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Sep
04

A Longspur Postscript

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The would-be type of Audubon’s Smith bunting provides a troubling example of how specimen data can be corrupted in the chain of publication.

We know from Audubon himself that he saw this species alive only once, in 1820, when he failed to secure a specimen. Not until 1843 did he handle specimens in the United States, when birds collected in southern Illinois were brought to him in St. Louis; the specimens had been secured by John G. Bell and Edward Harris, not by Audubon, who stayed in the city during his companions’ two-week excursion.

Nevertheless, with two of those skins on the table before him, Spencer Baird credited one to Audubon as collector — no doubt less a case of flattery (Audubon had been dead six years when Baird et al. published their Birds) than a poor solution to the difficulty of fitting all of the provenance information into the specimen chart.

More puzzlingly still, that skin, the single Bell/Harris example of the species apparently remaining at the Smithsonian, is now listed in the NMNH database as collected by Baird and received from Audubon — and deprived of its true date (April 1843), its true locality (Illinois, Madison County, near Edwardsville), and its true age (most certainly not a juvenile).

Innocent errors all, and no doubt easily resolved with another look at the specimen labels, but still a bizarre and instructive case of téléphone arabe in the history of ornithology.

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Sep
03

Smith’s Painted Buntling

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There are but few things I miss from those long-ago years in Urbana, and this clown-faced calcariid is one of them.

Like clockwork, end of March every year we would get out and walk the foxtail-choked stubble of last year’s corn, and there they were — the first northbound Smith longspurs of the spring.

There was an extra piquancy to finding these birds in our neighborhood, as the first individuals ever met with by western scientists in the US had been found not all that far away, in southern Illinois, in April 1843, as Audubon’s last expedition was preparing to leave St. Louis for the upper Missouri.

Edward Harris and John G. Bell, Audubon’s New Jersey patron and his hired preparator, respectively, had left the old man in the city and set off for the prairies to the northeast, where they busied themselves for two weeks exploring and collecting. Bell reported that they had found an unfamiliar bird “very abundant,”

generally in large flocks, and when on the ground began at once to scatter and divide themselves, rendering it difficult for us to shoot more than two at one shot; they run very nimbly….

Harris and Bell were up to the challenge, though, and eventually secured “several specimens,” two of which made their way into the Smithsonian collections (first, it seems, as personal gifts from Audubon to Spencer Baird) and one of which apparently remains there (it is impossible to reconcile the locality and age information provided in the electronic specimen record with what Baird says of the skin).

Audubon did not recognize the little dead finches, either, and he published them as representing a new species, the Smith lark-bunting, Plectrophanes Smithii. The name honored his “good friend Gideon B. Smith, Esq., M.D.,” the entrepreneurial entomologist whom Audubon had visited in Baltimore at the start of his 1843 voyage.

The practiced eye will have noticed in that last paragraph that while Smith is still commemorated in the bird’s official English name, he goes unmentioned in the current scientific name, Calcarius pictus (“painted spur-bird“). This not uncommon circumstance — have a look at the hawk and the sparrow named for Edward Harris, to take two well-known examples — typically arises when a competing scientific name is found to have priority only after the English name has attained currency; it’s no surprise in North American ornithology that Audubon, a powerful voice and a not always careful bibliographer, is so often prominent in these stories.

In the case of the longspur, it is entirely understandable that Audubon and his companions in St. Louis overlooked the fact that the species had been published and named more than a decade earlier. William Swainson’s handsome lithograph of a single male shot on the banks of the Saskatchewan River in April 1827  (the specimen once in the collections of the Zoological Society of London, but now apparently lost) was completed in 1829; the formal description and name, Emberiza picta, were published in the volume dated 1831 of the Fauna boreali-americana.

Smith longspur 1827 specimen

Swainson’s lithograph, the first image above, shows the bird in all its springtime glory, but Bell and Harris were less fortunate. Though these longspurs can be quite bright indeed as they pass through Illinois, Audubon’s plate, the second above, shows that his companions encountered, or at least shot, only females or males still early in their pre-alternate molt. Though Audubon’s use of the name “lark-bunting” suggests that he may have recognized the novum as somehow longspurrish, there is really no reason to expect that he, Harris, and Bell should have recognized their smudgy brown birds as identical to the dapper badger-faced creature from Carlton House.

Audubon painted bunting Smith longspur plate 400

And that in spite of the fact that Audubon himself had experience, in the field and in the hand, with Swainson’s “painted buntling.” (Extra credit, by the way, if without benefit of google you can identify the tail in Audubon’s image.) To prepare his plate for the Birds of America, Audubon borrowed the original Saskatchewan skin of “this handsome species” from the Zoological Society. Examining the specimen in the 1830s, he was reminded of something he had seen himself on the wintertime prairies:

That the Painted Bunting at times retires far southward, probably accompanying the Lapland Longspur, is a fact for which I can vouch, having seen one on the shore of the Mississippi in December 1820, which however I missed on wing after having viewed it about two minutes, as it lay flat on the ground.

