Ruby-throats in Paris

The French ornithologists of the nineteenth century were always complaining about one thing or another in what was by then the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.

Lesson ruby-throated hummingbird pl 48

I suspect that much of their carping was little more than vaguely oedipal resentment of Buffon, who had so greatly dominated the institution back when it was still the Jardin des plantes; but when it came to the presentation of certain of the specimens, they seem to have had some legitimate grievances.

When René Primevère Lesson came to write the account of the ruby-throated hummingbird for his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches, he found — a surprise to me — that

skins of this species are very rare in European collections. Our description will be based on three specimens in very fresh plumage in the possession of the Duke of Rivoli,

him of multifarious hummingbird fame.

And why did Lesson not simply use the specimens in the Museum?

The one specimen in the Museum galleries appears to have undergone a change as a result of sulfurous fumigation, as the ruby of the throat has transformed into a clear yellowish topaz.

Forty years earlier, Buffon had described what was presumably the same individual in very different terms:

The throat has the brilliance and fire of a ruby, mixed with a golden color when seen from the side, and a dark garnet color when seen from below.

It is unlikely that the structural colors of a hummingbird’s gorget would be destroyed by even the most intense fumigation.

Maybe the bird was dusty.

Or more likely, Lesson is complaining, as so many others of his contemporaries complained, about the rigidity with which keepers and curators in the Museum refused to allow scientists and scholars to open the cases for a closer look at the specimens. Forced to look at the bird through glass, at an inflexible angle, Lesson found the ruby, the gold, and the garnet of this species reduced — figuratively, at least — to topaz.

Lesson, rubis jeune age