Archive for Birdwords

Mar
30

Parsing the Parson Bird

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Maybe it’s just the caffeine talking (dark chocolate petits écoliers, lots of ’em), but I’ve had a great idea.

 

It is well known and greatly regretted that the last two volumes of Louis-Pierre Vieillot’s Natural History of the Birds of North America were never published, surviving only in manuscript fair copy now in a private collection.

To judge by the contents of the first volumes, it can be expected that these other, unpublished two also contain information that would help us answer a couple of very important questions about early American ornithology: namely, what Vieillot was up to in the nearly five years he spent in New York and New Jersey; and what the lines of influence and what their direction between him and his colleagues in America, chief among them William Bartram and Alexander Wilson.

We sometimes forget, though, that at least some of the material meant for publication in those concluding volumes of the Natural History was almost certainly “recycled” by Vieillot in his work for the Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle, many of the articles in which relate his own experiences in the 1790s with the birds of North America.

Someone (“someone,” not I) should assemble all of the ornithological entries from the Dictionnaire in a single place, then collate the articles that have them with their counterparts in the published volumes of the Natural History. Any principles and patterns deduced from that comparison can be used to reconstruct the species accounts in the unpublished volumes, which will move us closer to understanding the matters I mentioned above. I’ve done this already in the case of one species, in an essay set to appear in print sometime later this year, but I think the systematic working through of all the material might well bear significant fruit.

And it would certainly raise some other, perhaps less weighty questions.

I happened the other day to be wondering about indigo buntings — pushing the season, I know, though it should be only three weeks or so before the first arrive in our yard. My question was a trivial one and easily answered, but as usual, one citation led to another to another and another, until I landed on Vieillot and noticed something I had overlooked before. In the header to his Dictionnaire entry, he calls Passerina cyanea “La Passerine Bleue, ou le Ministre,” that second a name that does not occur in the earliest English description of the bird, Mark Catesby’s “Blew Linnet.”

Vieillot’s account is a composite of several sources, supplemented by his own observations made in New York and New Jersey and a critical review of the older literature on the species; his direct reliance on Wilson (whom he does not cite) is proved by a slight but telling mistranslation.

Neither Wilson nor Vieillot offers any comment on the name “ministre.” They have it from Buffon, who notes that

this is the name that the bird dealers give to a bird from Carolina, which others call “l’evêque” [the bishop]…. We have seen this bird several times at the establishment of Château, to whom we owe what little is known of its history.

Ange-Auguste Château was bird dealer to the king, supplying “an extraordinary variety of species” from around the world. Presumably Château, or one of his collectors in the field, was Buffon’s source for the name “ministre.” If he told the great natural historian what that name meant, Buffon didn’t think to pass it on to his reader.

A faint hint was provided by John Latham, who in 1783 translated the Buffonian names into English. In Carolina, he wrote, the indigo bunting

is called by some The Parson, by others The Bishop.

He provides a footnote to Buffon for each of the two names.

Whether Latham’s rendering of “ministre” as “parson” is correct or not is impossible to say at this remove, but it is plausible given that the alternative, “bishop,” is also drawn from the ecclesiastical realm. “Bishop,” like “cardinal” and “pope” for other colorful creatures of Catholic lands, is clearly a reference to the splendor of the indigo bunting’s plumage, and in other cases, “parson” has a similar visual function, identifying birds — the tui, the great cormorant, certain Spophila seedeaters — with somber black feathers and a bit of white at the throat or neck.

Not here, though. Iridescent blue-green with flashing black highlights is not the modest garb I associate with a parson, and indigo buntings have no hint of a clerical collar. The inspiration for the name “parson” cannot be visual, so what is it?

This is only a guess, but I suspect that “parson” was a joke name, like “lawyer” for the black-necked stilt (wears formal attire and presents a long bill), “prothonotary” for the golden swamp warbler (goes on and on in a monotone), or “preacher” for the red-eyed vireo (vocalizes into the heat of mid-day).

And the indigo bunting? Says Wilson,

It mounts to the highest tops of a large tree and chants for half an hour at a time…. a repetition of short notes, commencing loud and rapid, and falling by almost imperceptible gradations for six or eight seconds… and after a pause of half a minute or less, commences again as before.

Modern birders recognize the song by the singer’s tendency to say everything twice.

 

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Aug
21

In Eclipse

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Few birds are as strikingly beautiful as male puddle ducks in winter.

And few are as scraggly as those same male puddle ducks in summer.

