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Vieillot, Wilson, and a Waterthrush

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vieill type of Louisiana waterthrusy

The influence of Alexander Wilson’s writings on Louis Pierre Vieillot as he composed his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l’Amérique septentrionale is evident from the several passages in which the Frenchman cites, quotes, or — to indulge in an anachronism — plagiarizes the father of American ornithology.

What is less clear is exactly when Vieillot had access to Wilson’s work, a matter complicated by the uncertain dating of the fascicles making up his HIstoire naturelle. Volume One is dated 1807 on the title page, but Dickinson et al., in their useful Priority, argue cogently that the first installments did not arrive until 1808, and probably late 1808 at that.

Just how Vieillot used Wilson when he did have the American Ornithology at hand is a more interesting question. The easiest way to begin to answer it is to look at those species for which the French ornithologist published two accounts: one in the Histoire naturelle, apparently without benefit of Wilson, and another, the better part of a decade later, in the Nouveau dictionnaire, with the American Ornithology at his elbow.

wilson water thrush

One such example is found in Vieillot’s treatments of the Louisiana waterthrush, the first scientific description and naming of which he published in the Histoire naturelle in 1807 (or more likely 1808).

This is — Spencer Baird’s later doubts notwithstanding — the original description of the species we now know as Parkesia motacilla, and the accompanying plate by Prêtre is, faute de mieux, the type “specimen” of the Louisiana waterthrush.

Vieillot’s account is entirely his, uninfluenced by Wilson‘s (which is, after all, dated 1811), and apparently written without reference to Buffon’s equivocal description, published thirty years earlier.

A thrush with olive-brown upperparts; stripe on the side of the head, throat, and breast white; belly buffy; underparts spotted brown.

To obtain this rare new species, it is necessary to visit the interior United States and search for it in its customary abode alongside brooks. It is easy to identify from the way it holds its tail, which it ceaselessly wags upwards and often holds cocked. The individual depicted in the plate I publish here was collected in Kentucky. Its bill is brown; the top of the head, the neck, and the body, and the wings and tail are olive-brown; a white stripe extends above the cheek and around the eye, ending on the nape: this stripe is interrupted near the bill by a brown mark. The throat, the front of the neck, and the breast are white; flanks and belly buffy; all of these have brown spots: the feet are a brownish yellow. Total length five inches three lines.

From my collection.

Among the notable things here: Vieillot knew that his bird was new to science (he was already familiar with the northern waterthrush), and, as if the English names of warblers weren’t bad enough, the type locality is not Louisiana but Kentucky. He still thought it a true thrush of the genus Turdus, an understandable misapprehension; James Frances Stephens would gently point to the taxonomic future ten years later when he called the bird “the warbler thrush.”

In 1818, Vieillot published a second account of the Louisiana waterthrush, this time, though, having read Wilson’s work and his description of a bird Wilson had believed new, the “water thrush,” Turdus aquaticus. Vieillot determined that Wilson’s aquaticus was identical to his own motacillaothers have taken a different view over the past two centuries — and incorporated much of Wilson’s text into his updated and expanded account. The excerpt below, from volume 20 of the Dictionnaire nouveau, underlines in black the text taken over from Vieillot’s Histoire naturelle, in purple the material obviously borrowed from Wilson.

Vieillot LA Waterthrush 1818

The concluding statement of range, “in Louisiana, on the deserted shores of the Mississippi River,” matches nothing in Wilson or in Vieillot’s earlier account, and is certainly drawn from Gmelin’s description of the northern waterthrush, published thirty years earlier and a source that Vieillot cites explicitly elsewhere.

Overall, this is a straightforward combination of texts, informative and nearly seamless. A couple of spots, however, remind us just why Vieillot might not have been more successful as an ornithologist in America. The awkward and rather odd notion that the singing male “perches halfway out on the limb of an aquatic tree” (“il se tient…”) is a misunderstanding of Wilson’s words “the musician is perched on the middle branches of a tree over the brook or river.”

That is a minor misreading, but Vieillot commits a more grievous error in mistranslating Wilson’s assessment of the species’ status in Pennsylvania:

about the beginning of May it passes through Pennsylvania to the north; is seen along the channels of our solitary streams for ten or twelve days; afterwards disappearing until August.

Even leaving aside the question of just which waterthrush species Wilson is talking about here, for Vieillot to assert that the Louisiana “arrives in northern Pennsylvania at the beginning of May and disappears in the month of August” is clearly based less on any new knowledge than on some notably poor English skills.

I am convinced that the efforts of some ornithophilologist someday to go through all of Vieillot’s writings will pay off. Exactly how we can’t yet say — but that’s the fun of it, after all.



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The American Philomela

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In 1831, Audubon lauded the vocal skills of a particular brown warbler.

Much and justly as the song of the Nightingale is admired, I am inclined, after having often listened to it, to pronounce it in no degree superior to that of the Louisiana Water Thrush.

