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Aug
26

Parrot of the Month

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blue-headed parrot, orange-cheeked parrot

Of all the breathtaking lot of parrots, few are as likely to leave the birder agulp as the stunning blue-headed parrot, a widespread and common bird from southern Central America to Bolivia and Brazil.

The dazzling swarm in the photo above was at one of the famous clay licks of Peru, but this species burned its way into my memory years before I saw them there, when a single individual flew beneath me as I was perched high on a tower in Panama, its head out-bluing the tropical sky.

And being who and what and as I am, at the very same moment a question pierced my mind, one that has nagged me ever since: What’s so menstruous about Pionus menstruus?

blue-headed parrot

Nowadays, questions about the scientific names of birds are easily answered. We have James Jobling’s considerable store of erudition at our fingertips, and in the few cases where that doesn’t help, all the wealth of the Biodiversity Heritage Library is there for the mining.

But I’m stymied.

The name is Linnaean, appearing first in the twelfth edition of 1766.

1766 Syst nam Psittacus menstruus blue-headed parrot

The Archiater’s Latin diagnosis of the newly named parrot is quite thorough, beginning with the fact that Dr. Petrus Bierchen reports from Suriname that the bird has a voice like a jackdaw.

The body is the size of a turtle dove’s. The head and neck are bluish, the feathers dusky but blue at the tip. The back and wings are green. The wing coverts are yellowish green. The belly is greenish, the feathers bluish at their tips. The remiges are green, dusky on the inner vane. The rectrices are green, becoming blue at their tips, but numbers 1, 2, and 3 are blood-red on the inner vane, from their base halfway out; the outer vane is entirely blue. The crissum is red, the tips of the feathers yellowish blue. The bill is horn-colored: the upper mandible reddish on the edges. The eyes are black. The eye rings are bluish grayish.

No real onomastic clues here, and neither of the authorities Linnaeus cites — George Edwards’s 1758 Gleanings and the fourth volume of Mathurin Brisson’s Ornithologie — offers any hints. It is notable — if purely incidental to my question — that all three of the scientists relied on different sources for their knowledge of the bird: Linnaeus’s type had been supplied from Suriname, Edwards was working from a live individual in London, and Brisson had access to a specimen labeled as originating in Martinique.

Buffon and his collaborators likewise seem to know nothing about the odd Linnaean name. The OED and the Century are of no use, and we’re stuck with the prospect of a systematic search through “the older literature,” which in North American ornithology tends to mean anything before the publication of Ridgway, a scant century ago.

Johann August Donndorf’s Zoologische Beyträge, a commentary on Gmelin’s edition of the Systema, is one source Ridgway overlooked or declined to exploit for his North and Middle America (he would not have been the first to rail against Donndorf’s sloppiness as a bibliographer), but it is often productive of otherwise obscure eighteenth-century names and publications. In this case, it sends us to Statius Müller’s translation of Linnaeus, where the German systematist coins the name “Blauhals” (“blueneck”) for this species — and incidentally asks himself the same question that occurred to me more than 200 years later in Panama.

We have named it the Blauhals because we are unable to explain the name “menstruus.” I suspect that in the case of many names Linnaeus did not even intend that their meaning be understood, as otherwise he would have explained the more obscure among them himself, or assigned clearer names.

Vieillot, usually a bright light in the otherwise dim bibliographic jungle, has no comment on “menstruus,” but to make up for it, he tells us that in Paraguay the bird is called “siy,” an echoic name. Levaillant likewise says nothing about the Linnaean name; his two accounts of the species, though, are a really fine example of this explorer and ornithologist at his best, addressing everything from sex and molt to land use changes in coastal South America.

Barraband blue-headed parrot, Levaillant 1805 pl 114

And so it continues, right up to today: as far as I can find, no one seems to have known Linnaeus’s motivation, or even to have speculated about it in print. Time to widen the search, perhaps.

If I google correctly, the blue-headed parrot is the only bird in the world currently in possession of a species or subspecies epithet “menstruum/a/us.” In 1786, though, Giovanni Antonio Scopoli gave a formal diagnosis and Linnaean binomial to a woodpecker that had been collected in the Philippines by Pierre Sonnerat a decade earlier. Sonnerat described his bird:

… the green woodpecker of the Isle of Luzon [has] the entire body a somewhat dirty green; the top of the head is faintly spotted with gray; the flight feathers of wing and tail are blackish; the upper tail coverts are very bright scarlet red, forming a large patch; the feet and bill are blackish.

Sonnerat Nouvelle Guinée pl 36

Scopoli assigned this bird the name Picus menstruus, like Linnaeus before him offering no hint of an explanation. What do the two birds have in common, the parrot and the picid? Linnaeus distinguishes his parrot from the one that precedes it on the page by undertail color: he writes that the latter is “similar to P. menstruus, but its undertail is not red.” Scopoli adds to his summary of Sonnerat’s woodpecker account that “the rump and undertail are red” (my emphasis to show the addition).

Can it be that “menstruus” here means not simply “monthly” but “catamenial”? Entomology provides what may be a significant parallel: the sarcophagid name Syctomedes menstrua is a junior synonym of Syctomedes haemorrhoidalis, both names alluding to the red genitals, as if colored by flowing blood.

I know very little about Scopoli, the namer of the Luzon woodpecker and the eponym of a shearwater and a drug that helps when looking for the shearwater. Linnaeus, though, was more than capable of ignoring the blue-headed parrot’s blue head to reach for a more scurrilous name. His own contemporaries reproached him for the poor taste of some of his inventions, that notorious

Linnaean obscenity [and] licentiousness…. Science should be chaste and delicate. Ribaldry at times has been passed for wit; but Linnaeus alone passes it for terms of science.

