Bookcase: Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler


The Book: Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Get Their Names by Stephen Moss

My 13-year-old grandson has a book review due in two weeks based on a book he read this summer – or, rather, was supposed to read. I asked him how the book was coming along. He told me that he didn’t actually read it; he’d write the review based on the cover.

Based on the cover? “Yeah, Grandpa Scobe, I’ve been getting A’s writing about the covers for all my book reviews.” Such are kids; such is American public education; such is genius – my grandson!

Why read the book? Just pen some stuff based on what you read on the cover—I never thought of such a thing. Here I am—for decades—writing book reviews on books I’ve read thoroughly. I’m writing between 500 and 1,000 words about entire books, trying to figure out what to say to capture in such short word length what often these books are about. How silly of me.

I am now letting a little child lead me in my review of Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Get Their Names by Stephen Moss.

The cover asks us, “What’s in a name?” Basically everything. Birds have some of the most lyrical, most ridiculous, most awe-inspiring names. Take the “wheatear” which has nothing to do with ears of wheat in any of wheat’s incarnations. The name means—if you are easily offended then skip to the next paragraph—white-arse (white-ass). Yep! Such a distinctive name in our age of racial consciousness.

How’s this? The Dartford warbler; once named, was never seen in Dartford again. So what’s in that name? Evidently no loyalty.

On bird walks with the South Shore Audubon Society I’ve asked some of our astute bird observers how did thus and such a bird get its name? Sometimes they know; sometimes they don’t. What’s in a name many people will ask; well, I think a lot. Sometimes everything. You are, perhaps, what we call you.

Birds have been named after positive things (sunbird), or negative things (go-away-birds). Some have very long names (Ruwenzori double-collard sunbird); some have very short names (ou).

States in the United States have birds named after them (Mississippi kite and Hawaiian akepa), while some are named after man-made objects (ovenbird and riflebirds).

Natural elements, metals, gems and precious stones have their share of birds named after them; as do mythological figures such as Lucifer. Indeed, birds have even been named after other animals and insects (frogmouths and antbirds). Royalty has its share of bird names too (emperor penguin). For all I know, you have a bird named after you.

Final disclosure: I am not my grandson. I didn’t review just the cover; I read the whole book. It is fascinating and takes us on a journey into the past and into the world where you saw a bird and could assign it a name. Fun reading!

Visit Frank’s web site at His books are available on, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, e-books and at bookstores.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *