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The Birds of the Bahamas
Red-Legged Thrush

Today more and more people are becoming aware of birds, as of course they are of all forms of wildlife. In the Bahamas, birds and other forms of wildlife have historically been largely thought of in terms of exploitation, and unfortunately, many still are. An all too common question that I used to get from students during school presentations is: ‘Can it eat?’ (local dialect for ‘can it be eaten?’).

Most people are not aware that almost three hundred different species of birds have been seen in the Bahamas, or that they can go out into the bush or around the ponds and see as many as forty or fifty species in a single morning.

However, as socio-economic standards continue to increase, and as dependence on subsistence methods of living is lost in Bahamian society, and as the general standard of education rises, people’s attitudes towards wildlife change from those of exploitation to those of academic or even altruistic interest’. 

Becoming interested in wildlife (birds in this instance) is one thing: knowing more about them is something else

White-Crowned Pigeon

In the Bahamas as in the rest of the Caribbean, common names have been rather arbitrarily assigned to birds. In the case of the White-Crowned Pigeon, the common names all bear some resemblance (when translated if necessary) to the proper English name. It is known through the northern Caribbean as the ‘Baldpate’,’ White-head’,  ‘Paloma Cabeciblanca’, ‘Paloma coronita’, Paloma Casco Blanco,’ and ‘Ramier Tete-Blanche.’

The local names of other birds may bear less resemblance to the proper English name, and in many cases are totally misleading. The Common Nighthawk has a name based upon the sound it makes. In the Bahamas, it is called the ‘Pity-me-dick,’ and elsewhere, ‘Piramadig,’ ‘Gie-me-mebit’ and ‘Querequette’.

Smooth - Billed Ani

Several other birds are named for their calls; white others are named after birds they resemble in the old world. Examples are the Smooth-billed Ani, known in the Bahamas as a ‘Blackbird’, and the Turkey Vulture, known as a ‘Buzzard’ or ‘Crow.’ In each case the name is erroneous as the local name refers to birds of a completely different family to its namesake.

To overcome the problems of identification and the confusion of local nomenclature, all birds have been assigned a Latin scientific name used internationally by the scientific community. This name may well be a literal translation of the English name. This is the case with the White-Crowned Pigeon, whose scientific name is Columba leucocephala

The proper English name (in the case of English-speaking communities) is also a name given to the bird by the scientific community (often many years ago) or adopted simply as a result of years of common usage. The origin of many of these names is obvious. The Common Nighthawk is common, looks like a hawk in flight, and flies at night and dusk, while the origin of names like ‘Willet’, ‘Siskin’ and ‘Whimbrel’ are probably rooted deep in ancient English.

The Barn Owl is common on New Providence.

In order to learn the proper names of birds, it is necessary to have a text to identify them in the field. Several books are available for this purpose, but one  I believe is superior. This is Roger Tory Petersen’s ‘Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies.’ 

Until this was published, the best local birding book was ‘Birds of North America’ by Robbins et al. in the Golden Field Guide series. This latter book has all of its illustrations in colour, the text directly opposite the picture, and a distribution map along with the text. This map at a glance enables one to ascertain if the bird under observation is likely to be the one under consideration in the book.

The newer Petersen Guide has several features that improve upon the Golden Guide, Firstly, it only deals with Eastern US birds and so the number of species in total is  less. Secondly, there are fewer birds on each page of colour illustrations. Thirdly, a section at the end (pp. 298-301) deals with ‘accidentals from the tropics’. This section deals with almost all of the Bahamian birds that are endemic to the Bahamas (found only in the islands) or which are of West Indian or Cuban origin and also found in the Bahamas. Almost 50% of the birds in this section are found here (around 20 species). Lastly, I should mention that the Peterson Guide includes the ‘Petersen Identification System’, which is a system of arrows and schematic drawings to emphasise key field markings for quick identification. Unlike the Golden Guide, the Petersen Guide does not have the distribution maps adjacent to the drawings, but at the end of the book. 

Black-Faced Grassquit

Other books deal with birds on a more local basis. Andrew Patterson’s ‘Birds of the Bahamas.’ has an extensive text, but all the illustrations are black and white drawings, difficult to use for field identification.

‘The Birds of New Providence and the Bahama Islands’ by ‘P.G.C. Brudenell-Bruce is a well-finished little book published by Collins of Britain However, only some thirty species are illustrated in colour, and the text and illustrations are not adjacent, making the book rather unsuitable as a field guide.

Many people put birdseed into feeders in order to attract birds to their gardens. Unfortunately, the majority of our small garden birds are insect eaters and do not come to such feeders. A feeder will attract Doves, Cuban and Black-faced Grassquits, and Painted and Indigo Buntings. Also commonly seen in gardens are Oven Birds, Mockingbirds, Fly Catchers, Bananaquits, Humming Birds, Kingbirds and various species of Warbler. Flying overhead can be seen on a daily basis White crowned Pigeons, Barn owls, Nighthawks and various species of herons and egrets. 

I was working once on the roof of my house in Nassau, balancing rather uncertainly some twenty feet above the ground, when a Ring-Necked Dove flew past, changed direction in mid-air, and landed upon a nearby television antenna. I and I am sure all of the readers of this article see birds flying every day, and you like me accept that as a fundamental of life. Everyone knows birds fly! However, as I precariously balanced there with a significant drop to concrete below me, the incredible beauty of bird flight and the mastery they have achieved of their element was brought home to me in a way that no textbook study of aerodynamics or adaptation could. The bird is a masterpiece of functional design; every aspect of its anatomy and physiology perfects it for flight.

Stripe-Headed Tanager

Nature has produced flight in many ways. From the ancient reptilian pterodactyls to the gossamer threads of juvenile spiders and to the elongated spines and sculptures of wind-dispersed pollen, nowhere does adaptive perfection exceed that of the common or garden bird.

Unfortunately, despite the artistry and variety of nature, too many people in the Bahamas are still only prepared to ask the question, ‘‘Does it eat?"                                                     

© R. Attrill 2000