Birds have their common English name and a name in the languages of all the places they might fly through. And then they have their Latin name, which is their taxonomic name, the one scientists use. In this episode, we learn about a decades-long effort in Puerto Rico to change San Pedrito's scientific name, why it matters and the journeys of two people seeking to make it happen.
Listen to this episode in Spanish here.
Ari Daniel: BirdNote Presents.
[Echoing Wingflaps SFX]
Ari Daniel: This is the English version of this episode. Si quieres escuchar la versión en español, busca "Threatened en español" en tu aplicación de podcast o puedes encontrar un enlace en las notas del programa.
[Festive music starts: Oye, Carmiña, Fruta Madura - Viento De Agua]
Ari Daniel: Birds have a lot of names. They have their common English name, and a name in all the languages in all the places they might migrate through. The birds might have colloquial names, too. Like the American Woodcock is also known as the Timberdoodle. And then they have their Latin name. That’s the one scientists use, it’s their taxonomic name. Taxonomy is the study of naming and classifying biological organisms. The system we use to classify species today started back in 1758 with Carolus Linnaeus. Today on Threatened, what happens when the namer gets it wrong? Is there any going back? I’m your host Ari Daniel and to help us get to an answer we’ve got producer Mariana Reyes. Hey there Mariana!
Mariana Reyes: Hey Ari.
Ari Daniel: So tell us about the San Pedrito.
Mariana Reyes: The San Pedrito is a cute little bird that’s endemic to Puerto Rico. And this is part of the reason why we use the affectionate diminutive -ito. In English it’s called the Puerto Rican Tody. It is emerald green and measures about four inches. But the scientific name is Todus mexicanus.
Ari Daniel: You just said they’re endemic to Puerto Rico meaning they only live there, right? And not in Mexico?
Mariana Reyes: Correct, Ari! They do not live in Mexico. They are only found here on the island and they never leave. We’ll get into how it ended up with the wrong name later, but when I learned the scientific name of the San Pedrito, it made me want to understand: How did this happen?
Ari Daniel: Yeah, of course! That’s a good question.
Mariana Reyes: Nothing against Mexico, but we only have 18 endemic birds here in Puerto Rico and we’re very proud of all of them.
Ari Daniel: Yeah. And it’s just plain wrong. I mean, it’s the wrong name!
Mariana Reyes: Mm-hmm! But I learned that there is this whole movement to rename the bird, and not just rename it but also name it as our national bird. And it’s a really popular idea.
Ari Daniel: Ok. So then what’s the hold up?
Mariana Reyes: In a word, bureaucracy.
Ari Daniel: Naturally. Oh boy.
Mariana Reyes: But this story, for me, starts close to home.
[Bossa nova music starts: Buffalo]
Mariana Reyes: I'm standing on one of the most popular streets in my Santurce neighborhood, Loíza Street. In front of La Goyco, a cultural community center.
La Goyco used to be a public school. The building was shut down in 2015 due to ongoing budget cuts and was later abandoned. A few years ago, my neighbors and I got together and took over the historic building, where we now offer cultural and educational programs.
Loíza Street is on a rapidly gentrifying urban coastal area and La Goyco is right at the center. We can see many birds around here, but the San Pedrito I'll tell you about is actually an artistic rendering.
Yolanda Velazquez is my neighbor and also a resident artist at La Goyco. She has created an ABC of flora and fauna of Puerto Rico. Depicting birds and plants representing every letter of the alphabet.
[Sound of Yolanda working in her studio]
Yolanda Velazquez: I'm printing right now a seal screen design that could be printed on canvas or paper. So I just placed some ink on this silk screen stretcher. And now I'm gonna run the squeegee over the design with ink so I can print it over the material.
Mariana Reyes: Yolanda makes art using a sheet of linoleum and a printing press. It is a printmaking technique that bears many similarities to woodblock printing.
Her studio is in what used to be a classroom. It is at least 400 square feet with high ceilings and windows with a view to a residential street in the back. In the middle of the room, there is a big rectangular table, and a black and white lino print of the San Pedrito sits on top of it.
[Inspirational electric keyboard music starts]
The plants and animals from the tropical rainforest El Yunque inspired Yolanda to create an ABC. The series features birds like the Julián Chiví under the letter J and, yes, the San Pedrito under the letter S.
The ABC is made of black and white linoleum prints and is an example of how people seek to name and establish a relationship with the birds and nature around them.
