wombat and dugong’.

Whatever your initial thoughts are, the existence of UooUoos has prompted people to ‘collect’ them around Melbourne and surrounds in this post-lockdown era. People ‘hunt’ the creations and cross them off on the official App. The UooUoo concept is not new and has been conducted in various guises in cities across the world for many years; as far back as 1999 Chicago started Cow Parade, which has inspired several thousand cows across 80 cities around the world.

Nintendo, the originator of Pokémon Go is doing quite well out of people searching for virtual creatures. as of November 2020 people around the world had spent $US 4 billion since it came into non-existence back in July 2016; in the first ten months of 2020 alone revenue for Pokémon Go was $1US billion. At its peak in 2016 45 million people around the world were playing Pokémon Go per day. That figure has bounced up and down since, but there’s still a healthy number that play the game each day – the lowest it ever dipped to was 5 million people after the initial hype died off in 2016.

turned on iphone displaying pokemon go charizard application
Photo by Anton on Pexels.com

Perhaps the most famous and most successful example of such ‘collecting’ is that of the Pokémon phenomenon. In this format there are no fibreglass statues to visit and record however. The Pokémon are ‘virtual’ creatures. To many of us that may seem like an abstract concept to get our head around. But millions of people around the world push on regardless, searching for creatures that don’t exist.

People have collected many different type of things throughout history: shells, stamps, coins, swap cards, shoes… As a child I dabbled in stamp collecting as many did. In my early twenties I started collecting beer bottles of the brews that I had tasted. But that wasn’t very practical in a townhouse with limited space. So the natural alternative was beer glasses…but that likewise grew faster than the specimens were dropping on the floor.

My interests evolved into a different direction after getting my first digital SLR camera. Through the lens I had noticed something that I hadn’t before. Birds. I soon became fascinated by the diversity of them, watching them and finding them. I began ‘collecting’ bird species that I had sighted or photographed. While photography initially drew me in, I wanted to find out more about these living individuals that I hadn’t noticed before: what were their names? How common are they? What is making that call? Is that a species that I have seen before or one that looks similar?

Birdwatching became my new obsession. Not just ‘collecting’ birds, but being interested in everything about them. There are of course levels of obsession when it comes to this pastime. One might be a birdwatcher, a birder or a twitcher. A birdwatcher can be classified as a more casual of these categories, while a birder is someone who is fairly active in their activities. A Twitcher, however, is the more extreme of the categories. Lately there has been a rare bird attracting people from all over Australia to Cairns in North Queensland. The possibility of seeing this one individual bird (a Nordmann’s Greenshank for those of you interested) is enough for people to book a trip to add one more to their ‘life list’.

The term ‘Twitcher’ originates from Britain in a time long before the internet and even mobile phones existed. These extremists would communicate via landline to inform of an unusual or rare bird. Some reports say that people would drop everything, even in winter, travelling across the country and shivering – or twitching – from the cold. Another story details two men in particular who would fuel themselves on so much coffee that they would be uncontrollably ‘twitching’ as they got to the destination. There is never a guarantee that the bird being ‘twitched’ is going to be there by the way.

While I’m not a twitcher I do enjoy the discovery of new species and it’s a nice bonus if I get a good photo to add to my collection. I have also become much more aware of the natural world and the impact that we’re having on it and the birds and other living things. I think that most bird watchers are good people who believe in making the planet better. As for my collection, I don’t need to ‘catch them all’ as is the case in the Pokemon world, but I enjoy the ones I do find.

I was curious about the Pokémon phenomenon and what causes people to be so engaged with it, so I asked some of the local people who participate in it. There were similarities with birdwatching, such as getting out and being around nature while sharing the experience with family or friends. I can’t help but wonder if we can convince some of the world’s massive Pokémon fanbase to try birdwatching. Then we may end up with people who are more tuned to the state of the natural world around them and the challenges it is increasingly facing

If you would like to try ‘collecting’ birds why not consider joining me on a Birdwatching Tour? https://wildramblings.com.au/birdwatching-tours/