Archive for Birdwords


Little Bird, Big Name

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Black-throated Green Warbler

This charming black-throated green warbler — an adult female, I believe — was busily picking nearly invisible bugs from Alison’s aster bed this morning.

The species ultimately owes its long English name to none other than William Bartram, who listed it in the Travels as

P[arus] viridis gutture nigro, the green black throated flycatcher.

In June 1756, the very young Bartram had sent skins of this species and of the black-and-white warbler from “the province of Pensilvania” to George Edwards, who described and painted them in the Gleanings of 1760.

Edwards, Gl 2, black-throated green warbler

Edwards called our bird the black-throated green flycatcher, and it was his account that Gmelin drew on to assign the species its formal Linnaean name, Motacilla [later Sylvia, then Dendroica, now Setophagavirens.

Interestingly, it seems that in the later eighteenth century there was resistance to the unwieldy English name adopted by Edwards. In France, both Buffon and Brisson called this bird simply “black-throated,” while across the Channel Pennant, Turton, and Latham all preferred to emphasize the color of the upperparts by calling it the “green warbler.”

wilson, Plate 17, green black-throated warbler

It was up to Alexander Wilson, Bartram’s grateful friend, to restore his master’s English name, which he did in only imperfect faithfulness to the original: the charming bird in the upper lefthand corner of Wilson’s plate 17 is labeled “Green black-throated Warbler,” as in Bartram, though his text reads — the first instance of the modern English name in print — “black-throated green warbler.”

Audubon, who was the first to depict the female of the species, followed Edwards and Wilson’s letterpress in using the sequence “black-throated green” rather than the more logical “green black-throated”:

Screenshot 2014-10-01 18.03.21

And so it has remained ever since, a long name for a tiny bird.


Edwards, Frizzled Sparrow, Gleanings

In 1751, George Edwards’s “generous encourager” Mrs. Clayton, of Flower in Surrey, seems to have engaged the painter and ornithologist to record the birds of her aviary. It was not an unusual request: Edwards tells us that by then he had

been for a good part of the Time employ’d by many curious Gentlemen in London to draw such rare foreign birds as they were possess’d of…. as the like Birds might perhaps never be met with again.

With the permission of his subjects’ owners, Edwards

never neglected to take Draughts of them … for [his] own Collection

as well, and it was those drawings that he published — though he was “backward in resolving to do it” — in the Natural History of Birds and in the Gleanings. 

His visit to Flower turned up a number of birds new to him and to science, among them a curious passerine with

the bill white, the head and neck black: the back, wings, rump, and tail are of a blackish yellow-green, or dark olive colour: the breast, belly, thighs, and covert feathers under the tail, are of a yellow colour: the legs and feet are of a dusky colour…. Many of its feathers are curled….

Logically enough, he named it the black-and-yellow frizzled sparrow.

Edwards, Frizzled Sparrow

As complete as his description was and as precise as his engraving, though, there was one thing Edwards could not say with any confidence about Mrs. Clayton’s sparrows:

they are natives either of Angola or the Brasils, but I cannot determine which.

It’s a good four thousand miles as the bunting flies between Luanda and Sao Paulo, but such wild uncertainty was simply par for the course in the world of eighteenth-century ornithology. In a similar context, Buffon himself, who was in a better position than most to determine the provenance of his specimens, noted with a sigh

that nothing is more imperfectly known than the native country of birds that come from a great distance and pass through many hands.

When Linnaeus named Mrs. Clayton’s bird Fringilla crispa (“curly-haired finch”), he settled, apparently arbitrarily, on Angola as the terra typica. Others, though, more careful bibliographers than the great Swede, left the matter undecided: Brisson says “in the kingdom of Angola or in Brazil,” and even Gmelin, in his 1789 edition of the Systema, returns to Edwards’s original formulation, “either Angola or Brazil.”

Gmelin, Frizzled Finch

Why those two, so far-flung localities? Buffon fills us in on the “many hands” involved here:

As this bird came from Portugal, one concludes that it was sent from one of the chief colonial possessions of that country, namely, from the kingdom of Angola or from Brazil,

an explanation repeated a few years later by John Latham in his General Synopsis:

As we know it not except through Portugal, its native place is not certain.

