Parakeet Art

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Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Incas, the last known captive Carolina parakeet.

Incas was surely not the last of his species, as Noel Snyder has cogently pointed out. But when that bird fell from his perch in the Cincinnati zoo, it seems that interest in the parakeets died too. For whatever reason, this species’ decline never drew much attention, and its extinction was, apparently, deemed simply inevitable.

A century on, it doesn’t seem quite fair. The loss of the Americas’ northernmost psittacid should have been mourned then and should be more widely known now. Ask a hundred people on the street about the passenger pigeon or the ivory-billed woodpecker, and most of them will have some dim remembering of having heard the names. Not so with the parrot.

Like the Eskimo curlew, the Carolina parakeet is a birder’s bird even in extinction. And that makes it even more important that a few artists have used this species to confront the role of humans in the natural world.

The sculptor Laurel Roth’s “Biodiversity Reclamation Suits” is a great example.

Laurel Roth parakeet

Each of the dozen and a half objects that make up Roth’s punningly titled work is a wooden pigeon, draped in a crocheted “skin” representing a different rare or extinct bird. Much of the power of “Suits” lies in the apparent  incongruity between the bright, cheerful, craft-like colors and textures of the needlework (can I call crocheting “needlework”?) and the somber reality of what it depicts.

Roth herself has compared the yarn suits to “a soothing ‘cozy’ on environmental fears,” an act of covering “the feelings of helplessness and confused shame that come with learning about accelerated extinction rates caused by humans.” A defining character of art, of course, is that whatever it conceals is exactly what it means to draw attention to.

What the suits literally cover is the form of a feral pigeon, a bird high on everyone’s least-likely-to-disappear list. The artist explains that

visually recreating lost biodiversity by using the rarely appreciated but highly adaptable pigeon serves both to highlight the loss that we have already sustained [and to draw] attention to the fact that we often revile the animals most capable of living in a human made environment.

The question of what humans value and why is brought to a fine point by Roth’s use of contrasting materials. The pigeons, a species ignored by those who don’t “revile” them, are realistically sculptured in wood and mounted on walnut stands. The suits representing rare and extinct birds — desirable birds — are made of common yarn, stylized almost to the point of garishness; skillfully made, they would nevertheless look at home at any yard sale or church bazaar. Which are we supposed to value, which should we admire when we look at these objects?

The death of Incas was hardly noted at the time, with just the merest mention in the Cincinnati papers — and hardly a peep from the ornithological journals. This sad centennial will likely draw no more notice, but we are fortunate to have this artist to remind us.

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Canada Jay: Why Not?

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I’ll tell you why not.

Fauna boreali-americana

Fauna boreali-americana

Apparently there is a move afoot to recommend that the English name of Perisoreus canadensis be changed from the venerable “Gray Jay” to “Canada Jay.” It doesn’t really matter — names are just names, and English names have no taxonomic force in any event — but if the proposal is to be based on the information published in Ontario Birds a year ago, there are a couple of important corrections to be made before the AOS committee comes to a decision.

The essay in OB, “How the Canada Jay lost its name and why it matters,” is delightful and impressive, including an enormously helpful discussion of the debate leading up to the AOU’s adoption of English species names in the fifth edition of the Check-list. Unfortunately, this same essay begins with an assertion that is simply not true, namely, that “Canada Jay” was “the name [the AOU] had used for Perisoreus canadensis until 1910″ and the species’ “original official English name.”

A look at the pre-1910 editions of the Check-list, the first (1886) and the second (1895), reveals immediately that both used the English name “Canada Jay” to refer only to the nominate subspecies, not to the species as a whole. The typography and numbering in the first and the second editions serve poorly to distinguish species from subspecies, but the convention there in the case of polytypic species is to list the nominate subspecies first, without its redundant third element, and then to list the other subspecies as full trinomials. In no instance is any polytypic species assigned its own English name.

The rather illogical typographic system misled the author of the OB piece to claim, bizarrely, that the Check-list included “no nominate subspecies” of Perisoreus canadensis. In fact, the first entry, headed “Canada Jay,” refers only to the nominate subspecies, as the description of range makes plain:

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The graphic privilege given the nominate subspecies of polytypic species was, happily, abandoned beginning with the third edition of the Check-list, when all subspecies were assigned letters under a species-level header comprising only the scientific name. As in the previous editions, there are no English species names for polytypic species.

