Archive for Birdwords

Jun
22

Sharpe’s Pygmy Finch

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Also known, as of this latest Supplement to the AOU Check-list, as the Morelet seedeater.

Morelet White-collared Seedeater

The re-split of the white-collared seedeater into the Morelet seedeater and the cinnamon-rumped seedeater will strike many birders as a “no-brainer,” and the NACC’s decision in this case aligns the AOS taxonomy with most other authorities’ treatment of these tiny tanagers. The only thing we’re likely to have trouble with is the spelling of the name of one of the “new” species.

As the NACC points out, both the scientific and English names of the northern bird commemorate the Burgundian natural historian, novelist, and illustrator Pierre Marie Arthur Morelet, active in the mid-nineteenth century in Africa, the Azores, Middle America, and the Caribbean. In 1850, two years after Morelet’s return from Central America, Charles Bonaparte published a new seedeater in his honor — but misspelled the explorer’s name in the species epithet, an error that has never been corrected and likely cannot ever be.

Morelet had collected the first specimens in northern Guatemala in 1847; Bonaparte examined them at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle shortly thereafter. I understand Bonaparte’s mention here of the MNHN curator Jacques Pucheran as identifying the author of a manuscript name, probably on the specimen label, adopted and then misspelled, or at least not corrected, by Bonaparte. In any event, we are stuck with the error, and with the disparity between the number of consonants in the English name and in the scientific name.

Less than a year after Bonaparte’s publication, John Porter McCown collected two male seedeaters in Brownsville, Texas, the first records of the genus north of Mexico. Now numbers 41295 and 41296 in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, these birds were at first identified by George N. Lawrence as white-throated seedeaters, a species known only from northeastern South America. In July 1856, Philip Lutley Sclater demurred, suggesting that the individuals Lawrence had described were probably in fact representatives of the Morelet seedeater. Two years later, with at least one of the McCown specimens at hand, Spencer Baird — in an authoritative book written with the assistance of George Lawrence — agreed.

White-collared Seedeater, male, Guatemala

We know today that Sclater and Baird were right, but it took decades for the matter to be settled. In 1888, Richard Bowdler Sharpe determined that the Texas birds were female ruddy seedeaters; in what should have been a sweet piece of poetic justice, Lawrence himself had described that species six years earlier.

In gentlemanly response, Lawrence re-examined other Texas specimens belonging to George Sennett, then on deposit at the American Museum. He was able to dismiss their allocation to the ruddy seedeater, but found at the same time that they were not identical to “the true S. morelleti,” either. He accordingly described the northerly specimens as a new taxon, S. morelleti sharpei, recognizing in the subspecific epithet his “friend, Mr. R.B. Sharpe, as he is the only one to have recognized it as being distinct” from nominate morelleti. 

The source of all that confusion was the dull plumage of males in the northern portions of their range. Generations of birders have been mildly disappointed on seeing their first Texas seedeaters at how far from truly “white-collared” the birds there are. Robert Ridgway, in declining to recognize Lawrence’s sharpei, speculated that “fully adult males have simply not yet been taken” north of Mexico, and that it was just bad luck that we in the US did not get to see the more dramatically marked individuals. The AOU quickly removed sharpei from its list of recognized subspecies.

In 1907, with a wider range of specimens available to him, Joel Asaph Allen figured it out. It was not a case, he wrote, of coincidence, but one of genuine geographic variation:

the adult males of the Texas form do not acquire the broad black pectoral collar and the black back of typical morelleti, and … in consequence … have been considered as … immature.

The differences extended to females as well, and Allen found them sufficient to reinstate Lawrence’s sharpei. The bird variously known in English by such names as the little seedeater, the Sharpe finchlet, and the Sharpe pygmy finch re-entered the AOU Check-list the next year. It is still recognized as a valid subspecies by the most authoritative world lists.

Next time you get to see a Morelet seedeater, remind yourself who Morelet was. But also give a thought or two to those who dedicated so much time to figuring out just what the French naturalist had collected on that day in 1847.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jun
21

The 2018 Check-list Supplement

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Thanks to the skill and industry of the members of the NACC, the July 2019 Supplement to the venerable and authoritative Check-list of North American Birds is out now. Much is new, much is new again, and everything is food for good thought.

