The Advent Bird

Remember all those observant birds forming their pair bonds on January 22? One species, the common loon, performs an even more impressive calendrical feat:

While our birds [in central Europe] have had to adjust to the new calendar only once, and have moved their wedding date each year ahead to a single, immoveable day, the immer birds [common loons] of Norway can distinguish the fourth Sunday of Advent from any other day, and this is the only day when they can be found on land.

As a result, the Norwegians call that Sunday “Immer Sunday” or “Ommer Sunday.” And the German natural historian Philipp Ludwig Statius Müller was so impressed with the story that he named the loon Colymbus immer, the Advent bird.

Merry Christmas!


Red, or Reddish?

Or, perhaps, neither.

Yes, this is a gorgeous reddish egret, in south Texas last week during one of the field trips at VENT‘s 45th Anniversary Celebration, based in McAllen. And yes, we spent some very rewarding time discussing the identification of this and the other white herons of the area. It can be subtle, but I think the fine studies we had left everyone feeling more confident about picking a white reddish out from a swarm of late summer egrets.

But pondering this bird, or any bird, raises questions beyond the details of identification. Two occurred to me on the drive back to McAllen, and I’ll try to answer one of them here.

To wit: How, why, and by whom was the scientific name of this bird changed from rufa to rufescens? There should be a straightforward and unexciting answer, but in this case, the process—or rather, the apparent absence of process—offers a quick glimpse into the quiet workings behind the scenes in the early days of the American Ornithologists’ Union and its Check-list.

The first edition of the Check-list names the bird Ardea rufa, crediting the name to Pieter Boddaert’s key to the Planches enluminéez produced to illustrate Buffon’s HIstoire naturelle. Boddaert often gets bad press for having swooped in to assign Linnaean binomials to the birds Buffon and his collaborators identified only in French, but without him (and Klein, and Temminck, and the Catalogue of Birds in the British Museum), those 1008 plates would be even more unwieldy for the modern user than they already are.

In any case, Boddaert gave Buffon’s “Aigrette rousse” from Louisiana the scientific name Arda rufa, and he left no doubt as to the author of that name: “mihi,” “mine.” The type specimen, so to speak, of the newly christened species is the bird depicted by Martinet on the 902nd plate of the Planches enluminées:

There can be no doubt that the bird Martinet painted was a reddish egret, right down to the bicolored bill and the odd bristly feathers of the head and neck. But there is a problem: Boddaert’s name rufa had been used before, by Giovanni Antonio Scopoli (him of shearwater fame), who in 1769 assigned it to a bird in his personal collection.

Scopoli’s diagnosis of the species is vague enough to suit any of a number of heron species, but the fuller description includes a white head stripe and a whitish lower neck with yellow-brown streaks. The cited passage from Wilhelm Heinrich Kramer’s Elenchus only deepens our uncertainty:

Not only is Kramer’s bird characterized by entirely pearl-white under parts and a brown-streaked neck, it has an Austrian vernacular name, Mittere Moos-Kuh, the mid-sized bittern (“fen cow”). This cannot possibly be a reddish egret, a species known only from the American tropics.

Nevertheless, on the strength of Boddaert’s reliance on Martinet’s plate, the name rufa was attached to the reddish egret, and it survived to be taken over by the AOU a hundred years later. (Kramer cannot be the author of the name because the Elenchus is not binomial in the sections dealing with birds and other animals.) In the second edition of the Check-list, though, something changes.

The scientific name has gone from rufa to rufescens, and the authority for the name is no longer Boddaert but Johann Friedrich Gmelin, the author/editor of the thirteenth, posthumous edition of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae.

Gmelin’s diagnosis is accurate and appropriate, and he even hints at the odd shape and structure of the feathers of the head and neck (“rather long and narrow”). He also cites as the first work in the brief synonymy the same plate and text from Buffon as had Boddaert.

