The Marquis de Brisay, writing in 1886, tells of a friend of his who kept an indigo bunting as a caged pet. One day, admiring the bird’s splendid alternate dress, she “imprudently” teased it, saying
if you die in this beautiful plumage, I’ll put you on a hat.
No sooner had she said it than the bird fell from its perch, struck by apoplexy.
Our marquis fails to tell us whether she kept her promise.
Two hundred fifty years ago today, on December 20, 1764, Erik Pontoppidan — bishop of Bergen and father of Norwegian natural history — died in Copenhagen.
Pontoppidan was more than a bit of a polymath, and his publications range from theology and church history to biology and linguistics. Birders know him chiefly for two works, the First Essay on the Natural History of Norway and the Danish Atlas. If I’ve counted right, his are the scientific names we still use for eight species of birds, among them some of the best-known and most widespread northern breeders of both hemispheres.
The red-throated loon is stellata for the sprinkling of white stars on the juvenile’s back.
The rough-legged hawk is lagopus for its furry tarsus.
The rusty underparts and head of the adult curlew sandpiper’s alternate plumage give it the name ferruginea.
Pontoppidan focused not on the width but on the shape of the broad-billed sandpiper’s bill when he named it falcinellus, the little scythe.
He almost certainly translated from a vernacular name in calling the herring gull argentatus, for the silvery back of adults and older immatures.
I’m at a loss, as seems to be everyone else: What is so heavenly about the Arctic tern? My own suspicion is that in naming this lovely, long-tailed seabird paradisaea, Pontoppidan meant to suggest that this species was the “northern bird-of-paradise.” It’s a nice thought, at least.
Pontoppidan’s aalge is simply the name in his native Danish for the common murre; the word is cognate with “auk,” “Alke,” “alcid,” and all those other back-throated names for black and white diving seabirds.
The taxonomic history of the short-eared owl (and of many others) is tangled, but to Pontoppidan goes the honor of having given it the name flammeus, apparently a reference to the bird’s overall tawny color.
And now a quiz to celebrate today’s anniversary:
Where would you go if you wanted to see all eight of these Pontoppidanian birds in a single day? Is it even possible?
After two good days of waterfowl watching here in northern New Jersey, I fell asleep last night doubly grateful for the down that keeps us warm. As usual, the last pictures to scroll across the inside of my eyelids were of the day’s birds: of red-breasted mergansers already courting on the shore, ruddy ducks huddled in sleeping masses on the ponds, Atlantic brant grazing on coastal lawns, the two drake Eurasian wigeon that startled me so happily on the Shark River.
I slept well, but was awakened very early in the middle of a dream about goldeneye. But wait — I was awake, and I could still hear their wing whistle. Could it be?
No, of course not.
Gellert, wearing the Christmas finery he’s so proud of, had simply shifted in his sleep.
Who knows? He might have been dreaming of ducks, too.
The New Jersey Meadowlands were chilly and dim this morning, but the birding was a lot of fun anyway. There were impressive numbers of waterfowl on the marshes and impoundments, among them a dozen ruddy ducks, one of the few anatid species whose numbers in the mid-Atlantic seem to be declining.
Not only is this chunky, big-headed duck one of our most attractive, it also provides the answer to any number of birding trivia questions:
Which New Jersey duck is named for a Caribbean island?
Which duck lays the largest eggs for its body size?
Which male duck has ….
Well, we’ll leave that one right there. But there’s still the matter of this captivating species’ official English name, a name commemorating only a briefly held plumage of only one of the sexes and far less evocative than almost any of the dozens of other, popular names this duck has borne.
The canonical diagnosis of this species was published by Gmelin in 1788, who named it Anas jamaicensis:
A duck barred dusky and rusty yellow, sooty above with a dark crown, the chin and throat white spotted with black, the vent and rump barred dusky and reddish.
Obviously, Gmelin did not assign this duck the English name “ruddy,” but he does cite an earlier description, in John Latham’s General Synopsis. Gmelin, it turns out, had simply translated the English account, which Latham based on what sounds like a non-breeding male. Neither ornithologist, obviously, had any notion of the spectacular breeding plumage of the species; indeed, Latham tells us expressly that his Jamaica specimen was taken in the winter, when ruddy ducks aren’t.
And now things get interesting. If we move forward through the editions of the Systema, we find the name “ruddy duck” in Turton’s English translation of 1802 — where it’s applied to a different bird.
This is clearly a description of the ruddy shelduck; for our bird, Turton — like Gmelin — uses Latham’s rather unimaginative “Jamaica shoveler,” a name that we might still be using today had Alexander Wilson not made what he thought was an exciting discovery in Peale’s Philadelphia museum: a
very rare Duck was shot, some years ago on the river Delaware, and appears to be an entire new species.
Wilson was “at first inclined to believe” that his new duck was identical with Latham’s Jamaica shoveler,
but a more careful examination of both satisfied me that they cannot be the same, as the present [species] differs considerably in color…. front, crown, and back part of the neck down nearly to the back [are] black; rest of the neck, whole back, scapulars, flanks and tail coverts deep reddish brown, the color of bright mahogany.
That description confirms what Wilson’s engraving already demonstrates: namely, that one of Peale’s birds was a male in his bright breeding plumage. I think we can forgive Wilson his error in deciding that the Philadelphia ducks were “non-descript,” a deficiency he remedied by naming them himself in the pages of the American Ornithology.
The drake’s mahogany upperparts were so striking that Wilson memorialized them in both the English and scientific names he assigned the species. And the names themselves seemed so apt that Latham’s “Jamaica shoveler” essentially disappeared after 1814.
Anas jamaicensis, however, would survive. Unlike vernacular names, scientific names are governed by the law of priority — also known as dibs: as soon as two “species” are known to be one, the first binomial is applied. So who figured out that the Jamaican shoveler and Wilson’s Pennsylvanian duck were the same?
I don’t like grocery shopping. At all. But Alison is even busier than usual this time of year, so it has been my lot of late to be dodging cars in parking lots and carts in narrow aisles. No fun at all.
This morning’s expedition was better, though. As I stepped out of the car, senses alert, a big black bird flew across low: a common raven. No longer rare, no longer unexpected, this species is always great to see, especially in the urban wilds of northern New Jersey.
But here’s my dilemma.
Brookdale Park is just two blocks from our local Shoprite (grocery store names!), and the tops of its tall old oaks and tulips dominate the view to the west. Which is where this morning’s raven came from.
Brookdale happens to be the only site for which I am keeping careful lists nowadays. And I’ve been expecting a common raven to show up.
But I can’t “count” this one for the park. Neither the bird nor I was in or over Brookdale at the time of the sighting, so the gap in the list remains.
Silly, yes. Arbitrary, yes. But it wouldn’t be a game if it didn’t have rules.