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The First Racket-tail

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Booted Rackettail Ecuador September 2007 675

They’re truly implausible little creatures, hummingbirds so tiny as to hardly be there, their feet tucked in to great puffy boots and bizarre spoons trailing behind them.

There used to be (“be”!) just one species, but now — once again — two or three are recognized, differing in the color of their footwear and in vocalizations and other behaviors.

The first description of any taxon of racket-tail was published in 1832 by Lesson, under the scientific name Ornismya underwoodi and the slightly tortured vernacular label “la raquette empennée.” “Ornismya,” which the French trochilidist had coined a few years earlier, is simply the rendering into Greek of the usual “oiseau-mouche,” while the species epithet honors the Englishman who had supplied Lesson with a drawing of the bird, probably the painter Thomas Underwood.

Lesson did not know the bird “en nature,” that is to say, as a skin or mount, but he was assured that there were several specimens in the hands of London collectors of the day.

Indeed, collectors and natural historians had known the bird for some time when Lesson finally got around to naming it. William Bullock had exhibited at least one male in London in the 1820s.

But what neither Bullock nor, apparently, even Lesson knew, and slightly later on neither Jardine nor Gould, was that the “racketed hummingbird” had in fact been described — but not, sadly, properly named — a full fifty-five years before Lesson introduced it as new.

In June 1777, the Paris Journal de physique published a characteristically miscellaneous article describing a beetle, a “water scorpion,” and a hummingbird from South America. The hummingbird was represented by two specimens, one said to be from Guyana — yet another illustration of the danger of confusing collection localities with postmarks.

There can be no doubt about the identity of the hummingbird, which “differs from all other members of the family in the shape of the two long feathers of the tail… Among the birds we know, only this one has the two tail feather widening at the end as is shown in the figure.”

Oddly, neither the text nor what I can see of the figure on line offers any information at all about the strikingly puffed feet, which must have been damaged beyond recognition when the birds were collected or prepared.

The article in the Journal de physique gave the new hummingbird no name at all, scientific of vernacular. Very shortly after its publication, though, Buffon and his collaborators provided an account of “this still little known and apparently very rare” species in the Histoire naturelle, naming it the “oiseau-mouche à raquettes,” which means exactly what one might think it means.

Much of their description duplicates the earlier report, and as there, no mention is made of the bird’s remarkable bootlets. Buffon says that he examined a specimen in the famous cabinet of Mauduyt de la Varenne, but it remains unclear whether that was a third individual or one of the two described earlier in the year.

The usual French failure, or rather refusal, to assign a new bird a Linnaean name has kept these earliest accounts of the racket-tail out of the ornithological synonymies. Just as significantly, the failure by Buffon et al. to mention the hummingbird’s distinctively plumed feet allowed the ornithologists of the next generations to “discover” and name it themselves, without recognizing, or at least without acknowledging, the earlier descriptions.

Lesson gives no sign of having even read the 1777 accounts, and John Gould did not think of the “oiseau-mouche à raquettes” when he described his new Trochilus caligatus (“booted”) in 1848; neither did he cite them in the greatest of all nineteenth-century hummingbird books, the Monograph of the Trochilidae.

Obviously, there is no requirement, there is no obligation, for subsequent authors to adduce every single thing ever written about a species. Never has been. But the story of those first booted racket-tails is an important reminder that sometimes the human history of a bird goes back farther — in this case, nearly half a century farther — than the strictly “scientific” record shows.


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Home Pest Control

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woodchat shrike

I’ll happily confess that I’m not really one for pet birds: they’re noisy, they’re smelly, and some of them, I hear, have the disconcerting habit of outliving their human owners.

Loggerhead shrike, Arizona

Even if cagebirds didn’t give me the slight willies, I gravely doubt that my first choice for a domestic companion of the feathered sort would be … a shrike.

Red-backed Shrike Tuscany

I love shrikes, and have since I saw my first loggerheads in eastern Nebraska more than 40 years ago. Whatever the rest of the day afield has held, it is often the shrikes — common ones or rare, big ones or little — that press themselves most deeply into memory: a northern shrike chasing tree sparrows through the thickets, a great gray hounding innocent jays and magpies, red-backeds lighting up a brushy pasture, a southern gray singing from a Spanish fenceline.

great gray shrike

In the house, though? Never. Of all things.

But as so often, and always so surprisingly, I find that my tastes are not universally shared.

