The Avipope

It’s funny to think that of all the tens of thousands of birds names published over the years, there was a first.

But it’s true. At the very head of the chronological list stands Linnaeus’s Vultur Gryphus, the great Andean Condor, followed by an equally impressive creature, the Harpy Eagle. And then, third on the page and third in the history of the ornithological binomial, comes this bird:


Linnaeus based his description in part on this painting in Eleazar Albin’s Natural History of Birds. Albin had encountered this specimen in the 1720s or early ’30s, “at the George Tavern at Charing-Cross, with the Cassowares,” and he adopted the name given by the bird’s “keepers” there, the Western King of the VulturesRex Warwouwerum Occidentalis. George Edwards, too, though he complains about the inaccuracies in Albin’s painting, takes over his predecessor’s name, calling the bird The King of the Vultures in his own work a decade later.


The Archiater cites both men as he names the Vultur in 1758, but he declines to follow either in his choice of epithet for his “new” species. Instead of christening the bird V. rex, Linnaeus (perhaps, if I read Jobling right, inspired by a manuscript note in his copy of Edwards) looked to another form of monarchy and called it Vultur papa, the Pope Vulture.

I don’t think he meant it as a compliment.

The 1758 edition of the Systema marks the beginning of modern taxonomic history, but that same fateful year was also when all of Linnaeus’s published writings were placed on the Index and condemned to be burnt as dangerous and immoral. It’s not clear whether the Vatican’s censors had objected to Linnaeus’s graphic descriptions of the salacious lives of plants or had discovered in the Systema some hint of an attack on the “fixity” of species — but whatever the reason, I’d be surprised if the son of a Lutheran vicar took it well.

Screen Shot 2013-03-15 at 4.35.29 PM

There’s no flattery, and maybe much of its opposite, in the way those terse Latin words lie on the page:

The pope (3) is a vulture with nostrils covered by warts and a naked crown and neck.

That end of the bird is further described in unappealingly suggestive terms:

He can draw the head and neck, which look as if they had been skinned, back into the sheath of the lower neck’s downy skin.

Linnaeus’s Pope Vulture — we’ve gone back to calling it the King Vulture in English, but it retains the epithet papa — stands at the head of a long line of clerical birds, cardinals and monklets and nunlets and maybe even prothonotaries, and I’m sure that some of those names, too, are meant to poke fun at their human namesakes — none of them, though, with quite the same ferocity that I think shines through here.

Screen Shot 2013-03-15 at 5.29.31 PM