The Bell Miner.

Greg Pringle, known around these parts as Bathrobe, has put together a wonderful Spicks and Specks post, The Bell Miner: How orthography and ornithology catalysed a new folk etymology, that begins:

The Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys) is an Australian bird belonging to the honeyeaters (Meliphagidae). It lives in temperate rainforests of southeastern Australia, preferred habitats being woodlands with dense shrubby understorey, gullies near rivers and creeks, swamp gum woodlands, and even well-treed suburban areas and gardens. […]

While there is much that is culturally and ecologically interesting about the Bell Miner, what is of particular interest to Spicks and Specks is its name. According to several sites on the Internet, Bell Miners were given their common name because of their habit of “mining” the sugar-domes of the bell lerps.

This etymology is cited at the Beauty of Birds, the Mount Eliza Association for Environmental Care, Flickr, and most notably at GrrlScientist’s mystery bird at the Guardian in August 2012. GrrlScientist appears to get a significant portion of her scientific knowledge from Wikipedia, because the original source for all four was the Wikipedia article on Bell Miner.

Given their great fondness for the psyllid’s sugary secretions, the picture of a Bell Miner assiduously tending its bell lerps and “mining” their sugar domes without harming the insects is an engaging one, lending the etymology an undeniable ring of authenticity. Unfortunately it has no basis in fact. “Bell” does not refer to the bell lerps, nor does “miner” refer to the mining of their sugar domes.

It’s the kind of dogged, detailed etymological investigation I love, and it comes to a surprising conclusion that I won’t spoil here for those who want to follow Greg’s story as he wrote it; I’m sure it will be discussed in the comments, so if you want to avoid spoilers, read the link before clicking through to the comments. You’ll learn all about the bizarre folkways of ornithologists!


  1. Jonathan D says:

    It is indeed surprising if you know nothing of the birds, but I was quite pleased to see that it was exactly as a I guessed. With plenty of Mynas and “soldier birds” around, I’ve long thought the names could not possibly be a coincidence, without being able to confim the history. Great story.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    A thorough job, thanks Bathrobe!

  3. Neither dogged nor thorough enough, I’m afraid. The best source for information on Australian bird names is Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide (Gray and Fraser), but I don’t have this book. I was frustrated by Google Books’ arcane methods of denying access to the whole book until I tried this Bell miner colony, where the section on miners comes up and spells out much more clearly the history of references by ornithologists. It doesn’t invalidate the post, but it would have filled in (and helped modulate) a lot of the detail in the story.

  4. What a delightful word lerp is!
    Bob Dixon provides an etymology here, for the curious.

  5. Delightful indeed, and thanks for the link! Dixon says it’s from Wemba-Wemba lerəb.

  6. Very fascinating, but it seems to me that the real culprits are the birds themselves. There are birds that look like other birds, sing like the other birds, make holes in the ground like other birds, even though they belong to altogether different species. You would think that after so many eons of evolution they would have got themselves better organized.

  7. Eons of evolution have pushed them to the Right Thing, and if the Right Thing locally is to make holes in the ground, holes they must make.

  8. Get with the Now, John.

    Evolution does not push. Each living thing does whatever it does, and the lucky ones are selected to pass on their genes. Their genes tell them to make holes.

  9. As a registered old fart, I (p)reserve my right to use teleological imagery in friendly fora.

  10. Well, I suppose that if you believe that getting your point across in the short term is worth the long term risks of people knowing that you are an old fart, then you should use teleological imagery as you desire. Or, as it desires that you use it.

  11. Risks? What risks? I glory in the title. I should: I earned it.

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