Talking About Tom Fool Birds
Since I’m headed to Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in Jamaica in November (and you’re still invited to join me), I’ve been brushing up on my Caribbean avifauna. The hours invested learning expected birds prior to a birding trip not only pay massive dividends in the field, but also enhance the anticipation of actually arriving. In other words, I am psyched! Studying the spectacular birds of Jamaica is especially fun because most of the native species have such fascinating nicknames. One such appellation is so evocative that it’s been applied to a suite of species: Tom Fool.
According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English by Frederic Gomes Cassidy and Robert Brock Le Page, Tom Fool can reference a foolish or silly person or, oddly enough, a Jamaican flycatcher in the genus Myiarchus. The West Indies-wandering Stolid Flycatcher (M. stolidus stolidus, a subspecies endemic to Jamaica) is Tom Fool, while the two island Myiarchus endemics, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher (M. validus) and Sad Flycatcher (M. barbirostris) are called Big Tom Fool and Little Tom Fool respectively. Why are these flycatchers considered so foolish?
The name Tom Fool is given indiscriminately to different species of flycatchers from their habit of perching at the end of a low branch, taking a short flight to capture some passing insect, and returning to the identical spot to swallow the prey, within easy reach of the bystander’s hand. (1956)
That doesn’t sound like any Myiarchus flycatchers I’ve ever encountered! As if three Tom Fool birds weren’t enough, other local flycatchers with perfectly good street names are sometimes lumped in with the Myiarchus birds. The Jamaican Pewee (Contopus pallidus) usually goes by the local handle of Willie Pee while the Jamaican Elaenia (Myiopagis cotta) is dubbed Sarah Bird. Yet, either bird may inexplicably be identified as Little Tom Fool. Good thing flycatchers are so easy to tell apart…