Sep
28

Not Just Ani Sugarbird

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François Levaillant was one of the most remarkable figures in all of ornithology, a scientist every American birder should know — and one almost no American birder knows.

Levaillant’s career was a sort of natural historical triangle trade, his travels taking him from colonial South America to Europe to Africa and back. Born a creole in Suriname in 1753, he died in France seventy-one years later, lauded by many and denounced by more. Even today, nearly two hundred years later, he remains controversial: an intrepid explorer, a racist seducer, a gifted writer, an irredeemable liar?

That question mark should be erased. Levaillant was all of those things and more, all at once, and had he written in English and spent more time in North America, he would surely have become the object of a mythology that would long ago have left the Audubon legend choking on his dust. (In fact, Audubon  recognized this himself, I think, to some extent, or he would not have taken such trouble to plagiarize Levaillant’s writings as part of the pathetic effort to embellish his own biography.)

Whatever Levaillant’s failings, and they were many and fascinating, he had a keen eye and a sharp pen when it came to correcting others’ errors. A striking example is the little appendix to his Histoire naturelle des promerops, where he points out in his characteristically vivid way the misidentifications made by others (whom he sniffs at along the way as mere “nomenclateurs”).

Buffon, mildly resented for having offered a young Levaillant nothing more than encouragement, comes in for what is nearly ridicule for his treatment of a bird in Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus:

That bird was first described by Seba under the name of “ani” and is now recognized by everyone as the “bout de petun” of Cayenne. Why then make of it a promerops, especially not having seen it, and especially since no one has ever found any promerops in the New World up to this point?

Levaillant’s notion (and, to be fair, most of his contemporaries’ notion) of just what a “promerops” might be was sufficiently vitreous that one is surprised to find him casting stones.

He was at it again, and in no better mood, in dealing with the ani again in his Histoire naturelle des perroquets:

[Jean de] Laët mentions in his Description of the East Indies a “black macaw from Guyana,” its plumage glossy green, the bill red, and the feet yellow. He says that it lives in unfarmed areas and keeps to the sterile mountains. This description fits the ani or “bout de petun,” which an inexperienced ornithologist like Laët might well have mistaken for a parrot.

Levaillant explains away the odd soft part colors as the product of an overly enthusiastic taxidermist — and takes the opportunity to poke at Buffon again, pointedly reminding the reader that the image of the ani in the Planches enluminées also shows bright red on the face where in life there is none.

Buffon the man was long dead by the time Levaillant composed that withering footnote, but Buffon the book would thrive for many decades to come. (Famously, George Bernard Shaw is said to have been assigned passages for imitation in order to improve his style in French prose.) One of Buffon’s posthumous editors, Charles Sonnini de Manoncourt, himself a frequent object of Levaillant’s unbounded scorn, took the parrot matter as an opportunity to defend the master, or at least to denigrate the carping Levaillant, who

claims that Laët’s black macaw … is the ani or “bout de petun….” But these two groups of animals are so distant from each other that it is impossible to confuse them, even with no education at all in natural history. Furthermore, it seems that Levaillant has never read Laët, because he says that Laët mentions it in his description of the East Indies, whereas the author wrote only of America, which is where he traveled.

So there.

If petty quarrels like this don’t convince you to learn more about Levaillant, then read the reports of his travels in Africa. You’ll never be the same.

 

 

 

 

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Sep
25

Little Stogies

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Greater Ani Panama May 2007

Those weird black cuckoos of the American tropics have been known as “anis” since pre-Columbian times, and the Native name was adopted immediately and authoritatively by the earliest European scientists.

French-speaking colonists, though, came up with another label for the bird.

Piso and Marcgrave had been satisfied to merely describe the ani’s vocalizations:

It calls with a loud voice a single syllable, yiiiiy, rising in the middle.

But the creoles of at least one island colony heard something else.

There are also many small black birds in Guadeloupe, quite similar to European blackbirds, which the inhabitants call “bout de petun,” rolled tobacco, since they believe — just as fools hear bells speak and discover in the shapes of clouds anything they please — that this bird’s song says, “un petit bout de petun,” a little roll of tobacco.

They also called these somber-plumed birds “devils,” inevitably enough, but it was the odd name “bout de petun” that caught the attention of scholars in metropolitan France.

