The Fifty-sixth AOU Supplement

It’s here, right on time, and birders around the world are scrutinizing every last densely printed word in this year’s supplement to the AOU Check-list. (That’s right: hyphen, small “l.”) There aren’t terribly many species-level splits or lumps this time, but there are some very significant changes at the higher levels of taxonomy, including some that will have many family listers spending the rest of the day on Travelocity.

Fully eighteen species are added to the North American list this time around, by the acceptance of new records or the taxonomic splitting of species already on the list. The “new” bird most likely to crest most birders’ horizons most immediately is the good old Egyptian goose, added here (following its addition to the ABA list last year) on the basis of established populations in Florida and California. Feral birds, park birds, and recent fugitives of this species can be seen anywhere in North America, though, and if the pattern seen in western Europe holds true, this clunky but oddly beautiful goose is poised to take over the continent.

Egyptian geese in Catalonia

There is tantalizing mention here of “a family-wide revision of English group names based on a complete phylogeny of the Trochilidae,” suggesting that sooner or later we may have to relinquish some of the evocative hummingbird names created by the French natural historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For the moment, though, we get two hummingbird re-splits north of Panama. The former long-billed hermit now constitutes two species, the long-billed hermit (!) and the Mexican hermitPhaethornis mexicanus. These two ill-named birds differ “in vocalizations, behavior, genetics, and morphology” — and now, like many of us, I’ve got to dig up my notes and figure out which I’ve seen.

The other hummingbird split will be of particular interest to birders in The Bahamas and — get this — Pennsylvania. The woodstar on the islands of Great and Little Inagua is once again considered distinct from the widespread Bahama woodstar, and named, sensibly, the Inagua woodstarCalliphlox lyrura. All the US records are here suggested ex silentio to pertain to the Bahama woodstar in its new, strict sense.

It is worth pointing out that the citation the supplement gives for this woodstar’s original description is poorly formed; it should indicate that Gould published the name in the fourth volume of the fourth series of the Annals and Magazine, and that the name appears on pages 111-112. I expect that this will be corrected in the printed supplement.

In other trochilid news, the spelling of the steely-vented hummingbird‘s species epithet is corrected to saucerottei, with one “r,” which is how Nicolas Saucerotte and his family have always written it 

As if a Bahama woodstar weren’t enough, Pennsylvania birders also get to adjust their lists to take into account a seabird split. Pterodroma heraldica and Pterodroma arminjoniana are henceforth to be considered two species, the first known as the herald petrel in English, the second as the Trindade petrel. It is that latter tubenose that has occurred in the north Atlantic, and even inland in the eastern US, including, perhaps, Pennsylvania. Not only do we all need to learn how to spell “Trindade” now, but we’re going to have to come to a civil consensus about how to pronounce the island’s name.

Some of the big shifts this year are at the genus level. The lovely white-tailed hawk is no longer a Buteo but a Geranoaetus, a genus it shares with the variable hawk and, strikingly, with the black-chested buzzard-eagle. And in spite of their superficial similarity, the broad-winged hawk and the roadside hawk no longer nestle close to each other; the white-eyed southern bird is now in the genus Rupornis, where Kaup put it — naming Rupornis as a subgenus of his Asturina — more than 170 years ago.

Roadside Hawk Panama May 2007 288

The sequence of the big, blunt-winged hawks has been altered, too. North of Mexico, it now goes Harris’s, gray, red-shouldered, broad-winged, short-tailed, Swainson’s, zone-tailed, red-tailed, rough-legged, and ferruginous. To the delight of the makers of field checklists everywhere….

Ferruginous Hawk

A re-arrangement of the Hawaiian honeycreepers adds several new genera to the Check-listVestiaria is lost, but Akialoa, Chlorodrepanis, and Viridonia are given full rank, making for a total of 20 genera in Drepaninae. Several new honeycreeper species are recognized — eight of them, alas, extinct or likely so.