Yolanda Velazquez: This ABC of El Yunque rainforest, I developed it over 10 years ago with the idea that I want to publish a book; educational book to talk about the ecology of the rainforest. I designed this with the letter S, San Pedrito, because it's an endemic species of Puerto Rico. In this illustration, the San Pedrito has landed on top of the S and he's singing to the rain because El Yunque is the rainforest. So all these letters have in common the clouds and the rain.
Ari Daniel: The San Pedrito isn’t endangered, but there sure is a lot of talk and activity surrounding it! The bird can actually be found in different parts of the island.
Mariana Reyes: Indeed!
The San Pedrito has been around the Antilles, the islands of the Caribbean Sea, for around 5 million years. There is a species belonging to the tody genus, Todus, in each of the largest Antilles islands: Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, where there are 2, and Puerto Rico.
Adrienne Tossas is the president of Birds Caribbean and we met with her to learn more about this bird and the process that took its Caribbean roots away from its name.
[Mischievous music starts]
Adrienne Tossas: Todus mexicanus is the Puerto Rican Tody in English. It is a species endemic to Puerto Rico, as you say. But the scientific name is a mistake that comes from the 19th century when the species was first described by René Lesson, a French naturalist.
Apparently, his brother was doing a voyage through the Caribbean since 1836. And he collected one specimen in the island of Puerto Rico. And when he stopped in Tampico, Mexico, he got a hold of another specimen, which was not from Mexico, because there are no todies there. Apparently that one was from Cuba.
The bird that he collected from Puerto Rico was mistaken as a species from Mexico and then the species collected in Mexico was called Todus puertorricensis. But that was the species from Cuba.
But the Cubans were able to find out this mistake very early and they corrected the mistake. But the Puerto Rican species has remained with this mistake for 184 years.
Mariana Reyes: Okay, so to recap… The French naturalist René Lesson named Todus mexicanus a tody that he took from Puerto Rico and named Todus puertorricensis–a tody that had made its way to Mexico but was really from Cuba.
There are people who have been trying to correct this mistake, people within Puerto Rico's birding community.
Adrienne Tossas: Yeah. We have in Puerto Rico, José González and Felisa Collazo. They have been looking in the literature, and they found exactly where this mistake happened.
Mariana Reyes: I went to meet José Gonzalez Diaz, who goes by Pepe, to talk to him about his process–his struggle to rename the bird. I drove to the municipality of Utuado and met Pepe in the Río Abajo area.
Mariana Reyes: Pepe it's nice to see you again. It is always awesome to come back to Río Abajo. It is like a different planet being here with peace and quiet.
Pepe: Yes. This area is not only beautiful, but it's a enigmatic place to be in because here is the parrots. And we have the San Pedrito, the Todus puertoricensis, borinquensis or mexicanus, as you want to use the epithet.
Mariana Reyes: I'm talking to Pepe, who often works with his wife Fela Collazo Torres. They are very knowledgeable about birds and self-published a book on the five tody species endemic to the Caribbean. I asked Pepe why the San Pedrito is called Todus mexicanus if, as we have learned, it is endemic to Puerto Rico.
Pepe: That is the first question we have to resolve. We start with that question in our mind, and we didn't accept the idea of that epithet for our endemic bird San Pedrito. So we keeping doing for 17 years search and research.
[Piano music starts]
Ari Daniel: When we come back we’ll hear where Pepe’s research with the San Pedrito has taken him. More after the break.
[Music starts: No Me Apaguen La Candela, Fruta Madura - Viento De Agua]
Ari Daniel: Welcome back. We’re here with Mariana Reyes, who’s telling us about the San Pedrito and the struggle to rename that bird. She met up with José Gonzalez Diaz, who goes by Pepe.
Mariana Reyes: So can you find birds of the tody species in Mexico?
Pepe: No, that was really an error in the description.
Mariana Reyes: An error that Pepe and Fela, along with others, have been trying to correct for over a decade. Pepe believes it is a matter of accuracy and justice. It should be noted that identity is a hot topic in Puerto Rico, and our status as a colony makes it a never-ending topic too.
Ari Daniel: Right, because Puerto Rico, like the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, is a territory the US governs.
