Archive for Birdwords

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.

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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. 

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Oct
20

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?

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Oct
13

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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Oct
01

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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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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