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The same system was used for the fourth edition of 1931. Only in 1957 was a Check-list published with English names for species rather than just for subspecies.

None of these circumstances would be especially interesting — but for the fact that the author of the note in OB continually describes “Canada Jay” as “the original official English name” of Perisoreus canadensis “abandoned in 1957” “through error” and deserving of “restoration.” A weak argument to begin with (there is no such thing as lex prioritatis in English names), it falls apart entirely with recognition that the AOU never used “Canada Jay” to refer to anything but a subspecies of Perisoreus canadensis.

To its great credit, the AOU (now AOS) committee has been notably reluctant to change the English names of North American birds; in fact, as many have observed over the years, it is precisely the English names that have remained relatively stable as taxonomic discoveries have forced changes, and sometimes outright replacements, in scientific names.

There is no cogent and positive reason for the AOU to replace “Gray Jay,” the “official” English species name of Perisoreus canadensis. The name is not misleading — it denotes, after all, a jay that is gray — and it threatens confusion with no extralimital species. It avoids the geographic confusion created by so many English bird names. And it has been universally in use for more than sixty years.

All this, of course, is a tempest in a maple-flavored teacup: nothing is going to change. But it raises a very important matter, and in this at least, I agree fully with the author of the OB essay.

There is no reason that birders should feel obligated to abide by the decisions of the AOS in the matter of English names. There is no reason, for that matter, that the AOS should waste its time making decisions about English names.

Scientific names have a scientific purpose: they are meant to indicate identity and relationship. English names, in contrast, are just for the convenience of those who can’t remember or pronounce such impossibly challenging labels as Junco or Vireo, and there is every reason to simply let them evolve as the community using them does. The notion that, as Dan Strickland writes, “the unelected foreign-dominated body” that is the AOS should direct its efforts to the legislation of English names is risible if you think about it.

So by all means, let’s call it the Canada jay, if that’s what pleases you and your birding friends. But let’s not do it because we believe, falsely, that that’s what the AOU always called it.




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An Iiwi to Northumbria

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The story of a Hawaiian bird:

Wilson’s I’iwi

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A “New” Iiwi?

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On February 24, 1911, Outram Bangs at the MCZ named a new subspecies of the iiwi, differing from the “true” iiwi of the island of Hawaii in its stronger bill and orange rather than scarlet tones to its plumage. Though Bangs claimed that specimens of his new suavis (“smooth”) “could be picked out easily” in the museum tray, most recent authorities consider the iiwi monotypic.

But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore Bangs’s publication of suavis, which delivers one of the smoothest (!) museum insults ever:

While this particular difference in the shade of vermilion is very striking in the symmetrical, smooth skins of even and regular make, which I have just compared, I must confess that it probably would not be in rough skins such as some European ornithologists appear still content with.

In other, not much more brutal words, if curators in the Old World issued proper instructions to their preparators, they, too, would be able to see the differences their American colleagues could discern.

So there.

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The Irony of the Iiwi

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Screenshot 2017-12-27 14.12.55

In 1850, A.B. Reichenbach wrote of the 2018 ABA Bird of the Year that

It is called “Kleidervogel” [garment bird, vestiaria] because the inhabitants of these islands once used the feathers to create the magnificent red feather capes and other ornaments worn by their chieftains during ceremonies. As a result, the bird became very valuable and was subjected to significant persecution, as many individuals were required for such a garment. Now that the inhabitants are being supplied with European products, the capes will probably fall out of fashion and the bird, which has become rare, will probably increase again.

Unfortunately, those vaunted products included rabbits, housecats, and mosquito-borne disease, which now seem likely to exterminate the iiwi far more efficiently and far more definitively than even the feather hunters were able to do.

You can read about some of the efforts underway to save the iiwi and its island habitats at the website of American Bird Conservancy and on this species’ very own page as the ABA’s 2018 Bird of the Year.

2018 bird of year


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