It’s spring, and over much of the continent “the Veeries sing their songs of long ago.”
Here in New Jersey, too, that weird spooling, swirling buzz is heard of a warm evening. But when we hear it here in the mid-Atlantic, some of us are likely to call the cinnamon-backed songster not by its official, onomatopoetic name, but by another, one that commemorates the name of the man who first described it to science.
Especially this year, of course, the bicentennial of Alexander Wilson’s death.
Oddly enough, though Wilson recognized that the bird he was describing was new and clearly different from any of the other American thrushes he was familiar with, he assigned to it the names, both Latin and English, of another bird.
With reference to the rich brown of the bird’s back, he called his novum Turdus mustelinus, the Tawny Thrush, both of which, as Wilson himself noted, were in use already for the bird we know as the Wood Thrush.
The difficulty Wilson’s sloppiness had created was noticed almost immediately. When James Francis Stephens copied out Wilson’s description of the bird for the General Zoology of 1817, he observed politely that
it is not a little surprising that Wilson in his American Ornithology should increase the confusion by giving a name that was applied by Pennant to the [Wood Thrush], when he was confident this bird was a distinct species.
Stephens gave the bird new names, both English and scientific, calling it the Brownish Thrush Turdus fuscescens; we still know the species under that latinized epithet today.
Seven years later, in 1824, Charles Lucian Bonaparte was able to overlook Stephens’s name to give the bird a new one of his own devising.
The name of mustelinus must … be restored to the [Wood Thrush]; and as the present species will then be destitute of a name, I propose for it that of T. Wilsonii.
Bonaparte, like so many Philadelphians, was a great fan of his late colleague’s work, but even he seems to have had a niggling worry or two about pushing it too far:
I do not consider myself censurable for the frequent repetition of the name of this great ornithologist, as applied to species in different genera; it is a tribute of respect which I conceive justly due to one who has done so much for the benefit of my favourite science.
Interestingly, however, Bonaparte does not appear to have suggested changing the English appellation as well, continuing to cite his Turdus wilsonii as the Tawny Thrush. The vernacular name Wilson’s Thrush appears to have been used first by John Richardson and William Swainson (himself of thrush fame, of course) in the Fauna boreali-americana, where they describe the Wilson’s Thrush in part from specimens killed right here in New Jersey.
It is with peculiar satisfaction that … we find our own observations confirm, in their full extent, the judicious remarks made upon this species by the Prince of Musignano (i.e., Bonaparte); and gladly do we follow him in commemorating it by the name of the great American ornithologist.
Unlike Bonaparte, Swainson knew that the bird already had a properly formed, properly published scientific name: but it didn’t matter.
True it is, that, by the strict rules of priority, we may not perhaps be justified in so doing; this species having received, in a popular compilation [take that, Stephens!], another name. But not even the laws of nomenclature … must upon every occasion impose shackles upon superior minds. Few ornithologists will be disposed to withhold from the memory of Wilson the only honour it is now in their power to give.
One who might, just might, have been so disposed was John James Audubon.
In the text of the Ornithological Biography, Audubon does, once, use the name Wilson’s Thrush, but the full species account and the plate are labeled Tawny Thrush, a typically ambivalent rhetorical move on the part of the man who just never could come to terms with his “illustrious” predecessor (and who, incidentally, seems to have mistaken the song of the Hermit Thrush for that of this bird).
Thomas Nuttall had no such compunctions: his account of the species is headed “Wilson’s Thrush, or Veery,” the first published use of the modern name I am aware of. Coues, too, used those two names, in that sequence, in the first edition of his Check List — but retained only Wilson’s Thrush in the second. Following Coues’s lead, the American Ornithologists’ Union also used the patronym in the first two editions of the Check-list.
The Fifteenth Supplement, published in 1909, changed a large number of English names, some of them for reasons that seem to range from arbitrary to inconsistent. (“Prairie Hen” was changed to “Prairie Chicken,” but “Sage Grouse” to “Sage Hen,” to adduce just one example.) Among the victims was the name “Wilson’s Thrush,” apparently deemed a “book name” and replaced by Veery, as a name more “in use where the birds live.”
I for one regret the loss of the old name. “Veery” may, to more imaginative ears than mine, recall the song, but it indicates relationship no better than such other inscrutable names as “Sora” or “Bufflehead.” And it misses out on another chance to commemorate the Father of American Ornithology, who deserves a little remembering this year.
