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The truth about the Corvid-19 and what you need to know – part 7. Some secrets never to be told


My delay in getting through the series of nineteen Corvidae members, also known as “the Corvid 19” is only dragging out the pandemic as initially it was supposed to be one a week, but there was also supposed to be vaccine by now so I am not the only one with a delay on their hands.

Today, however, we move to one of the best known and most iconic Corvids, the unmistakable Eurasian magpie. And we are going to be finding out some little-known facts about this well-known bird, including the fact that the name is actually highly sexist and chauvinistic, if you get into the etymology of it.

Thanks to Stefania.foto6 for this photo given a CC licence on wikicommons. https://www.flickr.com/photos/183980745@N04/

As usual the information is being put together in a table for so as to allow an easier summary at the end of the series. I am still thinking about publishing a fine “Corvid 19” wall chart in time for the end of the pandemic.

And if there is a second wave, I may need to do a Cervid-19 also, but I will pay deerly for such a project.

Common Name Magpie
Other names Pie (the original name, see below)
German Elster
French Pie bavarde
Russian Соро́ка
Polish Sroka zwyczajna
Scientific Name Pica pica
Number of species in the genus 7
Number of subspecies in this species 6
Literal meaning of Scientific name “Pica” is the Latin name of the Eurasian magpie, as attested in Latin literature. Greek has Karakaxa, which could have been selected, but wasn’t.
Described by Linnaeus 1758, but as Corvus Pica. The genus Pica was later posited by Mathurin Jacques in 1760. Previously Conrad Gessner had described the magpie in his 1555 work Historia animalium, a classic f renaissance zoology, but not in the binomial system, which it predates.
First attested in literature Well before Gessner there are mentions of magpies in the classical literature. It is part of the folklore of many countries and is the only one of the Corvid 19 to have had an opera written about it, La gazza ladra, the Thieving Magpie, by Rossini.
Wingspan (cm) 62
Length bill to tail (cm) 46 (long tail, half the length of the bird)
Distribution The species covers all of Europe and most of Asia in a band across Russia below the permafrost, except in Kamchatka, shich has its own subspecies. In total there are 6 subspecies, and these differ little between themselves
Remarks The magpie is consider the most intelligent bird given that it alone among the birds passes the “Mirror test” for self-recognition. It is known for its iconic black and white markings which gave rise to the term “pied” for other similar markings, like the pied wagtail of Hamelin. The actual term was just “pies” which the “mag” term from ‘Maggie Thatcher” referred to the resenblance of the vocalisations to those of a nagging woman. It is reather a chauvinistic name and this as well as being both black and white are likley to make this species endangered in a leftist world like this is, where sense is ended before it’s begun.
Migrations Only minor within the range of subspecies.
Sexual dimorphism Barely noticeable
Close relatives There are five other species in the Genus Pica, of which the Hudson magpie is very similar and also regarded as a spirit animal as the Eurasian one in ancient Germanic mythology, by the First Nations people. The yellow billed magpie and the Maghreb magpie are noticeably different, other than that, there is little to notice as difference between the species in the genus.
Not close relatives thought to be close Other birds called green magpies, one of which we looked at earlier, are not distant relatives. The  treepies as well, such as the black magpie we will be looking at next time, are all also corvids. The Australian magpie, on the other hand, is a completely unrelated bird and not a Corvid at all.  Most unrelated but sometimes confused is a small rabbit like mountain mammal called a Pika, whose Scientific name used to be Pika pika, which sounds the same even though spelt differently, this driving a change of that one to something I cannot rememeber beginning with O.
Cultural significance The Thieving Magpie overture by Rossini is a piece of music you would probably recongnise even if you do not know the name of it. It is La Gazza Ladra in Italian.  Magpies are disliked as thieves of shiny objects, and also for their predation on the eggs and young of smaller songbirds, and also are regarded in some cultures as mystical harbingers of various portents, as typifies in the rhyme references in the title. Nevertheless, there are many regional variations of the “one for sorrow, two for joy” rhyme (I even made one myself called “Fagpie” in which the noxious effects of smoking are listed. It was inspired by a meme of one Magpie holding a cigarette in its beak. If these things were actually true, they would probably be universally true and not have one meaning in one place and another meaning in another, but all we can gain is that this iconic corvid bird with its unique intelligence is very good at tapping into the human propensity for superstition.