Most important of all may be the implicit guidance the Committee provides writers and editors struggling with the recent merger of the former American Ornithologists’ Union and the former Cooper Ornithological Society as the American Ornithological Society. It’s a great thing not to have to worry any longer about the wanderings of that blasted apostrophe, but it can apparently be challenging to find the correct and consistent way to identify the work and the works of the three organizations. The NACC here draws us a bright editorial line: The authors and publishers are still to be identified under the corporate names in effect at the time of publication, even as authority and “ownership” have been passed down to the new joint organization. Thus, the author and publisher of the 1998 Check-list and its predecessors is and ever shall be the American Ornithologists’ Union, but the responsibility for that book now belongs to the AOS. Perhaps now we will see less anachronism when the organizations are named in print.

common shelduck

Those of us destined, alas, to spend most of our time birding north of Mexico will find this year’s Supplement adding four species to the list of birds found in the ABA Area. The common shelduck moves to the main list on strength of two Newfoundland records; the Committee notes with apparent (and appropriate) approval Ned Brinkley’s suggestion that many other records from the east coast of North America may also pertain to wild birds, but suggests (again, appropriately) that shelducks found on the Pacific Coast are “more problematical.”

The Cuban vireo, amythest-throated hummingbird, and pine flycatcher also make the list. The vireo and the flycatcher were long-awaited species, each of them discovered exactly where one might expect: two separate Cuban vireos in two successive Aprils at two southern Florida localities, and the pine flycatcher in early summer 2016 in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains. Calling these records “long-awaited” and “expected” should not let us forget that birders’ detection, identification, and documentation of these subtle species was a significant achievement.

The amythest-throated hummingbird’s second occurrence north of the Mexican border could be described in much the same terms: a male photographed in the Davis Mountains of Texas in October 2016. But little could have been less expected than the first, a male discovered in Quebec a few months earlier.

Red-breasted Blackbird Panama May 2007 500
Changes to English names are always of particular interest to us birders. The red-breasted blackbird, familiar to travelers to the American tropics, is now known as the red-breasted meadowlark, an eminently sensible revival of a name more clearly reflecting the bird’s appearance and evolutionary affinities.

The replacement of the name “gray jay” by “Canada jay” probably represents the only act of the NACC ever to have penetrated into the semi-popular consciousness, thanks to efforts over the past couple of years to have the species declared the national bird of Canada. The Supplement lays out the arguments in favor of this nomenclatural innovation, unfortunately leading off with the misapprehension that the new name “was used for P[erisoreus] canadensis in the first and second editions of the Check-list” and concluding with the one truly cogent observation that the use of “Canada” for this bird “is symmetrical with the geographical names of the other jays in this genus.” I have (and can have) no objections to the Committee’s conclusion, but it is poor strategy to argue from the sloppy typography of others.

saltmarsh sparrow

Taking the view from taxonomic eternity (which is, what, about eighteen months?), alterations to official vernacular names are trivial to the point of irrelevance, and I am mildly surprised that the Committee still spends its time on such matters.

Of far greater significance are the Committee’s determinations of phylogenetic relationships, relationships that are expressed in formal scientific nomenclature. This Supplement offers two big changes of interest to birders in the US and Canada, one in the passerellid sparrows, the other in the woodpeckers.

In keeping with the latest genetic work, the Committee (re-)splits the old catch-all genus Ammodramus, leaving under that name only the grasshopper sparrow and its two South American relatives.

grasshopper sparrow

The Baird and Henslow sparrows are returned to the genus Centronyx (“spurred nail”), a fitting restoration given that the genus name was coined by none other than Spencer Baird, eponym of the ochre-faced sparrow of the northwestern Great Plains.

The LeConte, Nelson, seaside, and saltmarsh sparrows return to Ammospiza (“sand sparrow”). I can imagine that the various Seaside sparrows are destined to find themselves re-split at the generic level someday, too, in which case Oberholser’s Thryospiza would apply to them.

Even in making these splits, the Committee kept the Ammodramus, Centronyx, and Ammospiza sparrows together in the Check-list‘s linear sequence. This is not in accord with recent studies finding that Ammodramus (in its new, strict sense) diverged from the others very early on; I expect that the position of this genus will shift in another Supplement one of these years.

ladder-backed woodpecker

The large woodpecker genus Picoides has also been split, retaining (in North America) only the six-toed black-backed and American three-toed woodpeckers. All of our other “pied woodpeckers,” including the downy, hairy, Nuttall, ladder-backed, red-cockaded, white-headed, and Arizona woodpeckers are placed in Dryobates (“tree runner”), a genus name replaced long ago, in the Twenty-second Supplement, by Dryocopus.

