Sore Loser

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Screenshot 2017-06-14 14.16.55

The great Welsh litterateur and naturalist Thomas Pennant was born 291 years ago on this date. Friend and correspondent of Gilbert White, colleague and competitor of John Latham, Pennant, though not nearly as famous today as those contemporaries, is still remembered by some in Britain. But here in North America, he is almost entirely forgotten.

There’s a reason.

In February 1785, Pennant described the genesis of his recently published two volumes on the animal life of North America:

This Work was begun a great number of years past, when the empire of Great Britain was entire, and possessed the northern part of the New World with envied splendor…. I thought I had a right to the attempt, at a time I had the honor of calling myself a fellow-subject with that respectable part of our former great empire; but when the fatal and humiliating hour arrived, which deprived Britain of power, strength, and glory, I felt the mortification which must strike every feeling individual at losing his littler share in the boast of ruling over half of the New World.

Even in his pique at the loss of the American colonies, Pennant decided not to discard his Zoology of North America. He did, however, change the title.

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Simultaneously, he expanded the geographic scope of the work to include much of the Old World Arctic, too, simultaneously making the book more valuable to naturalists worldwide and re-asserting the unity — scientific, if no longer political — of the cooler reaches of the Northern Hemisphere.

And with only slightly grudging generosity, he wished his erstwhile “fellow subjects” well and assured them that someday the New World, too, would see “the powers of literature arise” in a native naturalist. Meanwhile, though, Pennant reminded his American readers of what they had lost in giving up their share of imperial glory, namely,

the peculiar spirit of the English nation, which has, in its voyages to the most remote and most opposite parts of the globe, payed attention to every branch of science.

We did catch up, eventually, and then we made Pennant’s birthday into Flag Day.

Thanks to David for correcting my math! 

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The Root of Many a Minor Evil

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I’ve read two new books about raptors today, and have been annoyed both times that

a) they include sections headed “Etymology” (cui bono??), and

b) that both are guilty of many of the same mistakes and imprecisions.

Elementary philology teaches that unmotivated error shared is the sign of common ancestry. I settled on the weird notion, repeated in each, that the Greek word for “tail” is “ours.” It isn’t, of course; the word is ????, “oura,” and unless we’re willing to believe that both sets of authors made the same typo independently as they transcribed the Greek sources, it looks very much as if each had borrowed the error from a single authority.

Unsurprisingly, this is it — one of the great works on avian onomastics, no less great for its many flaws, and perhaps the most-plagiarized title in American birding.

One of the blemishes is Choate’s etymology of brachyurus in the name of the short-tailed hawk, where he transliterates the Greek behind the second part of the epithet as “ours” rather than “oura.” And yes, it is exactly the accounts for that same species where the lapse shows up in the other two books.

One of those books actually cites to Choate. The other, though, doesn’t even list him in its bibliography.

Red-handed, I’d say.

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Crossbill Tales

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red crossbill

In North America, crossbills are “birder’s birds,” entirely unknown to the unbinoculared among us.

Things are different in the Old World, where over the centuries the birds with the sanguine plumage and twisted beaks have accumulated a heavy burden of legend and lore. Thanks to etiological myth, the crossbill of Europe is still a bird of good luck and good health, owing the bright plumage and bizarre bill shape to its intervention in Christ’s Passion.

Held in captivity, a crossbill was believed to cure disease, avert lightning, and forecast a household’s financial future — superstitions that apparently held on well into the twentieth century in rural regions of the continent.

What I did not know (maybe you did) is that these magical properties once made the crossbill a hot commodity. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Erlangen physician, ornithologist, and Volksforscher Josef Gengler reported having seen “a great number” of these birds “piled up” in the house of a Thuringian birdcatcher, awaiting shipment to dealers in the city.

In 1893, not far from the Silesian city now known as G?ucho?azy, Paul Robert Kollibay discovered that the local weavers supplemented their income with an “extensive” campaign to capture and sell crossbills:

In the middle of the village, in front of every house, a caged decoy called out to the masses of wild crossbills in the nearby forest; limed wands were attached to long poles, and the birds striking them as they flew in were taken effortlessly by the birdcatchers sitting there at their work.

Prominent among the purchasers of these unlucky luck birds were the nursing staff of German hospitals, where the birds were used as therapy for patients with gout and other illnesses. It was very important, though, to select not just any crossbill: those whose upper mandibles cross to the right cure the ills of men, those whose bills cross to the left are more effective for female complaints.

Not sure why, but I just have this feeling that that might not be invariably the case. True or not, though, this and other stories make seeing these nifty little birds even more exciting — think about them when you hear a kip kip from the pines above your head, or maybe the next time your gout starts to act up.

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Edme, Edme!

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In the first volume of his natural history of the birds, Buffon tells a funny story:

While I was sleeping one night in one of the old towers of the chateau of Montbard, a little before daybreak, at three in the morning, a little owl landed on the windowsill of my room, and woke me up with its call “heme, edme.” As I listened to this voice, which struck me as the more interesting given that it was so near, I heard one of my servants, who was sleeping in the room below mine, open the window, and deceived by the owl’s clearly articulated “edme,” he answered the bird: Who is down there, my name isn’t Edme, my name is Pierre! This servant actually believed that it was a person calling out, so similar is the voice of the owl to the voice of the human, and so distinctly does it say the word.


One more reason — as if one were needed — to look forward to our next Birds and Art tour of Burgundy.

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The Rosy Starlings of Villafranca

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Birders all across western Europe — and yes, some die-hards in North America, too — are always on the lookout for this fancy bird, which occasionally moves west, far west, of its Asian and east European range. My VENT group in Catalonia last year was fortunate enough to discover an adult near Barcelona, but we can’t really hope for pink lightning to strike twice.

It’s not impossible, though, as the astonishing Italian incursion of June 1875 shows. The gentleman-naturalist Edoardo de Betta wrote:

The rosy starling arrived in Villafranca on June 3. Around 4:00 pm on that day a small flock of 18 to 20 of these birds perched on the high, crumbling interior walls of the fortress, and was followed half an hour later by a second flock of about 100 individuals; their constant vocalizing drew the attention of everyone living inside the fortress bounds…. Towards evening, still more, thousands and thousands, of these starlings appeared, and joining those that had preceded them, remained until dark, at which point they all flew out and scattered through the open countryside in very many flocks.

The gathering human crowd was unhappy that these “strange and beautiful birds, which they had now seen for the first time in their lives,” should disappear so promptly.

But around 3:00 the next morning, the residents of Villafranca were unexpectedly awakened by the deafening calls of twelve to fourteen thousand rosy starlings that had arrived to take definitive possession of the fortress….


Scaliger Castle
Wikipedia, by Ugo Franchini 

Five days later, the starlings commenced their breeding activities, to the delight of the human residents:

Copulation was undertaken with unbelievable ardor, atop the fortress walls and the roofs of the houses; these birds proved so concupiscent that they lingered in their embrace even if they accidentally fell from their high perches, with the result that it was easy for all the people to obtain some as the birds fell in pairs to the street below.

Some “speculators” made hundreds of lire by selling those birds on what seems to have been a very lively black market centered on the Villafranca train stataion.

The surviving pairs went about their business, and by July 10 all the nestlings were entirely feathered. Four days later, the adults and their newly fledged young all left Villafranca for sites to the south. But de Betta reports that they left behind them a three-fold legacy:

The birds carried out an immense massacre of the locusts in the agricultural fields; they were a source of great fortune for a few clever entrepreneurs; and finally, what matters most to us, they added an entirely new chapter of the greatest significance to the history of Italian birds.

I would like to have seen that.

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