Archive for Birdwords

Jun
15

The Laughing Tern

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Gull-billed Tern

On May 16, 1818, Wilhelm Schilling encountered a small flock of this handsome tern for the first time on German soil. He collected one, and did not see the species again until June 1819, this time three pairs on the island Lips; this time he collected all six. A few returned to Lips the next year, only to wind up themselves on their backs in Schilling’s specimen drawers. The next year, 1821, the species “was entirely absent from these localities,” which led Schilling and his colleague Ludwig Brehm to conclude that

this is a nomadic bird on the islands of the Baltic Sea, which breeds there only occasionally and in warm, dry years.

On examining Schilling’s specimens, Brehm recognized the bird as Montagu’s Sterna anglica and Wilson’s Sterna aranea — but he liked neither of those names, and so he gave it a new one, Sterna risoria.

Gull-billed Tern

Brehm explains the new species epithet as a translation of the name by which the bird was known on the island of Rügen, “kleine Lachmöwe,” the little laughing gull.

It has a loud call, similar to human laughter, sounding like hähä or hä, which in its many variations expresses the bird’s different moods. Schilling heard this call from those that he saw in May 1818. When he shot at one and missed, it climbed high into the air and seemed to want to mock the unhappy marksman with its laughter.

However suitable the name risoria, Brehm couldn’t, of course, just go around changing things to tease his friends. In fact, this species had already accumulated a considerable stock of synonyms by the time Brehm’s name was published in 1822; the earliest had been given it sixty years earlier by Linnaeus himself, Sterna nilotica, the Nile tern. 

But Brehm was not defeated. In 1830, he determined that the catch-all genus Sterna could profitably be split up, with the Gull-billed Terns occupying one of their own.He named the new genus Gelochelidon, the “laughing swallow.” 

Audubon g-b tern, octave ed.

Even today, not everyone understands Brehm’s genus name. I often hear it spoken, and even see it written, as if it were “Geochelidon,” a hypercorrection first made in print by the great German and Cuban ornithologist Juan Gundlach. Gundlach doesn’t explain himself, but I suspect that he, like some of our own contemporaries, thought of this elegant bird as a “ground tern” of sorts — after all, it doesn’t dive, and even by tern standards, this species spends a great deal of its time loafing on mud and gravel bars.

It doesn’t much matter. But getting the name wrong comes at a cost: the cost of the mental image of that lucky tern flying high over Schilling’s head, filling the skies above Rügen with the sound of triumphant laughter.  

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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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Jul
18

Ecclesiastical Tanagers

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Palm Tanager

Among the birds discovered by Freyreiss and Maximilian in Brazil was a glossy gray-green tanager, a lively bird encountered in almost every dense tangle of palm fronds along the coast.  

But back up. “Discovered” may be saying too much.

Desmarest, T episcopus = palmarum

As Maximilian himself pointed out, the palm tanager was already known to European science, just misidentified:

This bird has hitherto been treated as the female of the Tanagra Episcopus, and it is depicted as such in Desmarest. This is an error, however, as Tanagra Episcopus, or Sayaca (the Sanyaçú of the Brazilians of the east coast), is very different from this supposed female, a bird of which we have often received both sexes, which resemble each other quite closely. This latter bird, formerly thought to be the female, is entirely different from the Sanyaçú even in its very soft, twittering voice. Because it is constantly found among the cocoa palms, I name this bird Tanagra palmarum.

I have to confess that before I read this passage this morning, I’d forgot that the blue-gray tanager was named “bishop.” And now I’m wondering why.

Blue-gray Tanager, Tobago

This pretty and familiar tropical thraupid barely escaped being called virens, a name — meaning “greenish” — that would have made less sense even than most tanager names. Instead, thanks to some timely intervention by the ICZN, it still, again, bears the Linnaean epithet episcopus, making it one of those almost innumerable birds named for churchmen and churchwomen, from popes all the way down to nunlets and monklets. So how did Linnaeus come to name this tanager in particular episcopus, the bishop bird?

Screenshot 2015-07-15 14.04.56

The short answer: It wasn’t his idea in the first place. We tend to credit (or more often to blame) the Swedish nomenclator for all the scientific names with his initial after them, but in fact, a goodly number — anybody know offhand just how many? — of the names in the Systema were not coined by Linnaeus but adopted from his many sources. This is one of them. Linnaeus called the tanager episcopus because Mathurin Brisson had done it first.

Screenshot 2015-07-15 14.24.10

Brisson gives a very detailed description of the specimen in Réaumur’s cabinet, sent from Brazil by two French collectors; but he offers no clue as to why it should have been appointed bishop among the birds. Perhaps it was the episcopal hue of the lesser coverts, “grayish white with a hint of violet,” though that seems a bit of a stretch. More likely, I think, this was Brisson’s witty way of easing the transition between his accounts of the various tanager species and those that immediately follow in his Ornithologie.