Changes in family assignment are even less frequent than those in genera. The storm petrel family Hydrobatidae is now split in two, the new family of Southern Storm Petrels going under the name Oceanitidae and including the Wilson, white-faced, and black-bellied storm petrels and their congeners.

Northern Royal-Flyctatcher, left
Another new family includes several “flycatchers” known (so far!) only from south of the southern US border. The family Onychorhynchidae now includes the ruddy-tailed flycatcher, the flycatchers of the genus Myiobius, and the royal flycatcher(s). That (or those) last species are officially burdened with a hyphen (“royal-flycatcher”), and I imagine that the others will be, too, at some point.

The species-level splits here will be of interest to birders lucky enough to travel in the southern portions of our hemisphere. Among them is the division of the red-eyed vireo into “our” familiar northern species and the resident Chivi vireo of South America.

Red-eyed Vireo

The tufted flycatcher, suddenly familiar to many birders thanks to its continued (and probably increasing) presence in southeast Arizona, has also been split; the southern bird is now known as the olive or olive tufted flycatcher.

tufted flycatcher, Carr Canyon, Arizona

This is far from the only change in our understanding of the tyrant flycatchers. The entire family has been reorganized to reflect a new scheme of subfamily allocations, and the linear sequence of species has been altered as well.

The same fate has befallen the family AccipitridaeMost striking here is the fact that the kites, once thought of as somehow belonging together (and so depicted in most field guides), are spread over three subfamilies: Elaninae for the pearl and white-tailed kites, Gypaetinae for the hook-billed, gray-headed, and swallow-tailed kites; and Acciptrinae for the Mississippi and plumbeous kites, which fall in the new linear sequence between the Steller sea eagle and the black-collared hawk.

Pearl Kite Panama May 2007

As always, there is a great deal more to read and to ponder in this Supplement, and as always, some of the most interesting actions are those the Committee declined to take. Thus, for example, we still have two species of bean geese, but only one Cory shearwater and Mallard and barn owl and Audubon shearwater and LeConte thrasher and white-eared ground sparrow.

common gallinule

Given the Committee’s activism in the case of the gray jay, I am surprised to find that they declined to change the eminently confusing and uninformative English name of the common gallinule — but grateful that they left the official vernacular name of Columba livia alone.

What will next year bring? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably better, but it won’t be long before the first proposals for the 2019 Supplement appear. Stay tuned.

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Jun
09

Waterthrushes and Gummy Bears

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vieill type of Louisiana waterthrusy

Waterthrush identification and misidentification can lay bare some strong emotions. In a recent online discussion of the value of the color of the supercilium, one of North America’s best birders was moved to this outburst:

the first individual to propose [that character as a useful distinction] should be covered in honey and gummy bears and thrown to a ravaging class of preschoolers to receive their just deserts.

As soon as I’d stopped laughing out loud, I silently congratulated Cameron for knowing the phrase “just deserts” (and spelling it right!), and then, inevitably, started to wonder: just who might that sticky-fated “first individual” have been?

Pl enl 752 labeled tachetée

This particular ID chestnut turns out to be older than I’d expected. I knew that Roger Tory Peterson had used the color of the supercilium to distinguish the two species as early as the first Field Guide of 1934, and it was an easy matter to confirm that in this he was following the great Ralph Hoffman, who had written a quarter of a century before — in italics — that the Louisiana was to “be distinguished by the pure white line over the eye,” the same part of the bird “buffy in a strong light” in the northern waterthrush.

We have to go back another sixty years beyond that, though, to find what I believe is the first authoritative statement of the importance of supercilium color in identifying the waterthrushes. In 1858, Spencer Baird and his colleagues at the Smithsonian informed their readers that the Louisiana waterthrush was “readily distinguished” from its more widespread congener by its large bill and by the fact that

the stripe over the eye, besides being more conspicuous, is, with the underparts, of a decided white, instead of brownish yellow,

as in the northern. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway would reaffirm this “field mark” in their influential History of North American Birds, published in 1874, this time reinforcing its validity in the accompanying color plate.

Ridgway 1874 waterthrushes

Before 1858, every published source seems to have relied on bill and tarsus measurements to distinguish the two species. And so the famous trio — the Nestor of American ornithology, the father of American oology, and the great cataloguer of American birds — appears to be responsible for promulgating the notion that the color of the eye stripe is sufficient to separate the brown-crowned members of the genus Parkesia. 

There we have it. Break out the honey, prepare the gummy bears, rally the preschoolers!

More about the tangled history of these species to come — 

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 2.11.23 PM

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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 Sporophila 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.”

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 10.39.36 AM

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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