A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What is a iao?

Dear Straight Dope:

My mother and I need your help. While doing a New York Times crossword puzzle we ran into the following:

Question? Austalian honey eater

Answer: iao

What is this animal? How big is it? What does it look like? An E-mail from you with an answer would make our day!

This question has haunted me for weeks. I searched the Internet and found nothing (although a search on "honey eater" did yield some great websites on oral sex). I called zoo curators and posted on the Australian birdwatchers' message board. I corresponded with the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, who told me that neither this clue nor this answer has been in his puzzle since he took over there in 1993. (Actually, before I corrected it, you had written New York Ties, so maybe you were doing a puzzle you picked up in the garment district.)

The reference librarians at the main library struck out. A number of birdwatchers E-mailed me to say they'd never heard of the "iao," and you know birdwatchers; they're nuts, they know everything. It wasn't even in the Scrabble dictionary, which specializes in words like that. I E-mailed my Australian friend Dick in Perth and he said he likes to eat honey, but his name has four letters. (He said the answer was "bee" and rolled his eyes, or at least I imagined him rolling his eyes, at how stupid Americans are.)

Not an IOtA of luck so far. I consulted the Straight Dope editor, Little Ed, and recounted my experiences. His response: "Yiao." Then he asked me why I was doing this. I had to tell him it was a question for Mailbag, of which he is nominally in charge. Now I see why Cecil gets so exasperated with the guy.

Eventually I found out about the iao, but I'm killing time here with the other details of my search till I think of a good lie about where I found it, because it's so embarrassing.

There was a bird called an "Australian honey eater," but no one anywhere had heard of the word "iao." Looking in a book on Australian/Pacific birds, I found out that there are 38 genera of honey eaters; 167 species, and 450 subspecies. No mention of the iao, but I saw mention of a very rare Hawaiian honey eater bird on the island of Kauai called an O-o-aa, which I think sounds like the jungle noise you hear in Tarzan movies. They are found in - get this - the Ohia forest in Hawaii! Those same letters! There was also a honey eater, now extinct, in Hawaii called a kioe, and there's another one called a Bishop's Oo. Man.

The honey eater has a long protrusile tongue with a brushlike tip that fits into a groove in the underside of its upper beak. They use this tongue to extract nectar, and some species have co-evolved along with certain plants. Just trying to show you here that I'm not as stupid as you're going to think I am when you find out where I found the answer. But don't forget the curators, the bird watchers, crossword puzzle editors, Little Ed, the reference librarians (them most of all) and the rest of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board who were also stumped by this question.

Anyway, last night I went to the downtown library and happened to look in the huge Webster's Unabridged Dictionary WHICH IS RIGHT BEHIND THE LOSER REFERENCE LIBRARIAN'S DESK and looked up "iao." Iao = wattlebird. Looked up "wattlebird." Wattlebird = AUSTRALIAN HONEY EATER, genus Anthrochaera. It was in the frigging dictionary! Haio dumb did I feel? At least I guessed correctly at the outset that it was a bird.

So here's what it sounds like: Birds (go to Wattlebird) and here's what it looks like: Red Wattlebird.

Ciao!

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