Closer to home for most of us, the American tree sparrow has been moved to its own monotypic genus, the blandly named (and hard to pronounce, I think) Spizelloides. This is the third name the species has had in the Check-list, from Spizella monticola to Spizella arborea and now to Spizelloides arborea. I’m not especially happy with the new species name: I suppose that the epithet could be argued to fall under the exception in ICZN, but the AOU treats all other generic names in -oides as masculine, and it should this one, too.

[Fix, July 7: I should have spent more time reading Klicka et al. and less time snuffling around in Greek dictionaries and the ICZN. In their paper, the authors explicitly state that Spizelloides is grammatically feminine, fully satisfying the exception.]

American Tree Sparrow

The family of this and the other American sparrows — still, at this writing, Emberizidae, but likely to change soon, I suspect — is suddenly a lot smaller on the appearance of the new supplement. A long list of erstwhile sparrowish birds, all of them tropical, have moved from that family over to the Thraupidae. Yes, grassquits, seedeaters, the Caribbean bullfinches, the orangequit, the St. Lucia black finch, the Cocos and slaty finches, the peg-billed finch, the flowerpiercers, the yellow-finches, and the grass-finches are all true tanagers. The bananaquit, always among the bounciest of taxonomic balls, has also joined the tanagers.

Meanwhile, half a dozen other genera once placed among the tanagers have now taken uncertain seats, pending their elevation — each of them — to family status. Among these aspirants are the stripe-headed tanagers of the genus Spindalis, one species of which — the western spindalis — makes it into Florida. Family listers not holding all of these taxa in escrow will be doing some traveling soon.

Many birders did travel to see two cranes over the past several years. Neither, however, makes it onto the main AOU list. Both the California demoiselle crane of 2001-2002 and the hooded crane (or cranes) that wandered the continent between 2010 and 2012 have gone into the appendix — not, mark well, because the committee considers them definitely escaped captives, but because we do not know the origins of these birds. In this, the AOU echoes the ABA’s list, which treats all of these records as “questionable” based on provenance. But we most certainly have not heard the end of this one, as a cogent article in this month’s Birding shows.

Northern Harrier

Birders being birders, it’s those “rejections” — to use a word the AOU committee carefully avoids — that are likely to draw the most attention and spur the most debate. The committee also declined to separate the harriers, leaving the northern harrier and the hen harrier still to be considered conspecific. There will be less of a brouhaha about the failure to split the painted buntings or the Le Conte’s thrashers (the name of the thrasher is misspelled in the supplement), largely, I suspect, because most birders didn’t even know such had been proposed. The northern cardinal split into six species seemed a bit extreme from the start, but I’m glad the proposal was made: I’m once again hearing birders in the American Southwest speak unself-consciously of the superb cardinal, a fitting name if ever there was one.

Northern Cardinal superbus


There’s a great deal more, as there is every year when the supplement appears. You can read the whole thing here. Enjoy it!


Other People’s Bird Books: A Challenge

IOlaema schreibersi, in Mulsant and Verreaux

The copy of Mulsant and Verreaux’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches on line at the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library has a particularly distinguished provenance. Now in the collections of the Smithsonian Libraries, the paper cover of the first livraison of the first volume bears a neat inscription:

Mulsant and Verreaux, Hist nat ois-m

To Dr. Sclater, with respectful homage from E. Mulsant.

Can’t get much better than that.

At the conclusion of his research trip to England, Mulsant returned to France

regretting that I had not succeeded in meeting Mr. Sclater in person, as he was then presiding over a meeting of natural historians in Ireland.

Unfortunate as the timing was, Sclater was just about the only British trochidologist Mulsant had not got to know. His guide through the London collections was none other than Adolphe Boucard. An ailing John Gould showed him not only his skins but the drawings in progress for the supplement to his Monograph. Osbert Salvin, on finding himself obliged to leave town for a week, gave Mulsant free access to his private collection. George Loddiges, of course, had died some time earlier, but his sons were eager to let him visit the family collections, which had not yet been moved to Tring.

So here’s a challenge: I assume that Mulsant will have sent copies of the book, or at least that first fascicle, to every one of these kind benefactors.

Can you help me track them down?

