Archive for Birdwords
What a place to wake up! It was after midnight when I arrived at Hacienda Jacana, and I fell right asleep in the two-bedroom “cabin” — modest word for such a luxurious place — I was sharing with Matt.
All meteorological fears to the contrary, the morning was bright and clear, and the voices of the forest rang out even before the tropical sun rose over the jungle.
Southern House Wrens sang their beautifully melodic, sharply cadenced songs from the trees, and a male Black-crested Antshrike went about his noisy business in the thicket, ignoring the oohs and aahs emitted by his human watchers. The small ponds attracted the eponymous Wattled Jacanas, demure little Southern Rough-winged Swallows, and aggressive and flashy Southern Lapwings — a bird I still insist is rapidly on its way to New Jersey.
For long minutes, I was convinced that the Long-billed Gnatwren, giving better views than I had ever had, would be the bird of the morning. But then a little whirr-blur of orange and green resolved itself into the first “lifebird” of the trip for me, a male Tufted Coquette that fed in exaggeratedly slow, hoverfly-like circles around the flowers of what I think was a caesalpinia. (No photos of the bird, for reasons I won’t elaborate.)
That wasn’t the only hummingbird of the morning, of course. Copper-rumped Hummingbirds and White-chested Emeralds were the most abundant, as they would be all week at nearly every site we visited, but there were also Rufous-breasted and Little Hermits, Black-throated Mangos, Blue-chinned Sapphires, and a single Long-billed Starthroat to get us all up to trochilid speed.
As soon as Dave arrived, we set off on a walk around the lovely grounds of the ecolodge. Three (three!) White Hawks were among the clear highlights, but I was even happier to have some leisurely Fluvicola watching.
The neotropical analogues of wagtails, Pied Water Tyrants love wet ditches and, in this case, irrigated garden plots. Their starkly black and white plumage is responsible for one of the species’ alternative names, “veuve,” “widow,” a name that misled Léotaud into claiming that
its movements are slow, its flight without energy, its call is plaintive, and in sum, there is nothing in this bird to indicate cheerfulness; everything about it, to the contrary, inspires a certain sadness, an impression awakened already by its lugubrious attire.
I think the good Dr. L. must have been a bad mood when he wrote that account, as these are cheerful, active little birds, as friendly as they are busy.
If these charming water tyrants were all that HacJac had to offer, it would still be worth a few days — but there’s much, much more than even a month-long visit could exhaust. Try it; you’ll like it.
Wattled Jacana, Panama
Postscript: The title of this entry has resulted in a few requests to deal with the “correct” pronunciation of a potentially troublesome word. So here it is, my definitive decree:
This tall, dark, and handsome Snowy Owl, loafing in the dunes of Sandy Hook this morning, is one of about four reported in the state over the past couple of days, a total that is already better than average for a New Jersey winter. Maybe we’ll get the snowy winter we’re due after several years when the species’ incursions have stopped just north or just west of us.
Snowy Owls are famous for their tolerance of humans — and infamous for their brashness on the breeding grounds. In 1863, a hundred fifty years ago this year, this is what Thomas Wright Blakiston had to say about the species in its Canadian nesting range:
its audacity is such, that it was related to me by a chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service, that he knew of an instance of one carrying off a wounded bird from the haversack of a hunter; its wing, having been sticking out and fluttering, attracted the Owl’s attention.
The Snowy Owl is the heaviest, most powerful, and — if you’re a hunter with a wing flapping out of your haversack — scariest owl in North America. It’s not the largest in the world though: that distinction belongs to another member of the genus Bubo.
Named, coincidentally, for Blakiston. What goes around, comes around.
Everybody knows that seabirds are not the metamorphic products of shellfish. We’ve known it since at least the thirteenth century, when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, skeptical of what he’d read, imported some rotting planks from Scandinavia and found that the barnacles on the wood produced — more barnacles.
