Archive for Birdwords


Lovebirds to the Very End

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and those little Agapornis parrots are showing up on cards and computer screens around the world.

rosy-faced Lovebird

But lovebirds aren’t the only lovebirds.

Buffon writes of The Amorous Titmouse that

we owe our knowledge of this species to the Abbot Gallois, who brought it back from the Far East and showed it to Mr. Commerson in 1769…. The epithet “amorous” given to this species indicates quite well the dominant quality of its temperament: In fact, the male and female caress each other endlessly; at least when caged, that is their sole occupation.

They give themselves over to love, we are told, to the point of exhaustion, and in this way they not only mitigate the annoyances of captivity with pleasure but curtail them; for it is obvious that such a practice means that they cannot live for very long, in accordance with the general principle that the intensity of existence diminishes its duration.

If that is their goal — if in fact they are striving only to end their captivity quickly — one must confess that in their despair they choose a very sweet way to do it.

Mr. Commerson does not tell us whether these birds perform with equal ardor the other functions required to perpetuate their species, such as the building of a nest, incubation, and parental care.

We know nothing more of this species, alas, than its affectionate habits, and it may well be extinct. But, as they say, what a way to go.

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Apparently Harper Lee is about to publish a second novel.

Northern Mockingbird

It seems a good time to ask a simple question: Why is it a sin to kill a mockingbird?

Lee’s novel offers its own, internal justifications for the rule, but is it possible that there is some sort of tradition standing behind Atticus Finch’s injunction?

T. Gilbert Pearson, the famous Audubonian and conservationist, was 13 when he bought his first gun in 1886. This is what an aged Floridian he knew as Aunt Celie told him:

Honey, when you gits big enough to tote a gun don’t never kill nary a mockin’ bird. Every one of them little fowls takes kyer of some good man or woman what’s daid, and when you hear one asingin’ at night you knows dat some good soul done come back and is walkin’ about. A sperit kaint never leave its grave lessen its mockin’ bird hollers for it to come out.

I’d say that this story adds more than a bit of weight and depth to the novel’s title, wouldn’t you? High school sophomores, take note!

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By all contemporary accounts, John Cassin was a polite and gentlemanly man, not given to making a fuss.

Quite unlike the obstreperous flycatcher that bears his name.

Trembly, Cassin's kingbird

George Newbold Lawrence named the Cassin’s kingbird in 1850, honoring with it the Philadelphia ornithologist’s “devotion to the science.” In preparing the description of his Texas type, Lawrence discovered a second skin of the new species in the collections of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences:

it was in the Rivoli collection, purchased at Paris by Dr. T.B. Wilson, and came erroneously labeled

as a western kingbird — a slip-up even today not limited to the museum drawers.

As kind as Lawrence’s gesture was, Tyrannus cassinii would not stand.

Spencer Baird used the name in the 1853 list of the birds collected on the Stansbury expedition, but just a few years later he bethought himself. Working with eight specimens in the Smithsonian collection — including two presented by John Gould — Baird determined that Lawrence’s bird was in fact identical to a flycatcher described in 1826 in William Swainson’s “Tyrant Shrikes of America.”

Swainson’s specimen had been sent from central Mexico by William Bullock (whether Jr. or Sr.: Swainson writes only that the donor had “long resided” in Mexico). Bullock’s notes called the flycatcher

a noisy and particularly quarrelsome bird, generally taking its station on the high branches of trees, and commencing a disagreeable chattering noise the moment any other bird presumes to alight upon its temporary domain.

Swainson named the bird for that behavior, calling it Tyrannus vociferans, the noisy tyrant.

Screenshot 2015-02-02 14.56.45

The bird and Swainson’s description seem to have attracted little notice. Indeed, in 1844, Gustav Hartlaub went so far as to synonymize Swainson’s vociferans with verticalis, the western kingbird — quite possibly the inspiration for the mislabeling of the Rivoli specimen that arrived in Philadelphia two years later.

