Archive for Birdwords

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Named for a Neighbor

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One of the truly great things about living in New Jersey is the depth and continuity of the birding tradition. From William Bartram through Wilson, Audubon, and Bonaparte, there is an unbroken line of intellectual descent from the earliest birders right down to, well, you and me.

birders birding Brookdale Park

Not all of our forebears are so renowned, of course. It’s humbling and exhilarating to walk in the footsteps of the giants. But we are also, every day, retracing the paths of birders hardly anyone alive has ever heard of — and it’s especially exciting when you discover that one of those forgotten nobodies was your neighbor, and was far from a nobody, and deserves a little remembering.

Clarence B. Riker is still well known, at least in name, to entomologists, but a casual poll of my birding colleagues here in northern New Jersey came up blank.

Riker, born in November 1863, met Frank Chapman when both were about 19. Chapman would later write in his Autobiography that

Riker was my age, but he had more initiative… and in the summer of 1884 procured leave from the shipping firm by which he was employed and went up the Amazon as far as Santarem. In 1887 he repeated the trip.

The results of those youthful expeditions were published in a series of articles in the Aukdescribing some 400 bird skins Riker had brought back to his home in Maplewood, New Jersey. Among the specimens from Riker‘s first visit to the Neotropics, collected 125 years ago today, was a bizarre furnariid, an adult male

of very striking appearance … entirely different in coloration from any Dendrocolaptine bird….

In 1886, Robert Ridgway described Riker’s bird as a new species, Picolaptes rikeri, thanking the collector:

The type specimen, the only one obtained, was kindly presented to the National Museum by Mr. C.B. Riker … after whom I take pleasure in naming it.

We know it today as the point-tailed palmcreeper. With the erection of the new genus Berlepschia by Ridgway in 1887, this became one of the relatively few birds to bear the names of two ornithologists — one of whom lived just a few miles south of us here in New Jersey.

A quarter of a century later, Ridgway was still working through Riker’s Santarem material. As he wrote in 1912, a nunbird our New Jersey colleague collected on June 30, 1887, had

hitherto been referred to M. morphoeus [the white-fronted nunbird] of eastern Brazil, but is decidedly smaller and differs further in the black instead of white malar apex.

Ridgway’s analysis of the Riker specimen and five others led him to describe a new species of nunbird, Monasa rikeri, named, obviously, for the collector of the type.

Unlike the palmcreeper, Riker’s nunbird has not stood the test of taxonomic time, lumped once again with just the “normal” white-fronted nunbird of the nominate race. 

Keuleman, white-fronted nunbird

Whether that bothered Riker at all I don’t know. My impression, fair or not, is that his ornithological field work ended once he discovered butterflies — a common and lamentable fate still today — but he did continue to provide the AOU his expertise in a different field, as Investment Trustee, a task he performed from the comfortable surroundings of his Kip-Riker Mansion in South Orange.

As we bird the fields and marshes and woodlands of northern New Jersey, we can’t realistically hope to have birds named after us. But we can find some inspiration in remembering our intellectual ancestors and the birds they watched — and the birds they discovered — more than a century ago, here and in the still wild wilds of South America.



Figuring Out the Woodpeckers

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Alexander Rider, Black-backed Woodpecker, Bonaparte

Got a woodpecker question? Gerard Gorman’s new guide to the world’s picids is likely to answer it.

We weren’t so lucky back in 1828, when Alexander Rider produced the first painting of a black-backed woodpecker, for publication in Charles Bonaparte’s American Ornithology. To my eye, this is one of the most charming figures in the entire four-volume work, ornamental and informative all at once in spite of its classically Riderian stiffness.

But there’s more to this figure than mere prettiness. The story begins with Bonaparte’s caption:

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That’s right: The prince of ornithology identifies this bird, which Rider painted from the “finest male specimen” in Bonaparte’s own collection, as the northern three-toed woodpecker, Picus Tridactylus.

Study of the accounts in other works convinced Bonaparte

that [this] species is subject to variations in size and plumage… thus, in some specimens the [nape] is described [as] white, or partly whitish, instead of being wholly black: the back is also said to be waved with white….