The final nail in this particular ornithocoffin came in 1680, when Thomas Maloüin, a professor of medicine at Caën, published his late colleague André Graindorge’s Traité de l’origine des macreuses, a thorough, frequently sarcastic refutation of the notion, held by
numerous authors and an infinite number of private persons, that certain birds commonly called Macreuses, Oyes d’Ecosse, or Canards are born of seashells, an opinion supported by numerous precise accounts….
Graindorge explains that
the reason that Authors looked for the origin of those birds other than in the normal course of nature is that one finds such a great number of them on the coasts of England and neighboring islands without ever having been able to discover their eggs or nests, with the result that people were easily convinced that this sort of bird is born without father or mother, without having been either laid as an egg or incubated.
Graindorge’s treatise is probably the richest collection anywhere of citations to earlier authors who treat the problem. He identifies three principal theories that have been advanced:
The one group has claimed that there were trees in England that bore birds instead of fruit. The second group argue that these birds are born on rotting boards, and that they hang on with their bills, detaching themselves from the plank when they have fledged and can survive on their own. And others, a third group, claim that those are not birds attached by the bill, but rather actual shells; they claim that the birds are formed within those shells and emerge when they have reached a state of perfection.
Graindorge refutes each of those theories in a separate Article before affirming the obvious solution — that the birds were breeding in the normal way, but in the distant north. He notes that that idea did contradict an important element in older theories of animal generation: Who, asks Graindorge (rhetorically),
would ever have though to seek the sites of their reproduction in the deepest North … a country where the heat necessary to generation is entirely lacking, where shadows and cold reign with such violence that the earth is nothing but a single sheet of ice and the sea freezes right up against the shore?
He dismisses that obstacle with a simple pointer to the facts: when, in 1596, the Dutch Northeast Passage expedition under Willem Barentsz
found these birds incubating their eggs on their nests, they put an end to any doubts about the true manner of their breeding…. the order of Nature as confirmed by the Dutch, whose testimony in the matter is decisive, [is that these birds] are generated in the same way as other birds; the sexes differ, and as a result of the coupling of the male and the female, they lay eggs and incubate them, whence their young are born, young that resemble their father and their mother and are of the same species.
Graindorge finds further support for that sensible assertion in the writings of scientists who collected and dissected female specimens of the “Oye d’Ecosse,” finding in them large numbers of unlaid eggs just as one would in a domestic hen.
Like most of us, I first heard about fowl born of seashells in high school biology class. The bird in question was identified in our textbook’s sidebar as the Barnacle Goose, and I even have in dim memory the accompanying illustration, showing the graphic transformation of a goose-like barnacle into a barnacle-like goose.
Now, though, to my surprise, I have learned from Graindorge that that identification was not certain, or at least not exclusive, among the tellers of the tale.
The Authors who treat of these birds speak of them so variously, and name them in so many different ways, that it is difficult to believe that they all understood the same single species of bird under so many different names.
Graindorge goes on to list a few:
Clakis, clakers, clakigus, clakgusen, bernacles, bernicles, bernagues, bernestes, bernettes, bênettes, barliastes, barbates, brantes, cravans, cervans, crabans, gravaignes, granbranes, oyes, nouvetttes, rotguisen, malcot, macourle, macreuse,
and, of course, “Oye d’Ecosse, a name that,” says Graindorge, “one can use without objection so long as under that name one understands birds of varying natures,” what we would call today “different species.”
By carefully reading the descriptions given these “Scottish geese” in the old sources, Graindorge is able to identify several of the “actual” birds burdened over the centuries by the shellfish myth. One of them, he says, is clearly what we know as the Brant.
He adds the scurrilous (and still famous) detail that
in Brittany, one does not hesitate to eat these birds on fast days, since people there accept that these are the true Scottish geese [that is to say, the birds that begin life as shellfish and are thus exempt from religious restrictions on the eating of "meat"].