 

 

 

The truth about the Corvid-19 and what you need to know – part 6 – the corvid that drives you nuts, or crackers at least.


Over the last few weeks I didn’t manage to make a Corvid-19 article in this series, which doesn’t bode well for coming quickly out of the crisis, as it won’t be finished until I get to the end of the series, but on the plus side we do have some positive news about treatments emerging in the USA and the UK.   Today we continue our review with another Corvus genus member, one of the less well known Corvids, the nutcracker. This is in fact three species from both the old and new world, and 9 subspecies, but we will be focusing on the one with the broadest distribution for our gang of 19 Corvids, namely the spotted nutcracker.

Thanks to Murray B Henson for placing this excellent image of a spotted nutcracker in the Morskie Oko National Park in Poland in the public domain.

We are presenting the info for each Corvid in a similar tabular form and there will be a publication available at the end of the series where you will be able to get hold of the combined table.

Common Name Spotted nutcracker
Other names
German Nussbrecher
French Cassenoix
Russian Кедровка
Polish Orzechówka
Scientific Name Nucifraga caryocatactes
Number of species in the genus 3
Number of subspecies in this species 9
Literal meaning of Scientific name  “Nut shatterer” in Latin and Greek respectively
Described by Linnaeus 1758
First attested in literature Not many references to the species are made in culture. The nutcracker suite by Tchaikovsky refers to the metal implement used to crack nuts. In 1693 the word appears in English in the translation of a German travel guide, the bird itself not being found in the UK, although a sister species, Clark’s nutcracker, is found in Western North America but William Clark, the explorer for whom it was named (not in Latin though – it is Nucifraga columbiana – described to science in 1811 based on Clark’s specimen by Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson, dubbed the ‘father of American ornithology”) only discovered it in 1805.
Wingspan (cm) 53
Length bill to tail (cm) 38
Distribution Again this Eurasian species has a very broad range from Sweden and Poland in the West to the Pacific Coasts of Siberia and China as well as upland Japan. The Himalayan species of nutcracker, the large spotted nutcracker (N. multipunctata) is considered a distinct species. Despite its name it is not significantly larger than the spotted nutcracker.
Remarks They have a range of vocalisations and are social. Their diet is largely the seeds of pine cones and cedar nuts, giving rise to the Russian name of “Kedrovka”. They do not actually crack heavily shelled nuts with their beaks in the way the implement called a nutcracker does, with the exception of some local subspecies adapted for the cracking of hazlenuts. They store the seeds which they do not eat.
Migrations Some of the nine subspecies migrated slightly within the range.
Sexual dimorphism Barely noticeable. Pairs remain together for life and both partners feed the young.
Close relatives The nutcrackers are in a subfamily of Corvids on their own, in fact many people may not realise that they are corvids as they are not a typically crow-like bird. Nevertheless, they are more closely related to true Corvids in the standard cladograms than jays or magpies are.
Not close relatives thought to be close The overall shape of the body and beak could lead one to suspect that the bird is related to the very broad Starling family, including mynahs and a host of tropical birds from the old world, however the Sturnidae are not closely related.
Cultural significance One cannot find much about these birds in literature, poetry or song.

 

 

The truth about the Corvid-19 and what you need to know – part 5 – a look at the rook.


Last week I didn’t manage to make a Corvid-19 article in ths series, which doesn’t bode well for coming quickly out of the crisis, but on the plus side we do have some positive news about treatments emerging in the USA and the UK.   Today we continue our review with another Corvus genus member, one of the better known old-world corvids, the rook.

A rook in England, thanks to Adrian Pingstone for placing this fine photo in the public domain.

We are presenting the info for each Corvid in a similar tabular form and there will be a publication available at the end of the series where you will be able to get hold of the combined table.

