Biblical scholarship has never been my specialty, but one of my favorite bits has always been the part where the Lord God makes all the beasts of the field and fowl of the air and then brings them to Adam to check out His handiwork:
And whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. ((Genesis 2:19))
It’s not so much the making that interests me (I have another theory about how that happened), but the naming. I love to know the names of things, because in naming things we provide a hook into the catalogue of the body of human knowledge.
Riding my bike this morning down the riverside trail, I glimpsed an unusual bird out of the corner of my eye. It was sitting on the remnants of an old beaver dam in one of the ditches that parallels the Rio Grande. For all the desert about this place, the river itself and the ditches that run along either side provide a watery paradise along the central valley.
The bird was large, maybe two feet from top to bottom, and had the look of the egrets and herons one sees along the river. But it was stockier, without the long curve of neck of the great blue heron that one often sees along the Rio. Its most distinguishing feature, though, was this elegant long white feather on the top of his head that reached down to the middle of its back.
I didn’t have a camera with me, so I have Daniel Bastaja’s wonderful Hungarian Birds photo gallery to thank for the image you see above.
It just sat there on its clump of old sticks, shallow water running past its feet, and I was transfixed. Someone yelled at me to move my bike, and I looked back and realized I’d dropped it in the middle of the trail. But I couldn’t move back to get it, for fear my bird would leave. I couldn’t depart the moment.
Back home, I found that Adam or his successors at some point along the line named this bird Nycticorax nycticorax, the black-crowned night heron. Likely I’d never seen it before because it’s nocturnal, preferring to sleep by day in trees or marshes, according to Sibley, feeding at night on fish (no doubt our silvery minnow). Bird surveys count it as relatively rare around here, though that may be a function of the fact that bird surveys are done during the day. The name, you see, hooks us instantly into a body of knowledge. Adam and the Lord God (or whoever thought up this scheme) were on to something useful.
We saw one of those in San Francisco! It was asleep in a tree near the palace of fine arts, and my bird-watcher parents were all too excited. It was cool, but it seemed to have this “why can’t they leave me alone while I get my darn rest” vibe to it. Of course, if could have picked a spot not in clear view. meh