It was two centuries ago this summer, just a year after the death of his “ever-regretted friend,” that George Ord published the first scientific description of the bird he honored with the name of the Wilson’s plover.
Ord commemorated his late colleague in both the English name and the scientific name of the new species, assigning it the Linnaean binomial Charadrius wilsonia. Ten years later, he changed his mind. Not about Alexander Wilson’s considerable merit, and not about the suitability of “this neat and prettily marked species” as a monument to the American Ornithologist; but rather about the proper form of the bird’s scientific name. In the second edition of Volume Nine, and then in the three-volume edition of Wilson’s work published in 1829, Ord — accepting without comment a change first made by Vieillot in 1818 – alters the epithet, from his original wilsonia to wilsonius.
Alters and corrects, I should think: Charadrius is a masculine noun, and so any adjective modifying the genus name — from vociferus to nivosus, from thoracicus to modestus – should itself be masculine – and thus, Charadrius wilsonius it is. Sometimes. And sometimes not. The currently recognized scientific name of the Wilson’s plover is — if we follow the AOU, the SACC, Clements, the IOC, Howard and Moore – Charadrius wilsonia, just as it was in Ord’s 1814 description. Why? It all started, I think, in 1944, when the Committee responsible for the preparation of the fifth edition of the AOU Check-List — long delayed, “in part due to the war” and the attendant shortage of good paper — published a preliminary digest of the changes to be expected whenever that edition might appear. Among the principles propounded: where in the fourth, 1931 edition any “obviously” adjectival specific names were made to agree in gender with the genus name, in the new edition
original spellings will be used in all scientific names.
When the fifth edition was published, in 1957, that pronouncement was furnished with an important exception:
specific and subspecific names used as adjectives have been made to agree with the gender of the genus,
just as had been the case before 1944. Oddly, though, that exception was not applied to the plover, which on being returned after some decades of exile to the grammatically masculine genus Charadrius, nevertheless retained, and retains today, the grammatically feminine epithet wilsonia.
This combination, officially sanctioned though it be, is not only barbarous, but contravenes the ICZN, whose principles and decisions the AOU expressly follows in matters of naming. While priority remains the highest of principles, the Code tells us that
a species-group name, if it is or ends in a Latin or latinized adjective or participle in the nominative singular, must agree in gender with the generic name with which it is at any time combined (31.2)
if the gender ending is incorrect it must be changed accordingly (34.2).
If I read this correctly, then the name of the Wilson’s plover should rightly be Charadrius wilsonius Ord 1814; wilsonia should be rejected as improperly formed. Unless, of course, the ICZN has issued a special dispensation permitting the retention of the ungrammatical name. I can’t find such a document, but maybe it’s out there — or maybe I’ve missed something obvious.
I do not, by the way, buy the explanation offered by some — most recently endorsed in the new Howard and Moore — that Ord’s “wilsonia” was not adjectival. The change to “wilsonius” in 1824 (and earlier in Vieillot) is proof enough that Ord understood the word to be a first-and-second declension adjective — and that obviously renders inapplicable the ICZN’s provision (31.2.2) covering equivocal species epithets:
Where the author of a species-group name did not indicate whether he or she regarded it as a noun or as an adjective, and where it may be regarded as either and the evidence of usage is not decisive, it is to be treated as a noun in apposition to the name of its genus.
Does anyone know who decided, when and on what basis, “wilsonia” was a noun? What am I overlooking here?
Fill me in.
On the 201st anniversary of the death of Alexander Wilson — with thanks to David and Ted for good discussions.
We asked the other day what the quickest set of connections was between the Allen’s hummingbird and the imperial court of Napoleon’s France. Twitter and Facebook produced a few plausible responses, but nothing can match Shannon’s response in the comments on this b-log:
I’m guessing one of the degrees is Napoleon’s ornithologist nephew, Charles Bonaparte (son of Napoleon’s brother Lucien), who lived in Bordentown, New Jersey in the 1820s at his father-in-law’s (Napoleon’s brother Joseph’s) estate called Point Breeze. As Allen’s hummingbird is a west coast bird, and Charles never ventured that far west, the second degree is probably Adolphe Mailliard, son of Joseph Bonaparte’s long-time secretary Louis Mailliard. Adolphe moved to California and died there in 1890. He (or his descendants) perhaps knew Allen?
Yep, that’s exactly the chain I had in mind.
Adolphe Mailliard‘s sons, John and Joseph, both born in Bordentown, met Charles A. Allen in California in 1874; in the early 1880s, the Mailliards gave Allen a house on their Rancho San Geronimo, where he was still living as late as 1927. Robert T. Orr’s obituary of John Mailliard credits the collector and taxidermist with having in large part inspired the brothers’ natural historical interests.
In 1877, Henry Henshaw named what he thought was a new hummingbird for Allen,
but for whose efforts in obtaining the specimens necessary for comparison, and careful field-notes, the species might have remained for a long time still unrecognized.
