Sharpe’s Pygmy Finch

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Also known, as of this latest Supplement to the AOU Check-list, as the Morelet seedeater.

Morelet White-collared Seedeater

The re-split of the white-collared seedeater into the Morelet seedeater and the cinnamon-rumped seedeater will strike many birders as a “no-brainer,” and the NACC’s decision in this case aligns the AOS taxonomy with most other authorities’ treatment of these tiny tanagers. The only thing we’re likely to have trouble with is the spelling of the name of one of the “new” species.

As the NACC points out, both the scientific and English names of the northern bird commemorate the Burgundian natural historian, novelist, and illustrator Pierre Marie Arthur Morelet, active in the mid-nineteenth century in Africa, the Azores, Middle America, and the Caribbean. In 1850, two years after Morelet’s return from Central America, Charles Bonaparte published a new seedeater in his honor — but misspelled the explorer’s name in the species epithet, an error that has never been corrected and likely cannot ever be.

Morelet had collected the first specimens in northern Guatemala in 1847; Bonaparte examined them at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle shortly thereafter. I understand Bonaparte’s mention here of the MNHN curator Jacques Pucheran as identifying the author of a manuscript name, probably on the specimen label, adopted and then misspelled, or at least not corrected, by Bonaparte. In any event, we are stuck with the error, and with the disparity between the number of consonants in the English name and in the scientific name.

Less than a year after Bonaparte’s publication, John Porter McCown collected two male seedeaters in Brownsville, Texas, the first records of the genus north of Mexico. Now numbers 41295 and 41296 in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, these birds were at first identified by George N. Lawrence as white-throated seedeaters, a species known only from northeastern South America. In July 1856, Philip Lutley Sclater demurred, suggesting that the individuals Lawrence had described were probably in fact representatives of the Morelet seedeater. Two years later, with at least one of the McCown specimens at hand, Spencer Baird — in an authoritative book written with the assistance of George Lawrence — agreed.

White-collared Seedeater, male, Guatemala

We know today that Sclater and Baird were right, but it took decades for the matter to be settled. In 1888, Richard Bowdler Sharpe determined that the Texas birds were female ruddy seedeaters; in what should have been a sweet piece of poetic justice, Lawrence himself had described that species six years earlier.

In gentlemanly response, Lawrence re-examined other Texas specimens belonging to George Sennett, then on deposit at the American Museum. He was able to dismiss their allocation to the ruddy seedeater, but found at the same time that they were not identical to “the true S. morelleti,” either. He accordingly described the northerly specimens as a new taxon, S. morelleti sharpei, recognizing in the subspecific epithet his “friend, Mr. R.B. Sharpe, as he is the only one to have recognized it as being distinct” from nominate morelleti. 

The source of all that confusion was the dull plumage of males in the northern portions of their range. Generations of birders have been mildly disappointed on seeing their first Texas seedeaters at how far from truly “white-collared” the birds there are. Robert Ridgway, in declining to recognize Lawrence’s sharpei, speculated that “fully adult males have simply not yet been taken” north of Mexico, and that it was just bad luck that we in the US did not get to see the more dramatically marked individuals. The AOU quickly removed sharpei from its list of recognized subspecies.

In 1907, with a wider range of specimens available to him, Joel Asaph Allen figured it out. It was not a case, he wrote, of coincidence, but one of genuine geographic variation:

the adult males of the Texas form do not acquire the broad black pectoral collar and the black back of typical morelleti, and … in consequence … have been considered as … immature.

The differences extended to females as well, and Allen found them sufficient to reinstate Lawrence’s sharpei. The bird variously known in English by such names as the little seedeater, the Sharpe finchlet, and the Sharpe pygmy finch re-entered the AOU Check-list the next year. It is still recognized as a valid subspecies by the most authoritative world lists.

Next time you get to see a Morelet seedeater, remind yourself who Morelet was. But also give a thought or two to those who dedicated so much time to figuring out just what the French naturalist had collected on that day in 1847.






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The 2018 Check-list Supplement

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Thanks to the skill and industry of the members of the NACC, the July 2019 Supplement to the venerable and authoritative Check-list of North American Birds is out now. Much is new, much is new again, and everything is food for good thought.

