For the Birds Radio Program: Mythology: How the Osprey Got Its Name

Original Air Date: Jan. 25, 1995

Scientific names often seem rather dry and dull, but according to Laura Erickson, the Osprey’s scientific name could have come from the most sensationalistic tabloid. 3:34

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Research is gratifying when you find information you were searching for, but it’s jolliest when you find information you never even knew existed.

When I was trying to find out how the Rough-legged Hawk got its name in a bird dictionary, I came across something far more interesting: the story of how the Osprey got its scientific name. Ospreys aren’t anywhere in the Northland in January, but the story works any time of year.

Ospreys belong to the genus Pandion, named after the King of Athens. The man who named the Osprey, an ornithologist named Savigny, was familiar enough with Greek mythology to know that a bird-related story had something to do with Pandion, but he apparently didn’t realize that the story wasn’t about Pandion himself, but about his two daughters, Procne and Philomel, and their poor choice for a husband. Tereus, King of Thrace, married Procne. THey had a baby boy, and then he suddenly decided he should have married Philomel instead. The Pandion family frowned on divorce, and Tereus didn’t have it in him to kill Procne outright, so he cut off her tongue and told everyone she had died.

As happens far more in soap operas and mythology than in real life, he quickly married Procne’s sister Philomel, who apparently didn’t suspect a thing. Meanwhile, Procne, being pretty ticked off but unable to give Tereus a piece of her mind, started weaving. Somehow she wove the whole sordid story into a beautiful web which she managed to get to Philomel. It turns out the two sisters were even worse human beings than Tereus—when they were reunited they immediately hatched a plan for vengeance by cooking up Procne’s baby son and serving him up as part of a full-course meal for Tereus. Now Greek gods were pretty tolerant of the misdeeds of humans, but this seemed rather extreme even by their standards, so for penance they transformed Procne into a swallow, Philomel into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hawk who would pursue them both until the end of time.

Now nestling hawks have been known to eat their siblings when food is scarce, and sometimes just because they feel like it, but there are far too many instinctive restraints for adult hawks to eat, or even just cook and serve, their own young, so this story isn’t exactly applicable to any hawk, and the Osprey is the most unlikely one of all to feature in such a tale—Ospreys eat absolutely nothing in the universe but fish, and never spend any time at all chasing nightingales and swallows about. An accipiter would have been a better choice for a name related to this myth. But it is interesting that Procne was the daughter turned into a swallow—these little birds make few vocalizations except little twitters, presumably the kinds of sounds someone without a tongue would make.

All in all, it may be true that that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but what’s in a name can be mighty interesting, even if it is Greek to me.