Buffon rejected the earlier explanation of the name as a fanciful transcription of the ani’s song; instead, he argued that this “ridiculous name” could have been inspired only by the bird’s plumage,

brownish black, the color of a plug of tobacco…. The creoles of Cayenne have given this bird a name more suitable to its usual song, calling it the “bouilleur de canari,” referring to the sound made by water boiling in a cooking pot, quite different … from the verbalization “bout de petun.”

Etienne Lefebvre-Deshayes, one of the most distinguished natural historians of the Caribbean, confirmed Buffon’s suspicion.

We wouldn’t say that the bird has a song at all, rather a quite simple whistle or peeping, though there are occasions when it is more varied, but always harsh and unpleasant,

hardly, it seems, the sort of vocalization to be rendered by the bubbling consonants of “petit bout de petun.”

Groove-billed Ani

Different ears have different hears, of course. Where Buffon thought it beneath serious consideration that “petit bout de petun” could resemble the ani’s song, Charles Nodier, a polymath genius and authority on (of all things) onomatopoeia, found confirmation for the name’s echoic origin in Buffon’s own words.

Readers familiar with the mechanics of pronunciation will agree that, contrary [to Buffon’s conclusion], there cannot possibly be a better and more natural representation of the sound of bubbling and boiling than the onomatopoetic “petit bout de petun,” which seems to have been formed expressly to echo the sound of bubbling…. the meaning [of those words] is entirely fortuitous and insignificant here,

the most forthright dismissal possible of the older author’s speculation about the tobacco-colored plumage of the ani.

Good to have that settled. Or not.

Carib Grackle

In his history of Guadeloupe, Jules Ballet turned a powerful hose on the stables by asserting that

the ani and the bout de petun are two quite different birds. The former, which is quite rare in Guadeloupe, has one character [namely, the bill shape] that prevents any confusion…. The bout de petun … is a grackle,

the Carib grackle.

Maybe. Truth is, I can’t hear “bout de petun” in the songs of any of the anis or of the grackle. Deep down, I think the name is probably the product of folk etymology. With no way to prove it, though, I’ll have to let all those dead Frenchmen figure it out among themselves.

smooth-billed ani

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Sep
23

Owlegory

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great horned owl Walgren Lake

Writes Heinrich von Höwel in his New and Wondrous Menagerie of 1601,

When their innate natural hatred of the owl causes the other birds to mob the owl and tear out its feathers, as Aristotle informs us in the De animalibus, it sometimes happens that they are easily pursued and caught by the hunter. In the same way, it often happens that when rich people oppress the poor, they are in turn attacked by others more powerful and lose their possessions, or are otherwise beset by war, imprisonment, or other costly penalties. This in fulfillment of the word of God, Is. 33: “Woe to thee that spoilest… thou shalt be spoiled.” And even if sometimes that does not happen, the wrath of God still hangs over them. And because they rob other people of their worldly goods by violence or deceit, they in turn are themselves robbed of their eternal salvation and heavenly inheritance. In whatever way it takes, whether here on earth or in eternity, it comes to pass that in the end all such people find the word of God fulfilled that was issued to King Zedekiah: “My net also will I spread upon him, and he shall be taken in my snare.”

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Sep
22

The Harmless Owls of Egypt

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little owl Catalonia

Prospero Alpini writes:

Alexandria and Cairo have nearly as many owls as pigeons, and they fly around both day and night. I don’t believe that these owls hunt smaller birds as they do in Italy, as though they are quite commonly seen by day, the little birds pay them none of the startled attention that causes them to gather when they see an owl in Italy. Thus we failed more than once to capture small birds here, whereas in Italy we have often used an owl and birdlime to hunt birds with great success.

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Sep
17

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

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Original descriptionFringilla melodia Wilson 1810

Taxonomic history at Avibase

Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list

AOU 1 (1886): Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata [fasciata]; Desert Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata fallax; Mountain Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata montana; Heermann’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata heermanni; Samuels’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata samuelis; Rusty Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata guttata; Sooty Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata rufina; Aleutian Song Sparrow, Melospiza cinerea

AOU 2 (1895): Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata [fasciata]; Desert Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata fallax; Mountain Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata montana; Heermann’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata heermanni; Samuels’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata samuelis; Rusty Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata guttata; Sooty Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata rufina; Brown’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata rivularis; Santa Barbara Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata graminea; San Clemente Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata clementae; Bischoff’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza insignis; Aleutian Song Sparrow, Melospiza cinerea

