Author Archive

Aug
01

Reading Like a Positivist

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Ever stop to think about just how you read your bird books?

Lately I’ve been reading all the published works of Louis Pierre Vieillot.

Who? 

That’s exactly the point of my plowing through the old books: to bestow on Vieillot the fame history has cheated him of.

At this early stage in the project, it’s a very different sort of reading I’m engaged in. I’m not learning much about birds, but I am learning, bit by painfully excavated bit, something about Vieillot’s life.

That’s a misuse, an abuse, even, of a text, the unpardonable sin of biographism. But it’s worth it, isn’t it, to learn, for example, that Vieillot was afloat on the North Atlantic at the latitude of Nova Scotia one August — August of a year I have yet to determine. And to discover that his may be the earliest record of cave swallows from northeastern North America, when

several of these birds landed in the rigging of the ship I was on.

Maybe the whole story of Vieillot’s life is still waiting for me in an archive in Rouen or Paris. But if not, I’ll keep reading like a positivist.

Petrochelidon fulva 1894.jpg
Petrochelidon fulva 1894” by Richard Bowdler SharpeA monograph of the Hirundinidae. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Jul
29

Swan Song

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Mute Swan

Are mute swans really silent?

No, of course not, as anyone who’s ever been hissed and grunted at in a city park can tell you. But they’re much less talkative than the other wild swans of Europe, and it is this silence, surprisingly, that seems to be behind the old idea of the swan’s dying song.

At least that’s how Antoine Mongez explained it in a lecture delivered to the Académie des Inscriptions 232 years ago today, on July 29, 1783.

Mongez’s first concern was to confirm that there were two white swan species living in Europe, not just one. In best Lumière style, the lecture began with a summary of ancient opinions on the matter, proceeded to the reports of dissections, and ended with Mongez’s own experience with living captives. The two species, he concludes, are the “tame” swan — our mute — and the “wild” swan — probably our whooper swan.

Only the latter, Mongez reports, can sing, and he has recently heard it with his own ears:

On July 13, I went to the zoo of Chantilly, where I watched the captive swans for a long time, with one of the keepers, M. l’Ecailler…. The keepers used a cleverly thought-out trick to let me hear the birds. They brought in a domestic goose and put it over the netting that surrounded the pond. Hardly had that bird touched the ground when the swans came up, proudly, one after another in single file, the male in the lead, to do battle with this new enemy. They approached the goose slowly, puffing out their necks, which gave them a sinuous motion like that of reptiles, and uttering strangled sounds. The scene was about to become bloody when the keepers grabbed the goose by the wings and removed it from the enclosure. Then the two adult swans faced each other and rose up on their legs, spread their wings, lifted their heads, and began to sing their victory over and over.

Yes, there are two species of swan, and one of them can sing. But whence this strange notion that it sings only at the moment of its death? Mongez tells us: for the authors of antiquity,

the wild swan, the singing swan, was quite rare in their countries, and so they had not seen it often. Desiring to reconcile the old tradition of the song of the swan with the silence of the mute swans that lived on their canals — individuals of the wild swan species being encountered only accidentally and very poorly studied even then — they assured us that they sang only at the moment of their death, and only in remote places, where their death was witnessed not even by other birds.

It’s a good story, not least, as Mongez points out, because it was so hard to disprove.

One would have attempted in vain to follow a dying swan into the clefts of rocks or across endless desert…. Plus, the swan lives for such a long time, they claimed, that it is very rare to actually see one die.

And why, if they were so silent for so long, should they decide to sing only in the hour of their death?

They said that the feathers of the crown would suddenly begin to grow into the skull, and the pain caused by the damage to the brain drew these melodious sounds out of the dying birds,

a natural history factlet that Mongez uses to gloss Ovid’s lines about the plucked string’s

plaintive rhythms, as when the swan sings its song, its frost-white brow transfixed by a rigid feather,

in which the word “penna” is a synecdoche for an arrow.