Most important of all may be the implicit guidance the Committee provides writers and editors struggling with the recent merger of the former American Ornithologists’ Union and the former Cooper Ornithological Society as the American Ornithological Society. It’s a great thing not to have to worry any longer about the wanderings of that blasted apostrophe, but it can apparently be challenging to find the correct and consistent way to identify the work and the works of the three organizations. The NACC here draws us a bright editorial line: The authors and publishers are still to be identified under the corporate names in effect at the time of publication, even as authority and “ownership” have been passed down to the new joint organization. Thus, the author and publisher of the 1998 Check-list and its predecessors is and ever shall be the American Ornithologists’ Union, but the responsibility for that book now belongs to the AOS. Perhaps now we will see less anachronism when the organizations are named in print.

common shelduck

Those of us destined, alas, to spend most of our time birding north of Mexico will find this year’s Supplement adding four species to the list of birds found in the ABA Area. The common shelduck moves to the main list on strength of two Newfoundland records; the Committee notes with apparent (and appropriate) approval Ned Brinkley’s suggestion that many other records from the east coast of North America may also pertain to wild birds, but suggests (again, appropriately) that shelducks found on the Pacific Coast are “more problematical.”

The Cuban vireo, amythest-throated hummingbird, and pine flycatcher also make the list. The vireo and the flycatcher were long-awaited species, each of them discovered exactly where one might expect: two separate Cuban vireos in two successive Aprils at two southern Florida localities, and the pine flycatcher in early summer 2016 in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains. Calling these records “long-awaited” and “expected” should not let us forget that birders’ detection, identification, and documentation of these subtle species was a significant achievement.

The amythest-throated hummingbird’s second occurrence north of the Mexican border could be described in much the same terms: a male photographed in the Davis Mountains of Texas in October 2016. But little could have been less expected than the first, a male discovered in Quebec a few months earlier.

Red-breasted Blackbird Panama May 2007 500
Changes to English names are always of particular interest to us birders. The red-breasted blackbird, familiar to travelers to the American tropics, is now known as the red-breasted meadowlark, an eminently sensible revival of a name more clearly reflecting the bird’s appearance and evolutionary affinities.

The replacement of the name “gray jay” by “Canada jay” probably represents the only act of the NACC ever to have penetrated into the semi-popular consciousness, thanks to efforts over the past couple of years to have the species declared the national bird of Canada. The Supplement lays out the arguments in favor of this nomenclatural innovation, unfortunately leading off with the misapprehension that the new name “was used for P[erisoreus] canadensis in the first and second editions of the Check-list” and concluding with the one truly cogent observation that the use of “Canada” for this bird “is symmetrical with the geographical names of the other jays in this genus.” I have (and can have) no objections to the Committee’s conclusion, but it is poor strategy to argue from the sloppy typography of others.

saltmarsh sparrow

Taking the view from taxonomic eternity (which is, what, about eighteen months?), alterations to official vernacular names are trivial to the point of irrelevance, and I am mildly surprised that the Committee still spends its time on such matters.

Of far greater significance are the Committee’s determinations of phylogenetic relationships, relationships that are expressed in formal scientific nomenclature. This Supplement offers two big changes of interest to birders in the US and Canada, one in the passerellid sparrows, the other in the woodpeckers.

In keeping with the latest genetic work, the Committee (re-)splits the old catch-all genus Ammodramus, leaving under that name only the grasshopper sparrow and its two South American relatives.

grasshopper sparrow

The Baird and Henslow sparrows are returned to the genus Centronyx (“spurred nail”), a fitting restoration given that the genus name was coined by none other than Spencer Baird, eponym of the ochre-faced sparrow of the northwestern Great Plains.

The LeConte, Nelson, seaside, and saltmarsh sparrows return to Ammospiza (“sand sparrow”). I can imagine that the various Seaside sparrows are destined to find themselves re-split at the generic level someday, too, in which case Oberholser’s Thryospiza would apply to them.

Even in making these splits, the Committee kept the Ammodramus, Centronyx, and Ammospiza sparrows together in the Check-list‘s linear sequence. This is not in accord with recent studies finding that Ammodramus (in its new, strict sense) diverged from the others very early on; I expect that the position of this genus will shift in another Supplement one of these years.

ladder-backed woodpecker

The large woodpecker genus Picoides has also been split, retaining (in North America) only the six-toed black-backed and American three-toed woodpeckers. All of our other “pied woodpeckers,” including the downy, hairy, Nuttall, ladder-backed, red-cockaded, white-headed, and Arizona woodpeckers are placed in Dryobates (“tree runner”), a genus name replaced long ago, in the Twenty-second Supplement, by Dryocopus.

