A hot-rodding uncle ensured my early exposure to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink, an “anti-Mickey Mouse” cartoon character of immense popularity in the mid-1960s. “The name Ed Roth is associated with many things, from pin striping and drag racing to custom car building and more. However, it is the Rat Fink cartoon character for which Ed is best known,” according to ratfink.com, purveyor of Rat Fink merchandise. The Revelle company issued model kits of the atrocious, grey-green rodent driving wildly imagined vehicles in 1963 and sold millions, the Roth’s creation remains popular in car customizing circles.
“Fink,” an especially popular derisive term around 1800, meant “an unpleasant or contemptible person; an informer; a strikebreaker,” according to the Etymology Online Dictionary, and while “of uncertain origin” has two likely sources. One’s the German word “fink” — “a frivolous dissolute person,” that originally meant a “finch” and then “an informer,” like a “stool pigeon.” “The other theory traces it to ‘Pinks,’ short for Pinkerton agents, the private police force hired to break up the 1892 Homestead strike.”
Assigning an opprobrium like “fink” can be hurtful, demeaning and deceiving. Consider the booted racket-tail hummingbird. Bird photographer par excellence, and former Fairbanksan, Jim Dewitt described it in his Wickersham’s Conscience blog: “It’s a tiny bird, about three inches long, with that four-inch tail that’s tipped with blunt bluish ‘rackets’ … the second thing you’ll notice are the white ‘boots,’ technically tibial puffs around its feet” for insulation, being a high-altitude creature. Despite the fluffy booth and foo-foo tail, they’re belligerent toughies.
This brought to mind the American prothonotary warbler. It is “monotypic,” having no recognized subspecies, and its name derives from the Greek “protonotarios,” or “first scribe,” from its brilliant yellow plumage since the original protonotaries were notaries attached to the Byzantine court who wore golden yellow robes of office. “Prothonotary” sounds better than its other moniker: “golden swamp warbler.” Speaking of ancient scribes, where did those millions of Egyptian mummified ibis birds come from? The ancient Egyptian god Thoth, represented with the head of an African ibis, oversaw writing, magic and wisdom, and was revered by the Egyptian scribes, those proto-librarians. They mummified ibises to show gratitude and enhance prayers to Thoth, but recently the debate’s been resolved over whether the millions of sacrificial birds were caught wild or were farmed by priests. Scientists have 5 million ibis mummies, dating from 664 BCE to 250 CE. They’ve sequenced 14 complete mitochondrial genomes, enough to determine that their genomes were too dissimilar to account for being farmed. Once there were lots of ibises running wild.
The tit, another awkwardly named bird, was recently labeled “the Murderous Tit” in an eye-grabbing headline in the University of New Mexico’s DailyLobo.com. Apparently, tits “have dynamic diets,” mostly eating insects, but “harsh winters bring out their vicious side when food resources are scarce.” However, they prefer eating only their victim’s brains -— voles, bats, other birds — and sometimes human carrion.
Alaskan ravens get a bad rap despite their intelligence, dexterity and toughness. Sadly, a group of ravens is known as “an unkindness,” “a treachery,” or “a conspiracy.” These slurs can be diminished if Alaska’s Fish and Game Departments would follow the lead of the Puy du Fou historical theme park in France and create a raven training program. With everything from Neanderthals to Celts to knights, guillotines and World War I, Puy du Fou’s “the best theme park in the world,” according to their website, but most amazing are their crows. Part of the scavenging corvid family, like our ravens, park staff have trained six crows named “Boubou,” “Bamboo,” “Bill,” “Black,” “Bricole,” and “Baco” to pick up litter around the park and remove it to bins that release treats when trash is depositing in them. A bit of schooling and our robust local ravens could tend the transfer stations. That’s just a conspiracy theory.
Humans naturally name things, and it usually reflects our implicit biases. Rereading “Implicit Bias Means We’re All Probably At Least A Little Bit Racist,” an excellent Vox.com article written in 2014 by Jenee Desmon-Harris, helped me wrestle with the many biases I have. “You can think of it generally as ‘thoughts about people you didn’t know you had,’” she wrote. “Implicit bias comes from the messages, attitudes and stereotypes we pick up from the world we live in.” In comparing ourselves to others, we automatically favor our race, sex, height, educational level, nationality, on and on.
It’s a good reason to seek out good information at your library. “Bias, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as Tom Brokaw noted, adding “Facts are your firewall against bias.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.