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Other People’s Bird Books: The Hendersons of Press

Thomas Henderson of Press, Wilson 1825

Thanks to the great generosity of our friend Judy, we are the trustees of eight volumes of Alexander Wilson‘s American Ornithology.

Wilson 1825


The first volume is dated 1808, but thanks to the bibliographic scholarship of Walter Faxon, we know that the this set in fact represents the “Ord reprint” 1824, plus the Supplement (Volume Nine) of 1825, which contains the first complete biography of the Father of American Ornithology.

All of the volumes are adorned with the bookplate of one Thomas Henderson of Press Castle. Thomas came from an Edinburgh banking family, and held the position of land tax commissioner in the 1830s; he seems to have devoted much of his attention to matters horticultural, and at one point supported a scheme for the “speedy increase” of beekeeping in Scotland.

Henderson married Elizabeth Mack on September 14, 1830. (And was obviously very forgiving of her severely malformed arms and hands.)

Screenshot 2015-06-17 18.02.23

Their son, Alexander Henderson (1831-1913), emigrated to eastern Canada in 1855, where he became a professional photographer. His equipment spent the forty years after Alexander’s death in a basement, until in the early 1950s

his grandson Thomas Greenshields Henderson, the only surviving descendant, spent a day carrying the boxes of negatives to the alley for the garbage collectors.

Happily for us, Wilson’s volumes did not share the same fate.


Poor Thekla


Wage Du, zu irren und zu träumen….

Ted’s finally done it. Read (and enjoy) his “Big Night” carefully, and you’ll discover that he’s finally carried through on the threat to eliminate the possessive ‘s in the English names of birds.

I like it.

Of course, he’s not the first resident of Boulder to have an opinion about such things. In 1907, Junius Henderson (who seems to have had no objection to barbarous capitalization) posed the rhetorical question

why on earth should it be Baird’s Sparrow? In many such cases, the man whose name is given to the bird has never even seen the species, has had nothing to do with its discovery…. Baird is as much honored by speaking of the Baird Sparrow as by using the possessive.

Six years earlier, Richard C. McGregor had argued more soberly for the practice of dropping the offending ‘s: he quotes a letter from C. Hart Merriam in which it is pointed out that

the species are not in any way the property of the persons whose names they bear, but are merely named in honor of these persons…. the National Board on Geographical Names has for many years abandoned the use of possessives in all geographical names…. the Forestry people in their catalogue and checklist of forest trees of the United States have dropped the possessive….

Joseph Grinnell summed it all up in his review of the 1910 edition of the AOU Check-list:

We are disappointed to observe that the useless possessive is retained in personal names,

a matter noted expressly in the Supplement immediately preceding the new list’s publication.

It took forty-three years (!), but W.L. McAtee responded specifically and, as usual, confidently to all the current arguments:

the English possessive is equivalent to the Latin genitive…. It is true that the United States Geographic Board has abandoned the use of the possessive… but… those names are not based on Latinized genitives…. The most common objection to the use of the possessive case is that the bird does not actually belong to the man… a puerile [argument] at best.

McAtee also took up an argument Gerald H. Thayer had offered as early as 1910: such common surnames as Black, White, Moor, Fish, and so on are

as likely to belong to naturalists as to anybody else. Surely this is a sufficient rebuttal of the arguments in favor of dropping the possessive ‘s and apostrophe from the common names of birds and beasts named for men.

Apparently it was sufficient — if specious — and the AOU, and most English-language lists, have retained the possessive ‘s ever since.

There is one persistent and incomprehensible exception, though.

When Christian Ludwig Brehm received a series of larks his sons had collected in Spain, he found that the birds

differ on even the very first glance so much from all the other crested larks that there can really be no dispute about the validity of this new species,

a species he named Galerita Theklae, “Thekla’s Haubenlerche.”

We have named this lark for our unforgettable daughter, who died on July 6, 1858, in her twenty-fifth year.

Thekla Klothilde Bertha Brehm

Touching indeed — especially given that the bereaved father was writing no more than three weeks after the young woman’s death.