Boddaert’s name, published in 1783, enjoys chronological priority over Gmelin’s, which did not appear for another five years. But the problem with rufa, obviously, is that it was itself preoccupied by Scopoli’s, who, equally obviously, had applied it to another species, most likely the purple heron. Replacing it with rufescens, as the AOU did in the second Check-list, should have been a routine matter chronicled in one of the Supplements—but I find no mention of this name change in any of them published before the appearance of the second edition, in 1895. Instead, rufa became rufescens without notice, simply popping up in the 1895 edition without having been introduced in any intervening AOU publication.

How exactly that happened isn’t clear from the sources available to me, but I have a suspicion.

The first clear statement of the problem was published by Robert Ridgway in 1887, in the Appendix to his Manual: Because the name Ardea rufa is preocuppied (by Scopoli, 1769) for another species [generally identified as the purple heron, Ardea purpurea], it becomes necessary to substitute the next in order of date . . . . Ardea rufescens Gmel.”

Ridgway was right, as (what strike me now on rereading as) my (rather labored) notes above affirm. He was also, of course, a member of the committees in charge of producing the first and the second editions of the Check-list. Naturally his discovery and the name change that followed from it were accepted and incorporated into the new edition, without public comment. If it were today, the change would have been formally proposed and voted on, and the result would appear in a Supplement before its eventual publication in the next edition of the Check-list.

A hundred thirty-five years ago it was different. The committee, and mutatis mutandis the AOU itself, could function as a small group of well-connected men who, for the most part (Elliott Coues was part of the gang, too), respected each other’s opinions so greatly that they found it unnecessary to fill anyone else in before the fait was accompli. It’s just a little glimpse, but a telling one, into the earliest days of an organization that still had a lot of democratization ahead of it.


The Samuels Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia samuelis—painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

The appearance of the newly updated eBird taxonomy reminds me today that the venerable song sparrow name samuelis, dating to 1858, has been appearing recently in an emended form, samuelsis. I believe that the first such “correction” was made by Dickinson and Christidis in their fourth edition of the Howard and Moore Checklist, where they write that their change is “based on ‘Mr. Samuels’ mentioned in the original” description, by Spencer F. Baird. Denis Lepage’s “Avibase” followed suit a year later, and the emendation is adopted, too, in the HBW/Birdlife Checklist and in the most recent IOC list, which cites Howard and Moore explicitly in the matter of “internal information” in Baird’s account.

Dickinson and Christidis are, as usual, absolutely right on the facts. The co-types, both taken on May 9, 1856, in Petaluma, were shot by the visiting Massachusetts collector Emanuel Samuels, and it was his name that Baird assigned to them.

To my imperfect knowledge, Herbert G. Deignan was the first to take umbrage at Baird’s barbarous samuelis, which Deignan snorts was “probably used by Baird as euphonically preferable to the more proper samuelsi; unfortunately, as it stands it is not obviously dedicated to Emanuel Samuels at all, but apparently to some imaginary Samuel.” Deignan’s objection is grammatical: Samuelis is the genitive of “Samuel,” while “Samuels” would yield samuelsi—if it happened to be a Latin noun.

In a sense, Deignan was right, though it is easy to argue that the English family name “Samuels” has its historical origins in an English genitive meaning “of Samuel,” which would translate into Latin as precisely the Bairdian samuelis. And it is equally easy to argue that Baird considered “Samuels” a noun of the third declension, which would drop that final -s, like lux/luc-, rex/reg-, and so on, and form its genitive in -is.

If we accept either of those as possibilities, it is by no means certain that Baird’s samuelis was an error. Instead, the name can be squeezed into the provisions of ICZN 31.1.1 as a name formed from a modern personal name that has been latinized. Poorly latinized, to be sure, but ICZN 32.5.1 lets Baird off the hook even for that: “Incorrect transliteration or latinization, or use of an inappropriate connecting vowel, are not to be considered inadvertent errors” that must be corrected.