Audubon’s comparison to the nightingale was taken up and elaborated just a few months later by his colleague and correspondent Thomas Nuttall.

The silence of night is also, at times, relieved by the incesssant warble of this Western Philomel, whose voice, breaking upon the ear of the lonely traveler in the wilderness, seems like the dulcet lay of some fairy vision…. distinguished by the loudness, sweetness, and expressive vivacity of their notes, which, like the nightingale’s, beginning high and clear, flow and descend in a cadence so delicate as to terminate in sounds scarcely audible above the whispering breeze.

This purple passage is only partly Nuttall’s, much of it adapted from Alexander Wilson’s 1811 account of the bird he described as The Water Thrush.

Fascinating as it may be to unravel the clew of intertextuality in early American ornithology, what interests me is whether it is possible to determine which waterthrush each of these authors was listening to. All three recognized only one species (Audubon would later recant his “split” of the Louisiana from the northern waterthrush), but that, of course, does not mean that they were not hearing both.

It is immediately apparent that Wilson had experience with both of the waterthrush species recognized today. In spring 1810, “among the mountain streams in the state of Tennessee,” he found

a variety of this bird pretty numerous, with legs of a bright yellow color.

He also records an “abundance” of them “in the cane-breaks, swamps, river-shores, and deep watery solitudes of Louisiana … and the Mississippi territory,” all localities and habitats suited only to the Louisiana waterthrush.

But it is equally clear that he had experience of the northern waterthrush.

About the beginning of May it passes through Pennsylvania to the north; it is seen along the channels of our solitary streams for ten or twelve days; afterwards disappears until August.

Wilson gives no indication, though, that he ever heard any of these passage northerns utter anything other than a sharp chip. His description of a male waterthrush’s singing post is obviously that of the Louisiana, “perched on the middle branches of a tree over the brook or river bank.”

What about the nature of the song itself? Wilson, and after him Nuttall, describes it as at first “very high and clear, falling with an almost imperceptible gradation till [the individual notes] are scarcely articulated.” I can almost stretch this to apply to the song of the Louisiana waterthrush, but Wilson goes on to praise

his charming melody, that can be heard for nearly half a mile … so exquisitely sweet and expressive,

a poor fit for either waterthrush and nearly nonsensical in description of the Louisiana’s piercing whistles and quiet stutterings.

More puzzling still is the comparison with the nightingale. It is impossible, publication dates notwithstanding, to know whether it was Nuttall or Audubon who came up with it, but the analogy rings not particularly true — especially with the added detail that the bird sings at night. Unlike the Ovenbird, neither of our waterthrushes is especially given to nocturnal vocalizing, though both species are known to have a crepuscular flight song.

Audubon certainly knew the song of the nightingale well, and Nuttall, though he was a Yorkshire boy, surely had occasion to hear it in southern England a time or two. (Wilson, alas, most likely knew the species only from poetry.)

It is hard for me to imagine that anyone who had ever listened to the slow, low-pitched, neatly separated phrases of a nightingale could be reminded of either of our waterthrush species. Slow a northern’s song down, with some pauses insert for breath, and I could almost be convinced that there is a similarity with the Old World singer, but only almost.

I think instead that the description of the waterthrush’s (or the waterthrushes’) song in all three of our authors is a composite, made up of bits of the northern song, bigger bits of the Louisania song (avant la lettre!), and lots of the song of one of the notorious night singers — a mockingbird or a yellow-breasted chat, both of which sing their slow, low-pitched and evenly spaced phrases from southern thickets day and night.

It’s no wonder it took us so long to figure the waterthrushes out.



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How Many Waterthrushes?

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Pl enl 752 labeled tachetéeYesterday I set out, naively, to write the history of waterthrush identification in a paragraph or two. The matter turns out to be even more complicated than one would expect for a pair of little brown birds whose type specimens are not preserved and whose nomenclatural past is a snarled steaming mess.

Sometimes giving up is indeed the better part of valor. But I did learn a few things along the way — among them, just how hard it was to even figure out how many waterthrushes there are.

I’d assumed that European science knew only one before 1807, when Vieillot formally described the Louisiana waterthrush (from specimens taken in Kentucky!). In fact, though, it is evident that even those natural historians who recognized only one waterthrush species actually had access to specimens of both.

Consider this account of the northern waterthrush from the Histoire naturelle of the count de Buffon and his collaborators, which concludes with the description of

another warbler, also sent to us from Louisiana, whose plumage is a cleaner gray and shows only sparse streaking; the underparts are whitish, with a hint of buff on the flanks ….

This can only be the bird we know today as the Louisiana waterthrush — except for Buffon’s puzzling assertion that this second bird’s bill is smaller than that of the northern. I suspect that this is a slip of the pen, and that “le premier” should actually read here “le second” and vice versa.