Mongez’s peroration that evening is inspiring even today to a certain type of reading birder:

And so, by virtue of research that has proved as pleasant as it useful, I have relocated in the writings of the Ancients almost everything that observation has taught me about the singing swan. This song of the swans … which has become proverbial can no longer be doubted: the Ancients are avenged. May my success inspire other modern Naturalists to cast the torch light of observation onto the tales of the Greeks and the Romans! One will see with astonishment that their knowledge was solid and extensive. As to me, heartened by the favorable reception with which I have been honored today, I embrace such work with zeal and dedicate myself to it.

The publications committee of the Academy — no less a trio than Daubenton, Brisson, and Vicq d’Azyr — finding that it would be of equal interest to natural historians and literary scholars, deemed Mongez’s talk worthy of being printed in the Mémoires.

I think they were right.

Albin 3 Pl 96

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Jul
28

Birding in Berlin

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Over at the VENT blog today, with some words and pictures about my new tour Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg. We’ll be there at just the right time for tens of thousands of cranes and much, much more.

Linum crane counts 2014

Daily tallies from the roost at Linum. During the dates scheduled for our tour, the flock has ranged from 23,000 to a very impressive 117,000 common cranes. It’s a great show!

common crane

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M.A. Carriker, Jr. 1952

Melbourne Armstrong Carriker, often accounted the last of the old-time collectors, died 50 years ago today. I first became aware of him myself in the early 1980s, when as a callow undergraduate I was privileged to handle many of the bird skins he had deposited in the collections of the University of Nebraska, where he began his undergraduate studies in 1899. I quickly discovered that we had something else in common, too: I was born in Nebraska City, which is where Carriker spent fourteen years of his life, from age seven through his departure for the university.

Carriker in Nebraska City

I was two when Carriker died, but one day a dozen years ago, I picked up the phone to be greeted this way: “Hello, this is Mel Carriker” — Melbourne Romaine Carriker, a distinguished marine biologist and “Meb’s” oldest child. We chatted a little about the family history he had written, and concluded with the hope that we might one day meet. Sadly, it never happened.

The elder Carriker spent the vast part of his career in Central and South America and working for the big eastern museums — first the Carnegie, then the Academy in Philadelphia, finally the Smithsonian. As a young man, though, he was already a prominent figure in the nascent culture of Nebraska birding.

Screenshot 2015-06-15 14.58.56

With Lawrence Bruner and Merritt Cary, he undertook the first sustained and systematic collecting expedition into the canyons of the Pine Ridge, and Carriker was also a founding member of the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union; his “Notes on the Nesting of the Raptores of Otoe County, Nebraska,” was read at the Union’s first annual meeting, in December 1899, and published the next year in the Proceedings.

That paper is widely thought to have been Carriker’s first natural history publication, inaugurating a long series of important works on birds and, especially, their lice. In fact, more modest efforts had appeared in the Osprey as early as the beginning of 1899, and, in the spring of that year, in a magazine that must be considered Nebraska’s earliest ornithological periodical.

Screenshot 2015-06-15 13.35.56

Carriker contributed to this first issue of “The Hummer” an over-written look at the natural world in May, when “all bird life is making the most of a short season, free from care and full of gayety before beginning the more sober duties of raising a family.” My guess is that Carriker was paid not in cash but in advertising space:

Screenshot 2015-06-15 14.00.49

Mel Carriker reports in Vista Nieve that such solicitations were so successful that the young ornithologist’s room in Nebraska City was soon filled with specimens, most of which his relieved parents disposed of when Meb went off to the university.

Bird photography was in its tentative infancy in 1899, but Carriker had already jumped in with enthusiasm. He published a selection of nest portraits in the NOU’s Proceedings of 1902, and was apparently selling some of his work, too.

Screenshot 2015-06-15 14.17.46

Bonwell’s “Hummer” ceased publication in March 1900. Two years later, Carriker went with Bruner and Cary to Costa Rica, where he began the work on Mallophaga that would occupy him for the rest of his life. So far as I know, he returned to Nebraska thereafter only twice: in the summer of 1912, to introduce his new bride to the Nebraska City family and friends, and ten years later, to settle affairs on the death of his father.

Two years before his own death in July 1965, Carriker sent two long letters to Doris Gates, editor of the Nebraska Bird Review. The digest Gates prepared for publication suggests that he had very little to say about his time in Nebraska City — but I hope that it pleased him to know that not everyone had forgot the contributions he made to the ornithology of the state where he spent so much of his childhood.