Changes in family assignment are even less frequent than those in genera. The storm petrel family Hydrobatidae is now split in two, the new family of Southern Storm Petrels going under the name Oceanitidae and including the Wilson, white-faced, and black-bellied storm petrels and their congeners.

Northern Royal-Flyctatcher, left
Another new family includes several “flycatchers” known (so far!) only from south of the southern US border. The family Onychorhynchidae now includes the ruddy-tailed flycatcher, the flycatchers of the genus Myiobius, and the royal flycatcher(s). That (or those) last species are officially burdened with a hyphen (“royal-flycatcher”), and I imagine that the others will be, too, at some point.

The species-level splits here will be of interest to birders lucky enough to travel in the southern portions of our hemisphere. Among them is the division of the red-eyed vireo into “our” familiar northern species and the resident Chivi vireo of South America.

Red-eyed Vireo

The tufted flycatcher, suddenly familiar to many birders thanks to its continued (and probably increasing) presence in southeast Arizona, has also been split; the southern bird is now known as the olive or olive tufted flycatcher.

tufted flycatcher, Carr Canyon, Arizona

This is far from the only change in our understanding of the tyrant flycatchers. The entire family has been reorganized to reflect a new scheme of subfamily allocations, and the linear sequence of species has been altered as well.

The same fate has befallen the family AccipitridaeMost striking here is the fact that the kites, once thought of as somehow belonging together (and so depicted in most field guides), are spread over three subfamilies: Elaninae for the pearl and white-tailed kites, Gypaetinae for the hook-billed, gray-headed, and swallow-tailed kites; and Acciptrinae for the Mississippi and plumbeous kites, which fall in the new linear sequence between the Steller sea eagle and the black-collared hawk.

Pearl Kite Panama May 2007

As always, there is a great deal more to read and to ponder in this Supplement, and as always, some of the most interesting actions are those the Committee declined to take. Thus, for example, we still have two species of bean geese, but only one Cory shearwater and Mallard and barn owl and Audubon shearwater and LeConte thrasher and white-eared ground sparrow.

common gallinule

Given the Committee’s activism in the case of the gray jay, I am surprised to find that they declined to change the eminently confusing and uninformative English name of the common gallinule — but grateful that they left the official vernacular name of Columba livia alone.

What will next year bring? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably better, but it won’t be long before the first proposals for the 2019 Supplement appear. Stay tuned.

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Vieillot, Wilson, and a Waterthrush

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vieill type of Louisiana waterthrusy

The influence of Alexander Wilson’s writings on Louis Pierre Vieillot as he composed his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l’Amérique septentrionale is evident from the several passages in which the Frenchman cites, quotes, or — to indulge in an anachronism — plagiarizes the father of American ornithology.

What is less clear is exactly when Vieillot had access to Wilson’s work, a matter complicated by the uncertain dating of the fascicles making up his HIstoire naturelle. Volume One is dated 1807 on the title page, but Dickinson et al., in their useful Priority, argue cogently that the first installments did not arrive until 1808, and probably late 1808 at that.

Just how Vieillot used Wilson when he did have the American Ornithology at hand is a more interesting question. The easiest way to begin to answer it is to look at those species for which the French ornithologist published two accounts: one in the Histoire naturelle, apparently without benefit of Wilson, and another, the better part of a decade later, in the Nouveau dictionnaire, with the American Ornithology at his elbow.

wilson water thrush

One such example is found in Vieillot’s treatments of the Louisiana waterthrush, the first scientific description and naming of which he published in the Histoire naturelle in 1807 (or more likely 1808).

This is — Spencer Baird’s later doubts notwithstanding — the original description of the species we now know as Parkesia motacilla, and the accompanying plate by Prêtre is, faute de mieux, the type “specimen” of the Louisiana waterthrush.

Vieillot’s account is entirely his, uninfluenced by Wilson‘s (which is, after all, dated 1811), and apparently written without reference to Buffon’s equivocal description, published thirty years earlier.

A thrush with olive-brown upperparts; stripe on the side of the head, throat, and breast white; belly buffy; underparts spotted brown.