Though is not entirely unheard of for male Smith longspurs to appear in breeding aspect in early winter, Audubon was certainly fortunate to witness the phenomenon — and to remember it so clearly nearly two decades later.

The phantom from Illinois survived in the scientific literature for the better part of a decade, listed on Audubon’s authority as distinct from the Swainsonian picta by no less than George Robert GrayJean Cabanis and Charles Bonaparte.

Baird et al. 1858 Smith longspur

Sometime in the 1850s, it was somehow determined that Audubon’s Illinois bird — the longspur he named for Smith — was in fact simply the “immaturely marked” plumage of Swainson’s painted buntling. Whatever debate and discussion may have taken place seems to have gone on behind the published scenes, but the ever so slight broadening of the specimen record available to Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway may have helped: the two Robert Kennicott skins (neither of which I can find in an NMNH search) bracket the migration of the species through the Mississippi Valley, and I assume (dangerous thing, that) that they provided the points of triangulation to finally confirm the identity of the earlier Illinois specimens.

Smithsonian Smith longspur 1858 specimens

It was Baird and his collaborators who struck the nomenclatural compromise by recognizing the priority of Swainson’s picta/us but retaining Audubon’s vernacular tribute to Gideon Smith. We should continue to think of the good doctor whenever we see this species, but I hope that next time we run into one — on the breeding grounds or on migration through a chilly midwestern field — we try to remember, too, that it took years of effort by some of the century’s most important ornithologists to figure out that two species were in fact only one.

 

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Mar
11

Up the Missouri

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One hundred seventy-five years ago today, John James Audubon boarded a train in New York City and began an eight-month journey that would take him up the Missouri River as far as what is now the Montana state line. The party also included the painter Isaac Sprague, the taxidermist John G. Bell, and Audubon’s friend and frequent funder Edward Harris — each of whom lent his name to one of the bird species discovered (or, in Harris’s case, rediscovered) in the course of the trip.

Bell would return to New York after the journey, where he would operate the city’s most successful taxidermy shop and go down in history a second time as mentor to a young naturalist named Theodore Roosevelt.

After his return to Massachusetts, Sprague became one of the nineteenth century’s best and best-known botanical illustrators.

Harris, most famous as the great American champion of the Percheron, went back to his New Jersey farm. The only member of the expedition to keep up contact with the Audubons, Harris would no doubt have been of lasting help to the widowed Lucy, as he had long been to her husband, had he not died himself at the early age of sixty-three.

Early on, Audubon also invited his young protégé Spencer Baird to take part in the journey. Baird, who turned twenty in the winter of 1843, eventually declined, but Audubon remembered his young friend in naming another new sparrow, collected that summer in the grasslands around Fort Union. this would be the last new species Audubon would discover — though, of course, it was Harris and Bell who actually found and shot the first specimens.

William O. Ayres was another of Audubon’s young friends; like Baird, he would make significant contributions to American ichthyology. Six years older than Baird, Ayres was employed as a teacher in 1843; a dozen years later, he took his medical degree at Yale, and later served as curator of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences. It hardly matters that “his” woodpecker turned out to be a hybrid or backcross of the kind so abundant on the Great Plains.

The Harris sparrow, which Audubon’s party collected again and again as they moved up the eastern edge of Nebraska in May, had actually been named and described three years earlier, by Audubon’s colleague and correspondent Thomas Nuttall. There is an especially good story behind this mix-up, but this was not the only time that Audubon mistook a bird he found on the Missouri for new.

Looking back, it is not much of a surprise that Audubon should have been unaware that the blackbird he would name for Thomas Mayo Brewer was already known to science: the formal description had appeared in the Isis for 1829, and the more readily accessible reprint was still almost fifty years in the future. It would be even less reasonable to expect him to have recognized his “new” icterid in Fernandez’s cacalotototl.

Audubon’s failure to recognize the clay-colored sparrow, abundant all the way up the river that spring and at Fort Union all summer, had more complex reasons. Unaware that the “clay-colored” he had painted almost a decade earlier was in fact a Brewer sparrow, Audubon named what he thought was a new species for George Shattuck, his erstwhile companion on the trip to Labrador a dozen years earlier and subsequently a doctor in Boston. The confusion was cleared up not long thereafter, but the name “Shattuck” could still be encountered for this species into the early twentieth century.

Audubon really does not deserve to be accounted the discoverer of the sweet little LeConte sparrow, but two unfortunate circumstances — the early naming of the saltmarsh sparrow, and the explosion of the steamboat Assiniboine — would mean that neither John Latham (who published the first description in 1790) nor Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (who collected the bird in Nebraska in 1833) would have a valid claim to name the bird. Audubon kindly specifies that he has named the bird for the younger LeConte; if rightly I remember, the thrasher was named for his father.

