Monday, 14 July 2014

Basket dweller

Cisticola juncidis is a very common species in the Algarve, one that we can expect to come across almost every day.  Although it is one of our smallest birds, not much bigger than a Wren, its aerial displays and distinctive but monotonous ‘dzip…dzip…dzip…’ song makes it hard to miss.  It mainly occurs in open, grassy areas, a habitat that is still plentiful.

But what should we call it?  You can still find field guides that use the English name Fan-tailed Warbler and rather surprisingly that is what you will also see on the BTO website.  It is little wonder then that we come across lots of birders who continue to refer to the bird by what we woud argue is a potentially confusing and therefore out-dated name. 

Surely there should only be one species in the world called Fan-tailed Warbler and that name belongs to Basileuterus lachrymosus, a bird that inhabits Central and North America. The counter argument, of course, is that most birders in Europe aren’t even aware of this New World species and that when one is talking about a bird this side of the Atlantic the meaning is obvious, context is everything.  

Whatever your view, it does surely seem more normal these days to use the name Zitting Cisticola.  Certainly, that’s what you will find in most modern books and recent field guides.  It is the name adopted by all of the recognised authorities, BirdLife, IOC, BOU, etc, etc.  and with roughly 50 other species in the genus Cisticola all having Cisticola as part of their English name, it does seem sensible that C. juncidis should conform.

We have a feeling that at least some people cling to Fan-tailed Warbler and hesitate to adopt the more logical name simply because they’re not comfortable saying Zitting Cisticola, they’re not quite sure how to pronounce it.  It’s hard not to have a little sympathy with that.  Someone even suggested to us that it sounded too much like a skin complaint! 

We tend to refer to the bird as a ‘sis-TIC-ola’ and this is the pronunciation favoured by Wikipedia and others.  However, it’s not hard to find alternative guidance and another example has just come to our attention, in the recently published Latin for Bird Lovers by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr.  In this we find ‘sis-ti-KO-la’ as the suggested way to say it.  It certainly trips off the tongue more easily than ‘sis-TIC-ola’ perhaps because it brings to mind that well-known carbonated soft drink!

Our conclusion would be that both ‘sis-TIC-ola’ and ‘sis-ti-KO-la’ are acceptable pronunciations but surely it is time we abandoned Fan-tailed Warbler.

The ‘Zitting’ part of the name of course refers to the birds’ song.  It follows other members of the genus that have similar names descriptive of their vocalisations: Bubbling, Chattering, Churring, Chirping, Croaking, Piping, Rattling, Siffling, Singing, Tinkling, Trilling, Wailing, Whistling and Winding are all names given to cisticolas!  The word cisticola apparently derives from cista, a woven basket and colo, meaning to dwell and refers to the birds’ basket-shaped nests.

We say that there are ‘roughly 50 other species in the genus’ because almost inevitably there isn’t taxonomic unanimity.  For the same reason, we should also say that there about 17 or 18 subspecies of Zitting Cisticola, which is the most widely distributed of the genus, occurring in southern Europe, Africa, southern Asia and northern Australia.  Although there has been a northward expansion of the species range in Europe, they are susceptible to hard winters and there have been only a handful of records in Britain.

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