Lesser Gray Shrike

In 1795, Johann Matthäus Bechstein, uncle of the poet and philologist and father of German ornithology, dedicated a lengthy chapter of his Stubenthiere to these “bold predatory birds” and their place in the fashionable bourgeois living room.

Southern gray shrike

Like the European jay, the great gray shrike imitates many sounds. It does not quite succeed in replicating the songs of other birds, but its own flute-like note is that much more beautiful, quite similar to that of the gray parrot; it puffs out its throat like a frog…. Perhaps one might be able to teach it to speak, as it has some notes that are very like the human voice.

There is one thing to be very sure of, though, as Bechstein reminds us in his account of the lesser gray shrike.

Northern Shrike

Letting any shrike fly around in a room with other birds in it is not appropriate, because it is likely to want to kill its comrades — if not out of hunger, then out of jealousy or bad temper, or just to prove that it can.

Bloodlust notwithstanding, the male lesser gray is among the most desirable of cagebirds, “with a wondrous capacity to learn … the entire songs of other bird, among them the nightingale, the skylark … and the quail.” The woodchat, on the other hand, though its handsome plumage commends it, always mixes “its own screeching and squawking” into its imitations.

Then as now the commonest laniid in central and western Europe, the red-backed shrike was the birdkeeper’s favorite, readily captured, handsomely plumed, and easily fed. The song of the beautiful male

is a combination of the songs of the goldfinch, various warblers, nightingale, thrush nightingale, robin, wren, skylark, and woodlark, mixed with only a few of the shrike’s own coarse strophes.

Red-backed Shrike

Best of all, though,

if you place the shrike in a room infested with flies, he will quickly clear them out. He catches them most easily in flight; if you then stick a few pins into a twig, he impales the flies with an odd movement.

I’m still not convinced.

Southern gray shrike


A New Way of Fowling

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The most famous spotting scope in American birding history is surely this one, purchased by Henry David Thoreau in March 1854 and used to look at the tops of trees and the birds in them.

Again and again, on long car rides and in slow moments afield, I’ve been told that Thoreau’s was the first spyglass ever dedicated to watching birds. It wasn’t, of course. Audubon was continually peering through a telescope, his own or one borrowed from the captain of whatever ship he happened to be on.

Going back even farther, Hans Sloane reports using a glass to stare at hummingbirds on the tantalizingly nearby shore when his ship was becalmed on its arrival at Jamaica — in 1687.

In a way, I suppose, even if (and surely they were) people were spying on birds with optical instruments before 1687, Sloane and Audubon and Thoreau all have a good claim to be the first, as each seems to have come up with the idea independently. So, too, did “A.P.,” a birder in Epping Forest, who in the spring of 1830 reported on his “new mode of examining birds, etc.”:

I have derived much delight from the use of a good pocket telescope, magnifying about thirty times, whilst exploring the recesses of our forest for the various species of the feathered tribe with which it abounds… I direct upon [a bird] my quiet vivifying tube; and thus the living specimen, sporting in all its native character (perhaps quite heedless of its inspector, at a distance of thirty, forty, or ninety yards), is brought within a visual range of one, two, or three yards of my eye… many an interesting spectacle. Being a warm friend to humanity, I may add, that I hope my practice of “fowling” will find many advocates.

So it has, so it has.

birders birding

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The American Pygmy Bison

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Inches, not feet.

In August 1828, “V,” a correspondent to the Loudon Magazine, reported on his examination of a mounted specimen of the American pygmy bison in the possession of a Hastings dealer named Murray. The creature was said to have been among the holdings of the comte de Bournon, at the time of his death three years earlier the director of the mineralogical cabinet of Louis XVIII.

V found the animal to be 7 or 8 inches tall, “quite perfect in horns, coat, and every other which distinguishes the adult male bison.” And, unfortunately, an example of “the summit of the art of deception.”

It appeared to me to have been grounded on a well-formed model of wood, very tightly covered, in the first instance, by the skin of a pug-dog of corresponding size, the long hair about the head, hunch, and belly being added with consummate skill from the skin of a young bear, while the horns and hoofs were formed out of the black horn of the buffalo.

A fake, yes, but “the tout ensemble so elegant” that V thought it entirely worth the price of 40 guineas set by Mr. Murray.

Where is it now?

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Here, from Adolf Bernhard Meyer’s Vogelskeletten, is the first published photograph of the skeleton of the iiwi, the 2018 ABA Bird of the Year.

Iiwi Vogelskeletten Meyer


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