Color Me Plumbeous
Another interesting, some might say antiquated color choice employed by those who get to name birds is plumbeous. Plumbeous refers to a heavy, leaden gray. Those of you with an education in chemistry probably spotted the origin of this word, from the Latin “plumbum” for lead. The word plumbeous may also be used to mean dull, heavy, or stupid, but thatâ€™s rather judgmental, donâ€™t you think?
Most North American birders will associate this word with our delightful Plumbeous Vireo, the most marvelously monochromatic member of the tripartite Solitary Vireo complex. Vireo plumbeus typically breeds from the Great Basin and central Rocky Mountains south through Baja California and Mexico, but the species has been encroaching west and northwest into Cassin’s country. Interestingly, Plumbeous and Cassinâ€™s Vireos donâ€™t seem to hybridize, which adds further credence to the decision to split them into distinct species.
The incidence of the plumbeous descriptor among Old World avifauna is rare, with only a Redstart to speak of. To really plumb the depths of the plumbeous, one must visit Central and South America. Around or below the equator cavort the Plumbeous Antbird, Antvireo, Forest-falcon, Hawk, Ibis, Kite, Pigeon, Rail, Seedeater, Sierra-finch, and Warbler, every one as gloriously gray as its name implies. Furthermore, while the adjective isnâ€™t employed in an official capacity anymore, the Striated Heron was once deemed plumbeous, as was the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.
While we’re on the subject of lead, the word saturnine means, besides bitter, taciturn, sullen, or scornful, of or related to lead.Â This is somehow linked to the obscure fact that the planet Saturn, named after the Roman god of agriculture, was believed by the ancients to be made of lead. What the suitably lead-colored Saturnine Antshrike thinks of this we may never know.
Another great word for gray is glaucous. This word can refer to either a pale gray, somewhat lighter than plumbeous or alternately a bluish green. In its scant application to avifauna, it tends to indicate the former, not the latter. These days, only gulls are described thus, with both a Glaucous and Glaucous-winged member of the family Laridae. There used to be a Glaucous Macaw as well, but that poor bird is almost certainly extinct, the victim of South American yatay palm deforestation.