Screenshot 2015-07-15 14.42.07

What better way to introduce the full suite of cardinals than with a bishop?

Brisson’s gentle joke had, as they say, legs. Not only did Linnaeus immortalize the name episcopus, but his successors found in it the inspiration to create an entire little curia of ecclesiastical tanagers.

Desmarest, L'´vêque

Desmarest, in his 1805 Histoire naturelle des tangaras, des manakins et des todiersretained what he thought were both sexes of the “tangara évêque,” and added to the ranks a Peruvian bird brought to the Paris museum by a French collector, a bird he named Tangara archiepiscopus, the archbishop tanager.

yellow-wigned tanager, Desmarest

Desmarest had access to specimens of both sexes of this species, resulting in the odd caption “the female archbishop” — surely something that led to a little bemused head-shaking even in Napoleonic France.

Desmarest, female archbishop tanager

Unfortunately for Desmarest, this species, known today as the golden-chevroned tanager, had already been described by Anders Sparrman a generation earlier, from a specimen the Swedish naturalist thought had been collected somewhere in the East Indies.

Golden-chevroned tanager, in Sparrman, Mus Carl

Today, the bird is stuck, and we are stuck, with the accurate but not very evocative name Sparrman gave it: ornata.

Accuracy and priority proved only a minor setback to tradition, however.

In 1830, Hinrich Lichtenstein prepared a list of specimens sent back to Berlin by the German collectors Deppe and Schiede; those skins representing species already held in the Berlin museum were offered to private collectors “for cash payment in Prussian courants.” Some of those specimens represented still undescribed species, making Lichtenstein’s Preis-Verzeichniss the location of original publication. Among the nova: a yellow-green, blue-headed tanager with black wings with a yellow panel. Lichtenstein named it Tangara Abbas, the abbot.

Yellow-winged Tanager

It has been suggested, with no contemporary documentation, that “abbas” refers in a roundabout way to the given name of a man, Abbot Lawrence, who may or may not have met one or the other of the Deppe brothers sometime or another.

As far as I can discover, no one else has ever come close to believing that, and when this lovely little bird of Mexico and northern Central America hasn’t been called the yellow-winged tanager, it’s gone by the English name abbot tanager — not “Abbot’s,” as one would otherwise expect.

Apart from that slender shred, there’s an additional bit of far more convincing evidence that places this tanager, too, firmly in the tradition of ecclesiastical names.

Lesson, Cent Zoo, drawing Prêtre

For all his great merits, René-Primevère Lesson was notorious — is still notorious — for the utter lack of respect he showed for other ornithologists’ nomenclatural acts. When Lesson turned to this species in 1831, which he found represented by several skins that had been shipped from Mexico to Paris (take that, Prussians), he simply renamed it, calling it Tanagra vicarius, “le tangara vicaire,” the vicar. Lest his reader overlook the clerical connection, Lesson compares the vicar to two other tanager species — the bishop (our blue-gray) and Tangara prelatus, the prelate tanager (Lesson’s name for the palm tanager).

Swainson, cana blue-gray tanager

Lesson was at it again in 1842. Eight years earlier, William Swainson had published a new bird he called the blue-shouldered tanager, Tangara cana; if I’ve kept up, this is now considered a subspecies of the blue-gray tanager (and I think it was this race that was introduced into Florida).

Lesson gave this taxon, too, a brand new name, Tangara diaconus, the deacon tanager. Could the theme be any clearer?

The synonymy of the tanagers is nearly as complicated as that of the hummingbirds, and has been so for more than 150 years. In the very middle of the nineteenth century, three ornithologists — Cabanis, Sclater, and Bonaparte — all set out, independently, to work out the relationships among the known species and to give them clear names, with the predictable result that not a few tanagers suddenly had three new names to go along with whatever old ones might have been attached to them before.

The eventual clearing up of the taxonomic mess, to the extent it was possible, was obviously a consummation devoutly to be wished; but it cost us those Lessonian tanager names, and with them a glimpse into what just may have been the longest-running gag in ornithological history.

Screenshot 2015-07-15 20.31.46

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Jul
09

Poor Pompadour, 2

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But at least she has those two beautiful birds named in her honor, right?

Well, not exactly.

The dazzling pompadour green pigeons, now considered a complex of half a dozen similar and closely related species, were named in 1776 by the English naturalist and painter Peter Brown.

Brown, pompadour pigeon

Why would an Englishman name a Sri Lankan pigeon for a French courtesan, dead these dozen years? He didn’t.

