Archive for Famous Birders
I have nothing but admiration, verging indeed on awe, for those birders out there on the frontiers of identification by sound. Distinguishing the nocturnal calls of the Spizella sparrows or sorting through the flight notes of the warblers, there’s nothing these pioneers aren’t working out.
Predictably, some birders are already looking for the next cutting edge. Maybe they’ll find inspiration in a story from a long-ago autumn day on New York’s Jones Beach:
On November 7, 1948, walking along the high water line at Jones Beach, a rather large (14.75 inches) primary feather was noticed.* Picked up and passed close to the nostrils it appeared to have the characteristic odor of the Tubinares.
The feather made its way to the desk of Robert Cushman Murphy at the American Museum, who wrote on November 26 to say that the feather was “beyond any shadow of doubt that of an albatross…. It most closely resembles Diomedea chlororhynchus,” the bird we now know as the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross.
The finder, David G. Nichols, pointed out the obvious lesson:
When one considers that the strong odor is the only reason that this feather was originally collected and identified, one is moved to speculate that similarly interesting plumage may occur along the beaches more frequently than is supposed. Drifted feathers might be worth some attention.
Just follow your nose.
Just a great black-backed gull this time, and no, I didn’t stop to sniff.
* Apparently the feather walked to Long Island.
Thomas Dearborn Burleigh, born 119 years ago today, spent his war months near Pontonx, in southwestern Aquitaine. Already he was “what might have been called a compulsive collector,” but, as he recalled in 1919 on his return to Pittsburgh,
owing to working six days a week and drilling the seventh, ornithology was temporarily neglected.
Eventually, though, Burleigh found time to start robbing the nests of the local birds: a barn swallow clutch here, a green woodpecker nest there, even two nightjar eggs in June 1918, taken from “a slashing in the woods.”
Eggs, it seemed, were easy enough to come by. But the collecting was
the least of my difficulties for there still remained the necessity of blowing them and making good specimens of them. I pondered long over this matter and in the end succeeded beyond my modest expectations.
Burleigh’s pipe stem served him well as a blow pipe. And to make the hole? He found that he could use
a hat pin as a drill, concerning which no personal questions will be answered.
Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Brewer.
This giant of American ornithology lives on today only in a few bird names.
Two hundred years is a long time, and it’s no surprise that Brewer is otherwise so little known today: time erodes. But his might be a more prominent name had he not ended up on the wrong end of a stick wielded by Elliott Coues.
If nobody really won the Sparrow Wars (unless it was the house sparrow), Brewer was definitely the loser, and his name is still sullied by Couesian insult 135 years after his death.
Today, though, causa pietatis, we can remember Brewer for the positive contributions he made to American ornithology and natural history.
Who can keep track of the quarrels and tussles between England and France and Burgundy in the later Middle Ages? All those Louises and Henrys and Charleses and Philips have always run together for me, even back in the days when it was my job to help others keep that sort of thing straight.
One story from that tumultuous time (you didn’t think I’d get through this without saying “tumultuous,” did you?) has always shone bright in the distant mirror, though: the slaughter of the magpies in 1468.
That was the year when Charles the Bold maneuvered Louis XI (known to his many friends as “The Universal Spider”) into turning over much of his territory in the Lowlands and abandoning his allies from Lüttich. The treaty sealing Louis’s humiliation was signed in the northern city of Péronne and ratified in October by the French parliament. According to the historian Louis Roy (no relation to the arachnid),
the inhabitants of Paris, given as they were to independent thinking and a constant spirit of mockery, taught their birds to whistle the word “Péronne.” The birds learned so well that once he had returned to his capital, the king could not walk the streets without hearing repeated on every side “Péronne,” the name of the city that brought back such unpleasant memories.
Louis did the only thing he logically could do: On November 19, 1468, a decree went forth confiscating “any magpie or jay able to speak the word Péronne or other such fine vocables.” Convicted of lèse-majesté, these “singular prisoners of the State” were — so says Louis Roy — summarily transported to Amboise, where they were massacred at the edge of the forest.
The shameful Treaty of Péronne was abrogated two years later. It was too late, though, for the magpies of Paris and their voluble kin.