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That duller summer aspect — whether you believe that it is an alternate plumage or a chronologically displaced basic plumage — has long been called “eclipse” plumage. And surprisingly enough, we know who came up with what is now the familiar term for this “dingy garb.”

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Charles Waterton certainly deserves his reputation for eccentricity. Remembered today almost exclusively for his absurdly acrimonious feud with Audubon and his slightly creepy whimsies — tall tales of saddling crocodiles, taxidermic hoaxes, that sort of thing — Waterton was also a serious scientist and a truly undaunted explorer.

One of the questions that attracted Waterton’s scientific interest was the “very remarkable change of plumage” undergone by male ducks at the end of the breeding season.

All speculation on the part of the ornithologist is utterly confounded [by] the strange phenomenon…. [that] the drake, for a very short period of the year, should be so completely clothed in the raiment of the female that it requires a keen and penetrating eye to distinguish the one from the other.

Waterton refused to be confounded. Capturing two wild mallard drakes, he observed their plumage every day from mid-May to mid-October. To his satisfaction, he discovered that it was the dropping and regrowing of plumage — molt — rather than any simple alteration in the color of the feathers that was behind the odd fact that

once every year, for a very short period, the drake goes, as it were, into an eclipse [of] that plumage which, at all other seasons of the year, is so remarkably splendid and diversified.

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It took a while for Waterton’s felicitous coinage to catch on. Once praised by Alfred Newton in his great Dictionary, though, the term immediately became the standard, and we use it today without even pausing to think that someone, sometime, had to invent it.

 

 

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Jul
01

The Fifty-Eighth Supplement to the AOU Check-list

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Northern Shrike

It’s Christmas in July for most birders with the appearance of the now-annual Supplement to the AOU Check-list. This year, as always, Santa Claus giveth and Santa Claus taketh away. On balance, those who care about numbers will find their lists increasing. For the rest of us — for most of us — the yearly update is a chance to look into the workings of taxonomists and ornithologists as they toil to decipher the relationships among our birds.

thayer's gull 6

The greatest loss for listers is certainly that handsome gull “kind” known over the past 45 years as the Thayer gull. Jon Dunn and Van Remsen argued cogently, even devastatingly, that the research supporting full species status for the bird was thoroughly flawed, and that the “burden of proof” should be on those asserting its distinctness from the Iceland gull. To my memory, Dunn and Remsen’s is the only taxonomic proposal ever considered by the AOS committee to use the phrases “scientific misconduct.” The authors encourage further research into the taxonomy of the large herring-like gulls, but meanwhile, thayeri is reduced to a mere synonym. 

Eastern Willet

Some birders will probably be disappointed, too, by the committee’s having declined to accept a number of proposed splits and re-splits, some involving some of the most familiar birds on the continent. The willet remains a single species, as does the yellow-rumped warbler.

Myrtle Warbler


The eastern and western populations of the brown creeper, the Nashville warbler, and the Bell vireo were also sentenced to continued cohabitation.

But there are splits aplenty, too.

Baird's junco

The gorgeous little Baird junco gets its own box on the ticklist again, and the Talamanca hummingbird of Costa Rica and Panama is once again treated as distinct from the northerly Rivoli hummingbird.

magnificent hummingbird

To my surprise, we also have a new crossbill species in North America. The Cassia crossbill (the English name commemorates the type locality, and is far better than the cutesy scientific name sinesciuris) breeds in the South Hills and Albion Mountains of Idaho. It is apparently sedentary, making identification perhaps a bit easier; the bird is said to be larger than other sympatric crossbills, and to have different calls and songs.

My surprise has nothing to do with the quality of the research establishing this as a distinct species: all this genetics stuff is way beyond me. But I did not expect any real movement in crossbill classification to be inspired by one taxon; I’d thought the committee might wait for a universal solution to these difficult problems. In any case, Burley had better be ready for an ornitho-influx.

great gray shrike

We also get a split in the “gray” shrike complex. The North American northern shrike is now considered specifically distinct from its Old World counterparts; its species epithet is once again borealis, the name given it by Vieillot in 1808.

Northern Harrier

Our northern harrier is also split from the hen harrier of Europe, under the Linnaean name Circus hudsonius. The name honors the employer of James Isham, who sent the first specimens to George Edwards in the 1740s.

Common Redpoll darkish

The number of birders dreading the lump of the redpolls was almost as great as that of those devoutly wishing its consummation. The resolution (for now) leaves us with three species in the United States and Canada, the hoary, common, and lesser redpolls, that last listed as accidental. The Acanthis debate is certain to outlive us all.

