White Nun


Did John James Audubon shoot a female smew on Louisiana’s Lake Barataria in the winter of 1819? He says so:

It was an adult female in fine plumage…. I have taken the liberty to add one of the other sex from an equally fine specimen.

Of course, nobody believes it.

Audubon’s oedipal anxieties about the Father of American ornithology came out clearly in his prose introduction to the species, nearly half of which he devotes to his “strong misgivings” about the records reported by Wilson, who “was in all probability misinformed.” Rarely content just to let his great predecessor simply be wrong, Audubon goes on to accuse Wilson of having deceived his readers:

it is my opinion that his figure was made from a stuffed European specimen which was then in Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia,

a proceeding clearly and tendentiously distinguished from Audubon’s own. “Having found it,” Audubon “made a drawing of [the Louisiana bird] on the spot.”

I didn’t believe it either. But somehow, the aura of the original watercolor, which Alison and I were fortunate enough to see yesterday, is powerful enough to make me wonder.

Even in Audubon’s lifetime, even his friends had reservations about the Louisiana smew. Thomas Nuttall does not even cite the account, mentioning only that “the indefatigable Audubon” had not encountered the species on his tour of Labrador — and neither had Vieillot, Richardson, or Nuttall himself; Wilson, he says, accounted the bird an American species “probably on mere report.” Nuttall concludes that

As a native of America this appears to be a very doubtful species.

A few years after Audubon’s death, Thomas Brewer decided to “retain the smew among the birds of North America,” though “with no small degree of hesitation.” That formulation contrasts somewhat with his apparently unequivocal acceptance of the New Orleans record:

But one specimen has ever actually been known to have been obtained here. This was by Mr. Audubon, in Louisiana….

Spencer Baird was more circumspect, but no less self-contradictory, a short while later. Though he says of Audubon’s plate that the “female [was] figured from Am. specimen, male from European,” he also weighs the possibility that

Mr. Audubon may have even been mistaken.

By 1884, Baird was speaking with open skepticism about “the claim of Audubon to have obtained a single specimen, and that a female, on Lake Barataria,” and he writes that the specimen in Audubon’s painting was “said to have been” taken in the United States. In that same year, Elliott Coues — who had once admitted that the smew “could very possibly occur” in the region — deleted the species entirely from the second edition of his Key.

Now that someone had come out and more or less said it, and particularly since that someone was Coues, the American smew drifted over the ornithological horizon for a while. Neither the first nor the second edition of the young AOU’s Check-list mentions the species. In 1897, though, the committee — Brewster, Allen, Coues, Merriam, and Ridgway — revived the bird for the American list, not, though, from Audubon’s “claim,” but on the basis of a specimen “from northern North America” in the collections of the British Museum.

That specimen, the sternum of an adult female, was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company, one or another representative of which had collected it on an unknown date at an unknown locality in North America. For the time being, that was good enough for the AOU, and good enough for Coues, who had “not hitherto admitted [the species] to the Key.”

It wasn’t good enough for Daniel Giraud Elliot, though, who waxed downright snide in 1899:

 It is, so to speak, rather stretching a point, to include this beautiful species among the North American Water Fowl, with only an example of a female in the British Museum, purchased from the Hudson Bay Company, to prove the propriety of such a course. But I have always observed that ornithological committees are most lenient when the admission of a handsome bird (which under the most favorable circumstance can be regard[ed] as the merest exception straggler from foreign lands) into their native avi-fauna is to be considered.

One could make much of Elliot’s observation on the “pattern” of claimed vagrant smews in America:

At all events one cannot fail to notice that, up to this time, the male has rigorously and successfully avoided our shores.


Elliot’s view soon enough prevailed. Both the fourth and the fifth editions of the Check-list relegated the smew to the “hypothetical” list:

Audubon’s sight record of this Old World species, and several other alleged occurrences in America, are unsatisfactory.

That’s pretty sloppy. We know that Audubon shot the bird in Louisiana, whatever it might have been; and it would have been helpful indeed to have a citation or two to those “other alleged occurrences.”

One of them was certainly the British Museum sternum, which may no longer exist or be clearly labeled. Another was probably the female (Elliot was right!) obtained by Tristram from Lord Walsingham, the famous entomologist. (Did that specimen enter the BM in 1896 with the rest of the Tristram birds?)

And another was the earliest American report of the species I know of.

In 1785, when Audubon was just a mewling infant, Thomas Pennant published his account of the “smew merganser.” That page in the Arctic Zoology is most noticeable for laying the ghost of the “red-headed duck,” which Pennant now recognized as the female of the smew. But more to our purposes, he writes that

this species was sent to Mrs. Blackburn from New York, I think as a winter bird.

Ashton Blackburne, the man to whom we owe the first mid-Atlantic specimens of so many birds — from the red-shouldered hawk to his sister’s warbler — may also have collected North America’s first smew. (And just because he shipped that now lost specimen from New York doesn’t mean it wasn’t taken in New Jersey.)

All this was moot by 1960, at which point the regular occurrence of smews in Alaska was recognized; meanwhile, there have been good records (males — take that, D.G. Elliot) from scattered sites across the continent, though not, if rightly I recall, from Louisiana.

And so, ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Alexander Wilson didn’t know his buffleheads any too well, or that Audubon may, just may, have told a lie (gasp of amazement).

But I’d like to think he was telling the truth, and that the pretty little “redhead” in his so fine watercolor really did fall to lead shot on a Louisiana lakeshore — whence she entered into immortality.