Brown’s description is quite clear: the bird’s name memorializes not the late Marquise, but the shade of the wing coverts, “a fine pompadour color.” True, the color was named for Louis XV’s mistress, but the bird, alas, not.

If the pigeon is attractive, the pompadour cotinga is spectacular.

Edwards, pompadour cotinga

Both sexes of this species were represented in French collections during Mme de Pompadour’s lifetime, but it was known only by the relatively dull descriptive name “cotinga pourpre,” the purple cotinga.

In the year of the Frenchwoman’s death, Peter Simon Pallas gave the species a Linnaean name, Turdus puniceus, simply a translation of the Brissonian name. But that same year, 1764, George Edwards renamed it in his Gleanings.

Edwards had acquired his specimen in an extraordinary way. Post-Captain Washington Shirley of the British navy, soon to be named Earl Ferrers and eventually made a vice-admiral, captured a French ship — and found among the prize cargo a “curi0us parcel of Birds” said to be addressed to Mme de Pompadour herself. Edwards was given access to the specimens, at least two of which he described. This one

being a Bird of excessive beauty, I hope that Lady will forgive me for calling it by her name,

“The Pompadour.”

I do not know whether she ever saw Edwards’s portrait of the bird or read the slightly back-handed compliment in his description. If she did, I suspect she might rather have had her bird skins.

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Jul
03

A Fallacious Hummingbird

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leucippus fallax, gould

Another sneaky bird, this one a hummingbird, named Trochilus fallax almost 175 years ago. It’s often easy to figure out what the original describer had in mind in styling a bird “deceitful,” but not this time.

type description of Trochilus fallax

When Bourcier and Mulsant named this species in 1843, they were entirely forthright about their lack of confidence in its truthfulness, calling it “deceiver” in both French and scientifickish. But they didn’t tell us why.

What’s mysterious to me seems to have been perfectly straightforward to the namers’ colleagues and contemporaries. When it came time to dismantle the venerable catch-all genus Trochilus, the inventors of new generic names simply came up with what were essentially synonyms to fallax. Charles Bonaparte called it Doleromyia in 1854, “deceptive fly-bird,” and Cabanis created a diminutive Dolerisca, the “little trickster.”

A-G Bevalet, in Muls and Verr

When Mulsant published the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches starting in 1874, he took over Bonaparte’s genus name, correcting the spelling to Doleromya, and fancying up the vernacular name to “doleromye trompeuse.”

And still not saying why.

The explanation, or an explanation, came in 1881, in the Catalogue descriptif of Eugène Eudes-Deslongchamps.

The museum in Caen holds the type specimen on which Bourcier based his Trochilus fallax. The specimen is quite well preserved and very carefully prepared…. Externally, this pretty little bird far more closely resembles a Leucippus than any other bird, but the evenly curved bill is very different. The general colors, and in particular the distribution of white spots on the tail, actually recall a miniature Campylopterus saberwing. It is likely for these reasons that Bourcier assigned the species the name fallax.

Doleromya, from Eudes-Deslongchamps

So there we have it. Or maybe not.

Eudes-Deslongchamps’s mention of Leucippus points in another direction. That name — which happens to designate the genus to which our bird, the buffy hummingbird, is currently assigned — most likely commemorates the Pisan prince Leucippus, who disguised himself as a girl to get closer to his beloved Daphne (it didn’t work out well for either of them, as you may recall).

The bird name was coined in 1849 by Charles Bonaparte, who obviously forgot he’d done so when he devised Doleomyia five years later. Bonaparte doesn’t happen to mention what he intended by adopting the name from classical mythology, but as usual, James Jobling makes a very good suggestion:

both sexes of the buffy hummingbird share the same plumage.

The deceit, then, would consist in each sex “hiding” in the plumage of the other.

I have no doubt that Jobling is right, and that that is exactly what Bonaparte had in mind. The only problem is –and it’s Bonaparte’s problem, no one else’s — that Bourcier and Mulsant weren’t thinking anything of the kind. Their 1843 description makes reference to only one individual, and an unsexed individual at that, so they could hardly have thought themselves tricked by the lack of sexual dimorphism.

Moreover, three decades on, in the Histoire naturelle, Mulsant has no difficulty tallying the characters that distinguish the age and sex classes of this species. But he notes that fallax 

shows some similarity to the species of the subgenus Threnetes in certain respects and in other respects approaches various members of the genus Leucolia.

This is not unlike Eudes-Deslongchamps’s observation seven years later — but invoking affinities to a different group of similar species.

I’m stumped. As I go through the sources and ponder, though, I begin to wonder: maybe what is “fallax” about fallax is the name itself, a jocular deception perpetrated on the future by two Frenchmen 175 years ago.

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