A Cream-colored Buzzard in New JerseyBy
This juvenile Red-tailed Hawk was perched on a light pole in Newark’s Weequahic Park this morning.
Apart from being breathtakingly handsome and ferociously wild, there’s really nothing much remarkable about this bird: it may not be New Jersey’s most abundant raptor (I’d still put my money on the Eastern Screech-Owl), but it’s certainly the most-seen. It’s hard to go outside, or even to sit for any period of time at the window of my workroom, without seeing one float past.
It wasn’t always that way. The abundance of this now so familiar bird in the east has varied considerably over these few centuries that make up the ornithological record, and it is well to remember that the species was not formally described from Virginia or Massachusetts or New Jersey, all places probably still too heavily forested for Red-tails in the days of the earliest observers, but rather from Jamaica — whence its disconcerting scientific name, Buteo jamaicensis.
Gmelin gave it that epithet in 1788, describing the “speciosa avis” in his, the thirteenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema:
Falco jamaicensis. 74. A falcon with pale yellow cere and feet, body brownish buff, paler and spotted below, sooty on the head. … This beautiful bird inhabits, though rather scarce, Jamaica. Bill and toenails black, iris yellow, feathers of the back and tail feathers rusty in the center and along the shaft, tarsi short. [my translation]
This description is not from a specimen but from an earlier published account, that of John Latham in his General Synopsis. Latham recognized the bird as an undescribed species, but as usual he gave it only an English name, the Cream-coloured Buzzard; by the time he got around to assigning it a formal Linnaean binomial, he’d been “scooped” by Gmelin, whose scientific name (with the change of genus from Falco to Buteo) is still the slightly misleading one we use today.
What is ironic is that both Latham and Gmelin knew the Red-tailed Hawk from the mainland of North America, too, but neither understood that the Jamaica bird and the bird Gmelin called Falco borealis on the very same page (based on Latham’s “American Buzzard” and Pennant’s “Red-tailed Falcon“) were in fact conspecific.
Now borealis is a much better name, logically, for this bird than one that, like jamaicensis, memorializes just a tiny, isolated corner of its wide range. Indeed, from Baird’s 1858 list of birds recorded on the Pacific Railroad Surveys, the first edition of Coues’s Key in 1872, both editions of the Coues Check List (1874 and 1882), and Robert Ridgway’s 1881 Nomenclature, then on into the first four editions of the AOU Check-list, Buteo borealis was the scientific name of the species (with B.b. jamaicensis, of course, used for the subspecies of Jamaica).
It wasn’t until 1944, in the Nineteenth Supplement to the Check-list, that the AOU took the hint provided a dozen years earlier in Peters and recognized the priority of jamaicensis. (Just incidentally, this is also the Supplement that gave us [back] the possessive ‘s in English names based on the names of people.)
Maybe someday I’ll see a Red-tailed Hawk in Jamaica. Meanwhile, I guess, I’ll simply find comfort in the tropical name while I’m watching hawks in the boreal cold of a New Jersey autumn.