Other People’s Bird Books: A Missing Plate

What would any of us do without the Biodiversity Heritage Library? Those millions of scanned pages answer questions we might not even have dared ask twenty years ago, and I can’t count the hours of sloggery and the gallons of gasoline they’ve saved me.

Every once in a great while, though, one runs across a scanning error: a pudgy thumb across the text, a blurry page, even — on the rarest of occasions — a missing leaf. Sometimes what is not here truly was not there: not every old book has come down to us intact. But most of the time the pages were simply flipped too fast and something was missed.

Happily, it’s easy to report problems like that, and the response from members of the BHL staff is always prompt and helpful. And sometimes, in the meantime you can help yourself.

Lately I’ve become interested in the history of the toucans, a group second only to the hummingbirds in their power to conjure up the exotic for European naturalists and collectors.

My favorite is the curl-crested aracari, a bizarre little toucan first collected in (apparently) Peru not even 200 years ago. Oddly, this weird but appealing species did not accumulate much of a pictorial record in the years after its discovery. Obviously, it is found in John Gould’s Monograph:

Gould Monograph ed. 1 Curl-crested aracari

and in the German translation by the Sturms of Gould’s second edition:

Sturm and Sturm, Gould's Monographie, Curl-crested aracari

Pickin’s are otherwise slender from those early days, and so I was excited to run across a reference to another example, a painting published in the Magasin de zoologie in 1836.

And of course the BHL includes the Magasin

But somebody at the Museum of Comparative Zoology nodded at the scanner, and the digital book goes from Plate 61 — a handsome magpie shrike — to Plate 63 — a great shrike-tyrant. The aracari was Plate 62.

Frustrating. But then again….

Prêtre, Curl-crested aracari

The plates in this volume of the Magasin bleed noticeably through the paper, leaving the ghost of a mirror image on each otherwise blank verso page. This one does, too: our Plate 62 may be missing digitally, but it was clearly present physically.

A little primitive photo editing:

Screenshot 2014-10-07 18.24.03

Pretty it ain’t, but it’s good enough to answer the questions I had wanted to pose of the image. First, the nomenclature used is that of Gould’s first edition, in which the bird is called Pteroglossus ulocomus. And second, more importantly, the image is not based on Gould’s, but is an original (if not overly imaginative) composition.

The explanatory text accompanying the plate is preserved on line. We learn there that this specimen, “the first of this pretty species” to be brought to France, and “perhaps to Europe,” was brought back by the surgeon of La Favorite from that ship’s circumnavigation of the world under the command of Captain Laplace.

Aha. I knew that the ornithological volume from that voyage had appeared in 1839, after long delays; but was it illustrated?

Back to BHL. And BHL comes through.

Our little toucan, the “aracari à crête bouclée,”  is the very first species treated in the report, in an account taken verbatim from that published in the Magasin in 1836. And it is depicted, happy wonder, on Plate 10, engraved after a painting by Edouard Traviès.

Here it is, in all its ramphastid glory.

Curl-crested aracari

It was the long way around, but well worth it. And can you imagine how long it would have taken us if we’d had to go to the library — the old-fashioned kind, I mean?