Archive for Birdwords
I was made curious the other day when someone told me that the concept of the “species” was a Linnaean invention. Obviously, that’s not true, but it moved me to do something I’d never done before — namely, to actually read the “Observationes” that accompany the first edition of the Swedish taxonomer’s Systema naturae, published 279 years ago (fugit irreparabile tempus indeed!).
There’s plenty of Linnaean bombast, plenty of pre-Darwinian quaintness, and a fine assertion of the value of the systematic project:
The first stage of wisdom is to know things themselves. That knowledge consists of the True Idea of objects; objects are identified and known by dividing them systematically and giving them suitable names; so much so that division and naming shall be the foundation of our knowledge.
Zoology in particular, Linnaeus goes on to say, has neglected this fundamental task:
If we look closely at the zoological works of the authoritative writers, we find that the greatest part is nothing but fantastic tales, vague writing, imperfect engravings, and often excessively long descriptions. Truly the list of those who have attempted to organize zoology into species and genera guided by systematic laws is very short, if we except the noble Willughby and the renowned Ray.
Both of those great naturalists were long gone by 1735, but surely a fan letter like that had no trouble penetrating beyond the veil.
We sometimes think of “discovery” as perfective, happening once and definitively concluded. When it comes to the birds of strange lands, however — lands like North America in the eighteenth century — discovery, description, and naming are sometimes more like hiccoughs, a series of halting, overlapping, redundant events none of which was quite the eureka moment we dream of.
So it was with the American bittern, the type specimen of which was described 201 years ago by George Montagu. As we’ve seen recently, Montagu’s act of naming stuttered just a bit, ignored by scientific ornithology for years after its publication in 1813. And if we look back beyond 1813, to the days before Montagu’s recognition that his Piddletown bird was “new,” we find more than half a century in which ornithology fitfully tried, and consistently failed, to come to terms with the big brown heron of the New World.
In 1750, George Edwards painted and described a “bittern from Hudson’s Bay,” sent to him by James Isham. Edwards “strictly compar’d” his specimen with the great bittern of Britain and Europe — and concluded, 63 years before Montagu, that it was “a non-descript species.” Unlike Montagu, the much earlier author contented himself with a thorough description, not bothering — with 1758 still almost a decade away — to assign the new species a scientific name.
Based on Edwards’s description and “figure exacte,” Mathurin Brisson, too, considered this New World heron a species distinct from the European bird, and in one of his less imaginative moments, assigned it the names “Butor de la Baye de Hudson” and “Botaurus Freti Hudsonis.”
Brisson’s Latin name was probably in the back of Johann Reinhold Forster’s mind when he put 2 and 2 together a few years later and came up with 5: In the 1771 Faunula, he actually gives the bittern of North America a Linnaean binomial — scooping Montagu by 42 years — but it’s the wrong one.
Linnaeus’s Ardea Hudsonias, in spite of its similarity to the Edwards-Brissonian name, is in fact a name for the juvenile great blue heron, as Forster noted in a correction he published the next year:
In the Faunula Americae Septentrionalis, p. 14, the synonym of Ardea Hudsonias, Linn. has by mistake been annexed to the bittern…. They are two very different birds.
At the same time as he recognized this error, he committed another. With specimen in hand, “comparing it with Mr. Edwards’s account and figure,” Forster determined that the big brown heron of Hudson Bay was just “a variety of the common bittern,” and thus to be listed as Ardea Stellaris, Varietas. Thomas Pennant followed Forster in 1785, describing the American bird as
rather inferior in size to the European Bittern; but so like, as not to merit separation.
Fits and starts, fits and starts.
George Ord published the description of his toothed-bill gull in 1815, calling it
a beautiful Gull… discovered on the Delaware below Philadelphia…. Length nineteen and a half inches, extent three feet ten inches; the upper mandible has four indentations or blunt teeth, the lower three; corners of the mouth and the eyelids bright vermilion; head, neck, tail and lower parts pure white; wings, back and scapulars blue ash. Weight nineteen ounces avoirdupois.
Mysterious, isn’t it?
Once again, it was George Lawrence, working up the gulls for Baird’s 1858 volume of the Railroad Surveys, who figured out what on earth the Philadelphian was talking about. As to that odd bill, Lawrence was satisfied that it was
a possible malformation, or probably an accidental toothing, caused by its being worn in some particular mode of feeding.
Otherwise, he assures his reader that Ord’s description “agrees precisely with the adult of” another gull, described as new in 1831, Larus zonorhynchus. Richardson notes that the chief distinction between his new bird and common gull lies
in the size of he bill … being very much wider at the base, more rounded on the ridge, and stronger [in] every way than that of L. canus: it has a conspicuous salient angle beneath, and is of a dutch-orange colour, with a blackish ring near its tip.
Lawrence’s identification of Ord’s gull with Richardson’s bird meant, of course, that our ring-billed gull must bear the older name, delawarensis. And it does.
Not that it matters, but I think there’s something very fishy here. I see no reason that we should simply accept Lawrence’s synonymizing zonorhynchus — and he himself admits that, in spite of his own “strong opinion,” it is difficult “to establish certainly the identity of Mr. Ord’s species with” the one described by Richardson. A far better thing it would have been to simply declare delawarensis a name attached to nothing, and to give Richardson the credit for having produced an identifiable description of the bird.
How about it? Shall we all start calling this abundant and familiar bird the Richardson’s gull?
No, probably not.