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I love a good appendix.

Lest you think I’m starting an especially ghoulish Halloween especially early, let me hasten to explain:

One of the best parts of Burtt and Davis’s Alexander Wilson is the two-page

list of books available to Alexander Wilson relating to zoology, especially ornithology, in the libraries of the American Philosophical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, and William Bartram,

a hugely informative catalogue followed by tables indicating how often Wilson cited each. These few precious pages answer lots of questions — and raise even more that we might not even have thought to ask. And they give us a good sense of just how sloppy a bibliographer Wilson could occasionally be.

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In the third volume of the American Ornithology, Wilson announces the discovery of a bird he named Sylvia magnolia, the black and yellow warbler.

Wilson, magnolia warbler

He had collected two himself, and notes that Charles Willson Peale had earlier encountered “this elegant species” in the Philadelphia area.

With the pride of an immigrant, Wilson reminds his reader that

No notice has ever been taken of this bird by any European naturalist whose works I have examined.

Oh, really?

In 1758, eight years before Wilson’s birth, George Edwards presented a fine plate (better than Wilson’s) and a thorough description of the “yellow-rumped fly-catcher,” a bird he had received “preserved dry” from none other than a very young William Bartram, the very man who would nearly half a century later become Wilson’s patron and encourager. To Bartram goes the honor of discovery.

Edwards, magnolia warbler

Mathurin Brisson introduced the bird to continental readers in 1760, citing and largely translating Edwards’s text in the third volume of the Ornithologie. Buffon referred to both Edwards and Brisson for this species, taking the opportunity to gently reproach the Englishman for calling it a moucherolle – a flycatcher — rather than a warbler. John Latham listed the species in his Synopsis in 1783. Two years later, Thomas Pennant included a description of the species in the Arctic Zoology. In 1788, Wilson’s “new” warbler entered the Linnaean canon when it was listed in Gmelin‘s edition of the Systema. Latham used Gmelin’s name, maculosa, in his Index of 1790, published four years before Wilson arrived in America.

I’ve piled up all those names and dates and references to make my point even more, ahem, pointed.

According to Burtt and Davis, Wilson in the American Ornithology cites Edwards 55 times, William Bartram 62 times, Brisson 82 times, Buffon 151 times, and Latham 173 times. He refers to Gmelin only once — and to Gmelin’s English translator, Turton, 64 times.

But not once, in the course of consulting these standard works a minimum of 588 times, did Wilson come across Edwards’s yellow-rump.

Why not? He just plain overlooked it, obviously. But little lapses like this only make their scarcity the more impressive in Wilson’s monumental work.

If you made it to the end of that heap of names and dates a couple of paragraphs up, you will be wondering what ever happened to Dendroica maculosa. To Wilson’s great and good posthumous fortune, Gmelin’s name Motacilla maculosa turned out to have already been used in 1783 by Boddaert to name the Karoo prinia. Wilson’s name, published in 1811, was the next available. 

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Oct
20

That First Yellow-rump

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Myrtle warbler

It’s October now, and they’re everywhere here in northern New Jersey, woods and thickets and messy backyards full of their homely little tock notes.

Yellow-rumped warblers are so abundant and so familiar that we can forget that they had to be “discovered” for European science. But it should be easy enough to find out who deserves credit for shooting and describing the first one.

Shouldn’t it?

The first western scientist to apply the name “yellow-rump” to a parulid was, unsurprisingly, Mark Catesby. Catesby’s description , however, of his Virginia specimens is remarkably scant:

This is a Creeper, and seems to be of the Tit-kind. The most distinguish’d Part of this Bird is its Rump, which is yellow. All the Rest of the Feathers are brown, having a faint Tincture of Green. It runs about the Bodies of Trees, and feeds on Insects, which it pecks from the Crevises of the Bark. The Hen differs little from the Cock in the Colour of its Feathers.

None too informative, is it? Fortunately, Catesby’s plate should clear things up.

Or so one might think.

