Archive for Birdwords


The Watchman’s Rattle in the Wild

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Sometimes when you cast the bread of your ponderings onto the waters of the internet, you find it after a couple of weeks. 

And how.

I wondered whether the comparison of a kingfisher’s call to the watchman’s rattle had in fact originated with Alexander Wilson. My friend and colleague Mark writes in reply:

“I’m sure you’re right that Wilson was the source for most later descriptions of the kingfisher’s call. But perhaps not all?

“Today the watchman’s rattle seems like such a bizarre antediluvian relic that it’s hard for us to appreciate just how ubiquitous and distinctive a feature of the 19th-century soundscape it was, and how easy it would have been for different writers to seize upon it independently as a point of comparison for any sharp grating or rattling noise. It’s impossible to read much Victorian literature without encountering the rattle (“Wegg was a knotty man, and close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle” — Dickens, Our Mutual Friend), but your post made me curious about other instances in which the calls of birds and other animals were likened to it.

“So I poked around on Google Books for half an hour or so, and wow, there are a lot of them! Since you I say you’re interested in other examples of the simile, I thought you might like to see a sample of what I turned up. (I’ve omitted all the kingfishers, of which there were many, most or all of which were probably derived from Wilson; I didn’t find any earlier example of that particular comparison, so your conclusion about his priority still stands.)

J. Jackson, Journey from India towards England (1799), p. 116



W. Wordsworth, early draft ms. of “Benjamin the Waggoner” (1806)

photo of the actual page is available at the British Library; it’s the fifth page.


J. C. Hobhouse, A Journey to Albania and other provinces of Turkey in Asia (1813), vol. 2, p. 641


G. Ord, in the Journal of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences 1:2 (1818), p. 256



R. Sheppard and W. Whitear, in Transactions of the Linnaean Society of London 15 (1827), p. 15


J. Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), p. 158

J. Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), p. 187


T. Nuttall, Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada (1832), p. 551


T. Nuttall, Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada (1832), p. 563


New-England Magazine 2 (1832), p. 329


E. S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States (1835), vol. 2, p. 215


H. D. Thoreau, journal entry for April 4, 1853


H. Wheelwright, Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist (1861), p. 151


Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine 46 (1878), p. 177


F. Knight, By Leafy Ways (1889), p. 4


O. T. Miller, Atlantic Monthly 77 (May 1896), p. 671


“Along the way I also found the watchman’s rattle invoked to describe the sputtering of an angry Frenchman, the crackling of hot liquids, and all sorts of other things. Fun stuff!”

Fun stuff indeed. Many thanks to a kindred spirit for answering my question! 

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Your Admirer, Carolus

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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!).

Screenshot 2014-11-18 09.05.56

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.

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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 Hudsoniasin 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.

Categories : Birdwords
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The Watchbird’s Rattle

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Belted kingfisher, Keulemans

Obviously, and happily, the more technical terms we birders so much love to throw around have all been more or less standardized. Sure, you can still get into a bar fight over the word “malar,” and the battle over the meaning of “juvenile” seems unwinnable, but for the most part, birder language works: we’ve all agreed on a shared set of words and meanings.

Have you ever noticed, though, just how far that standardization reaches? It goes beyond the concrete terminology of plumage diagnosis, extending into the more fanciful and figurative language we use. Even our metaphors are stipulated.

The American oystercatcher sounds like a policeman’s whistle.

The Lapland longspur sounds like the winding of a cheap watch.

And the belted kingfisher?

Thy voice is like in sound

The twirling of a watchman’s rattle loud.

– William Howe Cuyler Hosmer

Thanks to google images, I know what a watchman’s rattle looks like (and thanks to belted kingfishers, I know what one sounds like). What I wonder is who first came up with the comparison.

The first port of call in all matters alcedinid is Richard Bowdler Sharpe’s monograph of the family, published between 1868 and 1871 and handsomely illustrated with plates engraved from paintings by the great Johannes Gerardus Keulemans. As hoped, Sharpe takes us back almost 150 years in our search for an origin: he reports that the belted kingfisher’s

 loud call has been well likened to the noise made by springing a watchman’s rattle.

Besides informing us about the way a rattle is deployed — I’d have expected to shake it, myself — Sharpe also cites his source. It turns out that Sharpe took the sentence verbatim from Alfred and Edward Newton’s account of their experiences on St. Croix, published in the first volume of the Ibis, in 1859. But the comparison is obviously not original with the Newtons, either: “has been well likened” tells us that the brothers are quoting someone else.

And so we keep looking.

The Newtons cite only Audubon and Yarrell in their account, neither of whom mentions the watchman or his rattle. The bibliographic chain is broken, and there’s nothing for it but to start combing the files of the regular suspects, in this case starting, unsurprisingly, with Alexander Wilson.

Alexander Wilson, Belted kingfisher

Wilson’s kingfisher, painted from a specimen in Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia museum, is quite rightly accounted one of his best works, and the text also delivers. The kingfisher’s voice, Wilson tells us,

is not unlike the twirling of a watchman’s rattle.

Bingo, as they say. Wilson often echoes his contemporaries and predecessors, but in this case, neither the published works of William Bartram nor those of Mark Catesby served as a source.

Mark Catesby, Belted kingfisher

Indeed, Catesby seems never to have heard the American kingfishers, observing quite incorrectly that their “cry” is

much the same as of those in England,

which in fact utter only a high, sharp whistle as they flash past low over the quiet canals and rivers they haunt.

I’m left to believe that it was Wilson who invented this comparison, presumably inspired by the Philadelphia watch and its noisemakers, still in use into the 1820s.

Or do you have an attestation of the simile that antedates the American Ornithology? I’d love to hear about it.


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What Is a Toothed-bill Gull?

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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.

Glaucous-winged Gull, Mew Gull, Ring-billed Gull

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.

Categories : Birdwords
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