Farmer’s Calendar for January 2021
Promptly on the bitterest winter mornings there appears at my bird feeder one or more, often a pair, of purple finches. They are bright little birds, and their punctuality is reassuring. Yet they fill me with puzzlement: The purple finch has a flaw. Purple it is not.
The purple finch is the color of an overripe strawberry. Am I missing something? There are plenty of misnomers in the world of birds that are related to behavior. A whole family of birds of worldwide distribution, including the whippoorwills and nighthawks, has the odd name goatsucker (Caprimulgidae) because they were anciently believed to suckle at the teats of milking goats. Sufficiently nutty, but not hard to account for: Some Dark Age goatherd with too much mead under his belt discovered a whippoorwill flying around his milking stand, found the nannies dry, and drew a peasant’s conclusion.
It’s one thing for a bird to be mistakenly associated with an event or action, but what am I to make of a system of names that tells me a red bird is purple, a brown one black? It’s the unapologetic falsity of the thing. If I were a purple finch, I would be made quite uncomfortable.