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MailTribune.com
  • No such thing as an Oregon duck ... or junco ... or jay

    What's with the California bias when it comes to bird names?
  • California quail, California gull, California thrasher, California condor, California gnatcatcher, California towhee. ... And that's just the birds. Then there is the California sea lion and California ground squirrel. The list goes on and on. I can't get away from California. As a third-generation Oregonian, this offends me slightly.
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  • California quail, California gull, California thrasher, California condor, California gnatcatcher, California towhee. ... And that's just the birds. Then there is the California sea lion and California ground squirrel. The list goes on and on. I can't get away from California. As a third-generation Oregonian, this offends me slightly.
    What do we, as Oregonians, have? Given the rich history of the Oregon Territory and all the naturalists of the time who scoured the forests, fields and rivers naming their discoveries, surely a great many animals and plants — and especially birds — were named for this great region.
    Let's check: Oregon warbler? Nope. Oregon sparrow? Nope. Oregon woodpecker? I wish. Oregon duck? We almost have something here, but no.
    Before I get too hurt, a check of other nearby states finds that Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Utah, like Oregon, can claim no bird as their own. Even the great state of Texas lays claim to no bird.
    There was a time as recently as the 1970s when Oregon was honored with the Oregon junco, but the taxonomists took them away from us. Oregon juncos were found to fool around just a little too much with the slate-colored junco from the east, the gray-headed junco to the south and the white-winged junco from the Black Hills of South Dakota. Such indiscretions and all the resulting hybrids led taxonomists to consider them a single species and lump them all under the name of dark-eyed junco.
    Come on.
    Don't taxonomists have any more poetry in their soul than that? Surely they can come up with a better name than "dark-eyed." Apparently not.
    The Oregon jay fared no better. Once again taxonomists found that Oregon jays were just a little too friendly with Canada jays, and the two were lumped under the "inspirational" name of gray jay. Canada lost out in this exchange, too.
    The name game may say a lot about humans, but it also embodies a fair bit of biology. California, including Baja California, represents a unique area in many respects. The plant communities are unique due in part to the Mediterranean climate it enjoys. Mediterranean climate in North America is restricted almost entirely to California. Collectively, the plant communities here are referred to as the California Floristic Province. This includes the chaparral, the coastal sage, California annual grasslands and many others. A plant (or bird) found here might be found nowhere else.
    Although Jackson and Josephine counties are in Oregon, they contain the northernmost extension of the California Floristic Province. And, yes, we do have California quail, California gulls and California towhees. We once had California condors and may again soon, and California thrashers come within a mile of Oregon in the Colestin Valley.
    Most of Oregon, in contrast, contains plant communities that extend well into Canada and east into the Rocky Mountains. Birds also reflect this distribution. A bird found here is likely to be shared with many other states and provinces. This is not what you want to see if you expect Oregon's name to be applied to species in the field guides.
    So the California bias is understandable when it comes to names. Still, I hope you will forgive me if this proud and slightly provincial Oregonian slips up occasionally and refers to the "Oregon" juncos in his backyard.
    Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.
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