I’ve been unfair to Audubon.
For years — for decades, in fact, ever since, as a fourth grader, I first learned about the man and the work — I’ve judged him, and harshly, solely on the evidence of the engraved plates that make up the The Birds of America.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to have been affiliated with a couple of institutions that own full sets, and I’ve always appreciated the big books as masterpieces of technology and entrepreneurial drive. But art? Not really.
My mind was changed, completely and abruptly, in late April when I finally made my way to the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition of some 220 of Audubon’s paintings — not the plates that were printed, colored, and sold to subscribers, but the actual paintings that served as the exemplars for the engraver.
Like most of us, the closest I’d ever come to seeing anything from Audubon’s paintbrush was the rather poor reproductions, on decidedly poor paper, of the watercolors published and republished in the 1970s and 80s. The originals themselves have been shown only very rarely in the 150 years since they were purchased from Lucy Audubon – but they are astonishing, startling, eye-opening.
They’re really good.
Not only do the paintings reveal an artist in masterful command of his media, but they also, just as surprisingly, have a few things to teach us about the birds Audubon was painting. Take his Snow Bird, the bird we know today as the Dark-eyed Junco.
The engraving of this otherwise so engaging sparrow in Birds of America has always left me cold. It’s bland and dull, and the coloring of the specimens I’ve seen has always seemed vague, especially on the lower bird, the male, whose breast and hood just don’t seem to want to join up as they do in real life. Poor draftsmanship, poor engraving, poor coloring: it doesn’t really matter where the sloppiness was introduced.
Most of the engravings are more or less faithful renderings of Audubon’s originals: but not this time. The painting, prepared from specimens collected in Louisiana, differs strikingly from the engraved plate in depicting a male bird with a decidedly black, highly contrasting hood, sharply set off in a straight line from the softer gray of the breast sides and flank; the lower edge of that hood extends into the white lower breast, creating a “convex” border.
You know where this is headed, don’t you?
Audubon’s bird was not your everyday Slate-colored Junco. Instead, the bird that he shot and drew was a male Cassiar Junco, and his painting was the first depiction ever of a “flavor” of juncos that would not be formally described until 1918, nearly a hundred years later.
I don’t know whether we have any of Audubon’s instructions to the colorists responsible for finishing the plate, but I still think that we can figure out with some certainty what happened. I’m guessing that Audubon was slightly puzzled when he reviewed his Louisiana painting, and that he asked the engraver and the colorists to “correct” the pattern of the bird’s breast and sides to match that of the Slate-colored Junco, the taxon he would later describe in the Ornithological Biography.
Had I not seen the painting hanging in New York, I would have gone on in my benighted way, shaking my head over another botched Audubonian bird. Instead, I wind up admiring more than ever before the ornithologist who discovered the Cassiar Junco — and the artist who gave us such a fine depiction of a wonderful but long unrecognized bird.
Have you ever stopped to think how very few of the birds of western Europe and North America are named for their songs? While the English monikers of many tropical species chatter and rattle and bubble and trill, “our” more familiar birds of the northern hemisphere tend to bear names based on their visual, not aural characteristics.
It’s no real mystery why this should be. Most European and North American birds were discovered and described long before we had the technology to record or assess sound — and most of them are easily distinguished in any case by even the least careful eye.
Not so in much of Africa, southern Asia, and, especially, the American tropics, where calls and songs can be the only way to distinguish — sometimes even to detect — the hordes of fast-moving forest birds.
When Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot first described the Eastern Warbling Vireo in 1807, he didn’t even mention the bird’s song, limiting his account entirely to the not overly distinguished appearance of the skins in his collection:
This species has a brown bill and feet; the head, back of the neck and body are gray: this hue is slightly tinged greenish on the back; the long feathers of the wing and tail are brown, with the outer edges very slightly paler; the underparts are entirely dirty white; the flanks and the underwing coverts are like the back; the wings and the tail are grayish white below.
Apparently unable to decide which of the bird’s bland colors predominated, Vieillot assigned his new species the French name “moucherolle gris,” the gray flycatcher, and the scientific binomial Muscicapa gilva, the yellowish flycatcher.
