Saturday, May 24, 2008


American Redstart

Yesterday afternoon, not far from my house, I saw an American Redstart. The following photograph comes from Wikipedia:

The scientific name of the American Redstart is Setophaga ruticilla. The first half of the binomial (Setophaga) is straightforward. It means moth-eater, as Greek σής (genitive σητός) is a moth, and φαγεῖν (infinitive of ἔφαγον, used as 2nd aorist of ἐσθίω) means to eat.

The second half (ruticilla) is more problematical. Edmund C. Jaeger, A Source-book of Biological Names and Terms (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1959), p. 225, says that ruticilla comes from "L. rutilus, red+dim. suffix -cilla, a small tail." But the Latin word for tail is cauda.

Apparently Theodore of Gaza was the first to use the word ruticilla, in his Latin translation (1476) of Aristotle's Historia Animalium. It was the Latin equivalent of the Greek φοινίκουρος at 632b28. Greek φοινίκουρος (transliterated phoinikouros) is a compound meaning redtail. The -start in redstart also originally meant tail (Middle English stert, Old English steort).

Edward S. Gruson, Words for Birds: A Lexicon of North American Birds (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1972), p. 217, discusses the suffix -cilla, with a quotation from R.D. MacLeod, Key to the Names of British Birds (London: Pitman, 1954). Neither book is available to me, although a snippet view of Gruson's book is visible through Google Book Search, enough for me to see that he regards -cilla as a spurious suffix, adopted by ornithologists "who have imagined that cilla is Latin for 'tail' and have even invented new names on that supposition, e.g. albicilla, white-tailed (eagle), the name of a species of Haliaëtus, and Bombycilla, waxwing, a name that refers to the bird's yellow-tipped tail."

I own a few volumes of Arthur Cleveland Bent's Life Histories of North American birds, but unfortunately not his Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers. Among my books, the fullest description of the American Redstart is in Ludlow Griscom et al., The Warblers of America (New York: Devin-Adair, 1957), pp. 240-242 (quotation from p. 240):
The vivacious, and strikingly-patterned black and orange-red male fanning its tail, drooping its wings, whirling from limb to limb and fly-catching in skillful pursuit of insects demands attention wherever it appears. I have heard people from Maine to Florida refer to it as the butterfly-bird. Anyone who has seen a male Redstart in tropical jungles and hammocks flashing orange-red each time the sun strikes its plumage readily can understand why so many Latin Americans call it Candelita or little torch.
The American Redstart was a favorite bird of Charles Conrad Abbott, who wrote in his Bird-Land Echoes (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1904), pp. 79-80:
The redstart is a warbler, but it has always seemed to me to represent the highest type, the culmination of evolutionary effort, among birds, and that no other bird, taking everything into consideration, could excel it....It would be hard to find in all our avi-fauna, or in that of any other country, a more attractive form of bird life.
See also John Burroughs, Under Apple-Trees:
Whitman asks:—
"Do you take it, I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?"
The redstart, with his black-and-orange suit, and his quick, lively motions, does not astonish, but few birds give the eye more pleasure. How gay and festive he looks, darting and flashing amid the gnarled and scaly branches of the decaying apple-trees! It seems as if all his motions were designed to show off his plumage to the best advantage. With tail slightly raised and spread, and wings a little drooping, he springs and swoops here and there in the trees — a bit of black holding and momentarily revealing a flame of orange.
Many observers note that the American Redstart is a fidgety bird, always on the move. Thoreau, for example, described it as "very lively and restless, flirting and spreading its reddish tail" (Journal, May 17, 1856). But the one I saw stood still for over a minute, preening, at the foot of a tree.

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