Touching, but largely ignored in English-speaking ornithology, which almost with one voice calls this bird the Thekla lark, flouting the otherwise carefully preserved rule of the possessive ‘s.

I suspect that a misunderstanding of the German “Theklalerche” is behind this lapse — that someone at some time failed to recognize a personal name in “Thekla” and read it instead as, say, a geographic label.

And that is an injustice to both Brehms, father and daughter. If we’re going to have “Baird’s sparrow,” let’s also have Thekla’s lark — or better still, let’s lose all those possessives consistently.


How About the Genus Pipilo … Back Then?

Green-tailed Towhee

In 1896, Robert Ridgway proposed to make of the green-tailed towhee

the type of a new genus, Oreospiza, whose characters are intermediate between, or rather a combination of, those of Pipilo and Zonotrichia.

Sensible enough, given the bird’s wing structure and head pattern, and the AOU adopted the new name in the next year’s Supplement to the Check-list. 

Thereupon roared forth, in a manic mood, Elliott Coues.

Coues signature

In a short and malignant letter to the editor of the Auk, Coues confessed himself inclined to agree that the green-tailed was generically distinct from other towhees, but at the same time felt the need to point out that

I could produce some manuscript, in my own handwriting, of date 1862, in which I took the bird entirely out of the genus Pipilo; though I never published that screed, chiefly because my mentor at that time, Professor Baird, was vexed at something I did with Bonaparte’s genus Kieneria.

Resentment piles up atop 35-year-old resentment. But Coues’s real difficulty is the sequence of the towhees: the AOU has, in both editions of its list, “interjected forcibly” the green-tailed towhee

in the middle of its supposed genus, with the black or green and white Towhees in front of it, and the brown Towhees behind it; with the interesting result, that Oreospiza, the heterogeneous element or unconformable factor in the case, now splits Pipilo apart!

Coues is not to blame, though, as he hastens to add:

I gladly leave this case to the tender grace of any one who will admit his responsibility for putting “Pipilo” chlorurus in that fix. I decline to assume any responsibility myself; the bird will be found in several of my works since 1872 in what I took to be its proper position.

Indeed, in all the successive editions of the Key, published in 1872, 1884, 1887, 1890, and — posthumously — 1903, the green-tailed is placed at the end of the towhees. Starting with the second edition, Coues included a note about the bird’s affinities: it is, he writes,

of no intimate relations with any other; it has long been placed conventionally in Pipilo, for want of a better location; it is not easy to see how it differs in form from Zonotrichia or Embernagra.

If I’ve kept track correctly, this short letter efficiently sideswipes Robert Ridgway — for failing to acknowledge Coues’s intellectual priority — Spencer Baird — for disagreeing with Coues’s treatment of Kieneria — Charles Bonaparte — for raising the genus in the first place — and the rest of the AOU’s checklist committee — for forcing the green-tailed into an unnatural position in the tally.

Baird and Bonaparte were dead, and Ridgway, apparently declining to respond to Coues’s outburst, simply pointed out that he had himself been pondering the distinctness of the green-tailed towhee for some time.

The AOU, however, was still restive. In 1915, Charles Richmond pointed out that Ridgway’s Oreospiza was pre-occupied, having already been used (and more appropriately, at that) by the specimen dealer G.T. Keitel for the snowfinches. Richmond coined the new genus name Oberholseria for the green-tailed towhee, and that name was used in the fourth edition of the Check-list.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 2.39.58 PM

In 1947, on the determination that Chlorura was available and predated Richmond’s name — it had first been published, as a subgenus name, for the towhee in 1862 — the twenty-second supplement assigned the bird to yet another genus, making it Chlorura chlorura, the green-tailed greentail, in the fifth edition of the Check-list.

And it wasn’t over yet. Things came full circle in 1955, when Charles Sibley argued cogently that the green-tailed towhee was best assigned to the same genus as the spotted and collared towhees — namely, Pipilo, the genus from which it had been removed it in 1896.

No response so far from Elliott Coues.

Pipilo plate