Unfortunately for Baird and for the original spelling (whatever its origin, in error or innovation), we cannot simply dismiss samuelsis even if we class it (as I think we ought) as an incorrect subsequent spelling of samuelis. For the ICZN magically makes “an incorrect subsequent spelling … in prevailing usage and … attributed to the publication of the original spelling … a correct original spelling.” With prevalence defined by the Code as “that usage of the name which is adopted by at least a substantial majority of the most recent authors concerned with the relevant taxon,” it’s clear that we’re stuck with samuelsis, adopted as it now is by all the major world checklists.

Why, though, did our pii correctores contrive samuelsis rather than simply adopt Deignan’s suggestion of samuelsi? I cannot see how the neologism satisfies the requirement of the ICZN that a species name formed from a personal name must be formed either in accordance with the rules of Latin grammar—yielding samuelsii, if we fussily latinize the name to “Samuelsius”—or by the simple addition of a terminal -i—yielding Deignan’s preferred samuelsi. The currently prevailing form samuelsis seems to be pulled out of thin air; it is at least utterly unpredictable on the rules of zoological nomenclature.

Stay tuned. I’ll find out what happened.


Natterer Returns

A hundred eight-five years ago today, Johann Natterer arrived in Vienna after some eighteen years in the Brazilian wilderness. He had left Austria in the early spring of 1817, part of the retinue accompanying Princess Leopoldine to her wedding with the future Dom Pedro I. While most of the naturalists assigned to the party were back in Vienna within two or three years, Natterer hung on, ignoring the repeated summons from the Austrian court; only the start of the Cabanagem uprising chased him, his wife, and their little daughter back to Europe.

Over the years, Natterer had shipped more than 12,000 bird specimens back to the Brazilian Museum in Vienna, alongside thousands of other naturalia and almost two thousand ethnographic objects documenting the life of South America’s indigenous inhabitants.

In the course of his collecting, Natterer explored

“all the most remote corners of Brazil, from two degrees North latitude to twenty-five South, across thirteen of the country’s largest rivers, and virtually the entire east coast, over some 1200 to 1500 German miles.”

Sadly, most of Natterer’s notes and other documents were destroyed in the Vienna Uprising of 1848. Many of the specimens he collected, though, survived, among them many of the almost 175 types of new species he sent from Brazil.

Gould Toucans 1st Ed, Pl. 25, Natterer's Aracari

Systematic ornithology still honors Natterer in the names of many species and subspecies. Few, though, are as striking as the lovely little tawny-tufted toucanet. Natterer secured three specimens in Brazil, and it was on the basis of those birds that Gould described and named Pteroglossus nattereri, the Natterer’s araçari.

Natterer was still in Brazil when Gould published the new toucan, and he probably liked it that way:

“My longing for oft-visited lands has never been great. . . . But to travel through the remotest corners of Brazil, where no naturalist had gone before me, has always been my resolve.”

Natterer did just that.


Venezuelan Independence and the Soldier Heron

jabiru at karanambu Guyana 2007 575

The great collector of neotropical birds George K. Cherrie reports that during the war for Venezuelan independence, “a small company of Venezuelan soldiers were entrapped by Spanish troops. . . . At daybreak, [the Spaniards] made ready to attack, but suddenly wheeled about and rode precipitately in the opposite direction. . . . The Venezuelans were overjoyed to see in the dim light of dawn a long line of soldiers in white coats with red collar bands and shiny black caps marching at a double quick straight towards the Spanish camp. The Spaniards, believing that enemy reinforcements had arrived, mounted their horses and fled.”

The “soldiers” that delivered the Venezuelans from certain annihilation were actually jabirus, “marching in solemn procession towards their feeding ground near the Spanish camp.”

Venezuela declared its independence 210 years ago today—and won the battle to keep it thanks in part to the “soldier heron,” the biggest and most imposing stork in the New World.