In Paris, in Normandy, and elsewhere, Graindorge writes,
the scoter [la Macroule ou Macreuse] is consistently identified as the true Scottish goose, the origins of which were long unknown but attributed, falsely, to rotting wood and seashells. This is a bird about the size of a duck, much smaller than a goose; it comes to our coasts in autumn and winter. It remains on the sea almost all the time, diving to the very bottom to seek its food in the sand, and our fishermen taken them with shallow nets that snare them when they return to the surface; this drowns them, and so they are rarely captured alive…. Their bill is flat and broad and has a conspicuous protrusion above of various colors; there is much yellow and a little red, more in some birds and less in others….
Graindorge’s plumage description makes it plain that he is speaking of the Common Scoter, a species both sexes of which he knew well from dissection. He notes the presence of testicles in the drakes and ovaries in the ducks, “as in all other birds.”
One hardly sees the ova in the winter. At first they are so small that some have believed that they were ejected and abandoned in the water, like those of fish; but the eggs increase gradually in size, and because the birds usually leave us as soon as the weather warms up, its rare that one sees the eggs at their full size.
Thus, Graindorge concludes,
Our scoters, which are a species unto themselves … reproduce by eggs … and we must not look for them to have any extraordinary means of reproduction; it is in vain that one has sought their origins in the seashell with which we began this treatise… But one can still eat scoters on fast days on the consent of one’s priest … a custom dating to time immemorial.
That last wry remark would prove fatal. As David Lux has explored at length, the French Royal Academy declined to endorse Graindorge’s conclusions in his treatise, with the result that the Paris withdrew its funding of the Caën Academy he had founded. The Traité was shoved into the back of a drawer, published only after its author’s death in 1676.
Graindorge’s identification of the scoter as one of the species of sea-born fowl may suggest a solution to an old problem in English etymology: No one has ever been able to determine a plausible source for the strange word scoter. But what happens if we look at that label “Scottish geese” in its original form? Nearly all of the sources Graindorge cites are in Latin, where the standard designation for these birds is, naturally enough,
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
It would require a certain carelessness and cluelessness to make the error, but I wonder whether some reader centuries ago didn’t construe that second word as a slightly askew genitive of definition, “geese, of the scoter kind,” or even an apposition, “geese, scoters.” We’ll never know, until some busy scholar comes across a marginal note in an early natural history; but for the time being, it makes as much sense as anything else. And a lot more sense than thinking the birds are born of the foam.
Weird ducks, weird names.
Nobody knows where the English word “scoter” comes from, whether it shares an origin with verbs like “shoot” and “scoot” or with the equally obscure waterfowl name “scout.” Lockwood‘s rather fanciful explanation that the word is a scribal or printing error for “sooter,” in allusion to the birds’ swarthy plumage, falls hard against the fact that there is no attestation for any such English word.
I can live with that uncertainty. As I watched this handsome bird at Sandy Hook this morning, though, I started to wonder something else: What’s so surfish about the Surf Scoter?
Linnaeus based his Anas perspicillata on the handsomely spectacled bird Edwards called, descriptively enough, “The Great Black Duck from Hudson’s-Bay.” Edwards had his specimen from James Isham, agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada; this big, dusky duck was one of no fewer than eight undescribed birds Isham brought back to England.
Edwards is at pains to note that though this species had never been formally described, it was apparently not entirely unknown:
My Friend, Mr. Henry Baker, F.R.S. hat a Bill of this Bird in his Collection…. I think I have discovered a Draught of it, in a small Set of Dutch Prints of Birds, (published at Amsterdam by Nicola Visscher, Anno 1659, where it is called Turma Anser)….
“Squadron goose” is a good name indeed for this or any of the scoters, which tend to move in large, well-regulated lines; but this isn’t getting us anywhere near the modern English name. Neither does Buffon’s “macreuse à large bec,” the “big-billed coot-duck.” (I hope someone can tell me why it is also called “marchand.”)
