December 6: Book signing at Wild Birds Unlimited, Paramus.
February 11: Lecture for the Montclair Bird Club.
February 18: Lecture and book signing for the Queens County Bird Club.
February 20: Lecture and book signing for the Wyncote Audubon Society.
March 21-26: Birding Nebraska with WINGS.
April 18-25: Birding Catalonia with WINGS.
August 14: Lecture at the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.
Thomas Dearborn Burleigh, born 119 years ago today, spent his war months near Pontonx, in southwestern Aquitaine. Already he was “what might have been called a compulsive collector,” but, as he recalled in 1919 on his return to Pittsburgh,
owing to working six days a week and drilling the seventh, ornithology was temporarily neglected.
Eventually, though, Burleigh found time to start robbing the nests of the local birds: a barn swallow clutch here, a green woodpecker nest there, even two nightjar eggs in June 1918, taken from “a slashing in the woods.”
Eggs, it seemed, were easy enough to come by. But the collecting was
the least of my difficulties for there still remained the necessity of blowing them and making good specimens of them. I pondered long over this matter and in the end succeeded beyond my modest expectations.
Burleigh’s pipe stem served him well as a blow pipe. And to make the hole? He found that he could use
a hat pin as a drill, concerning which no personal questions will be answered.
Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Brewer.
This giant of American ornithology lives on today only in a few bird names.
Two hundred years is a long time, and it’s no surprise that Brewer is otherwise so little known today: time erodes. But his might be a more prominent name had he not ended up on the wrong end of a stick wielded by Elliott Coues.
If nobody really won the Sparrow Wars (unless it was the house sparrow), Brewer was definitely the loser, and his name is still sullied by Couesian insult 135 years after his death.
Today, though, causa pietatis, we can remember Brewer for the positive contributions he made to American ornithology and natural history.
Who can keep track of the quarrels and tussles between England and France and Burgundy in the later Middle Ages? All those Louises and Henrys and Charleses and Philips have always run together for me, even back in the days when it was my job to help others keep that sort of thing straight.
One story from that tumultuous time (you didn’t think I’d get through this without saying “tumultuous,” did you?) has always shone bright in the distant mirror, though: the slaughter of the magpies in 1468.
That was the year when Charles the Bold maneuvered Louis XI (known to his many friends as “The Universal Spider”) into turning over much of his territory in the Lowlands and abandoning his allies from Lüttich. The treaty sealing Louis’s humiliation was signed in the northern city of Péronne and ratified in October by the French parliament. According to the historian Louis Roy (no relation to the arachnid),
the inhabitants of Paris, given as they were to independent thinking and a constant spirit of mockery, taught their birds to whistle the word “Péronne.” The birds learned so well that once he had returned to his capital, the king could not walk the streets without hearing repeated on every side “Péronne,” the name of the city that brought back such unpleasant memories.
Louis did the only thing he logically could do: On November 19, 1468, a decree went forth confiscating “any magpie or jay able to speak the word Péronne or other such fine vocables.” Convicted of lèse-majesté, these “singular prisoners of the State” were — so says Louis Roy — summarily transported to Amboise, where they were massacred at the edge of the forest.
The shameful Treaty of Péronne was abrogated two years later. It was too late, though, for the magpies of Paris and their voluble kin.
I was made curious the other day when someone told me that the concept of the “species” was a Linnaean invention. Obviously, that’s not true, but it moved me to do something I’d never done before — namely, to actually read the “Observationes” that accompany the first edition of the Swedish taxonomer’s Systema naturae, published 279 years ago (fugit irreparabile tempus indeed!).
There’s plenty of Linnaean bombast, plenty of pre-Darwinian quaintness, and a fine assertion of the value of the systematic project:
The first stage of wisdom is to know things themselves. That knowledge consists of the True Idea of objects; objects are identified and known by dividing them systematically and giving them suitable names; so much so that division and naming shall be the foundation of our knowledge.
Zoology in particular, Linnaeus goes on to say, has neglected this fundamental task:
If we look closely at the zoological works of the authoritative writers, we find that the greatest part is nothing but fantastic tales, vague writing, imperfect engravings, and often excessively long descriptions. Truly the list of those who have attempted to organize zoology into species and genera guided by systematic laws is very short, if we except the noble Willughby and the renowned Ray.
Both of those great naturalists were long gone by 1735, but surely a fan letter like that had no trouble penetrating beyond the veil.