History, conservation, and privilege: all in a falcon’s name

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m a little bit obsessed with eponymous scientific names.  When I notice one, I often find myself trying to guess its origin.  Sometimes I’m right, or at least close.  Falco eleonorae was definitely not one of those times.

Falco eleonorae, or Eleonora’s Falcon, is a mid-sized falcon that breeds mostly in the Mediterranean and overwinters mostly in Madagascar.  It’s a handsome bird whose name poses a question: who was Eleonora?

My first guess was that Eleonora might have been the daughter, or wife, or sister of the ornithologist who named the species.  Naming a new species after a loved one is definitely a thing, among taxonomists, and it has been for a long time.  In fact, Chapter 14 of my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, examines the practice at length: names for wives and for husbands*, names for daughters and for sons, and occasionally and misguidedly, names for illicit lovers. (What were you thinking, Ernst Haeckel?)  Ornithologists seem to have been particularly fond of naming species for love: consider Ptilocolpa carola** (Charles Lucien Bonaparte, for his daughter Charlotte); Trochilus franciae and Ornismya alinae (Jules Bourcier, for this daughter Francia and wife Aline); and Serinus estherae (Otto Finsch, for his daughter Esther).  Most poignantly, there’s Sericulus anais, named by René Lesson in memory of his daughter “Anais Lesson, deceased at the age of 11 years; may the name of this bird remember a father’s deepest sorrow” (Lesson 1839, Rev. Zool. Soc. Cuvierienne 2:40-43).

But I was wrong about Eleonora.  Falco eleonorae has a deeper story.  It was named the same year as Sericulus anais, by an Italian zoologist named Josepho Gené.  I haven’t been able to learn much about him; he was a professor in Turin, but I wonder if he might have been from Sardinia.  Eleonora was.

Falco eleonora honours Eleonora of Arborea, a 14th-century ruler of one of the four “judiciates” that made up what’s now Sardinia.  (Her title is often given as “Judge”, but the judges were hereditary rulers, not what we’d call a “judge” today.) She assumed the position in 1383 after the assassination of her brother, and ruled until she died (apparently of the plague) in 1404.  In 1392, she issued a comprehensive legal code, the Carta de Logu.  Its 198 chapters covered both civil and criminal law, and it remained in force for over 400 years.  It was notable for some advances in the legal treatment of women: for example, it established equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons.  But there’s also a close connection to Eleonora’s eponymous falcon: Chapter 87 of the Carta made it illegal for anyone to take young falcons (or eggs) from their nests.  Eleonora, this might suggest, was an early conservationist – her edict protecting local populations of Falco eleonora from overexploitation by eager falconers.  Some sources suggest that this was the world’s first legal protection for birds of prey.

You’re probably ahead of me on this one: Eleonora’s role, and motivations, were a little less pure than “conservationist”.  Falconry was a popular pastime among European nobility, and Sardinia’s falcons were in demand.  Eleonora’s Chapter 87 protected falcons, to be sure; but it did so in order to preserve the ruler’s privilege of a monopoly on their capture.  Eleonora could have falcons, if she wanted; but without her permission, nobody else could.

So should we think of Eleonora as a hero or a selfish protector of her own privilege?  Well, both.  She was a person living in her own time; and for her time, she made significant social advances (especially in women’s rights).  But she wasn’t (probably) protecting falcons because she cared deeply about their role in nature or their fundamental right to existence.  She was (probably) protecting falcons because they were like a gold chess set: a plaything and a prerogative of royalty.

Eleonora’s story ends there, but Falco eleanorae’s doesn’t.  The Cara de Logu protected falcons on their nesting grounds; but Eleonora’s Falcons spend winter in Madagascar, where (according to Hadjikyriakou et al. 2020) they use a variety of habitats but spend a lot of time in high-elevation humid forests.  Forests in Madagascar have been under severe pressure over the last few decades, and Falco eleonorae is one of many, many species that could lose ground as a result.  I don’t pretend to know how Madagascar’s environmental problems should be addressed.  But I’ll hope that someday, someone will write a blog post like this one – only about a species whose name honours a 21st-century successor to Eleonora.  Perhaps a politician, perhaps a worker at a conservation NGO, perhaps a scientist; perhaps (most likely) more than one of each.  Who knows who it might be that secures a future for Falco eleonorae and all its kin?

© Stephen Heard  March 24, 2020

Do you like the idea of learning a little from the story behind a scientific name?  My new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, doesn’t mention Falco eleonorae.  But it does tell dozens of stories rooted in eponymous scientific names – stories about the heroes and (sometimes) scoundrels that species are named for, and about the heroes and (sometimes) scoundrels who did the naming.

Image: Falco eleanorae, © Conselleria de Medi Ambient i Mobilitat, Govern des Illes Balears CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.org


*^Names for husbands were once rare, simply because few women were able to pursue careers in science (and same-sex marriages weren’t available).  This is, fortunately, changing.  I’m delighted, to pick just one example, by the goblin spider Grymeus dharmapriyai, with its heart-shaped sternal plate and its message of love from Sasanka Ranasinghe for her husband Prasanna Dharmapriya.

**^These are the original names – many of the genus names are different now, but all the species epithets survive.

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