AOU 3 (1910): Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia melodia; Desert Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia fallax; Mountain Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia montana; Heermann’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia heermanni; Samuels’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia samuelis; Rusty Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia morphna; Sooty Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia rufina; Brown’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia rivularis; Santa Barbara Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia graminea; San Clemente Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia clementae; Dakota Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia juddi; Merrill’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia merrilli; Alameda Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia pusillula; San Diego Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia cooperi; Yakutat Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia caurina; Kenai Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia kenaiensis; Mendocino Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia cleonensis; Bischoff’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia insignis; Aleutian Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia sanaka; Suisun Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia maxillaris

AOU 4 (1931): Eastern Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia melodia; Atlantic Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia atlantica; Mississippi Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia beata; Dakota Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia juddi; Mountain Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia fallax; Modoc Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia fisherella; Merrill’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia merrilli; Kenai Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia kenaiensis; Yakutat Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia caurina; Sooty Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia rufina; Rusty Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia morphna; Mendocino Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia cleonensis; Samuels’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia samuelis; Suisun Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia maxillaris; Modesto Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia mailliardi; Alameda Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia pusillula; Heermann’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia heermanni; San Diego Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia cooperi; Santa Barbara Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia graminea; San Clemente Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia clementae; Coronados Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia coronatorum; Desert Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia saltonis; Brown’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia rivularis

AOU 5 (1957): Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia: Melospiza melodia melodia, Melospiza melodia atlantica, Melospiza melodia euphonia, Melospiza melodia juddi, Melospiza melodia montana, Melospiza melodia inexpectata, Melospiza melodia merrilli, Melospiza melodia fisherella, Melospiza melodia maxima, Melospiza melodia sanaka, Melospiza melodia amaka, Melospiza melodia insignis, Melospiza melodia kenaiensis, Melospiza melodia caurina, Melospiza melodia rufina, Melospiza melodia morphna, Melospiza melodia cleonensis, Melospiza melodia gouldii, Melospiza melodia maxillaris, Melospiza melodia samuelis, Melospiza melodia pusillula, Melospiza melodia mailliardi, Melospiza melodia heermanni, Melospiza melodia cooperi, Melospiza melodia micronyx, Melospiza melodia clementae, Melospiza melodia graminea, Melospiza melodia coronatorum, Melospiza melodia fallax, Melospiza melodia saltonis, Melospiza melodia rivularis

AOU 6 (1983): Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

AOU 7 (1998): Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern

Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works

Adult, subspecies melodia: Brown to faintly reddish brown tail feathers, the central pair with a dark shaft streak and, occasionally faint narrow bars; outer web of outermost rectrices paler brownish gray but never white. Rump and upper tail coverts gray-brown with blackish or brown streaking. Mantle and scapular feathers brown with black centers, lining up into streaks. Primaries and secondaries dull gray brown with paler edges, tertials black with broad brown edges and grayish tips. Greater coverts brown with large blackish teardrops and inconspicuously paler tips. Median coverts brown with dark brown centers and inconspicuous dull gray tips. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape brown-gray with variable brown streaking. Underparts white to off-white; faint buffy or gray wash on flanks. The wide jaw stripe and throat are dull buffy white, separated by a strikingly broad wedge-shaped or even triangular black lateral throat stripe; the throat is flecked dark. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with wide black streaks, the feathers edged in fresh plumage with rust. Under tail coverts and vent buff-white with brown streaks. Brown crown with narrow black streaks and black-streaked gray median crown stripe. Long, broad supercilium pale tan-gray, paler on the lore. Olive-gray ear coverts surrounded by narrow brown eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler pinkish brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies melodia: Buffier and less neatly marked above, the crown less regularly streaked than in adults. Creamy white to buffy underparts with narrower, messier streaking.

Length 146-150 mm (5.7-5.9 in)

Wing chord 65-67 mm (2.6 in)

Tail 64-67 mm (2.5-2.6 in)

W:T 1.04

Adult, subspecies rufina: Tail feathers dusky brown, the central pair with obscurely darker shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts dark dull rusty brown. Mantle and scapular feathers dark ashy brown with sooty streaks and very indistinct dark shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries dull dark brown, outer webs of tertials brighter rust. Greater coverts chestnut with large blackish teardrops. Median coverts dusky brown with dark brown centers. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape dark brown-gray with dusky streaking. Underparts dull gray; faint olive cast to flanks. The wide jaw stripe and throat are dull grayish white, separated by a broad wedge-shaped or even triangular sooty brown lateral throat stripe; throat flecked dark. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with molasses brown streaks, the feathers usually without darker shaft streaks. Under tail coverts and vent grayish white with brown streaks. Sooty brown crown with narrow black streaks and only a poorly defined median crown stripe. Brown-gray ear coverts surrounded by narrow dark brown eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies rufina: Less neatly marked above, the crown less regularly streaked than in adults. Buffier underparts with slightly narrower, messier streaking.

