Naming our neighbors in nature

Like so many others keeping close to home since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re paying much more attention to the creatures inhabiting and visiting our yard and neighborhood. We can’t resist naming some of them.

I mentioned recently that we’ve named Aeneas and Dido the house wrens who’ve moved into in our backyard bird house, after the hero and his tragic lover in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid.

A prior pair of house wrens were dubbed Peter and Ginny after good friends. One wren I called Jeremy Wrentham, a nod to the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It was he who noted that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation,” an idea that would seemingly appeal to the house sparrows who gorge themselves all day at one of the feeders.

Naming the critters is not a recent phenomenon.

A hummingbird who regularly buzzed around the pool at our central California home was called, for no particular reason, Larry, after my father-in-law. Whether Larry was one bird or several, we couldn’t be sure.

But as for Emile, we were certain.

Emile was the albino squirrel, named by a neighbor’s daughter, who lived in our neighborhood when we first moved to the Princeton area a few years ago. He flourished for a few years, a regular visitor to our yard. But then he stopped coming around. We wonder what happened to him, and we remember him with a small white squirrel figurine that sits on a bookshelf.

Squirrels were the first critters I can remember having names. My father called squirrels what my young ears heard as “Stricko.” That’s also what he called his uncle who lived with my grandparents in Pennsylvania. I figured Stricko was just a nickname, and it wasn’t until years later that I figured out that Stricko was really “Stryko,” the Slovak word for uncle.

My great uncle was something of a character, and Dad always had a twinkle in his eye when he’d say the name.

We had a squirrel with half a tail who was with us a for a while here in New Jersey, but Stubby disappeared, too. We call the groundhogs who live on the neighboring golf course Joaquin, Alejandro and Esperanza, for characters in the movie “Mask of Zorro.” Oh, and there were the bunnies, Dave and Pam, an inside joke about other friends.

Last March, a pair of house finches built a nest in a wreath on our front door. The work was done in just a few hours, and the prospect of facing angry birds as we stepped outside was too daunting. I moved the nest down the wall, still under the eaves, affording them some protection.

We named them Mark and Laura, after friends who are bird lovers and have given me many, many birding tips.

Mark and Laura Finch were welcome companions, arriving just as COVID lockdown hit. We enjoyed watching them so much, I put a motion-triggered camera near the nest to catch the action.

By April, we noticed a few eggs in the nest and told everyone we were expecting grandbirds.

Then one day I noticed another egg had been added, a brown one slightly larger than the first batch. I don’t remember the sequence of events, but a day or two later, I spotted dead on the ground an infant bird. Steeling myself, I peeked inside the nest. All the eggs were gone.

I suspect that the brown egg was laid by a catbird, and I’m not sure exactly who killed the baby and what happened to the eggs. Mark and Laura never came back, but whenever I see a pair of house finches in the dogwood tree or at the feeder, I wonder: did they move nearby?

And what, if anything, do they call us?

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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