“Suckin’ Sap!”

The idea of renaming the birds of America isn’t mine. It’s Jim Harrison’s. He mentions it in early writings and makes it a theme in his 2008 novel, The English Major. I wish the idea had been mine. It’s always felt weird to tell people I saw a Peewee or Coot.

I never mind saying that I saw a Raven or Nighthawk, but of course the Titmouse causes a double-take from my non-birdwatching buddies, as discussed in the story “Tits” posted elsewhere on this site.

"Did someone say Rufus-Sided Towhee?"

"Did someone say Rufous-Sided Towhee?"

Some bird names, while slightly eccentric, are oddly likable. There’s the Rufous-Sided Towhee (often called the Eastern Towhee). In a crowded bar, a two-fisted birdwatcher we know once blurted, “Hey, there’s a Rufous-Sided Towhee in the beer garden!” A pretty girl who hadn’t paid attention earlier came over, wanting to know this interesting guy.

"What do YOU know about birds?"

"What do YOU know about birds?"

But the best commentary about bird names comes from Art Carney in a conversation with Jackie Gleason in an old “Honeymooners” episode. Black & white TV from the 1950s lives on. The old is new again, thanks to cable channels and vintage DVDs.

Carney’s character Ed Norton tells bus driver buddy Ralph Kramden, played by the two-fisted Gleason, that he was bird watching in Central Park. Ralph, always exasperated with Norton says, “Now what do YOU know about birds?” Norton replies, “Well, I saw a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.”

Kramden, smirking, says, “And HOW do know that?” With perfect comic timing, Norton one-ups Ralphie-boy as usual: “Cuz it had a yellow belly. And it was suckin’ sap!”

2 Responses to ““Suckin’ Sap!””

  1. Steadyjohn says:

    The sound bite at the link only records Gleason’s challenge, not Carney’s retort:

    “Well, how do you know it’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker? Don’t forget, last week you saw a robin with a wishbone in its mouth, you said it was a chicken hawk.”


  2. Jeff says:

    Maybe humans should be renamed that way, too. “hey, there’s a shiny-headed mouth-breather.” or…”a double-bellied steak-eater”. Over there at the bar, I see a Southern Rube, closely related to the Pock-Marked Rube, and their dimwitted little brother, the Lesser Rube.

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