Common Name Rook
Other names None
German Saatkraehe
French Corbeau freux
Russian Грач
Polish Gawron
Scientific Name Corvus frugilegus
Number of species in the genus 45
Number of subspecies in this species 2
Literal meaning of Scientific name Fruit-gathering crow
Described by Linnaeus 1758
First attested in literature Known and written about from old times, in England referred to in a legal enactment by Henry VIII, who spells them “rokes”.
Wingspan (cm) 96
Length bill to tail (cm) 46
Distribution Distributed in all Europe and much of China, with a narrow belt going throug Russia in the middle. The western variant, C. f. frugilegis stretches over most of the range even as far as parts of China, but shares part of the range with C.f. pastinator.  They tend to live south of the 60 degrees parallel, especially in Winter, where those of more northerly ranges can fly further south for the worst of the winter, returning early in the spring while it is still snowing. The species tend to avoid territories preferred by ravens, so they prefer firelds to forests. They have been introduced to New Zealand where they are regarded as an invasive pest.
Remarks Most vegetarian than other crows. Less likely to exhibit high degrees of intelligence in interacting with humans. Their high nests in large company are known as “rookeries” and they probably have more collective ouns in English referring to groups of rooks than many other species do, and these include: ‘building’, ‘parliament’, ‘clamour’ and ‘storytelling’. They do not have as broad a range of vocalisations as other Corvus genus members, although there is some variety, but their signature rough call is what gives rise to their common name in English. In turn, their name has been applied to the chess piece and to an ungainly human novice or “rooky”.
Migrations Only the more northerly populations are migratory and only for the worst of the winter. The painting by Savrasov “the rooks’ return” shows returned rooks on a snowy backdrop, so they only flee the coldest snaps, not the temperate winter in and of itself. They have successfully urbanised in many large cities such as Moscow or Warsaw.
Sexual dimorphism Barely noticeable, other than a slight crest on some males, which are larger
Close relatives Other Corvus species may be closely related but hybridisation with rooks is rare.
Not close relatives thought to be close They remind one with their bald faces of coots, a water bird not at all closely related.
Cultural significance Although crows themselves have unpalatable flesh, the strictly vegetarian rook is more tasty, apparently – “rook pie” was a meal mentioned in the Pickwick Papers, however this is only palatable up to its maturity, and the season for shooting rooks for food is short. Already mentioned above, one of the finest paintings in my opinion in the world is “the rooks return” by Savrasov. In the main they have been regarded by humans as an agricultural pest, but despite this they remain quite a populous bird.

The Rooks Return, by Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov, showing classic nesting behaviour and a return by rooks to a northerly location even before the thaw of the winter’s snow. Seen in Russia as a welcome harbinger of Spring on the way.

 

 

The truth about the Corvid-19 and what you need to know – part 4.


We continue our coverage of the real truth about the Corvid 19 with a move back home to Europe and a closer look at the bird most UK people will have in mind when they hear the word “crow”.

This is practically the type species of the Corvids, and so no Corvid-19 analysis worth its salt should overlook it without needing to eat it.

 

Photo of a Carrion crow scavenging in Dorset by Ian Kirk on CC 2.0 licence. Many thanks to the photographer.

We are presenting the info for each Corvid in a similar tabular form and there will be a publication available at the end of the series where you will be able to get hold of the combined table.

Common Name Carrion Crow
Other names Common crow
German Aaskraehe
French Corneille noire
Russian Чёрная ворона
Polish Czarnowron
Scientific Name Corvus corone
Number of species in the genus 45
Number of subspecies in this species 2 or 4 (see below)
Literal meaning of Scientific name Raven (Latin) crow (Greek)
Described by Linnaeus 1758
First attested in literature Known and written about from classical times.
Wingspan (cm) 100
Length bill to tail (cm) 52
Distribution Two distributions, one in Western Europe, the other in East Asia, with a large belt in between of the closely related hooded crow.
Remarks There are two subspecies of carrion crow and it is the most common crow in the UK, and this is what we would call it as I was growing up. One is the West European version and the other is the East Asian one. The bird which separates them is the hooded crow Corvus cornix which was previously considered a subpecies (or rather, four subspecies as itself has four subspecies). In Warsaw we never see fully black crows (ravens and rooks yes, but the crows per se are only hooded crows) and one rarely sees hooded crows in the UK. It is a loner and an omnivore including a penchant for carrion, hence the name.  The bird exhibits extraordinary intelligence and is able to mimic human vocalisations, close to the levels exhibited by ravens. They distinguish between different human and crow faces and hild grudges a long time against people or animals which disturb them. They tend to get into extensive conflicts with seagulls which prey on their nests.
Migrations Slightly migratory. Winter and summer areas are marbled on the map.
Sexual dimorphism Barely noticeable, other than a slight crest on some males, which are larger
Close relatives As mentioned above the carrion crow and the hooded crow are related and also they are known to be capable of fertile crosses but are apparently not to one another’s taste ( a phenomenon known as koinophilia)
Not close relatives thought to be close Confused with rooks, although they have white faces, and ravens which are much larger, but these birds are close relatives also, as is the very similar American black crow.
Cultural significance Countless cultural references exist, one that comes to mind is the “monstrous crow, as black as a tar barrel” in the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee poem in Alice through the Looking Glass.