Mariana Reyes: Indeed. Island countries like Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic get to claim their tody as a national bird. Pepe and Fela have traveled to each of these islands in search of the history of their tody species. The result is a self-published book, initially bound by hand, called The Root of the Antilles: A History of the Todidae Family. One of the main findings in the book is that revelation about the origin of the error with the name.
This year, Pepe even presented the issue to birders and scientists who participated in a conference organized by Birds Caribbean and the American Ornithological Society or AOS in the capital city of San Juan. His goal was twofold. One, to raise awareness within the scientific community about the scientific name change. And two, to gain support for naming the San Pedrito the national bird of Puerto Rico.
Pepe: In this conference, the strategy we are going to use to rename the Todus, they said we would need some kind of information to put in front of the whole assembly saying that we accept the idea of changing that name. Correct the problem.
Mariana Reyes: Pepe has faced rejection of his ideas in the past. He’s not a biologist, after all. He’s a math teacher. But his amatuer research has finally paid off, and this time it was well received. The scientific bird organizations seem on board with the change, and this conference gave the issue international exposure.
Right now a group of scientists from the AOS, Birds Caribbean, and the Puerto Rican Ornithological Society are working on a proposal to the international group that governs scientific names. And that will take time. Here’s Adrianne from Birds Caribbean.
Adrianne Tossas: Yeah, there is an international commission that is in charge of the nomenclature of zoological names and they have some rules. For the designation of species and what are the conditions where a species name can be changed, and they consider that geographical mistakes like this, having the Puerto Rican species named Todus mexicanus, is not justified under the rules.
Mariana Reyes: Adrianne is referring to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), the organization that decides the taxonomic names. In the past they’ve said that a bird’s origin is not enough reason to change the name. But identifying this error in the naming could be enough to tip the scales.
Adrianne Tossas: But the research that has been done by Jose and Fela, they find that this wasn't intended. There was a reason why this happened and it can be justified.
Mariana Reyes: The name change is a difficult task, according to Adrienne, but it can be done because the mistake can be tracked and it is documented.
[Driving, plucky string music starts]
The goal of scientists and birders like Pepe and Fela is to change the San Pedrito's scientific name to Todus borinquensis. Borikén is the indigenous Taíno name of the island.
Another goal is to make it the national bird of Puerto Rico. So they proposed a bill to the current governor, Pedro Pierluisi, to do just that. To make the San Pedrito the national bird.
Pepe: We have some people who are going to be in the small committee to make the resolution to get to the assembly at the end. And that would be very good if that can happen in the way we want to.
[Driving, plucky string music fades]
Pepe and Fela have the support of the Puerto Rico Ornithological Society and they're waiting for the governor's signature.
Ari Daniel: Wow, requesting a name change and recognition as a national symbol. That’s a lot of effort!
Mariana Reyes: Yes! And Pepe hasn't stopped there. He also organizes a festival to honor the San Pedrito in between the municipalities of Utuado and Adjuntas.
[Music starts: Emblema Nacional - Migdalia Correa]
Festivals are a common practice in Puerto Rico. They are big celebrations dedicated to Catholic saints as well as plants, animals, and food. You can find festivals dedicated to coffee, pigeon peas, hammocks, you name it!
The San Pedrito has its festival too and it includes art workshops, live music, and public talks.
[Migdalia Correa singing]
Mariana Reyes: That's Migdalia Correa interpreting jíbaro music. Jíbaro is a word that refers to small farmers or laborers in rural areas of Puerto Rico. It is a genre created and mostly played in the mountains of the island.
Jibaro music is based on improvisation and it is created on the spot referring to whatever topic is relevant to the occasion. This is called in Spanish a “pie forzado”. Migdalia sings about the San Pedrito.
[Migdalia Correa singing]
Migdalia compared the San Pedrito to the coqui frog and the Puerto Rican flag.
Our crew of artists and musicians from La Goyco, went to the event.
The festival is a three-day event that attracts entire families.
[Sound of forest ambience]
[Sound of walking on dirt]
The road that leads to the area is steep. I am surrounded by green in all imaginable tones. It is a rainy day and you can almost see the clouds touching the mountains.
That chirping you hear is not a bird, it’s the coquí, a common frog in Puerto Rico the size of a paperclip.
[Sound of a crowd]
Entire families go from one artisan's table to another while learning about the San Pedrito. Yolanda, as I mentioned, our resident artist, is here too.
