Archive for Birdwords


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.

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I love a good appendix.

Lest you think I’m starting an especially ghoulish Halloween especially early, let me hasten to explain:

One of the best parts of Burtt and Davis’s Alexander Wilson is the two-page

list of books available to Alexander Wilson relating to zoology, especially ornithology, in the libraries of the American Philosophical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, and William Bartram,

a hugely informative catalogue followed by tables indicating how often Wilson cited each. These few precious pages answer lots of questions — and raise even more that we might not even have thought to ask. And they give us a good sense of just how sloppy a bibliographer Wilson could occasionally be.


In the third volume of the American Ornithology, Wilson announces the discovery of a bird he named Sylvia magnolia, the black and yellow warbler.

Wilson, magnolia warbler

He had collected two himself, and notes that Charles Willson Peale had earlier encountered “this elegant species” in the Philadelphia area.

With the pride of an immigrant, Wilson reminds his reader that

No notice has ever been taken of this bird by any European naturalist whose works I have examined.

Oh, really?

In 1758, eight years before Wilson’s birth, George Edwards presented a fine plate (better than Wilson’s) and a thorough description of the “yellow-rumped fly-catcher,” a bird he had received “preserved dry” from none other than a very young William Bartram, the very man who would nearly half a century later become Wilson’s patron and encourager. To Bartram goes the honor of discovery.

Edwards, magnolia warbler

Mathurin Brisson introduced the bird to continental readers in 1760, citing and largely translating Edwards’s text in the third volume of the Ornithologie. Buffon referred to both Edwards and Brisson for this species, taking the opportunity to gently reproach the Englishman for calling it a moucherolle – a flycatcher — rather than a warbler. John Latham listed the species in his Synopsis in 1783. Two years later, Thomas Pennant included a description of the species in the Arctic Zoology. In 1788, Wilson’s “new” warbler entered the Linnaean canon when it was listed in Gmelin‘s edition of the Systema. Latham used Gmelin’s name, maculosa, in his Index of 1790, published four years before Wilson arrived in America.

I’ve piled up all those names and dates and references to make my point even more, ahem, pointed.

According to Burtt and Davis, Wilson in the American Ornithology cites Edwards 55 times, William Bartram 62 times, Brisson 82 times, Buffon 151 times, and Latham 173 times. He refers to Gmelin only once — and to Gmelin’s English translator, Turton, 64 times.

But not once, in the course of consulting these standard works a minimum of 588 times, did Wilson come across Edwards’s yellow-rump.

Why not? He just plain overlooked it, obviously. But little lapses like this only make their scarcity the more impressive in Wilson’s monumental work.

If you made it to the end of that heap of names and dates a couple of paragraphs up, you will be wondering what ever happened to Dendroica maculosa. To Wilson’s great and good posthumous fortune, Gmelin’s name Motacilla maculosa turned out to have already been used in 1783 by Boddaert to name the Karoo prinia. Wilson’s name, published in 1811, was the next available. 


That First Yellow-rump

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Myrtle warbler

It’s October now, and they’re everywhere here in northern New Jersey, woods and thickets and messy backyards full of their homely little tock notes.

Yellow-rumped warblers are so abundant and so familiar that we can forget that they had to be “discovered” for European science. But it should be easy enough to find out who deserves credit for shooting and describing the first one.

Shouldn’t it?

The first western scientist to apply the name “yellow-rump” to a parulid was, unsurprisingly, Mark Catesby. Catesby’s description , however, of his Virginia specimens is remarkably scant:

This is a Creeper, and seems to be of the Tit-kind. The most distinguish’d Part of this Bird is its Rump, which is yellow. All the Rest of the Feathers are brown, having a faint Tincture of Green. It runs about the Bodies of Trees, and feeds on Insects, which it pecks from the Crevises of the Bark. The Hen differs little from the Cock in the Colour of its Feathers.

None too informative, is it? Fortunately, Catesby’s plate should clear things up.

Or so one might think.

Catesby, The yellow-rump

Recently, most ornithologists have been content to identify Catesby’s yellow-rump with our yellow-rump, the bird now known as Setophaga coronata; it’s as good a guess as any, though I often wonder whether we might not be looking at, and Catesby describing, one of those so dull Cape May warblers one runs into this time of year.

What we do know is that Linnaeus, who named so many organisms in reliance on Catesby’s Natural History, did not believe that Catesby had depicted coronata, which the Archiater described instead from a handsome and well-detailed plate by George Edwards (whose Motacilla corona aurea was, of course, the inspiration for the Linnaean name).

Edwards, too, another of Catesby’s closest readers, failed to recognize in the old “yellow-rump” the warbler he, Edwards, was describing; indeed, he says in 1760, 28 years after the first publication of the Catesbeian plate, that

these birds, I think, may safely be pronounced non-descripts,

that is, members of a species not yet formally described to science.

What do you think? Is Mark Catesby’s “yellow-rump” a yellow-rump?


The Poet’s Convenience

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Tesdorpf, 1754

In 1754, the Lübeck merchant P.H. Tesdorpf published his poem “An Attempt at Describing the Most Beautiful and Nearly the Smallest of All Birds, Which Is Known as the Colibrit.” The poem is everything its title promises, but Tesdorpf’s annotations offer the occasional bit of comic relief.

Take this footnote, for example, provided as explication of the strophe in which the poet describes the hummingbird’s valiant defense of its nest:

Should anyone find objectionable the comparison between the bird’s bill [Schnabel] and a fork [Gabel], I would counter by observing that when the birds mean to strike or stab in anger, they often open the bill, thus doubling its capacity to puncture, and consequently transform it into what is essentially a fork. Not to mention the difficult of finding a rhyme for the unavoidable word “Schnabel.”

Now there’s a practical-minded poetaster.

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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.


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