Archive for Birdwords


The Bishop of Bergen’s Birds

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Erik Pontoppidan den Yngre.jpg

Two hundred fifty years ago today, on December 20, 1764, Erik Pontoppidan — bishop of Bergen and father of Norwegian natural history — died in Copenhagen.

Pontoppidan was more than a bit of a polymath, and his publications range from theology and church history to biology and linguistics. Birders know him chiefly for two works, the First Essay on the Natural History of Norway and the Danish AtlasIf I’ve counted right, his are the scientific names we still use for eight species of birds, among them some of the best-known and most widespread northern breeders of both hemispheres.

Red-throated Loon

The red-throated loon is stellata for the sprinkling of white stars on the juvenile’s back.

Rough-legged Hawk

The rough-legged hawk is lagopus for its furry tarsus.

The rusty underparts and head of the adult curlew sandpiper’s alternate plumage give it the name ferruginea.

Pontoppidan focused not on the width but on the shape of the broad-billed sandpiper’s bill when he named it falcinellus, the little scythe.

American Herring Gull

He almost certainly translated from a vernacular name in calling the herring gull argentatus, for the silvery back of adults and older immatures.

Audubon Arctic tern

I’m at a loss, as seems to be everyone else: What is so heavenly about the Arctic tern? My own suspicion is that in naming this lovely, long-tailed seabird paradisaea, Pontoppidan meant to suggest that this species was the “northern bird-of-paradise.” It’s a nice thought, at least.

Pontoppidan’s aalge is simply the name in his native Danish for the common murre; the word is cognate with “auk,” “Alke,” “alcid,” and all those other back-throated names for black and white diving seabirds.

The taxonomic history of the short-eared owl (and of many others) is tangled, but to Pontoppidan goes the honor of having given it the name flammeus, apparently a reference to the bird’s overall tawny color.

And now a quiz to celebrate today’s anniversary:

Where would you go if you wanted to see all eight of these Pontoppidanian birds in a single day? Is it even possible?


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Mahogany Stifftails

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Ruddy duck

The New Jersey Meadowlands were chilly and dim this morning, but the birding was a lot of fun anyway. There were impressive numbers of waterfowl on the marshes and impoundments, among them a dozen ruddy ducks, one of the few anatid species whose numbers in the mid-Atlantic seem to be declining.

Not only is this chunky, big-headed duck one of our most attractive, it also provides the answer to any number of birding trivia questions:

Which New Jersey duck is named for a Caribbean island?

Which duck lays the largest eggs for its body size?

Which male duck has ….

Well, we’ll leave that one right there. But there’s still the matter of this captivating species’ official English name, a name commemorating only a briefly held plumage of only one of the sexes and far less evocative than almost any of the dozens of other, popular names this duck has borne.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.27.48

The canonical diagnosis of this species was published by Gmelin in 1788, who named it Anas jamaicensis:

A duck barred dusky and rusty yellow, sooty above with a dark crown, the chin and throat white spotted with black, the vent and rump barred dusky and reddish.

Obviously, Gmelin did not assign this duck the English name “ruddy,” but he does cite an earlier description, in John Latham’s General Synopsis. Gmelin, it turns out, had simply translated the English account, which Latham based on what sounds like a non-breeding male. Neither ornithologist, obviously, had any notion of the spectacular breeding plumage of the species; indeed, Latham tells us expressly that his Jamaica specimen was taken in the winter, when ruddy ducks aren’t.

And now things get interesting. If we move forward through the editions of the Systema, we find the name “ruddy duck” in Turton’s English translation of 1802 — where it’s applied to a different bird.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.48.32

This is clearly a description of the ruddy shelduck; for our bird, Turton — like Gmelin — uses Latham’s rather unimaginative “Jamaica shoveler,” a name that we might still be using today had Alexander Wilson not made what he thought was an exciting discovery in Peale’s Philadelphia museum: a

very rare Duck was shot, some years ago on the river Delaware, and appears to be an entire new species.

Wilson Ruddy duck vol 8, p 128

Wilson was “at first inclined to believe” that his new duck was identical with Latham’s Jamaica shoveler,

but a more careful examination of both satisfied me that they cannot be the same, as the present [species] differs considerably in color…. front, crown, and back part of the neck down nearly to the back [are] black; rest of the neck, whole back, scapulars, flanks and tail coverts deep reddish brown, the color of bright mahogany.

