It is my sincere intent to have a short discussion about small group of birds, the Boobies, without any form of sophomoric humor. Those of you that know me, will find this extremely hard to believe, but I am going to give it my best shot, because really that’s what this is all about isn’t it?
First of all, how about a little bit of history about our beloved Boobies. Belonging to the family “Sulidae”, which includes both the Boobies and Gannets, in 1760 the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson introduced the genus “Sula”. There are six members of the genus “Sula”, the Blue-footed Booby –Sula nebouxii 1882 , Red-footed Booby – Sula sula 1766, Brown Booby– Sula leucogaster 1783, Masked Booby– Sula dactylatra 1831 , Nazca Booby – Sula granti 1902 , and the Peruvian Booby – Sula variegata 1843. Just to be completely correct, there was a seventh booby, the Abbot’s Booby, which has been moved into its own monotypic genus, “Papsula”.
Ok, so we have covered the history of these wonderful birds, but what about that name? I have to question why we continue to use a name that is somewhat antiquated, quite frankly a little silly, and has every 14 year old bird watcher around the world giggling. Where exactly, did it come from? To answer that we need to start with the genus name, Sula. This is thought to be derived from súla, which is an Old Norse and Icelandic word for the gannet. Moving on from there, we now get to the heart of this discussion, the name Booby. In most cases, it is thought to come from the Spanish word “Bobo” referring to stupid, or ignorant. In other historical references to this name, it has been used to describe someone (or thing) as being awkward, clumsy, or clownish. Like most pelagic birds, they are quiet awkward on land, so if that is the case, why didn’t cormorants, murres, or some other similar bird not end up with this silly moniker? Yet a third reference is to a foolish manner, and lack of fear of danger, such as its history of fearless contact with humans. For those of you that have spent any time on a sailboat, or any other kind of boat for that matter, that has been away from land any good amount of distance, you know that it is quite common to have a member of the booby family stop by for a rest on your boat. It is this very habit that has given them the foolish reference, for thru history, their trusting manner has made them an easy meal for hungry sailors thru out the world. There is even some history of the famous Captain Blight, of the HMS Bounty fame partaking in a life saving meal or two of Booby.
I propose that the name be changed in such a manner that would allow them to remain in the original “Sulidae” family, but be moved into the genus “Morus”, with the gannets. What could be wrong with a Blue-footed Gannet? Brown Gannets, Masked Gannets? Now there is a name that a bird could hold its head high for, and be respected. But, at the same time, what is a world without a little humor even if it is at the expense of these wonderful diving birds? I mean really, who doesn’t love the boobies!…..
Most birds were named by now dead white men who didn’t appreciate that most of the species they were “discovering” had already been discovered and had names. Most of the birds so named were named by men with the dead remnants of a bird in their hand and often the men doing the naming had never seen the bird in life. Geographic, honorific, horrific, and overly specific names abound much to the detriment of those who would like names to actually fit the creatures being described. And we poor birders have to use those names because otherwise no one will know what bird we are checking off our list and bragging about having spotted to fellow birders, bored families, and unimpressed romantic interests. Well, no more! We here at 10,000 Birds have decided to right some wrongs and improve the birding world by renaming birds the way they should have been named from Linnaeus to the present. (Or, at least, pointing out some names that suck.) Welcome to Bird Renaming Week, our week-long exploration of the names we put to birds and how they can be improved!