An exciting challenge awaiting all Costa Rican visitors and transplants is learning the names of the flora and fauna of their adopted country. The difference between kinkajous and olingos, antbirds and antthrushes, lowland and highland life zones – Costa Rica is a country with an inexhaustible supply of interesting natural history for the eager student. But there’s an often neglected and little talked about element regarding the study of neotropical ecology that adds an even greater pleasure to its pursuit: learning the names of animals and plants in Spanish.
There’s profound importance in learning the local names of the creatures that surround us in our new homes. First, we gain the ability to intelligently communicate with our neighbors, who may also be impressed by our zeal for cultivating a knowledge of their native landscape. In fact, expressing interest in learning the names of plants and animals in Spanish may be one of the best ways for igniting new friendships with the Costa Ricans who live close to us.
And we should not forget the reputation for ruthless exploitation that many foreigners have already earned for the rest us. Proving that we care to learn about the land and its creatures in not only our own language but the native tongue of its people may help reverse such a damaging and not undeserved reputation.
Yet perhaps the best reason for learning the local names for wildlife abroad is the pure joy of it. Consider the White-throated Magpie-Jay, a beautiful and widespread bird in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. In Spanish, it’s called the Urraca, an onomatopoeic moniker that amusingly imitates the bird’s coarse call. Its stark contrast to the bird’s half descriptive, half taxonomic name adds an extra charm to an already interesting and fun word. And its brevity compared to the wordiness of its English counterpart gives it extra interest, a nice reminder that languages are nothing more than lenses through which we attempt to make sense of the world, and things can look very different through different lens. It’s the exact same bird, after all.
Another example is the Collared Redstart. Not found anywhere beyond the high mountain forests of Costa Rica and Panama, this tiny warbler is easily recognized by its russet cap and yellow face and belly. But its English name does nothing to reveal the special quality of the bird. In Spanish, the Collard Redstart is the Amigo de Hombre, “Friend of Man,” a title bestowed in honor of the bird’s habit of following people through the trails that wind through its forests. The redstart feeds on the harassing insects that may plague the sweaty visitor to its domain. Its endearing title is homage to the friendly association between two races so distantly divided.
By endeavoring to learn the local names of wildlife, we open our minds to an influx of new ideas and knowledge. Opportunities for expanding our panoramic vision of the world, a central goal of living abroad, are otherwise lost. The experience is impoverished. And it may escape our attention that we are not the first to think of the companionable redstart fluttering overhead as, indeed, a friend.
By Frank Izaguirre