That description confirms what Wilson’s engraving already demonstrates: namely, that one of Peale’s birds was a male in his bright breeding plumage. I think we can forgive Wilson his error in deciding that the Philadelphia ducks were “non-descript,” a deficiency he remedied by naming them himself in the pages of the American Ornithology.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 17.28.40

The drake’s mahogany upperparts were so striking that Wilson memorialized them in both the English and scientific names he assigned the species. And the names themselves seemed so apt that Latham’s “Jamaica shoveler” essentially disappeared after 1814.

Anas jamaicensis, however, would survive. Unlike vernacular names, scientific names are governed by the law of priority — also known as dibs: as soon as two “species” are known to be one, the first binomial is applied. So who figured out that the Jamaican shoveler and Wilson’s Pennsylvanian duck were the same?

Stay tuned.


Fuertes slat-colored junco

It’s one of the infallible signs of the season. Sitting inside on a chilly day, a cup of hot chocolate warming the hands and busy feeders cheering the heart, every year about this time you can watch it creep across the internet: the description of the slate-colored junco as “leaden skies above and snow beneath.”

I’d love to know who’s behind the e-revival of that particular bit of kitsch. Or do you suppose that everybody is quoting the phrase directly from its source, Howard Elmore Parkhurst’s The Birds’ Calendar?

Parkhurst, slate-colored juncos

Parkhurst’s “informal diary” is now virtually unknown — apart, of course, from that throwaway line about the juncos. But it marks the birth of a very special sub-genre in the literature of American birding, namely, the Central Park memoir.

The observations here recorded, with slight exceptions, were all made in that small section known as “The Ramble,” covering only about one-sixteenth of a square mile…. Within this little retreat I have, during the year [1893], found represented nineteen of the twenty-one families of song birds in the United States; some of them quite abundantly in genera and species; with a sprinkling of species from several other classes of land and water birds.

Among the birds Parkhurst encountered in January was

the snow-bird, a trim and sprightly creature about six inches long, dark slate above and on the breast, which passes very abruptly into white beneath, as if it were reflecting the leaden skies above and the snow below…. Their sleek and natty appearance and genial temper commend them at once to the observer.

Parkhurst, Birds' Calendar

And Parkhurst’s “attractive” prose commended itself equally to the contemporary reader. His felicitous description of the junco appears to have been quoted abundantly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, almost (only almost!) always with an attribution to the author. It seems likely that Neltje Blanchan was the earliest vector of dissemination for the phrase, which passed from her Bird Neighbors into leaflets for schoolchildren, who no doubt were as taken by “Mr. Parkhurst’s suggestive description of this rather timid little neighbor” as were his adult readers.

In the years that followed, however, the quotation was loosed from its authorial origins, most often to be cited anonymously. In his 1968 entry for the Bent Life HistoriesEaton followed that “modern” practice in noting only that the junco had been “aptly described as ‘leaden skies above, snow below'” — not bothering to tell us by whom. Parkhurst’s words still appeared in quotation marks, but they had plainly become part of a shared store of birderly lore, no more requiring attribution than the observation that the white outer rectrices are “prominent in flight.”

Ernest Thompson Seton, slate-colored juncos

This has always been the path of a catchy phrase: invented by a single mind, admired by others, then finally taken over into a broader culture eager to forget that it ever had an origin. But the internet has introduced another, more sinister step.

Parkhurst’s words still circulate — especially this time of year — without his name attached. In a classic internet move, though, a google search now, once again, turns up the quotation with an attribution.

A new attribution.

Thoreau described [juncos] as “leaden skies above, snow below.”

I don’t know all of Thoreau. I don’t remember those words in what I have read of the oeuvre, though, and it seems suspect to me that the earliest printed assertion of his authorship (thanks, google) should be from no more than four years before the Mother Jones quotation above. Surely in the 101 years between Parkhurst’s Calendar and 1994 someone would have pointed out the theft. I’m left wondering whether the credit to Thoreau isn’t — gasp — made up, as are so many (it sometimes seems like most) of the attributions on the internet.

It’s one of the unhappy elements of this e-world that it’s awfully easy for us to just say things, whether they’re true or not. But, in an encouraging paradox, the same casual convenience lets us go ad fontes in search of the truth: it takes hardly more time to look up “leaden skies and snow” than it does to decide to type the name “Thoreau.”

So here, a couple of weeks early, is my 2015 resolution: To give Howard E. Parkhurst credit for everything he said or wrote, and to resist the easy temptation to throw attributions around at random.

Who’s with me?

Horsfall slate-colored juncos

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Owl of the Day

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In December 1903, on the banks of Persia’s Schalil River, the Ukrainian ornithologist Nikolai Sarudny collected for the first time a pale, lightly marked owl that he named Syrnium sancti-nicolai. 


I wonder which day in December that name was meant to commemorate.


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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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