Archive for Birdwords
What sunny ambition, what cheerful optimism it must take to be a bibliographer: To sit down in the resolve to tally and analyze everything ever written about any subject, even the most carefully circumscribed, seems laudable folly. And yet it has been done.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Reuben Myron Strong, anatomist, birder, and bookman. His Bibliography of Birds — a modestly straightforward title — was completed in 1939, with two index volumes to follow in 1946 and 1959. Praised at the time as “the most valuable tool ever forged for students of Ornithology,” the Bibliography doesn’t get much of a workout nowadays, I think, but it’s a grand thing to browse when you have a curious moment or two.
What I most admire in such undertakings is the range of sources a good bibliographer can assemble. Strong’s bookish net catches papers published in the German Dentistry Monthly and the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and he dutifully registers both such earnest page-turners as James H. Stewart’s “Value of Skim Milk for Egg Production” and such quaint curiosities as Frederick Stubbs’s “Magpie Marriages.”
You could read for years — just as did R.M. Strong.
Also of interest: Strong’s brief experimentation with a new military technology on the Great Lakes.
One of the truly great things about living in New Jersey is the depth and continuity of the birding tradition. From William Bartram through Wilson, Audubon, and Bonaparte, there is an unbroken line of intellectual descent from the earliest birders right down to, well, you and me.
Not all of our forebears are so renowned, of course. It’s humbling and exhilarating to walk in the footsteps of the giants. But we are also, every day, retracing the paths of birders hardly anyone alive has ever heard of — and it’s especially exciting when you discover that one of those forgotten nobodies was your neighbor, and was far from a nobody, and deserves a little remembering.
Clarence B. Riker is still well known, at least in name, to entomologists, but a casual poll of my birding colleagues here in northern New Jersey came up blank.
Riker, born in November 1863, met Frank Chapman when both were about 19. Chapman would later write in his Autobiography that
Riker was my age, but he had more initiative… and in the summer of 1884 procured leave from the shipping firm by which he was employed and went up the Amazon as far as Santarem. In 1887 he repeated the trip.
The results of those youthful expeditions were published in a series of articles in the Auk, describing some 400 bird skins Riker had brought back to his home in Maplewood, New Jersey. Among the specimens from Riker‘s first visit to the Neotropics, collected 125 years ago today, was a bizarre furnariid, an adult male
of very striking appearance … entirely different in coloration from any Dendrocolaptine bird….
In 1886, Robert Ridgway described Riker’s bird as a new species, Picolaptes rikeri, thanking the collector:
The type specimen, the only one obtained, was kindly presented to the National Museum by Mr. C.B. Riker … after whom I take pleasure in naming it.
We know it today as the point-tailed palmcreeper. With the erection of the new genus Berlepschia by Ridgway in 1887, this became one of the relatively few birds to bear the names of two ornithologists — one of whom lived just a few miles south of us here in New Jersey.
A quarter of a century later, Ridgway was still working through Riker’s Santarem material. As he wrote in 1912, a nunbird our New Jersey colleague collected on June 30, 1887, had
hitherto been referred to M. morphoeus [the white-fronted nunbird] of eastern Brazil, but is decidedly smaller and differs further in the black instead of white malar apex.
Ridgway’s analysis of the Riker specimen and five others led him to describe a new species of nunbird, Monasa rikeri, named, obviously, for the collector of the type.
Unlike the palmcreeper, Riker’s nunbird has not stood the test of taxonomic time, lumped once again with just the “normal” white-fronted nunbird of the nominate race.
Whether that bothered Riker at all I don’t know. My impression, fair or not, is that his ornithological field work ended once he discovered butterflies — a common and lamentable fate still today — but he did continue to provide the AOU his expertise in a different field, as Investment Trustee, a task he performed from the comfortable surroundings of his Kip-Riker Mansion in South Orange.
As we bird the fields and marshes and woodlands of northern New Jersey, we can’t realistically hope to have birds named after us. But we can find some inspiration in remembering our intellectual ancestors and the birds they watched — and the birds they discovered — more than a century ago, here and in the still wild wilds of South America.
Got a woodpecker question? Gerard Gorman’s new guide to the world’s picids is likely to answer it.
We weren’t so lucky back in 1828, when Alexander Rider produced the first painting of a black-backed woodpecker, for publication in Charles Bonaparte’s American Ornithology. To my eye, this is one of the most charming figures in the entire four-volume work, ornamental and informative all at once in spite of its classically Riderian stiffness.
But there’s more to this figure than mere prettiness. The story begins with Bonaparte’s caption:
That’s right: The prince of ornithology identifies this bird, which Rider painted from the “finest male specimen” in Bonaparte’s own collection, as the northern three-toed woodpecker, Picus Tridactylus.