Vieillot was far more than just a “closet naturalist,” but obviously his field experience with this species was restricted. Alexander Wilson, on the other hand, knew the bird well, especially its “extremely pleasing” song:
its voice is soft, tender, and soothing, and its notes flow in an easy, continued strain…. In these there is nothing harsh, sudden, or emphatical; they glide along in a kind of meandering strain, that is peculiarly its own.
Unaware that Vieillot had already described it, Wilson gave “this sweet little warbler” new names, calling it Muscicapa melodia and, in English, the Warbling Flycatcher. Happily, that new name caught on. Bonaparte adopted it in his Synopsis, and Nuttall gave it its modern form of Warbling Vireo in the Manual:
This sweetest and most constant warbler of the forest … is plain and unadorned; but the sweet melody of his voice, surpassing, as far as nature usually surpasses art, the tenderest airs of the flute, poured out often from the rising dawn of day to the approach of evening, and vigorous even during the sultry heat of noon … gives additional interest to this little vocalist.
No name could have been imposed upon this species with more propriety than that of the Warbling Flycatcher. The male sings from morning to night, so sweetly, so tenderly, with so much mellowness and softness of tone, and yet with notes so low, that one might think he sings only for his beloved, without the least desire to attract the attention of rivals.
It’s too bad that Vieillot’s bland gilvus — “dull yellowish” – enjoys the privilege of priority, but at least in English we get to call the bird a name it truly deserves. As Coues puts it,
Its voice is not strong, and many birds excel it in brilliancy of execution; but not one of them all can rival the tenderness and softness of the liquid strains of this modest vocalist.
They’re trickling in, the Common Nighthawks, and it won’t be long now until their buzzes and swoops fill the skies from Atlantic to Pacific, as far north as the Yukon and Quebec.
But where are they coming from?
I suspect that I’m far from alone in having a much better grasp of most birds’ breeding ranges than of their winter distribution. Some of that’s pure laziness; some of it’s the fault of the field guides; and some of it’s because we just don’t really know.
BNA describes the wintering grounds of the Common Nighthawk this way:
the primary winter range appears to encompass the lowlands of e. Ecuador and e. Peru, s. Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and n. Argentina south to Catamarco and Buenos Aires, possibly w. Brazil, and probably Bolivia. Winter range may extend into n. South America, but most individuals probably winter from e. Peru, e. Ecuador, and s. Brazil south.
This statement is vastly more detailed than the range given in the latest edition of the AOU Check-list, which tells us broadly that the species “winters in South America south to northern Argentina” — an assessment little changed from the distribution information provided in the first edition more than a century and a quarter ago.
But note all the same all those cautiously honest may’s and probably’s and appears’s in the BNA account. Among the urgent desiderata listed there are a better understanding of migratory routes and destinations and any “general information regarding the nature of the winter range,” basic elements of this species’ biology that are still unknown. There’s still a lot of uncharted territory, literally and figuratively, for dedicated citizen scientists to contribute to our knowledge of the Common Nighthawk.
In the first scientific description of the species, George Ord says that Wilson’s Plovers ”utter an agreeable piping note, and run swiftly.”
Some of them not swiftly enough. Two hundred years ago today, on the sandy shores of Cape May, Alexander Wilson shot the first of these birds known to science — two males and a female, the last “containing an egg half grown, apparently within a week of being ready for exclusion.” That egg was never “excluded,” to use Ord’s typically fussy word, and she and one of her consorts wound up wearing tags in Peale’s Philadelphia museum.
That excursion in May of 1813 was the last of Wilson’s six trips to New Jersey. The four weeks he and Ord spent together on the shore must have been exciting, but they were anything but relaxing. On the return to Philadelphia, Wilson threw himself back into the work on volume 8 of the American Ornithology, and ”the excess of toil” and the “flood of business” weakened him so much, says Ord, that the dysentery that befell him mid-August proved fatal.
Titian Peale and Ord went back to New Jersey’s southern coast in May 1814, where they found the bird Ord had named for his “ever-regretted friend” to be fairly common from Great Egg Harbor to Brigantine Island.
Things have changed. The Wilson’s Plover is one of the state’s rarest shorebirds nowadays, and hasn’t bred in New Jersey for fifty years. But there are hopeful signs. This century has seen spring overshoots almost every year, and two years ago a bird spent the last half of September in Cape May. Maybe this will be the year — two hundred years after its discovery, and two hundred years after the death of its discoverer — that this species returns to nest where it was first seen.