Calling this duck “black,” or even “great black,” was certain to lead to confusion, of course; consider this page from Pennant‘s Arctic Zoology, where our Surf Scoter is called the “Black Duck” and our Black Scoter is called the “Scoter Duck.”
As far as I know, the first time the name Surf Duck appeared in print for this species was in 1814, in the eighth, posthumous volume of Alexander Wilson‘s American Ornithology.
George Ord, the author’s literary executor, assures us that “the historical part of the present volume was fully completed and printed off … under the superintendence of the author,” and so we can assume that the header for the species account was Wilson’s own:
Wilson’s text does not give the impression that he coined the name, as it often does when it introduces a neologism; he provides no explanation beyond the incidental remark that
this Duck is peculiar to America, and altogether confied to the shores and bays of the sea, particularly where the waves roll over the sandy beach…. they dive almost constantly, both in the sandy bays and amidst the tumbling surf.
In his Manual, Thomas Nuttall simply adopted Wilson’s English names, right down to that slightly fussy comma:
It would be another Englishman who, just a year after the publication of Nuttall’s work, gave us the form “Surf Scoter” — and the explanation of the name. Prideaux John Selby, a would-be rival of Audubon’s and collaborator of William Jardine, accounts this bird among the “stragglers, or rare visitants” to Great Britain, and includes its portrait, stiff and floating ever so slightly above the water, in his Illustrations of British Ornithology.
If you look close, you’ll see that the plate is labeled “Spectacle Scoter,” a translation of the latinizing epithet perspicillata. But Selby’s text is proudly headed “Surf Scoter,” and he goes on to explain why:
It is always seen upon the water, and very frequently amidst the heaviest surf, in which it appears to delight, and to sport quite at ease; and on which account it has obtained in America the trivial name of the Surf Duck.
Selby buries this remark in the middle of material from the American Ornithology, but there’s nothing in Wilson’s text to back up the Englishman’s assertion. Instead, he was more likely relying on a colorful passage in George Shaw’s General Zoology, where it is said of the “Great-beaked Scoters” — Buffon’s name, Englished — that
they are shy birds, and delight in diving about amongst the impetuous surf.
In the same year that Selby published his Illustrations, John James Audubon painted a duck that he called the “Butter-boat-billed Coot.” When the engraving appeared a few years later, it was labeled with the less extravagantly vernacular Wilsonian names.
Audubon’s text, published separately from the engravings, reduces the options to one, “Surf Duck,” following the usage of the Fauna boreali-americana. Once sanctioned by such high authorities, that name quickly became the standard, and it was “Surf Duck” in Eyton’s Monograph and in Baird’s Birds; only Audubon’s collaborator William MacGillivray seems to have adopted Selby’s name Surf Scoter and his justification for it:
it dives in shallow water, often even amidst the breakers, whence its name….
As late as 1894, Elliott Coues was still calling this bird the “Surf Duck”; confusingly (and uncharacteristically), Coues also used that term as a synonym for the entire genus Oedemia, thus making his Surf Duck a species of — surf duck.
Not until the magisterial Fifth Edition of the Key (published after Coues’s death) was Surf Scoter added to the list of English names, where it was given first place.
I suspect that it was the confusing polysemy of the name “surf duck,” applied to both a genus and a species within that genus, that eventually cemented the use of Surf Scoter for our bird.
While Ridgway was still writing “Surf Duck” in 1881, the American Ornithologists’ Union’s checklist committee — of which both he and Coues were members — called the bird Surf Scoter from the very beginning. We still do today — most of us, anyhow.
True “folk” names for the birds of North America have become very rare, but if they persist anywhere, it is among duck hunters.
