Catesby’s Dopchick

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A funny bird with a funny name, the Pied-billed Grebe was first depicted and described by Mark Catesby nearly 300 years ago. The bird in Catesby’s painting was a male, collected in South Carolina, and its description is headed by a Latin phrase that very neatly sums up most of what most birders know about this species: Podicepes minor rostro vario, a “rather small grebe with a marked bill.”

For all its technical clumsiness (the bird and the water do not exist in the same space at all), Catesby’s painting is a remarkable piece of ornithological illustration. The distinctive markings of bill, throat, face, and eye are accurate and precise, and the strange, hair-like, silky texture of the feathers is admirably well drawn. The challenge of showing the most characteristic feature of all grebes, the outsized, extravagantly lobed foot, is neatly met by depicting the bird mid-preen, the body slightly a-list.

The visual eloquence of the painting contrasts strangely with Catesby’s description, which is taciturn and bland:

The Pied-Bill Dopchick.

This bird weighs half a pound. The Eyes are large, encompassed with a white Circle: the Throat has a black spot; a black list crosses the middle of the Bill; the lower mandible, next to the Basis, has a black spot: the Head and Neck, brown, particularly the Crown of the Head and Back of the Neck is darkest: the Feathers of the Breast are light brown, mixt with green; the Belly dusky white; the Back and Wings are brown.

These Birds frequent fresh water-Ponds in many of the inhabited parts of Carolina. This was a Male.

That’s it: no mention of the bird’s habits, its voice, or the structural peculiarities so carefully depicted in the plate.

The terseness and partially garbled syntax of the description and the unusually conspicuous typographical lapse in its title (P[R]ODICIPES) make me wonder whether something didn’t go wrong at this stage in the production of the book; had the printer perhaps spoiled or lost Catesby’s manuscript text, which was then hastily and carelessly replaced?

The first in a monthly series about the world’s grebes.