Those specimens, obviously, were of the “real” American three-toed woodpecker, even the darkest individuals of which differ from the black-backed in their white markings above. But Bonaparte, not recognizing that he had before him an undescribed species, analyzed the difference as one of age:

the young of both sexes are of a dull blackish… the feathers of the back being banded with white, giv[ing] to that part a waved appearance…

American Three-toed Woodpecker

The logical result: America had but one species of six-toed woodpecker, adults of which had solid black backs and the young barred. Bonaparte was proud of having at last solved the puzzle:

we feel much gratification in being enabled to unveil to ornithologists the mystery of these diversities in this species, by merely pointing out the sexual differences, as well as those originating in the gradual change from youth to maturity….

With the benefit of 185 years of hindsight, of course, we know that Bonaparte was wrong. Not five years after the publication of the American Ornithology, William Swainson re-analyzed Bonaparte’s bird as a distinct species, the Arctic three-toed woodpecker.

black-backed woodpecker, Fauna bor-am

In addition to what were now the obvious differences in plumage, the new woodpecker was “in every respect” larger than what Swainson called “the common species,” with a bill “considerably longer in proportion” and the wing more pointed in structure. Swainson’s formal description mentions Bonaparte only in the synonymy, but the paraliptic remark in the account of the American three-toed woodpecker must have stung:

it would be tedious, and it is perhaps unnecessary, to show in what manner all preceding ornithologists have confounded the northern three-toed Woodpeckers.

Indeed, even just after the publication of the Fauna boreali-americanaAudubon and Nuttall were still following Bonaparte’s classification.

Audubon did not recognize the two species as distinct until very late in the preparation of the Birds of America, noting in the final volume of the Ornithological Biography that he, like everyone else, had “looked upon” the bird we know as the American three-toed woodpecker “as the young of the species just mentioned,” namely, our black-backed woodpecker.

Nuttall, too, came around in the 1840 edition of his Manual, listing both species — the one glossy black above, the other “varied with black and white.”

Good to have all that settled.

Unfortunately, even after the true relationship of the two birds had been figured out, their English names continued to be a source of confusion for more than a century to come. In particular, the label “northern three-toed” has been applied at one time or another to each, and it is a relief — a more or less permanent one, I hope — that that name has been retired.

As if all this weren’t enough, there remains the question of Vieillot’s Picus hirsutus, cited by the older authorities as the original description of our American three-toed woodpecker. But that, thankfully, is another story, a story that will have to wait for another time.

Woodpeckers, Ridgway, Baird History

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A Woodpecker Black as a Crow

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Lewis and Clark don’t get much credit nowadays for their contributions to the natural history of the Great Plains. We all know about their discoveries, of course, from black-tailed prairie-dogs to western meadowlarks; but the standard story, I think, treats the acquisition of those novelties as merely incidental to the purposes and efforts of the Corps of Discovery.

And there’s something to it. In his charge to the expedition’s leaders, Thomas Jefferson seems to have intentionally suppressed his own unbounded interest in things wild and alive, emphasizing instead — no doubt to the benefit of suspicious minds in Congress — the military and economic goals of the great journey.

At the same time, though, a rereading of the journals of Clark and Lewis reveals that though their priorities may have been elsewhere, they were, when it came to it, much better observers than we sometimes recall.

On July 20, 1805, Meriwether Lewis

saw  a black woodpecker … about the size of the lark woodpecker as black as a crow. I indevoured to get a shoot at it but could not. it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys a good deel like the jay bird.

Not until May of the next year did the expedition procure specimens of the bird, but what strikes me is just how perceptive Lewis was in describing the bird he “indevoured” to shoot in that first encounter. Even now, twenty-one decades later in the twenty-first century, the field character most of us most of the time to identify the Lewis’s woodpecker is that odd, powerful, corvid-like flight.

And the first white man to see the bird was the first white man to notice that flight. Well done, Meriwether Lewis.

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