To obtain this rare new species, it is necessary to visit the interior United States and search for it in its customary abode alongside brooks. It is easy to identify from the way it holds its tail, which it ceaselessly wags upwards and often holds cocked. The individual depicted in the plate I publish here was collected in Kentucky. Its bill is brown; the top of the head, the neck, and the body, and the wings and tail are olive-brown; a white stripe extends above the cheek and around the eye, ending on the nape: this stripe is interrupted near the bill by a brown mark. The throat, the front of the neck, and the breast are white; flanks and belly buffy; all of these have brown spots: the feet are a brownish yellow. Total length five inches three lines.

From my collection.

Among the notable things here: Vieillot knew that his bird was new to science (he was already familiar with the northern waterthrush), and, as if the English names of warblers weren’t bad enough, the type locality is not Louisiana but Kentucky. He still thought it a true thrush of the genus Turdus, an understandable misapprehension; James Frances Stephens would gently point to the taxonomic future ten years later when he called the bird “the warbler thrush.”

In 1818, Vieillot published a second account of the Louisiana waterthrush, this time, though, having read Wilson’s work and his description of a bird Wilson had believed new, the “water thrush,” Turdus aquaticus. Vieillot determined that Wilson’s aquaticus was identical to his own motacillaothers have taken a different view over the past two centuries — and incorporated much of Wilson’s text into his updated and expanded account. The excerpt below, from volume 20 of the Dictionnaire nouveau, underlines in black the text taken over from Vieillot’s Histoire naturelle, in purple the material obviously borrowed from Wilson.

Vieillot LA Waterthrush 1818

The concluding statement of range, “in Louisiana, on the deserted shores of the Mississippi River,” matches nothing in Wilson or in Vieillot’s earlier account, and is certainly drawn from Gmelin’s description of the northern waterthrush, published thirty years earlier and a source that Vieillot cites explicitly elsewhere.

Overall, this is a straightforward combination of texts, informative and nearly seamless. A couple of spots, however, remind us just why Vieillot might not have been more successful as an ornithologist in America. The awkward and rather odd notion that the singing male “perches halfway out on the limb of an aquatic tree” (“il se tient…”) is a misunderstanding of Wilson’s words “the musician is perched on the middle branches of a tree over the brook or river.”

That is a minor misreading, but Vieillot commits a more grievous error in mistranslating Wilson’s assessment of the species’ status in Pennsylvania:

about the beginning of May it passes through Pennsylvania to the north; is seen along the channels of our solitary streams for ten or twelve days; afterwards disappearing until August.

Even leaving aside the question of just which waterthrush species Wilson is talking about here, for Vieillot to assert that the Louisiana “arrives in northern Pennsylvania at the beginning of May and disappears in the month of August” is clearly based less on any new knowledge than on some notably poor English skills.

I am convinced that the efforts of some ornithophilologist someday to go through all of Vieillot’s writings will pay off. Exactly how we can’t yet say — but that’s the fun of it, after all.



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The American Philomela

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In 1831, Audubon lauded the vocal skills of a particular brown warbler.

Much and justly as the song of the Nightingale is admired, I am inclined, after having often listened to it, to pronounce it in no degree superior to that of the Louisiana Water Thrush.

Audubon’s comparison to the nightingale was taken up and elaborated just a few months later by his colleague and correspondent Thomas Nuttall.

The silence of night is also, at times, relieved by the incesssant warble of this Western Philomel, whose voice, breaking upon the ear of the lonely traveler in the wilderness, seems like the dulcet lay of some fairy vision…. distinguished by the loudness, sweetness, and expressive vivacity of their notes, which, like the nightingale’s, beginning high and clear, flow and descend in a cadence so delicate as to terminate in sounds scarcely audible above the whispering breeze.

This purple passage is only partly Nuttall’s, much of it adapted from Alexander Wilson’s 1811 account of the bird he described as The Water Thrush.

Fascinating as it may be to unravel the clew of intertextuality in early American ornithology, what interests me is whether it is possible to determine which waterthrush each of these authors was listening to. All three recognized only one species (Audubon would later recant his “split” of the Louisiana from the northern waterthrush), but that, of course, does not mean that they were not hearing both.

It is immediately apparent that Wilson had experience with both of the waterthrush species recognized today. In spring 1810, “among the mountain streams in the state of Tennessee,” he found

a variety of this bird pretty numerous, with legs of a bright yellow color.

He also records an “abundance” of them “in the cane-breaks, swamps, river-shores, and deep watery solitudes of Louisiana … and the Mississippi territory,” all localities and habitats suited only to the Louisiana waterthrush.