“Skunk head” seems to be the most durable (and the most self-explanatory) of the homegrown alternatives, but there have been many others over the years. Turnbull, writing almost a century and a half ago, still knew these:
horse-head coot, skunk-bill, bald-pate, skunk-top, surfer, google-nose, patch-head, patch-polled coot, white-scop, muscle-bill, pictured-bill, snuff-taker, speckled-bill coot, spectacle coot, Morocco-jaw, white-head, bay-coot, blossom-bill, blossom-head, hollow-billed coot, and pishaug.
I like all those names, a lot. (Especially “snuff-taker, the drake’s variegated beak reminding duckers of a careless snuff-taker’s nose”!). But no matter how contrived the name, I’m happy to live with Surf Scoter, especially as long as I can keep living with Surf Scoters.
Audubon cites the Great Crested Grebe as being “not uncommon during autumn and early spring on all the larger streams of the Western Country….” Does anyone know anything about this?
Well, no, not really — not beyond the general observation that even Homer naps. And this time, the dozing was a doozy.
This handsome plate, number 292 of the 435 that would eventually make up the Birds of America, was engraved in 1835 from a painting about which I know nothing else. It seems likely that Audubon drew the birds during one of his sojourns in England, but we cannot be certain that this plate is not based on specimens he borrowed from one or another American collector.
The passage Nathan mentions is from the Synopsis of the Birds of North America, a much-needed taxonomic concordance to the plates and the Ornithological Biography, published in Edinburgh and London in 1839. Audubon provides a full description of the bird in the Synopsis, but has virtually nothing to say there about its habits in its putative North American range:
In contrast, the complete account in the Ornithological Biography, which appeared in 1835, is lavish in its detail. The technical descriptions, prepared with (or quite possibly by) MacGillivray, are as complete as any offered for any species, and include the measurements of eggs lent to Audubon by William Yarrell.
What startles is not that Audubon should have accounted this exclusively Old World bird an American species — an easy enough mistake in the days when specimens and their labels did not invariably keep the closest of company — but how, in the Ornithological Biography, he compounds his error with what we can read only as a series of scandalously precise fictions. On his own authority, Audubon tells us that “this beautiful species”
returns from its northern places of residence, and passes over the Western Country, about the beginning of September…. I have observed them thus passing in Autumn, for several years in succession, over different parts of the Ohio, at all hours of the day. On such occasions I could readily distinguish the old from the young, the former being in many instances still adorned with their summer head-dress…. on the Ohio’s rising I have observed that they abandon the river and betake themselves to the clear ponds of the interior…. When these birds leave the southern waters about the beginning of April, the old already shew their summer head-dress….
Audubon’s words paint the vivid picture of regular visible migration over the Ohio Valley, “in flocks of seven or eight to fifty or more” — by a species never before and never since reliably reported on the continent. To forestall any suspicion that he was mistaking this species for what was then the only other large podicipedid known from North America, Audubon assures his reader that the Great Crested and the Red-necked Grebes prefer different habitats.
All very odd indeed. But Audubon, it turns out, was not alone in assuming that this large Palearctic grebe also occurred in the New World.
The Great Crested Grebe received its formal binomial from Linnaeus himself, in the authoritative Tenth Edition of the Systema. But the bird, widespread and conspicuous in western Europe, had been known to science for hundreds of years. The descriptions of most of the diving birds given by the ancients can hardly be untangled today, but Severus Sulpicius, the fourth-century historian, is said by Conrad Gesner to have described a grebe with “red feathers like horns on its head.”
Gesner himself, writing in the 1550s, does his best to work out the identity of the larger divers. He appears first to describe the Red-necked Grebe, “known to the Venetians as the sperga,” before turning to a different “genus” found in Switzerland,
quite similar to the others, but crested with plumes sticking up around its crown and upper neck, black at the top and reddish towards the sides, like the hair of a fox.
Not a bad description of a Great Crested Grebe – or of Gesner’s illustration of the species. The Swiss naturalist, like his contemporary Belon, also points out that this, and all grebes, “has its feet at its tail,” an observation behind a great many names for these birds, including the latinizing podiceps, the Dutch arsevoet, and the Savoyard loere, which, Gesner, tells us, is also used as a pejorative for
a fat and lazy person, because of the well-known reluctance of this bird to walk on land.