Baird had another idea. Swainson’s “noisy tyrant” was not just a misidentified western, but an early — indeed, the first — specimen of Lawrence’s Cassin’s kingbird:

 the bill is larger than that of the [eastern] king bird, instead of equal; the primary quills abruptly pointed, instead of very gradually attenuated; the head, neck and breast pure slate, with the chin white, in decided contrast, instead of light ash, and the chin scarcely different. The absence of any mention of the white outer web to the external tail feather is also very conclusive as to the name [Swainson’s vociferans] not being referable to verticalis.

The logical consequence was that Lawrence’s cassinii was to be replaced by Swainson’s vociferans, as Baird promptly did.

Screenshot 2015-02-02 15.21.39

With his usual tact, Baird split the nomenclatural difference by retaining the English name “Cassin’s,” which immediately became — and has remained — the practice in all North American bird books, including Baird’s Birds of North America of 1860, a work he prepared with the collaboration of none other than John Cassin and George Newbold Lawrence.

Screenshot 2015-02-02 15.30.00



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Come on, couldn’t they please start with an easy one?

Western Plaintain-eater, Pl enl 478

Like most of the participants in the recent Parade of Plumage contest, I cringed when I saw the very first image up for identification: What on earth could that be, and how on earth would I figure it out?

Boddaert to the rescue:

Screenshot 2015-01-14 16.56.21

At least now — no thanks to the typo in the page number, which should in fact be 275 — we can see what Buffon had to say about the plate prepared for him by Martinet:

The bird called “tanas” by the inhabitants of Senegal, presented to us by Mr. Adanson under the name “fishing hawk” (see number 478 of the Planches enluminées), resembles our [peregrine] falcon almost entirely in the colors of its plumage: but it is slightly smaller, and on its head it has long protruding feathers, which fall back to form a sort of crest, thanks to which this bird can always be distinguished from others of the same kind: it also has a yellow bill, less curved and thicker than that of the falcon; it differs further in the very clear notches of both mandibles, and its habits are also different, fishing rather than hunting….

Not overly helpful. But Boddaert also gives us a binomial name, Falco Piscator, and a quick look at the Richmond Index gets us started.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 17.12.19

The trail grows warmer with a simple google search. In the Novitates zoologicae for 1924, no less an authority than Ernst Hartert rehearses the taxonomic history of the bird in the Martinet plate:

Falco piscator Boddaert, Tabl. Pl. Enl., p. 28, is a name bestowed on Daubenton’s pl. 478, on which is represented a bird from Senegambia, obviously meant for our old Chizaerhis africana. I was at first inclined to reject this plate, because the tail is much too short, but as Mr. Sclater pointed out to me the peculiar bill is quite characteristic, the colour on the whole agrees well, and the tail is much foreshortened; the bill and the long occipital crest are well described by Buffon, and we must therefore overlook the much too rufous colour of the head, the shortness and the colour of the tail, and the descriptions of the habits, which were really meant for a bird of prey, but carelessly applied to this plaintain-eater.

Hartert follows Bannerman in assigning the bird on plate 478 the name Crinifer piscator (Bodd.); the genus name Crinifer, “crest wearer,” coined in 1821 by F.P. Jarocki, has priority over what Hartert calls “our old friend Chizaerhis” and, obviously, is to be preferred over Boddaert’s Falco.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 17.32.08

Avibase then confirms that Crinifer piscator is still, 90 years later and over Peters’s objection, the bird’s correct name; it is known in English as the western plaintain-eater. Absent a physical specimen, the plate from the Planches enluminées serves as the formal type.

Happily, number two in the contest was easier.

Congratulations to Susie Haberfled for taking first place in the Parade!


Birds or Words

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Over at the ABA blog, where it is suggested that I am one of those birders

least concerned with what you call a bird. They are the ones who are distressed that a chicken hawk was chasing the snowbirds from their feeder.

Good stuff. What’s your take on what is intended as a serious argument?

And by the way, what do you think of the two images I selected as illustrations?

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