Study of the accounts in other works convinced Bonaparte
that [this] species is subject to variations in size and plumage… thus, in some specimens the [nape] is described [as] white, or partly whitish, instead of being wholly black: the back is also said to be waved with white….
Those specimens, obviously, were of the “real” American three-toed woodpecker, even the darkest individuals of which differ from the black-backed in their white markings above. But Bonaparte, not recognizing that he had before him an undescribed species, analyzed the difference as one of age:
the young of both sexes are of a dull blackish… the feathers of the back being banded with white, giv[ing] to that part a waved appearance…
The logical result: America had but one species of six-toed woodpecker, adults of which had solid black backs and the young barred. Bonaparte was proud of having at last solved the puzzle:
we feel much gratification in being enabled to unveil to ornithologists the mystery of these diversities in this species, by merely pointing out the sexual differences, as well as those originating in the gradual change from youth to maturity….
With the benefit of 185 years of hindsight, of course, we know that Bonaparte was wrong. Not five years after the publication of the American Ornithology, William Swainson re-analyzed Bonaparte’s bird as a distinct species, the Arctic three-toed woodpecker.
In addition to what were now the obvious differences in plumage, the new woodpecker was “in every respect” larger than what Swainson called “the common species,” with a bill “considerably longer in proportion” and the wing more pointed in structure. Swainson’s formal description mentions Bonaparte only in the synonymy, but the paraliptic remark in the account of the American three-toed woodpecker must have stung:
it would be tedious, and it is perhaps unnecessary, to show in what manner all preceding ornithologists have confounded the northern three-toed Woodpeckers.
Audubon did not recognize the two species as distinct until very late in the preparation of the Birds of America, noting in the final volume of the Ornithological Biography that he, like everyone else, had “looked upon” the bird we know as the American three-toed woodpecker “as the young of the species just mentioned,” namely, our black-backed woodpecker.
Nuttall, too, came around in the 1840 edition of his Manual, listing both species — the one glossy black above, the other “varied with black and white.”
Good to have all that settled.
Unfortunately, even after the true relationship of the two birds had been figured out, their English names continued to be a source of confusion for more than a century to come. In particular, the label “northern three-toed” has been applied at one time or another to each, and it is a relief — a more or less permanent one, I hope — that that name has been retired.
As if all this weren’t enough, there remains the question of Vieillot’s Picus hirsutus, cited by the older authorities as the original description of our American three-toed woodpecker. But that, thankfully, is another story, a story that will have to wait for another time.
Lewis and Clark don’t get much credit nowadays for their contributions to the natural history of the Great Plains. We all know about their discoveries, of course, from black-tailed prairie-dogs to western meadowlarks; but the standard story, I think, treats the acquisition of those novelties as merely incidental to the purposes and efforts of the Corps of Discovery.
And there’s something to it. In his charge to the expedition’s leaders, Thomas Jefferson seems to have intentionally suppressed his own unbounded interest in things wild and alive, emphasizing instead — no doubt to the benefit of suspicious minds in Congress — the military and economic goals of the great journey.
At the same time, though, a rereading of the journals of Clark and Lewis reveals that though their priorities may have been elsewhere, they were, when it came to it, much better observers than we sometimes recall.
On July 20, 1805, Meriwether Lewis
saw a black woodpecker … about the size of the lark woodpecker as black as a crow. I indevoured to get a shoot at it but could not. it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys a good deel like the jay bird.
Not until May of the next year did the expedition procure specimens of the bird, but what strikes me is just how perceptive Lewis was in describing the bird he “indevoured” to shoot in that first encounter. Even now, twenty-one decades later in the twenty-first century, the field character most of us most of the time to identify the Lewis’s woodpecker is that odd, powerful, corvid-like flight.
And the first white man to see the bird was the first white man to notice that flight. Well done, Meriwether Lewis.
This time of year, as we wait (this time a little longer than usual) for the now-annual Supplement to the AOU Check-list, I always recall the jocular complaint published in The Oologist more than 90 years ago: We birders, wrote that long-ago correspondent,
have to stand by and see Oberholser stick his knife through all our historical and time-tried nomenclature and cannot do a thing about it.
The reference, of course, is to Harry C. Oberholser’s long series of “Notes on North American Birds,” published in the Auk beginning in 1917 and ultimately preparing the way for the third edition of the Check-list, which finally appeared in 1931.
But who was the author of the complaint? He signed himself thus:
Your best friend, Pedioecetes.
If you know, fill me in. Otherwise I might have to figure it out myself.