And speaking of unfortunate circumstances.

If most birders know anything about Audubon’s Missouri River expedition, it is the story of the western meadowlark. In its most frequently encountered version, it goes something like this: Audubon was the first to notice that the song of the meadowlarks in the west was different from that of his hometown birds, and he named the new species neglecta to tweak Lewis and Clark for having overlooked it.

That’s how I learned it, but it’s not true. Meriwether Lewis knew full well that the meadowlarks of the Missouri Valley were different, and had he been able to publish his natural historical discoveries before descending into mental illness, Lewis would certainly be the author of the species’ name. What’s more, Audubon knew full well that Lewis had known full well, and even quotes him to that effect. The disapproval he expresses in the tendentious name neglecta is directed not at the Corps of Discovery but at those who had followed Lewis and Clark up the river in the decades since, none of whom, Audubon says, had “taken the least notice of” the bird; it’s no real stretch to read the name as in fact a gentle tribute to Lewis, who had committed suicide in 1809.

There is much more to say about the Missouri River expedition undertaken by Audubon and his friends and companions. I’ll be saying some of it in a series of lectures this jubilee year; but that is no reason that you too can’t rummage around in the documents that survive from those long-ago months on the river. You may well notice something no one else has.

 

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Jun
22

National Meadowlark Day

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Well, if it isn’t, it should be.

Western Meadowlark

On June 22, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal that

 there is a kind of larke here that much resembles the bird called the oldfield lark with a yellow brest and a black spot on the croop.

Lewis and the expedition’s crew knew the eastern meadowlark, “the oldfield lark,” and he observed that these western birds uttered a “note [that] differs considerably” from that familiar bird from back home. But

in size, action, and colours there is no perceptable difference; or at least none that strikes my eye.

And that was that. Lewis and Clark had in fact discovered a new species, the western meadowlark, but apparently thinking it just a variant of the well-known eastern bird, they preserved no specimens and prepared no formal description.

What happened next is well known. In May 1843, John G. Bell, the taxidermist on Audubon’s Missouri River journey, became aware of some

curious notes, without which [the meadowlarks above Fort Croghan, Dakota] in all probability … would have been mistaken for our common species.

On collecting a series of these “quite abundant” birds and comparing them to New York skins of the eastern meadowlark, Audubon — in contrast to Lewis, four decades earlier — determined that

the differences are quite sufficient to warrant me to describe the [western birds] as a new and hitherto undescribed species,

which he named the Missouri meadow-larkSturnella neglecta.

Aud, Oct 7, western meadowlark

That epithet, neglecta, is sometimes taken as another in Audubon’s collection of snide sideswipes at his colleagues and predecessors, but in this case, it is simply a statement of fact. And Audubon frankly includes himself among those naturalists who had overlooked the difference.

When I first saw them, they were among a number of Yellow-headed Troupials [yellow-headed blackbirds], and their notes so much resembled the cries of these birds, that I took them for the notes of the Troupial, and paid no farther attention to them.

Today is the day to be grateful that he and his colleagues eventually did pay attention.

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May
29

Another Piece of the Grosbeak Puzzle

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Western “finches.”

The story of the piecemeal discovery of the evening grosbeak is too well known to bear repeating here. One often overlooked piece of the puzzle, though, fell into place 171 years ago today, on the banks of the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota.

On May 29, 1843, John James Audubon and colleagues were hunting and collecting around Fort George. In his diary that evening, Audubon noted that John G. Bell — he of vireo (and later of sparrow) fame — had run across several evening grosbeaks in the course of the day. And in a bit of classically Audubonian snideness, he couldn’t help adding

therefore there’s not much need of crossing the Rocky Mountains for the few precious birds that the talented and truth-speaking Mr. —— brought or sent to the well-paying Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia!

I don’t know whether those eloquent dashes were present in Audubon’s manuscript or we owe them to the punctiliousness of his famously fussy granddaughter and editor, but in either event, it is obvious that they conceal the name of John Townsend. The Mearnses tell the full story of Audubon’s struggle to get access to the nova Townsend had sent ahead to Philadelphia, a struggle Audubon himself describes in the bitterest possible terms in the Ornithological Biography. While Nuttall, who had been with Townsend in the West, “generously gave [Audubon] of his ornithological treasures all that was new,” Townsend’s specimens were in the possession, or at least under the control, of the Philadelphia academicians:

Loud murmurs were uttered by the soi-disant friends of science, who objected to my seeing, much less portraying and describing those valuable relics of birds…. seldom, if ever in my life, have I felt more disgusted with the conduct of any opponents of mine, than I was with the unfriendly boasters of their zeal for the advancement of ornithological science, who at that time existed in the fair city of Philadelphia!

Half a decade later, a thousand and a half miles away on the banks of the Missouri, it still rankled.

 

 

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