At the end of the sixteenth century, Aldrovandi copies Gesner’s text into his Ornithologiae — but for some inscrutable reason replaces the perfectly serviceable woodcut there with his own, slightly less successful image of a Great Crested Grebe (Brisson, in a major lapse of taste, calls it “satis accurata”).
Willughby and Ray are at pains to distinguish this bird –which they identify with the one described by Aldrovandi and Gesner — from another, “something less” in size, apparently our Eared / Black-necked Grebe. Unfortunately, the English names they assign each only add to the already enormous potential for confusion. The first they call “The greater crested or copped Doucker,” the second “The greater crested and horned Doucker.” It’s little wonder that even 150 years later Audubon could be confused.
All of these authors agreed on one thing: whatever the bird they were describing and depicting was, its range was Europe. George Edwards was able to cite specimens from Switzerland and England; the Dutch translator of Seligmann’s Recueil even named the bird “de groote Geneefsche Duiker,” the Great Grebe of Lake Geneva.
John Latham, who coined the genus name Podiceps, put it simply and definitively:
Habitat in Europa boreali,
collapsing slightly the detail given five years earlier by Thomas Pennant in the Arctic Zoology, who had added “every reedy lake” in Iceland and Siberia to the species’ known range.
The first forthright assertion I know of of the Great Crested Grebe as an American bird actually antedates Pennant and Latham. In 1781, Buffon and his busy workshop of collaborators published the eighth volume of the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, comprising accounts of — among many others — the grebes.
A comparison of the information provided by ornithologists shows that the Great Crested Grebe is found both on the sea and on lakes, in the Mediterranean and on our ocean shores: its species is even found in North America, and we have identified it as the acitli from the Gulf of Mexico of Hernandez.
It is not clear, of course, just what the so steadfastly anti-Linnaean Frenchman means when he speaks of “son espèce,” but Buffon appears to have arrived at the suspicion put forward by Willughby and Ray in their account of the “Water-Hare, or crested Mexican Doucker” described in Hernandez’s Thesaurus.
Between this and the precedent [species, namely, the Great Crested Grebe] there is so little difference, that I scarce doubt but they are the same.
And we can scarce doubt that the Thesaurus does, in fact illustrate a bird with feet set far back on the body and terminating in extravagantly lobed toes. Johannes Faber, the papal physician who provided Hernandez with the description of this bird, was himself not entirely sure what to make of it, as his extremely long, extremely learned, and extremely tiresome discussion shows. He finally concludes that the bird must be “the American Mergus,” a name that in fact tells us nothing, given its vast range of application over the centuries to essentially any bird that spends time in the water and dives. There is no positive indication in Faber’s dissertation that he considers this Mexican diver identical with the Great Crested Grebe of Europe (I suspect that the picture is a semi-fanciful rendering of a Sungrebe); but his use of the vague label “mergus,” coupled with the grebishness of the illustration, made it possible for Ray and Buffon — perhaps independently of each other — to take the next step.
And with that, I think, the feathered die was cast. Temminck continued to treat the species as entirely European, but Charles Lucian Bonaparte followed Buffon in his 1827 Synopsis, affirming that the Great Crested Grebe
inhabits the north of both continents: rare in the middle states, and only during winter: common in the interior and on the lakes.
John Richardson, in the Fauna boreali-americana, even goes so far in 1831 as to describe a specimen that he says was “killed on the Saskatchewan,” surely — surely — a misidentified Red-necked Grebe.
The extensive account of the Crested Grebe, or “Gaunt,” in Thomas Nuttall’s Manual probably led Audubon more strongly down the path of error than any other source.