In any event, John Latham and Thomas Pennant both followed the Frenchman’s lead in recognizing two species of waterthrush. Latham called the second the “umbrose warbler,” Pennant — even less felicitously — the “dusky warbler.”

It took the genius and industry of Louis Pierre Vieillot to straighten things out, aligning plumage and bill size in the way we do today. Unfortunately, and incomprehensibly, his description of the bird now known as the Louisiana waterthrush was unknown to Wilson, to Nuttall, and to Audubon.

Audubon would go so far as to declare himself the discoverer of the Louisiana waterthrush, describing it as a new species (and, naturally, “extremely delicate eating”) in 1841, only to explicitly recant eight years later:

although I was for many years convinced that two distinct species have been confounded under the name of Water Thrush, yet a more strict examination of individuals of these supposed species has induced me to … consider [them] as belonging to one and the same species.

Not until 1858 was the Louisiana waterthrush authoritatively resurrected, and even then it would be some decades before the birds and their scientific names were correctly matched up — but that’s another fragment of the story.

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Waterthrushes and Gummy Bears

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vieill type of Louisiana waterthrusy

Waterthrush identification and misidentification can lay bare some strong emotions. In a recent online discussion of the value of the color of the supercilium, one of North America’s best birders was moved to this outburst:

the first individual to propose [that character as a useful distinction] should be covered in honey and gummy bears and thrown to a ravaging class of preschoolers to receive their just deserts.

As soon as I’d stopped laughing out loud, I silently congratulated Cameron for knowing the phrase “just deserts” (and spelling it right!), and then, inevitably, started to wonder: just who might that sticky-fated “first individual” have been?

Pl enl 752 labeled tachetée

This particular ID chestnut turns out to be older than I’d expected. I knew that Roger Tory Peterson had used the color of the supercilium to distinguish the two species as early as the first Field Guide of 1934, and it was an easy matter to confirm that in this he was following the great Ralph Hoffman, who had written a quarter of a century before — in italics — that the Louisiana was to “be distinguished by the pure white line over the eye,” the same part of the bird “buffy in a strong light” in the northern waterthrush.

We have to go back another sixty years beyond that, though, to find what I believe is the first authoritative statement of the importance of supercilium color in identifying the waterthrushes. In 1858, Spencer Baird and his colleagues at the Smithsonian informed their readers that the Louisiana waterthrush was “readily distinguished” from its more widespread congener by its large bill and by the fact that

the stripe over the eye, besides being more conspicuous, is, with the underparts, of a decided white, instead of brownish yellow,

as in the northern. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway would reaffirm this “field mark” in their influential History of North American Birds, published in 1874, this time reinforcing its validity in the accompanying color plate.

Ridgway 1874 waterthrushes

Before 1858, every published source seems to have relied on bill and tarsus measurements to distinguish the two species. And so the famous trio — the Nestor of American ornithology, the father of American oology, and the great cataloguer of American birds — appears to be responsible for promulgating the notion that the color of the eye stripe is sufficient to separate the brown-crowned members of the genus Parkesia. 

There we have it. Break out the honey, prepare the gummy bears, rally the preschoolers!

More about the tangled history of these species to come — 

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 2.11.23 PM

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Quality, Quantity, and the Junco

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One hundred years ago today, the American Museum of Natural History published Jonathan Dwight‘s Geographic Distribution of Color and of Other Variable Characteristics in the Genus Juncopraised by Witmer Stone as “a philosophical discussion of a high order.” The philosophical part is announced in Dwight’s subtitle, A New Aspect of Specific and Subspecific Values.

Dwight’s approach in sorting out the juncos was a thoroughly artificial one, consisting largely in the creation of a nine-dimensional matrix,

first determining their most essential characters by analysis, then tracing the geographical distribution of these characters, and, finally, grouping the birds synthetically according to similarities rather than diferences.

Dwight determines “essentialness” on the basis of whether a given character is “quantitative” or “qualitative,” differences of the former sort marking subspecies, of the latter sort species. “Quality not quantity was his motto,” reported J.H. Fleming.

It is a neat system, resulting in the labeling of nineteen different junco kinds, but manifestly suspect in the weaselly nature of its terms. Ultimately, the only qualitative character — that is to say, the only feature distinguishing species — that Dwight recognizes in the juncos is color.

How quaint, we think, with a century of hindsight. But towards the end of his analysis, Dwight — who died 92 years ago — points to the future with startling clarity:

Zoologists and botanists, by actual experiment, have of late years so revolutionized ideas regarding species and hybrids that systematic ornithologists are likely to be looked upon as backward and unscientific unless they learn more of fluctuations and mutations, of manifestations of Mendelian and other laws, and all the modern theory that goes with them…. The accumulated facts and theories of the present day will be cleverly fitted together in a new era of synthetical ornithology and converted by experiment into a substantial and enduring edifice well worthy of the labor expended.

And what better to expend that labor on than juncos?


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