I recently asked ChatGPT an easy question: “Why a Whip-poor-will is named a Whip-poor-will?” The popular chatbot muddled its way through an answer, making some of the same mistakes as 18th century naturalists. Not satisfied with its errors, ChatGPT introduced new ones!
Wilson “Discovers” the Whip-poor-will
In the first decades of the 1800s, the Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote his nine volume book, American Ornithology. Wilson’s text remains one of North America’s most important book of ornithology. Indeed, many consider Wilson the continent’s first ornithologist.
One of the many achievements of American Ornithology was to finally and definitively describe the Whip-poor-will, a common but reclusive bird of North America’s east coast. Before Wilson, early naturalists confused the Whip-poor-will with a related and more conspicuous bird, the Common Nighthawk. Confronting this confusion, Wilson writes that the Whip-poor-will has “never been described by any writer whose work I am acquainted.”
It wasn’t that the Whip-poor-will wasn’t known to early European naturalists who visited the US. The bird’s name dates to the early 1700s, after all. What Wilson shows, over the course of 2.5 pages on the species, is something else. Early naturalists regularly confused the Whip-poor-will with other North American Nightjars, especially the Nighthawk. Illustrations of Whip-poor-wills often combined both birds’ features. This plate that appeared in Mark Catesby’s studies of North American birds is illustrative. The drawing combines the long, lanky shape of a Nighthawk with the bristles of a Whip-poor-will.
Audubon, a professional rival of Wilson, downplayed Wilson’s effort. In his influential book, The Birds of America, Audubon writes.
Much has been said respecting the difference existing between the Whip-poor-will and the Night Hawk, for the purpose of shewing them to be distinct species. On this subject I shall only say, that I have known both birds from my early youth, and I have seldom seen a farmer or even a boy in the United States, who did not know the difference between them.
I suppose that Audubon and his unnamed farmers and boys would be bemused at ChatGPT, which appears stuck in the late-1700s on Whip-poor-wills. When I asked it to explain how Whip-poor-wills got their name, the chatbot opened with a muddled collection of errors. It also offered a word, hwipporu, that doesn’t seem to exist.
The bird species known as the Common Nighthawk, which is also known as the Whip-poor-will, is named for its call, which sounds like “whip-poor-will.” The species’ scientific name, Chordeiles minor, also refers to this call. The name is thought to be a derivation of the Old English word “hwipporu,” meaning “to make a noise.” The bird species is known for its distinctive nocturnal song which is usually heard at dusk and dawn. They are named after the call of the male bird which is a repetitive phrase, “whip-poor-will” which is sung as a territorial call or as a courtship call by males.
Here’s a list of errors that I’ve noticed.
- The Common Nighthawk hasn’t been known as the Whip-poor-will since the late eighteenth century.
- The scientific name of the Common Nighthawk is indeed Chordeiles minor. However, this doesn’t refer to the call of “whip-poor-will.” I cover the meaning of this name in my post about the Nighthawk.
- I’ve not yet read that the name Whip-poor-will is thought to be a derivation of “hwipporu.” I’m curious to know more, but neither Google, Google Scholar, nor Google Books returns a single reference to this “Old English” word.
- We indeed known Whip-poor-wills are indeed known song, which they give at dusk and dawn. This makes the call crepuscular, not nocturnal. (Of all the mistakes, this one is minor.)
That this account reflects understandings of birds from colonial America is stupefying. But it gives me some satisfaction and hope that artificial intelligence has not yet mastered what is obscure among us. Much of what is important to know falls into this category. After all, what remains obscure to us, and to the technologies we create, is simply that which we do not know well.
Find the obscure, the weird, the forgotten, and you will find something that the algorithms don’t yet care for. Such is the life of the Whip-poor-will, calling still from the rotten woods of our forest floors.
For more on ChatGPT’s struggles will birds, see my recent post on the chatbot’s effort to create a list of birds named after their song.