 

 

The truth about the Corvid-19 and what you need to know – part 3.


We continue our coverage of the real truth about the Corvid 19 with a move to the Indo-Chinese area, and more specifically in this case, Java.

We have looked at some well-known Corvids so far, but now we look at a little known one, uncharacteristically gaily coloured, so that one might think of a finch or other class of bird, but this is indeed a crow family member.

Unfortunately this particular one, the Javan green mapgpie, is highly endangered, with only 50 left in captivity, and none sighted of late in the wild.

 

Thanks for Vaclav Silha for this CC4.0 licensed image of the Corvid in Prague Zoo, part of an approved breeding programme aimed at keeping the species alive.

We are presenting the info for each Corvid in a similar tabular form and there will be a publication available at the end of the series where you will be able to get hold of the combined table.

Common Name Javan Green Magpie
Other names Ekek geling Jawa (local name)
German Gruenelster
French Pirolle à queue courte
Russian Цисса
Polish Kitta zielona jawańska
Scientific Name Cissa thalassina
Number of species in the genus 4
Number of subspecies in this species 0
Literal meaning of Scientific name Jay of the sea
Described by Temminck, 1826
First attested in literature Temminck, 1826
Wingspan (cm) 40
Length bill to tail (cm) 30
Distribution Very limited locations in Java, if at all.
Remarks This is one of four species of Cissa, or green magpies. As we saw in the case of the blue-jay, the word in Greek for jay was kitta, but another version ‘kissa’ also existed at certain periods of the language, and this is the form that gives this genus its name, although Polish retains the other Greek spelling for their version of the common name.  Unfortunately many of these beautiful birds are nearly extinct, and only 50 individuals of this bird at the most are thought to exist,  possibly none in the wild, with the remaining hope resting with breeding programs in captivity.  Their diet is fully carnivorous, with a large proportion of insects, and the protein lutein which gives them their green pigment cannot be produced if this element of their diet is missing, and the birds retain their initial blue plumage.
Migrations Not migratory
Sexual dimorphism Barley distinguishable. Juveniles have a more bluish tint and their beak only reddens on maturity.
Close relatives The other three Cissa species are Cissa chinensis, the common green magpie, with 5 subspecies, the Bornean green magpie (also known as the sort tailed green magpie) C. jeffreyi, and the Indochinese green magpie, C. hypoleuca, which is in fact blue rather than green,  but gets called “green magpie” because it is in the Green Magpie family, in much the same way as a person with the name “William Brown” would not need necessarily to wear or be that colour.
Not close relatives thought to be close It’s a rather disctinctive bird, so it is not really mistaken for unrelated species. Some confusion exists between this species and the short-tailed green magpie, which is closely related, but not a subspecies as first thought. In some sources the two species are still treated that way.
Cultural significance Despite their ornate and iconic appearance, little use has been made of these green magpies in terms of mascots and heraldry. The song of the Javan green magpie was considered one reason for its ravages into the pet trade, a main reason along with habitat destruction, for its current critically endangered status.

 

 

The truth about the Corvid-19 and what you need to know – part 2.


We continue our coverage of the real truth about the Corvid 19 with a move to the Eurasian continent.

You’ll be chuffed to know that another iconic corvid is the subject of today’s article, and which one it is, as well as the way of pronunciation, is hinted at in this very sentence.

In English the -ugh- cluster has a large number of pronunciations, from “ug” in the case of the exclamation “Ugh!”, to “af” in the case of “laughter”, “laughing”, or “uf” in “enough”, or “tough” or “of” in “cough”, just “ow” in “bough” or “o” in the topical “furlough” or “dough”, so it is well worth commenting on the actual pronunciation of this Corvid’s name.

Let it be enough to say that chough is spoken as “chuff” and tough on all the other alternatives.

And we are going to look at the more common of the two choughs, rather than the Alpine one, which you are less likely to see in the wild, but more likely to see in an aviary.

