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Harris of Moorestown

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Today marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Edward Harris.

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Harris was a wealthy gentleman-farmer from New Jersey, and it was his moral and financial support that in significant part enabled John James Audubon to publish the Birds of America. But Harris was more than just a generous patron and influential advocate; he accompanied Audubon on the long expeditions to Texas and the Gulf in 1837 and up the Missouri River six years later, and the two became to all appearances friends, the title by which Audubon continually refers to him in the Ornithological Biography.

Audubon seems to have trusted Harris implicitly as a natural historian; in dedicating the Harris’s Hawk to his friend, he writes that Harris,

independently of the aid which he has on many occasions afforded me, in prosecuting my examination of our birds, merits this compliment as an enthusiastic Ornithologist.

That may sound like nothing more than a polite floscule, but Audubon repeatedly cites Harris as a reliable authority on the birds of the mid-Atlantic region.

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Harris, for example, is Audubon’s source for the red plumage of some female Summer Tanagers, and it is in part on his authority that Audubon pronounces the Henslow’s Sparrow “abundant” in New Jersey (those were the days). Harris’s reports extended the known range of the Carolina Chickadee into New Jersey, and he taught Audubon everything he knew about the Cape May Warbler, a bird the great ornithologist himself never encountered. Harris is even credited with a New Jersey record of the Northern Hawk Owl, a report passed over in discreet silence by the most recent surveys of the state’s birds.

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Audubon honored these and Harris’s other contributions by naming not just the hawk but the Harris’s Sparrow for his friend (never mind, of course, that that fine bird had already been discovered, described, and named at least twice by the time  Audubon and his party reached the Missouri River).

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Harris is also commemorated in the name of a picid.

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The first specimens of the Harris’s Woodpeckernow classified as a subspecies of the Hairy Woodpecker, were collected by Townsend on the Columbia River in the mid-1830s; when Audubon came to describe “this singularly marked species,” he

honoured the present Woodpecker with the name of [his] friend Edward Harris, Esq., … for his efficient aid when … [Audubon] was reduced to the lowest degree of indigence…. he merits this tribute as an ardent and successful cultivator of ornithology, and an admirer of the works of Him whose good providence gave [Audubon] so noble-hearted a friend.

At some point, Harris presented Audubon with the skin of a squirrel, also acquired from Townsend; in their Viviparous Quadrupeds, Audubon and John Bachman named the “pretty little” animal Harris’s Marmot Squirrelnow known to every inhabitant of Sonoran Desert suburbs, and loved by most, as the Harris’s Antelope Squirrel.


Nowadays we tend to think of Harris only in his relation to Audubon and the other participants in the Missouri River journey, but as a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences from 1835 on, he had connections to all of Philadelphia’s natural historians of the time. In August 1845, he and the great John Cassin traveled to Cape May, and it was Harris who introduced Cassin and Audubon (an occasion called by George Spencer Morris “a not entirely happy one“). Harris was even Chairman of the Academy’s Ornithological Committee for a time (and not just a member, as Morris would have it); his service in that capacity was commemorated by Cassin in 1849, when he named a “singular and beautiful little” new owl Nyctale Harrissii. In one of those singular and beautiful little symmetries that history is so given to, Cassin had obtained the specimen of what we now know as the Buff-fronted Owl from John Bell, who had been with Audubon, Harris, and the others as a collector and preparator on the Missouri.

Harris’s death was announced to the Academy by Cassin on June 9, the day after the “distinguished naturalist” died at home in Moorestown. The Proceedings had remarkably little to say, describing Harris only as “aged 64, late a member”; one wonders what had happened, whether there was a falling out or whether Harris in his last years, when Lucy Audubon referred to him as “an invalid,” had withdrawn from active participation in events across the river.

In any event, the contemporary reticence on Harris’s death would echo, so to speak, down through the next century and a half. He is remembered, though, in Moorestown, where the drawers that once held his collection of bird skins is now a cherished relic — and a new park is under construction to honor Harris’s interest in exotic draft horses. Maybe today we birders will think of him too.

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Categories : Famous Birders
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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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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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Other People’s Bird Books: A New Jersey Family

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This is Montclair State University’s copy of John Francis McDermott‘s edition of the 1843 journal of Edward Harris, friend, patron, and frequent field companion of John James Audubon.

Eleanor Darrach Sappington to D. d'Arcy Northwood

Like most of that library’s general natural history titles from mid-century, this book was a gift from J. D’Arcy and Anne Ardrey Northwood, familiar names indeed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey birding circles: D’Arcy was the first curator of Mill Grove, and the couple’s “ramshackle cottage” at Cape May would eventually become New Jersey Audubon’s Northwood Center.

But this particular volume has another layer of provenance, attested by the inscription to D’Arcy Northwood from Eleanor Darrach Sippington. Good old Google helped me pin her down as one of the six children of Susannah Ustick Harris and Alfred Darrach; Susannah Harris was one of the four children of Edward Harris and his second wife (and first cousin), Mary G. Ustick.

What made my smile especially broad on reading the inscription was the fact that I had the pleasure of dinner with another of Harris’s descendants a couple of years ago in the Bahamas. She is certainly too young to have known her cousin Eleanor, but the connection shows once again just how small the world of birding can be, not just in space but over time.




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VENT Nebraska: Day Four

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birders birding mullen

What a day, full of birds and beautiful landscapes. We started at Fort Kearny, where the numbers of sandhill cranes and snow geese were once again beyond belief, vast clouds rising from the water and the fields every time a bald eagle looked cross-eyed at the flocks. We could have stayed all day, entranced by the sound and the sight of sheer abundance.

But it was time to leave Platte Valley for the Nebraska Sandhills.


Rough-legged and Harlan hawks, horned larks, and trumpeter swans welcomed us to this twenty thousand square miles of dunes and grass. The birding was most exciting, though, once we were in Mullen with time to take a late afternoon walk around town.

red-bellied woodpecker, Mullen

A Harris sparrow and a red-bellied woodpecker were both mild surprises in this part of the state, and red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins joined the cedar waxwings and robins bathing vigorously in the melt puddles on the roadsides. I’ll have to look, but I seem to remember having seen the nuthatch only once before on this tour — and the siskin might even be a new species to the cumulative list.

pine siskin Mullen

Tomorrow: sharp-tailed grouse and the big marshes of the Sandhills.

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