So there it is: the hummingbird – Allen – the Mailliard brothers – their father and grandfather – Joseph Bonaparte – and the First Empire.
Well done, Shannon!
“What he t h o u g h t was a new hummingbird”? For a quick entrée into the muddle that is the history of the Allen’s hummingbird, have a look here.
We tend to date the beginning of the First World War from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant consort. But for those who enjoy the game of “what if,” it was another archducal death, equally violent, that created the circumstances leading to the greatest slaughter in European history — until the next, of course.
The argument goes like this: If Archduke Rudolph, born on August 21, 1858, as the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph, hadn’t murdered young Mary Vetsera and then killed himself on that winter’s day in 1889 at Mayerling, Rudolph — famously and openly sympathetic to the cause of decentralization — might have tempered his father’s absolutism, and the promise of his eventual succession to the throne could have mollified the nationalists in the empire. Instead, the crown prince’s death only strengthened the hand of the conservative forces at the Hapsburg court, and the frustration of the empire’s national minorities festered, only to burst in Sarajevo.
Enough — far more than enough — has been jabbered over the past 125 years about Rudolph’s death, but little is said nowadays about his scant three decades on earth. And today almost no one remembers that he was a birder.
Rudolph’s mentors in matters natural historical included Alfred Brehm and Ferdinand von Hochstetter, two of the most famous and influential scientists of their day — sometimes it paid to be a Hapsburg.
Ornithology, both observing and collecting, was for Rudolph a refuge from “the petty, irritating matters of daily life”:
A man needs diversion to keep his spirit and his body fresh, he must have the chance from time to time to flee everything he has created and the company of cultivated people; to hasten out into wild nature, into the only true magnificence, a magnificence that he himself is not capable of creating but that out of which he himself once emerged…. Only there can a real man feel truly comfortable and exist in the awareness that elements surround him that are mightier than he himself.
In April 1878, Rudolph and Brehm, accompanied by Eugen von Homeyer, the “father of Pomeranian ornithology,” Rudolph’s brother-in-law Leopold, and their collectors and crew set off down the Danube with a single question in mind:
whether the Steinadler and the Goldadler represented distinct species of eagle or should be lumped as a single species.
There was a great deal of what we can only call recreational collecting on that trip (“we were surprised ourselves by the number of birds we shot“). The party took a total of eight griffon vultures, one black vulture, seven imperial eagles, three lesser spotted eagles, two greater spotted eagles, fourteen white-tailed eagles, two ospreys, one short-toed eagle, three common buzzards, one red kite, nine black kites, five goshawks, one hobby, four common kestrels, one marsh harrier, two eagle-owls, one tawny owl, six ravens, seven hooded crows, one rook, one jackdaw, one magpie, one jay, five European rollers, two lesser gray shrikes, one nightjar, three cuckoos, two hoopoes, four turtle-doves, two rufous-tailed rock-thrushes, one ferruginous duck, one mallard, one graylag goose, eight great cormorants, five black terns, eleven black storks, one white stork, nine gray herons, two purple herons, four black-crowned night-herons, and “a series of twenty-six additional species of birds of less interest.”
And, of course, lots and lots of indeterminate Aquila eagles. Brehm was able to use the shocking number of specimens taken to answer the question of their identity or non-identity to his satisfaction. In the second edition of his Thierleben, published the following year, he wrote that
Naumann and Pallas, along with my father, separated the Steinadler from the Goldadler, while more recent scholars tend to understand them as age-related plumages or simple variants of a single species. Recently, inspired by the eagerness for research of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and accompanied by Eugen von Homeyer, I examined and compared some eighty of these questionable eagles, and I must agree with the scientists named above…. I believe it is correct to maintain both eagles as separate species until unequivocal proof of their belonging to a single species has been produced. These birds are certainly very closely related to each other, and the distinctions between the two are very subtle given that the immature plumages of both are so similar as to be easily mistaken, and even the adult plumages are not so clearly different as Naumann’s account might lead one to believe.
Brehm notwithstanding, we now know that those “more recent scholars” were right, and that all of the doubtful birds shot on the Danube belonged to a single species, the golden eagle – the same eagle that in double-headed form ornaments the sarcophagus of Crown Prince Rudolph in Vienna’s Capuchin Church.
Here’s one of those “degrees of separation” games:
How can you get from Allen’s hummingbird to the French Empire of Napoleon I?
The most elegant and the most amusing solutions win moral credit.
September 8: Birding Brookdale Park.
September 10: Birding Brookdale Park.
September 12: Birding Brookdale Park.
September 15: Birding Brookdale Park.
September 21-27: Birding Cape May with WINGS.
February 18: Lecture and book signing for the Queens County Bird Club.
February 20: Lecture and book signing for the Wyncote Audubon Society.
March 21-26: Birding Nebraska with WINGS.
April 18-25: Birding Catalonia with WINGS.