Yolanda Velazquez: This festival is very meaningful not only because of the importance of the San Pedrito as an endemic species of bird, but also because it's a space where people can come together again and celebrate life through music and culture and arts and being together. It's a very familiar festival. You see kids running around. They have activities for everyone that has come here. So it's a beautiful place to get together as a family and they make you feel like that.
Pepe: Yo pienso que esta fiesta es de todos. Puerto Rico es una entidad total yo creo que utuado y toda la el centro de puerto rico se ubica en este espacio porque el Campo es Leña es la casa de todos ahora mismo.
Mariana Reyes: Pepe shares how the festival is meant to be an event for everyone. This area of Puerto Rico is home to all of us, he says.
A road full of people leads to a colorful wooden house that serves as the main site of the event. It is a four story restaurant perched on the side of a steep hill, called El campo es leña.
Yolanda Velazquez: This space is very special because it has different levels and on the sides and the slopes of those levels are usually the space where the San Pedrito make their nests. They carve on the ground on the sides of the slopes and that's where they live. So when I entered this space for the first time yesterday, I was very moved because it's like the perfect space to celebrate the San Pedrito and for the artists to create and honor that beautiful bird.
Mariana Reyes: We are on the main balcony that's serving as a stage where the musicians from La Goyco are about to perform in this festival. They play a century-old traditional music called plena that tells the stories of the people from the barrios in a call and response pattern and using three handheld drums. The musicians are known as pleneros.
[Pleneros playing: La Máquina - Los Pleneros De La Casa De La Plena]
Emanuel Santana: Esto esta precioso, yo no había tenido la oportunidad ni el privilegio, no habíamos tenido de llegar acá. Y de verdad que nos sentimos super honrados. Sabemos que la causa es hacer que se conozca, se sepa y se lleve esa lucha de que el San Pedrito es un ave endémica de Puerto Rico.
Mariana Reyes: You just listened to Emanuel Santana, a plenero from San Juan, who is part of La Goyco and travelled to the center of the island to play at the festival. He is no expert in birds but he talks about the privilege of being part of the event and he added: “we know that the purpose of the festival is to raise awareness about the fact that the San Pedrito is an endemic bird to Puerto Rico”, and then he continued to sing. The music went on for the rest of the afternoon with songs dedicated to the San Pedrito and to the beauty of Puerto Rico's nature.
Ari Daniel: So, it seems birding enthusiasts like Pepe would appreciate it if scientists and politicians joined in on the efforts of the festival. And identified and celebrated the San Pedrito as local people do.
Mariana Reyes: Yes Ari, that's right. We still don't know if the bill proposed to name the San Pedrito our national bird will be approved. Or if the scientific name Todus mexicanus will ever be changed.
[Jibaro music starts: Mensaje de Texto - Viento De Agua]
But we do know the San Pedrito is a Puerto Rican bird even if it is not officially recognized as such.
We are used to this, to defining and redefining our identity from a liminal space, outside of the boundaries of official recognition from scientific and state authorities.
In the meantime we enjoy the yearly festival, and keep learning about this cute little bird that has been around the Caribbean for millions of years and shares its island with us.
[Threatened theme fades up]
Ari Daniel: Usually on this show when we’re talking about human alterations to the ecosystem, it spells big trouble for birds. But in our next and final episode of this Puerto Rican season of Threatened, Mariana takes us to the Cabo Rojo Salt Flats. These “salinas” were made by the Tainos, the Indigenous population here, for hundreds of years… even before the Spanish arrived… to harvest salt from the sea. And they’re still mined today. Over that time, birds have come to depend on them.
Dafne Javier: They come here from Canada and they eat at their leisure. This is a protected forest and they know it. So nobody will bother them. So they're very quiet and they eat very good. And then they fly to Argentina.
When human activity creates a haven for birds, what’s our responsibility to maintain it? That’s next week on Threatened.
This episode was produced by Mariana Reyes Anglero, Joanne Gil Rivera and me, Ari Daniel. It was edited by Laura Marina Boria. It was sound designed and mixed by Leah Shaw Dameron. Fact-checking by Conor Gearin. Our theme song and original music were composed by Ian Coss, with additional music by Viento de Agua and from Blue Dot sessions. Threatened is a production of BirdNote and overseen by Content Director Allison Wilson. You can find a transcript of this show and additional resources, BirdNote’s other podcasts, and much more at BirdNote.org. Thanks for listening.
[Threatened theme ends]