Catesby, The yellow-rump

Recently, most ornithologists have been content to identify Catesby’s yellow-rump with our yellow-rump, the bird now known as Dendroica coronata; it’s as good a guess as any, though I often wonder whether we might not be looking at, and Catesby describing, one of those so dull Cape May warblers one runs into this time of year.

What we do know is that Linnaeus, who named so many organisms in reliance on Catesby’s Natural History, did not believe that Catesby had depicted coronata, which the Archiater described instead from a handsome and well-detailed plate by George Edwards (whose Motacilla corona aurea was, of course, the inspiration for the Linnaean name).

Edwards, too, another of Catesby’s closest readers, failed to recognize in the old “yellow-rump” the warbler he, Edwards, was describing; indeed, he says in 1760, 28 years after the first publication of the Catesbeian plate, that

these birds, I think, may safely be pronounced non-descripts,

that is, members of a species not yet formally described to science.

What do you think? Is Mark Catesby’s “yellow-rump” a yellow-rump?

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George N. Lawrence, born on this date in the long-ago year of 1806, was still a familiar figure at the American Museum four score years later, at the beginning of Frank Chapman’s career as an ornithologist.

Chapman would later report in his Autobiography that the 

kindly-faced gentleman … came at times to compare some recently received birdskin, and, doubtless, also for the pleasure of being with the specimens it had taken him nearly a lifetime to acquire,

specimens he had sold to the museum.

One day, Lawrence showed up with an unfamiliar hummingbird from Colombia, and Chapman, “with characteristic excess of enthusiasm over discretion,” determined that it was an entirely new species, one that he, with the older ornithologist’s blessing, formally described in the pages of the Bulletin in July 1889, under the name Amazilia aeneobrunnea:

This new species is so remarkably distinct as to scarcely require comparison with any other member of the genus.

But there was a catch, as Chapman reported in October of that year:

Since publishing [the] description of Amazilia aeneobrunnea … I happened to handle a Bogota example of Chrysolampis mosquitus…. A re-examination of the type of aeneobrunnea showed that the body [belonged] to this species [namely, Chrysolampis mosquitus], while the head and neck were those of Chlorostilbon haberlini.

Chapman had been fooled by a fake, “one of those taxidermal deceptions which not infrequently puzzle and sometimes, as in the present case, completely deceived unsuspecting ornithologists.” At least, he added wryly, he could have “the peculiar pleasure of placing the body” of the hummingbird “in one genus and the head in another.”

Before his retraction was published, Chapman had a chance to show the specimen to Daniel Giraud Elliot, the author of an important monograph on the hummingbirds. Chapman writes that

barely had he glanced at it when, looking at me over the tops of his glasses, he said, “See here, my boy, there’s something wrong,”

whereupon Chapman showed Elliot — possessor of “a boyish heart” and a “love of birds and fun” — the manuscript of his palinode.

What Lawrence had to say about it all I know not.

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Oct
19

An Early Rufous Hummingbird?

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Over at the ABA blog today, pondering the European discovery of our 2014 Bird of the Year.

unidentified reddish Selasphorus hummingbird Allen's or rufous

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Oct
18

Wanted: A White Crow

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The Latin word cornix — the crow — has been beloved of punsters for millennia now. Medieval schoolboys learned that

cornix est alba si cor tollatur ab illa.

Giordano Bruno recorded another one in his Spaccio de la bestia trionfante, mocking the “childish sophistry” that could delight in a line like

cor est fons vitae, nix est alba, ergo: Cornix est fons vitae alba.

Silliness aside, it turns out that by 1687, we actually knew how to produce white crows — or at least one bird seller did.

In the markets of Frankfurt in that year, eight white crows were offered at a very high price; their owner shared his recipe with the Eisenach physician and scholar Christian Franz Paullini:

Rub newly laid crow’s eggs, the fresher the better, with the grease of a white cat; coat them with the brains of the same cat, then give them to a young white hen that has laid only her first egg to incubate. During the entire period of incubation, keep the hen in a place out of the sun, and lay white cloth everywhere in that place. The crows that hatch from the eggs will be white.

Paullini was skeptical, and he didn’t even bother trying it.

Western Jackdaw leucistic 1

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