By 1802, these birds were being imported into France. Louis-Pierre Vieillot owned a pair, but not even he could say where the species was native: Portugal, which remained reluctant to grant other Europeans direct access to its colonies, remained the only source. Twenty years later, Vieillot still did not know where his frizzle-feathered charges had come from.

That was bad enough. But gradually, the mystery shifted from the origin of the bird to its identity. Just what was Mrs. Clayton’s sparrow?

In hindsight, it’s obvious that the frizzled finch was a seedeater — and with that complete black hood, just as obviously a seedeater of Ridgely and Tudor’s Type II. But which one?

The identification and taxonomy of the Sporophila seedeaters is a tangle beyond compare. No synonymy agrees with any other, and certain of the specific epithets have seemed to float in space, available to anyone who cares to reach up and grab one to slap, more or less at random, onto a troublesome bird.

What we know today as the yellow-bellied seedeater has fallen victim to such haphazard naming more than once since it was first described by Vieillot in 1823. There’s no reason here to rehearse its onomastic fortunes and misfortunes, from gutturalis to olivaceoflava to nigricollis and forth and back and back and forth.

It’s enough to know that this species, widespread in the American tropics, including the former Portuguese possessions in Brazil, comes closest to Edwards’s frizzly finch.

I believe that it was Bowdler Sharpe who first sought to identify the mystery sparrow as this seedeater. In Volume 12 of the Catalogue, he adduces Edwards’s description and Linnaeus’s names first in the synonymy for Spermophila gutturalis — though in both cases with a hesitant question mark.

Far less cautious, Outram Bangs asserted outright that

Edwards’s plate agrees exactly in measurements and color with this species except that the yellow is a little too vivid.

Indeed, Bangs was so sure that Mrs. Clayton’s birds were yellow-bellied seedeaters that in 1930 he urged that Linnaeus’s name of 1766 — based on Edwards’s plate as “type” — be restored, such that the bird should henceforth be known as Sporophila crispa (Linné).

Charles Hellmayr disagreed. Vehemently. In the Catalogue of Birds of the Americas, Hellmayr does not even include Bangs’s Linnaean name in the synonymy, instead rejecting it in a snarl of a footnote:

I am, however, quite unable to recognize our bird in “The Black and Yellow Frizled Sparrow” … which formed the exclusive basis of Linné’s account. The bright yellow belly and the heavy, acutely pointed bill, which in shape, recalls that of a Siskin, render the identification more than problematical, and I hesitate to sacrifice a certainty for the benefit of an uncertainty.

And there, so far as I know, is where it stands. Debate about the frizzled sparrow fizzled seventy-five years ago with Hellmayr’s dismissal of the only plausible identification, and Mrs. Clayton’s bird is consigned to the dustheap of nonce species, forgeries, and incompetent errors.

It’s probably just a tanager anyway.

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Did Anybody Ever Really Think That?

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whiskered tern and gull-billed tern

The find of the fall — so far — at Cape May has been the continental US’s third whiskered tern, discovered a couple of days ago and still showing nicely, I hear. I’ve got fingers, toes, and eyes crossed that it linger until next Monday, when my group will be there with hopeful bells on.

In all the excitement, there’s inevitably been some shooting from the hip about this bird’s name, Chlidonias hybridaand we’ve been reminded more than once now over these past days that the species owes that funny epithet to the quaint belief that these birds actually were hybrids.

But that’s not true. Though there are plenty of cases in which “good” species were originally mistaken for the products of miscegenation, this isn’t one of them.

Peter Simon Pallas observed this “extremely rare bird” a few times in the course of his expedition to central and eastern Russia, and almost 40 years later, he gave it its first formal scientific description in the Zoographia Rosso-asiatica. He named it Sterna hybrida, not because he or anyone else had thought it was a hybrid, but because its appearance combined features of the “white” and of the “black” terns.

You might say that it was born of the black and the common tern.

You might say — “diceres” — but no one did.

Of course, Pallas was not the first to see this widespread tern. He himself indicates that it had perhaps already been described and depicted — in neither case very well — in Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s pre-Linnaean Danubius pannonico-mysicus, where the bird is said to differ from the black tern in its reddish bill and feet.

Marsigli, whiskered [or black?] tern

The account of the plumage here more closely recalls, if anything, a molting black or white-winged tern; indeed, Brisson would later use Marsigli’s description as the basis for his own “patchy tern,” Sterna naevia, which, if memory serves, Bonaparte eventually identified as a black tern.

