Birds of the Bahamas
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
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.
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
Becoming interested in
wildlife (birds in this instance) is one thing: knowing
more about them is something else
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
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’.
- 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
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.
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
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.
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
the artistry and variety of nature, too many people in
the Bahamas are
still only prepared to ask the question, ‘‘Does it
© R. Attrill 2000