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Jul
30

Thick-billed Dreams

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Thick-billed parrot in Arizona

Way back when, August was prime time for the irregular incursions of the thick-billed parrot into the sky island ranges of southeast Arizona.

In the last week of the month in 1904, a flock of between seven hundred and a thousand – seven hundred to one thousand! — invaded Bonita Park in the Chiricahuas. As they gobbled pinyon nuts, the birds grew so tame that they could actually be photographed at close range with the slow cameras of the day, and one, “a bird of the year,” was taken alive and presented to its captor’s sister in Globe.

Never again will we see numbers like that, not in Arizona and sadly not in Sonora and Chihuahua, either.

I’d settle for one on this week’s tour with the Fontenelle Bird Club, but still we can dream of the old days.

Can’t we?

Pinery Canyon

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Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Oologist 31 -1914

A hundred years ago, there was still a tidy little list of North American birds whose nest and eggs had never been seen by white scientists. Among them: the dusky seaside sparrow.

The collectors of those days took their failure personal, and their inability to discover the home of

a bird whose range covered only a few square miles, and one that had been known to science for forty-one years, and whose nest had never been found, was a “slam” on the ability of us true Oologists.

In the early summer of 1914, Oscar Baynard and Henry Simpson set out to put things right. For a full week in May, Baynard and his “old side kick”

cruised the entire length of Merritts Island, visiting every place where there had ever been any records of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow…. on the morning of May 21st … I saw a Black Sparrow…. I killed the bird and upon dissecting same found it to be a male evidently in full breeding.

This sure made us feel good.

Encouraged, the collectors “plunged into the marsh” and quickly discovered “at least” twenty dusky seaside sparrows in the dense salicornia carpet. Four hours later, they had found no nest. Simpson suggested over dinner that the sparrows

did not lay eggs at all but had young like an animal.

And so after their meal, they took to the time-honored method of dragging the marsh with a weighted rope. It took no time at all before a bird flushed as if from a nest, which the searchers found and promptly collected, with its three “heavily incubated” eggs.

To say that we were elated is expressing it mildly and we did a regular Indian Tango or some other kind of dance…. We vowed we would find more nests or never leave the spot.

Baynard and Simpson lived up to their vow only too well in the days that followed, taking fledglings, nestlings, and two more sets of eggs. The third clutch they collected was so “heavily incubated” that one egg began to hatch on the way back to the boat; Baynard

was unable to save but one egg of this set.

“Save,” indeed.

Dusky seaside sparrow nest, Baynard 1914

Two of the nests and egg sets, along with the skins of the parent birds, were sold to John Eliot Thayer, of gull fame. Thayer in turn donated the first nest and clutch, collected on May 21, 1914, to Harvard’s museum, where they still reside.

Does it matter that, by my count, Baynard and Simpson killed at least 17 sparrows and sparrows in spe on those few May days a century ago?

I don’t know how to answer that question, or how to argue that the dusky seaside sparrow would have remained doomed regardless of the efforts of the collectors. But wouldn’t it be fine today to have seventeen dusky seaside sparrows and their hundred years of descendants buzzing away in the marshes of the Florida coast?

 

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Jul
28

Beware the Flesh-eating Crossbill

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There are birds that do not scruple to feed on human flesh. Battlefields have always had their black-garbed attendants in the form of vultures and ravens, and even ruddy turnstones are known to have pecked at a corpse or two.

But winter finches?

Gesner, Crossbill

In 1555, Conrad Gesner reported that he had heard of red crossbills dining on cadavers, a distasteful habit mentioned again half a century later in Aldrovandi‘s account of this “voracissima avis.”

Three hundred years earlier, the English chronicler Matthew Paris warned that these birds were actually capable of accelerating the production of human carrion. After extracting the seeds with their forceps-like bills, the crossbills in his local orchards left

the rest of the apple … poisoned, as if with venom.

Be careful out there.

Common Crosbill

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Jul
27

Cuvier’s Kinglet, Again

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With the recent apparent rediscovery in Ontario of the Townsend’s bunting, John James Audubon’s “nonce species” are back in the news. When pressed, most birders can name the bunting, the small-headed flycatcher, and the two warblers; but the fifth –and the most visually appealing — of the Audubonian mysteries for some reason gets no respect.

Cuvier's kinglet

Audubon collected a male of “this pretty and rare species” in Pennsylvania in the early summer of 1812. Nineteen years later, when he published the first volume of the Ornithological Biography, he had never seen another, and was unable

to learn that this species has been observed by any other individual.

In fact, however, Cuvier’s kinglet (named, over Charles Bonaparte’s recommendation, for “one at present unrivalled in the knowledge of general Zoology”) did enjoy – unlike Audubon’s other unica —  a modest afterlife in the nineteenth century.

In both editions of the Manual, for example, Thomas Nuttall proclaimed himself thoroughly convinced of the legitimacy of “this … interesting addition to the North American Fauna,” than which

no species can be better marked or more strikingly distinguished.

Audubon himself seems never to have given up hope. In 1840, he corresponded with Spencer Fullerton Baird about a “singular variety” of the ruby-crowned kinglet the seventeen-year-old Baird had shot that spring:

Have you compared the Regulus with the description of Regulus Cuvieri? Could you not send me your bird to look at?

So far as I know, Baird never replied, but the Nestor of American ornithology was still more or less in the camp of the believers nearly twenty years later (and seven years after Audubon’s death), when he included the Cuvier’s golden crest in his 1858 report on the birds of the railroad surveys:

I have introduced the diagnosis of this species from Audubon for the sake of calling attention to it and of completing the account of the genus.

There was still no second record of the species (or, as the author rather pointedly recalls, “of several other species not found in the United States by any one else” but Audubon), and Baird’s uncertainty would be noticeably greater in the History of 1874:

This species continues to be unknown, except from the description of Mr. Audubon….

Elliott Coues did not even number the species in his 1872 Key, observing in a note only that the bird was “not now known.” The final edition of the Key has nothing to add: R. cuvieri

continues unknown.

Not unknown to everyone, though.

Writing the year before publication of Coues’s first Key, the Canadian physician, birder, and all-around kook Alexander Milton Ross offered no indication that the “Cuvier’s golden-crested wren” was in any way remarkable. In Canada, he says,

this wren usually accompanies the two preceeding species [namely, the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets], in their spring and fall migrations.

Ross’s were the last “sightings” of this distinctive bird, one that the American Ornithologists’ Union has from the very start relegated to the Check-list‘s appendix of “hypothetical” species. Today, Audubon’s mystery kinglet is thought to be most likely “an aberrant plumage” of the golden-crowned kinglet, but who knows? Maybe the lost specimen from Fatland Ford really was something, and the rest of us – pace Alexander Milton Ross — just haven’t been looking hard enough.

Let me know the next time you run into a kinglet with a black forehead. It just might be history in the re-making.

 

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Categories : Famous Birders
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Jul
25

Is Shakespeare to Blame?

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European Starling

I suspect not, but I’d love to be proved wrong.

Was there or was there not a literary motive for the successful introduction of the European starling to North America?

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