The sorting out of the marsh terns and their names took some time; as late as Coues’s “Review of the Terns of North America,” there still obtained “a state of great confusion,” and even more than a dozen years later, Taczanowski could mix up the names of the whiskered and the white-winged terns. We were well into the twentieth century before any sort of stability could be declared.

But never did we really believe that any of them were hybrids.

whiskered tern, France

And why is it hybrida? We’re told that this is a noun “in apposition” and not an adjective. Hmph.


Screenshot 2014-08-12 14.19.35

It was two centuries ago this summer, just a year after the death of his “ever-regretted friend,” that George Ord published the first scientific description of the bird he honored with the name of the Wilson’s plover.

Screenshot 2014-08-12 14.29.03

Ord commemorated his late colleague in both the English name and the scientific name of the new species, assigning it the Linnaean binomial Charadrius wilsonia. Ten years later, he changed his mind. Not about Alexander Wilson’s considerable merit, and not about the suitability of “this neat and prettily marked species” as a monument to the American Ornithologist; but rather about the proper form of the bird’s scientific name. In the second edition of Volume Nine, and then in the three-volume edition of Wilson’s work published in 1829, Ord — accepting without comment a change first made by Vieillot in 1818 – alters the epithet, from his original wilsonia to wilsonius.

Screenshot 2014-08-12 14.38.23

Alters and corrects, I should think: Charadrius is a masculine noun, and so any adjective modifying the genus name — from vociferus to nivosus, from thoracicus to modestus — should itself be masculine — and thus, Charadrius wilsonius it is.  Sometimes. And sometimes not. The currently recognized scientific name of the Wilson’s plover is — if we follow the AOU, the SACC, Clements, the IOC, Howard and Moore — Charadrius wilsonia, just as it was in Ord’s 1814 description. Why? It all started, I think, in 1944, when the Committee responsible for the preparation of the fifth edition of the AOU Check-List — long delayed, “in part due to the war” and the attendant shortage of good paper — published a preliminary digest of the changes to be expected whenever that edition might appear. Among the principles propounded: where in the fourth, 1931 edition any “obviously” adjectival specific names were made to agree in gender with the genus name, in the new edition

original spellings will be used in all scientific names.

When the fifth edition was published, in 1957, that pronouncement was furnished with an important exception:

specific and subspecific names used as adjectives have been made to agree with the gender of the genus,

just as had been the case before 1944. Oddly, though, that exception was not applied to the plover, which on being returned after some decades of exile to the grammatically masculine genus Charadrius, nevertheless retained, and retains today, the grammatically feminine epithet wilsonia.

Screenshot 2014-08-12 20.35.10

This combination, officially sanctioned though it be, is not only barbarous, but contravenes the ICZN, whose principles and decisions the AOU expressly follows in matters of naming. While priority remains the highest of principles, the Code tells us that

a species-group name, if it is or ends in a Latin or latinized adjective or participle in the nominative singular, must agree in gender with the generic name with which it is at any time combined (31.2)

and that

if the gender ending is incorrect it must be changed accordingly (34.2).

If I read this correctly, then the name of the Wilson’s plover should rightly be Charadrius wilsonius Ord 1814; wilsonia should be rejected as improperly formed. Unless, of course, the ICZN has issued a special dispensation permitting the retention of the ungrammatical name. I can’t find such a document, but maybe it’s out there — or maybe I’ve missed something obvious.

I do not, by the way, buy the explanation offered by some — most recently endorsed in the new Howard and Moore — that Ord’s “wilsonia” was not adjectival. The change to “wilsonius” in 1824 (and earlier in Vieillot) is proof enough that Ord understood the word to be a first-and-second declension adjective — and that obviously renders inapplicable the ICZN’s provision (31.2.2) covering equivocal species epithets:

Where the author of a species-group name did not indicate whether he or she regarded it as a noun or as an adjective, and where it may be regarded as either and the evidence of usage is not decisive, it is to be treated as a noun in apposition to the name of its genus.

Does anyone know who decided, when and on what basis, “wilsonia” was a noun? What am I overlooking here?

Fill me in.

On the 201st anniversary of the death of Alexander Wilson — with thanks to David and Ted for good discussions.

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The Boldness of Bibliography

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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.

R.M. Strong

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. 

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