Length 145-160 mm (5.7-6.3 in)

Wing chord 67-72 mm (2.6-2.8 in)

Tail 64-70 mm (2.5-2.8 in)

W:T 1.03

Adult, subspecies cinerea: 

Length 181-188 mm (7.1-7.4 in)

Wing chord 81-85 mm (31.-3.3 in)

Tail 78-83 mm (3.0-3.3 in)

W:T 1.02

Adult, subspecies morphna: Tail feathers dark ruddy brown, the central pair with darker shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts deep rusty brown. Mantle and scapular feathers rusty olive with rusty streaks and indistinct black shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries dark brown, outer webs of tertials rusty. Greater coverts dark rust with large blackish teardrops. Median coverts dark rust with dark brown centers. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape dark rusty with dusky streaking. Underparts olive-gray. The wide jaw stripe and throat are yellowish gray, separated by a broad brown lateral throat stripe. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with chestnut streaks, the feathers usually without darker shaft streaks. Under tail coverts and vent dull gray-white with brown streaks. Dark rusty crown with narrow black streaks and variably conspicuous gray median crown stripe. Rust-brown ear coverts surrounded by narrow dark chestnut eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies morphna: Less deep rusty and less neatly marked above, with blackish mantle streaking. Slightly whiter, buff-washed underparts with less well-organized and less vividly brown streaking.

Length 150-153 mm (5.9-6.0 in)

Wing chord 65-68 mm (2.6-2.7 in)

Tail 63-66 mm (2.5-2.6 in)

W:T 1.03

Adult, subspecies fallax: Tail feathers pale rusty brown, the central pair with darker shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts pale rusty brown. Mantle and scapular feathers pale brown-gray with reddish-brown streaks and no or very inconspicuous black shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries brown, outer webs of tertials rustier. Greater coverts pale rust with mid-sized blackish teardrops. Median coverts pale rust with darker centers. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape gray-brown with dusky streaking. Underparts white. The wide jaw stripe and throat are white, separated by a narrow, sometimes incomplete chestnut lateral throat stripe; throat flecked brown. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with fairly sparse rusty streaks, the feathers usually without darker shaft streaks. Under tail coverts and vent white with sparse rusty streaks. Pale rusty crown with narrow brown streaks and variably conspicuous whitish median crown stripe. Pale rusty ear coverts surrounded by narrow, slightly darker eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies fallax: Less rusty and less neatly marked above, with brown streaking on buffy-brown mantle. Buff-washed underparts with sparse pale-brown streaking.

Length 140-146 mm (5.5-5.7 in)

Wing chord 64-67 mm (2.5-2.6 in)

Tail 66-69 mm (2.6-2.7 in)

W:T 0.97

Adult, subspecies cleonensis: Tail feathers rusty olive, the central pair with darker shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts deep rusty olive. Mantle and scapular feathers dark olive-brown with dark chestnut and brown streaks and black shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries brown, outer webs of tertials rustier. Greater coverts brown with mid-sized blackish teardrops. Median coverts olive-brown with darker centers. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape gray-brown with dusky streaking. Underparts with strong yellow-olive wash. The wide jaw stripe and throat are olive-white, separated by a broad black lateral throat stripe. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with heavy dark chestnut streaks, the feathers with darker shaft streaks. Under tail coverts and vent yellow-oilve with sparse streaks. Dull rusty crown with narrow black streaks and variably conspicuous gray-olive median crown stripe. Brown ear coverts surrounded by narrow, black eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies cleonensis: Less neatly marked above, with brown streaking on buffy-olive mantle. Yellow-washed underparts with sparse  darkbrown streaking.

Length 137-138 mm (5.4 in)

Wing chord 59-62 mm (2.3-2.4 in)

Tail 58-60 mm (2.3-2.4 in)

W:T 1.03

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