I've wondered whether he meant for that calendar to so prominently in view in this photograph.

I’ve wondered whether Carriker, even with his “eye for the pretty woman,” meant for that calendar to be quite so prominently on view in this photograph.

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Jul
26

How Can a Woodpecker Be Racist?

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Northern Flicker

Well, it can’t. It’s a bird. But I’m continually amazed by what the human mind can do with — can do to — the things around us.

It’s been a summer of symbols in the United States, and while the removal of even the most vile of signifiers can’t destroy their signifieds, at least we’ve finally agreed that governments have no business propping up evil by displaying its tokens.

Haven’t we?

Now comes this, just the latest bit of officially sanctioned racist intimidation to hit the e-waves.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 10.12.36

It’s ludicrous that there’s debate at all about the three white-sheeted thugs riding mock-heroic beneath a moonlit sky. Scrape ’em off, paint ’em over.

But what about that other wistful reminder of a golden past, the big black and white bird with the red crest in the foreground? It turns out, google informs us, that woodpeckers lead a sinister symbolic life in the violent underworld of American racism. Dina Temple-Raston’s Death in Texas describes the “body art” of one scion of the local aristocracy:

His arms and back were a solid gallery of tattoos and racist symbols. A menacing version of Woody Woodpecker sported a Klan robe on one arm and a tiny black man dangled from a tree limb on the other.

I advise forgoing an image search.

The internet abounds with explanations of the semiotic link between picids and racist hatred, but no one seems to have noticed the obvious: that it all began with the action of one recalcitrant state legislature.

On September 26, 1927, Bibb Graves, the governor of Alabama and “Exalted Cyclops” of the KKK, signed the law declaring the yellowhammer that state’s official bird. Not, note well, the “flicker,” which was the bird’s AOU name at the time, but the yellowhammer.

Why that species, and why that name?

Yellow-shafted Flicker

Most state birds were selected for the beauty of their plumage or the charm of their song; a few owe the distinction to crass economic thinking (Rhode Island! Alaska! South Dakota!!). Only two were chosen on historical grounds: Delaware’s chicken, and Alabama’s big brown woodpecker.

No need for me to craft a tendentious paraphrase. Here’s what the Alabama Department of Archives and History itself has to say about it:

Alabama has been known as the “Yellowhammer State” since the Civil War. The yellowhammer nickname was applied to the Confederate soldiers from Alabama…. On the sleeves, collars and coattails of the new calvary [sic] troop were bits of brilliant yellow cloth. As the company rode past Company A, Will Arnett cried out in greeting “Yellowhammer, Yellowhammer, flicker, flicker!” The greeting brought a roar of laughter from the men and from that moment the Huntsville soldiers were spoken of as the “yellowhammer company.” The term quickly spread throughout the Confederate Army and all Alabama troops were referred to unofficially as the “Yellowhammers.” When the Confederate Veterans in Alabama were organized they took pride in being referred to as the “Yellowhammers” and wore a yellowhammer feather in their caps or lapels during reunions.

Alabama’s bird is a pretty bird, with a distinctive voice and habits. But all that mattered in its selection was the chance to commemorate the men of that state who fought to destroy the Union and prop up the enslavement of one human by another. It’s no wonder that woodpeckers have become the secret handshake of people who believe, truly believe, that their lives would be better if we could only return to the days when ivory-billed woodpeckers still flashed through the woods of the south. 

I don’t know whether my 3x-great-grandfather met with any Alabamans, but this is what their war did to him, when as a member of Co. F, 17th Iowa Infantry, he

participated in the battles of Pittsburg Landing and Shiloh, and took part in the many engagements which led to the evacuation of Corinth and Iuka. At the camp at Clear Creek our subject was attacked with the intermittent fever. He was removed to St. Louis, Mo., and placed in the Good Samaritan Hospital, remaining there for some time, and was finally honorably discharged on account of physical disability. At the time of his discharge he was so reduced in flesh that he was merely a skeleton, with an epidermis stretched over it. He rejoined his people in Nebraska [after] endur[ing] without a complaint the terrible experiences had on the fields of Shiloh, Pittsburg Landing and Iuka. Returning home he suffered for years, broken in health, but not in courage or spirit.

 

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