Nuttall’s text relies especially closely on Pennant, carefully including Siberia in the species’ Old World range and even borrowing the pretty phrase “reedy lakes” to describes its breeding habitat. His most fateful borrowings, though, are from Richardson, and it is here, in some incautious copying, that we find the immediate inspiration for Audubon’s later misapprehensions.
The Fauna boreali-americana correctly and sensibly informs us that
the Grebes are to be found in all the secluded lakes of the mountainous and woody districts of the fur countries, swimming and diving….
Unfortunately, Richardson and Swainson’s printer set that paragraph, intended as an introduction to the general status of all grebes in the northern reaches of North America, beneath rather than before the header for the species Podiceps cristatus, the Great Crested Grebe, making it seem to the careless reader that the statement applies to that species alone.
Nuttall’s research assistant was, apparently, one of those careless readers, and this was the result in the Manual:
The Crested Grebe, inhabiting the northern parts of both the old and new continents … [is] found in all the secluded reedy lakes of the mountainous and woody districts, in the remote fur countries around Hudson’s Bay,
a neat compilation of Pennant and Richardson — but not true at all.
Audubon did not notice the error — he probably didn’t consult Richardson directly at all — and Nuttall’s statement seems to have been all it took to set Audubon to spinning the wild tale he tells in the Ornithological Biography.
And it took considerable time before that tale was refuted. George Lawrence, in the ornithological report of the Pacific Railroad Surveys, reports no fewer than five specimens of the Great Crested Grebe from North America, two from Shoalwater Bay, in present-day Washington, and three from the “Atlantic coast.” Spencer Baird owned one of those latter skins, said to have been collected by Audubon himself; it’s no surprise, then, that Baird included the species on the list of the birds of North America he published in 1859.
Elliott Coues, too, listed cristatus among the birds credited to “Amer.Sept.” when he presented an overview of the continent’s grebes in 1862, and he retained the species in the first edition of the Key and in the 1873 Check List; the greatly expanded and fully reworked second edition of the list would call the grebe “extra-limital, as far as known.”
Meanwhile, the Great Crested Grebe had been determined to be “occasionally observed about the submerged meadows on Long Island,” and recorded from “New York, Long and Staten Islands, and the adjacent parts of New Jersey.” It was said to breed “about fresh water late in the season” in Maine (though “not common”), and was “not uncommon” in winter in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Not until 1881, nearly half a century after the publication of Audubon’s effusions, did a young Robert Ridgway suggest, tentatively, the removal of the species from the North American list. In the appendix to his Nomenclature, Ridgway annotated the name Podiceps cristatus, Lath., with a simple question:
Not North American?
Three years later, Baird and Ridgway provided a definitive answer to that query.
In the Water Birds of 1884, they give the range of the Great Crested Grebe as the “Northern part of the Palaearctic Region; also, New Zealand and Australia. No valid North American record!” The italics and the startling exclamation point are the authors’, and they go on to call
the occurrence of C. cristatus — which for half a century or more has been included in most works on North American ornithology, and generally considered a common bird of this country — …so very doubtful that there is not a single reliable record of its having been taken on this continent.
As late as 1894, a full decade later, Coues was still warning his readers that the grebe might “have been hastily eliminated from our fauna,” but the final edition of the Key finally admits that the species is “not authentic” on the list of North American birds.
The American Ornithologists’ Union, graced by late birth, never really had to face the question. The Great Crested Grebe is included in none of the editions of its Check-List, and as far as I know, the nearest this species has been authentically — to use the Couesian term — recorded to North America is Gran Canaria, where a single adult appeared in December 1984.
Not to rule out the possibility, of course. Birds have wings and they fly, as someone long ago pointed out.
But it’s unlikely, at least on the scale of human history, that we will ever see Audubonian flocks of this lovely species flying south through the center of the North American continent. That was a possibility — an imaginary possibility — only thanks to some sloppy printing, some careless reading, and the unbounded fantasy of the greatest American ornithologist of his time.