 Familiar at least as a target bird to observers in Middle America, the old Prevost ground sparrow is no more. In its place, we have the white-faced ground sparrow and the Cabanis ground sparrow, the former occupying a range from southern Mexico to Honduras and the latter restricted to Costa Rica’s Central and Turrialba Valleys. The two species differ conspicuously in head and breast pattern — conspicuously, that is, if you’re fortunate enough to get a good look at these often sneaky sparrows.

And speaking, inevitably, of sparrows, the American birds going under that slippery English label are now assigned to a family of their own, PasserellidaeIn this, the AOS follows the recent practice of nearly all ornithologists over the past five years. It seems likely that the name will be replaced in the near future by Arremonidae, which if valid has nomenclatural priority.

Yellow-breasted Chat

The nine-primaried oscines — the “songbirds” at the back of the bird books — have also been rearranged, giving us all a new sequence to memorize. (I understand that the new sequence will be used in the seventh edition of the National Geographic guide, coming in a few weeks.) The most notable taxonomic change here is certainly the elevation of the yellow-breasted chat to its own family, Icteriidae, occupying a position in the linear sequence just before the orioles and blackbirds, Icteridae. This is just the latest stage on a classificatory journey sure to continue for a long, long time.

There will be more to say, no doubt, when the complete text of the supplement is readily available on line. Meanwhile, much to ponder.

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Feb
14

Lovebirds to the Very End

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and those little Agapornis parrots are showing up on cards and computer screens around the world.

rosy-faced Lovebird

But lovebirds aren’t the only lovebirds.

Buffon writes of The Amorous Titmouse that

we owe our knowledge of this species to the Abbot Gallois, who brought it back from the Far East and showed it to Mr. Commerson in 1769…. The epithet “amorous” given to this species indicates quite well the dominant quality of its temperament: In fact, the male and female caress each other endlessly; at least when caged, that is their sole occupation.

They give themselves over to love, we are told, to the point of exhaustion, and in this way they not only mitigate the annoyances of captivity with pleasure but curtail them; for it is obvious that such a practice means that they cannot live for very long, in accordance with the general principle that the intensity of existence diminishes its duration.

If that is their goal — if in fact they are striving only to end their captivity quickly — one must confess that in their despair they choose a very sweet way to do it.

Mr. Commerson does not tell us whether these birds perform with equal ardor the other functions required to perpetuate their species, such as the building of a nest, incubation, and parental care.

We know nothing more of this species, alas, than its affectionate habits, and it may well be extinct. But, as they say, what a way to go.

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Dec
15

The Deserving Aglaé

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John Cassin was famously no friend of the practice of naming birds for people. Squabbling gently with his friend and colleague Spencer Baird over the naming of a new vireo, he wrote that

this kind of thing is bad enough at the best, but to name a bird after a person utterly unknown is worse.

There are plenty who agree with him today, and there were plenty who agreed with him in the mid-nineteenth century, when the rage for birdy patronyms was at its height. In 1839, for example, the baron de La Fresnaye expressed his own displeasure at the practice — even as he indulged in it himself. In naming a new American bird for the wife of a Bordeaux collector, La Fresnaye protested that

our sole intention in dedicating this species to Mme Brelay has been to pay tribute to the very special enthusiasm with which she herself has engaged in ornithology and collaborated with M. Brelay in forming his collection, which already includes many thousand individual birds.

But the lady ornithologist was an exception.

We by no means approve of the custom of giving new birds the names of women who are often enough entirely without any interest or expertise in ornithology; though the author of the name may be bound to them in friendship or family relations, these women can be of no interest to the larger circle of naturalists. We believe that the application of a proper name to a bird is in fact acceptable only when it commemorates that of some naturalist, author, explorer, painter, or zealous collector who has already rendered or is in the course of rendering some service to science.

La Fresnaye’s few flattering words are essentially all we know about the Brelays’ ornithological pursuits. Some of their specimens are still preserved in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the family historians are at least able to provide Mme Brelay’s dates of birth and death, but I fear that the bigger story was lost while the collections passed from the Brelays to La Fresnaye to the Verreaux brothers to the Boston Society of Natural History to, finally, Harvard.

Oh: the bird. Mme Brelay was immortalized 175 years ago in the species epithet of the rose-throated becard. Not a bad bird to lend one’s name to, not at all.

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