 

Attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Dibyendu_Ash (CC 3.0)

We are presenting the info for each Corvid in a similar tabular form and there will be a publication available at the end of the series where you will be able to get hold of the combined table.

Common Name Chough
Other names Red-billed chough, Cornish chough
German Alpenkraeher (note Alpine chough is “Alpendohle” in German)
French Crave à bec rouge
Russian Клушица, Клуша
Polish Wrończyk
Scientific Name Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Number of species in the genus 2
Number of subspecies in this species 8
Literal meaning of Scientific name Flame-raven
Described by Linnaeus, 1758
First attested in literature Homer, Arthurian legend, many others
Wingspan (cm) 90
Length bill to tail (cm) 40
Distribution Especially cliffs and rocky areas from Ireland to China, absent in much of the range.
Remarks Feeds in flocks on grassland taking invertebrate prey. Therefore a useful bird for agriculture but was often regarded as a nuisance for thieving like magpies and also for setting light to houses (which obviously they could not do, but such was the superstition, not helped by the scientific name). Also not helped by modern farming methods, has become vulnerable in Europe, but gradually returning to South West England. The range of vocalisations is limited.
Migrations Not migratory
Sexual dimorphism Male slightly larger
Close relatives Alpine chough, P. graculus, a similar bird with a range restricted to high altitude areas, overlaps with the range of the red-billed chough but is much smaller and in different places without a continued representation. A fossil ancestor P. primigenius has been discovered in France.
Not close relatives thought to be close White winged chough of Australia (not a Corvid but a Corcoracid)
Cultural significance High in Europe and Central Asia since classical times, mentioned in the Odessey as a dweller in Calypso’s island. Also linked to St Thomas a Beckett. Due to the association with King Arthur, whose soul is supposed to have turned into one of them, is a common feature of Cornish folklore and heraldry.

 

The truth about the Corvid-19 and what you need to know – part 1.


A lot of nonsense is being spoken these days on the news about the Corvid-19

One could honestly describe it as a flurry of fake news.

In order to ensure my subscribers have a full and accurate Pica of what is really going on, and to ensure these fake journalists eat crow, I have decided to make a series of articles right here, on the Corvid 19, or 19 corvids you need to know the science about. You will learn how to recognise the symptoms – the images, the names in various languages, the cultural significance of each.

There are more than 120 species and possibly more than 400 subspecies of Corvids, which in themselves are among the most intelligent birds, with a brain to body mass ratio similar to humans and whales, and have adapted to nearly every climate and area of the world. This is, therefore, just a representative selection that should give you a feel for the family Corvidae. We will also mention related species to each chosen Corvid, and not more than one per genus will be chosen, as there are anyway 24 different genera so I have to leave out some from the line-up of 19. If Coronavirus comes back with a new strain in five years’ time, it will be an easier matter.

Anyway, for today’s Corvid, let’s kick off with a little fellow very well-known and popular with our American readership.

http://KenThomas.us courteously released this photo to the Public Domain

 

Here’s the info, which for each of the Corvids in this series will be presented in a similar tabular form.

Common Name Blue jay
Other names Jaybird, Bluebird
German Blauhaeher
French Geai bleu
Russian Голубая сойка
Polish Modrosójka błękitna
Scientific Name Cyanocitta cristata
Number of species in the genus 2
Number of subspecies in this species 4
Literal meaning of Scientific name Dark blue jay, crested.
Described by Linnaeus, 1758
First attested in literature 1731 by Mark Catesby
Wingspan (cm) 43
Length bill to tail (cm) 30
Distribution North America, especially eastern side
Remarks Aggressive to other birds, omnivorous, including catching insects on the wing. Like squirrels, can hide nuts for later use. Wide range of vocalisations including the mimicking of human speech.
Migrations Limited, in some populations
Sexual dimorphism Males and females similar in size and plumage
Close relatives Steller’s jay, of the Rocky Mountains
Not close relatives thought to be close Crested jay (not a Corvid but a Laniid)
Cultural significance High, in America. References in African American traditions and also because of its iconic appearance frequently adopted as a mascot. In Vera Lynne’s song @there’s ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover” the bird most likely to be envisaged by American listeners would be this bird, but neither this nor any other obvious candidate for the name “bluebird” actually lives in the UK.
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