But it is equally clear that he had experience of the northern waterthrush.

About the beginning of May it passes through Pennsylvania to the north; it is seen along the channels of our solitary streams for ten or twelve days; afterwards disappears until August.

Wilson gives no indication, though, that he ever heard any of these passage northerns utter anything other than a sharp chip. His description of a male waterthrush’s singing post is obviously that of the Louisiana, “perched on the middle branches of a tree over the brook or river bank.”

What about the nature of the song itself? Wilson, and after him Nuttall, describes it as at first “very high and clear, falling with an almost imperceptible gradation till [the individual notes] are scarcely articulated.” I can almost stretch this to apply to the song of the Louisiana waterthrush, but Wilson goes on to praise

his charming melody, that can be heard for nearly half a mile … so exquisitely sweet and expressive,

a poor fit for either waterthrush and nearly nonsensical in description of the Louisiana’s piercing whistles and quiet stutterings.

More puzzling still is the comparison with the nightingale. It is impossible, publication dates notwithstanding, to know whether it was Nuttall or Audubon who came up with it, but the analogy rings not particularly true — especially with the added detail that the bird sings at night. Unlike the Ovenbird, neither of our waterthrushes is especially given to nocturnal vocalizing, though both species are known to have a crepuscular flight song.

Audubon certainly knew the song of the nightingale well, and Nuttall, though he was a Yorkshire boy, surely had occasion to hear it in southern England a time or two. (Wilson, alas, most likely knew the species only from poetry.)

It is hard for me to imagine that anyone who had ever listened to the slow, low-pitched, neatly separated phrases of a nightingale could be reminded of either of our waterthrush species. Slow a northern’s song down, with some pauses insert for breath, and I could almost be convinced that there is a similarity with the Old World singer, but only almost.

I think instead that the description of the waterthrush’s (or the waterthrushes’) song in all three of our authors is a composite, made up of bits of the northern song, bigger bits of the Louisania song (avant la lettre!), and lots of the song of one of the notorious night singers — a mockingbird or a yellow-breasted chat, both of which sing their slow, low-pitched and evenly spaced phrases from southern thickets day and night.

It’s no wonder it took us so long to figure the waterthrushes out.



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How Many Waterthrushes?

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Pl enl 752 labeled tachetéeYesterday I set out, naively, to write the history of waterthrush identification in a paragraph or two. The matter turns out to be even more complicated than one would expect for a pair of little brown birds whose type specimens are not preserved and whose nomenclatural past is a snarled steaming mess.

Sometimes giving up is indeed the better part of valor. But I did learn a few things along the way — among them, just how hard it was to even figure out how many waterthrushes there are.

I’d assumed that European science knew only one before 1807, when Vieillot formally described the Louisiana waterthrush (from specimens taken in Kentucky!). In fact, though, it is evident that even those natural historians who recognized only one waterthrush species actually had access to specimens of both.

Consider this account of the northern waterthrush from the Histoire naturelle of the count de Buffon and his collaborators, which concludes with the description of

another warbler, also sent to us from Louisiana, whose plumage is a cleaner gray and shows only sparse streaking; the underparts are whitish, with a hint of buff on the flanks ….

This can only be the bird we know today as the Louisiana waterthrush — except for Buffon’s puzzling assertion that this second bird’s bill is smaller than that of the northern. I suspect that this is a slip of the pen, and that “le premier” should actually read here “le second” and vice versa.

In any event, John Latham and Thomas Pennant both followed the Frenchman’s lead in recognizing two species of waterthrush. Latham called the second the “umbrose warbler,” Pennant — even less felicitously — the “dusky warbler.”

It took the genius and industry of Louis Pierre Vieillot to straighten things out, aligning plumage and bill size in the way we do today. Unfortunately, and incomprehensibly, his description of the bird now known as the Louisiana waterthrush was unknown to Wilson, to Nuttall, and to Audubon.

Audubon would go so far as to declare himself the discoverer of the Louisiana waterthrush, describing it as a new species (and, naturally, “extremely delicate eating”) in 1841, only to explicitly recant eight years later:

although I was for many years convinced that two distinct species have been confounded under the name of Water Thrush, yet a more strict examination of individuals of these supposed species has induced me to … consider [them] as belonging to one and the same species.

Not until 1858 was the Louisiana waterthrush authoritatively resurrected, and even then it would be some decades before the birds and their scientific names were correctly matched up — but that’s another fragment of the story.

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