Psittacus menstruus appears to be yet another example.

 

 

 

 

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Jul
30

Some Political Dithering in Congress

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What’s new? you may ask. But you should rather ask, what’s old?

The readers of Bird-Lore a hundred one years ago were anxiously waiting for the Migratory Bird Treaty to be given effect.

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Jul
30

The Maw of a Kite

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red kite

The dashing and dramatic red kite was famous in the ancient and medieval world for its boldness: snatching the caps off people’s heads and, no doubt, pestering them for French fries in proto-parking lots.

red kite

At times, that audacity served the cause of justice, as Gregory of Tours tells us in his sixth-century Glories of the Saints Confessor:

A wine merchant in Lyon decided to inflate his profits by mixing his wares with water. He succeeded to no small extent, as he was selling water for wine. Once a boatman came down the Saône to market, his purse full of coins. To pay for a purchase, he took a coin out of the purse, which was made of unscraped leather. A kite flying overhead saw the purse and because it was still covered in hair, mistook it for a prey animal and flew down and grabbed it. The kite carried it high into the sky, but when it found that it would have no food from it — for kites eat meat, not air — it dropped its prey, which disappeared into the river where it could not be seen. The cheating wine merchant found this instructive, and acknowledging his guilt said tearfully, “I have sinned and now suffer for it; I accumulated wealth from water, but I see now that all wealth falls into the water and disappears.”

red kite

The kite went away hungry, the sailor impoverished — but the merchant was saved.

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Jul
29

Out and About With the Montclair Bird Club

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Photo Sanford Sorkin

I’ve been out twice recently with the Montclair Bird Club, always a fun group. Summer is a good time to explore local hotspots that don’t get birded much in the heat and haze, and we started ten days ago with a trip to Brookdale Park, a pleasant oasis straddling the Bloomfield / Montclair line.

Alison and Gellert

It was hot, it was humid, and I was delighted with the turnout: small as it was on a steamy weekday morning, I’d left the house that morning almost prepared to bird by myself. But our little party soldiered on together, filling in the only remaining gap in the eBird bar charts — Brookdale has now been birded every week of the year. (Obviously, someone sometime, and probably lots of someones lots of sometimes, had birded there the third week of July at some point in history, but more and more it seems not to count if it isn’t “ebirded.”)

I hadn’t expected a terribly birdy morning, and so we weren’t disappointed. Northern flickers gave an excellent show in one of the park’s remaining dead trees. American robins and European starlings were busy on the fields, and as the day grew brighter, barn swallows swooped in to keep us bug-free.

As usual at this season, the best birding was in the grove of big trees at the south end of the park. There were plenty of blue jays; one of the red-bellied woodpeckers there was a juvenile, proof that Brookdale’s commonest breeding woodpecker had brought off young again this year. Best of all, though, was what we heard just as I’d given up hope: a singing wood thrush, which we eventually saw beautifully on his perch in the woods. This species, present each summer in the park, is in every sense the most eloquent reminder of the importance of patches of faint wildness like this here in the megalopolis.

I’ll be leading another walk at Brookdale Park October 13. It’s free, but if you enjoy the park as much as I do, please consider joining the Conservancy, which does such good work to keep Brookdale such a welcoming place for people and wild things.

semipalmated sandpiper

If the turnout for our Brookdale outing was gratifying, yesterday’s was startling. We were a group of 22 at Mill Creek Marsh in Secaucus, the site every July of one of New Jersey’s most underappreciated natural spectacles. Each year, in the last couple of days of the month, the rising tide pushes hundreds and thousands of shorebirds — the vast majority of them adult semipalmated sandpipers — to the edges of the marsh and then onto the ancient stumps of the Atlantic white cedars, where they huddle in clumps before taking off in search of open mud elsewhere.

Photo Sally Poor

Our tally yesterday morning was 4600 semipalmateds, an impressive number but still 2000 shy of the expected high yet to come today or tomorrow or the next day. A single pectoral sandpiper was “good” for the date and locality, too. Among the bigger waders, a glossy ibis was a very nice surprise, and the earliest birders among us got to see a little blue heron pass over, too, the first adult of that species I’d seen at the marsh.

Marsh wrens, great and snowy egrets, Baltimore and orchard orioles, Forster terns, and just about every other expected bird species showed up and showed well for our group. We’ll do this trip again, too.

 

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Jul
22

Put a Bird on Her

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William Hole’s bizarre map of the Severn and its tributaries personifies the famous puffin island of Lundy as “a lusty black-browed girl with forehead broad and high / that often had bewitched the sea gods with her eye.” This nymph whose only joy it is to watch the birds that feed on her shores is, appropriately, crowned with one of them.

Michael Drayton, whose Poly Olbion the map illustrates, names only one species among the fowl breeding on the island: “the birds of Ganymed.”

I don’t know how many pairs of golden eagles bred on Lundy in the seventeenth century, but I’m guessing it wasn’t many — and that long-legged heronish kind of a thing just can’t be meant as one. No “umfangend umfangen” here, I’m afraid.

I suspect instead that Drayton confused the bird of Ganymede with the equally famous bird of Diomede.

Equally famous, but much more mysterious. While Linnaeus would fix the name Diomedea to the great albatrosses, by 1758 the birds in the myth had been identified with a wide variety of seabirds. Ovid says that they were like swans but not swans; Pliny seems to suggest that they resembled coots. Aldrovandi was confident that Venus had turned Acmon and his men into shearwaters. Cuvier believed that the birds were common shelducks. And Gurney, obsessed as he was with sulids, identifies the bird atop Lundy’s tresses as a northern gannet.

Me? I don’t know. But it looks like she’s having a hard time balancing it.

 

 

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