Archive for Famous Birders


Follow Your Nose

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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.

Great black-backed gull

Just a great black-backed gull this time, and no, I didn’t stop to sniff.

* Apparently the feather walked to Long Island.

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The Watchman’s Rattle in the Wild

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Sometimes when you cast the bread of your ponderings onto the waters of the internet, you find it after a couple of weeks. 

And how.

I wondered whether the comparison of a kingfisher’s call to the watchman’s rattle had in fact originated with Alexander Wilson. My friend and colleague Mark writes in reply:

“I’m sure you’re right that Wilson was the source for most later descriptions of the kingfisher’s call. But perhaps not all?

“Today the watchman’s rattle seems like such a bizarre antediluvian relic that it’s hard for us to appreciate just how ubiquitous and distinctive a feature of the 19th-century soundscape it was, and how easy it would have been for different writers to seize upon it independently as a point of comparison for any sharp grating or rattling noise. It’s impossible to read much Victorian literature without encountering the rattle (“Wegg was a knotty man, and close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle” — Dickens, Our Mutual Friend), but your post made me curious about other instances in which the calls of birds and other animals were likened to it.

“So I poked around on Google Books for half an hour or so, and wow, there are a lot of them! Since you I say you’re interested in other examples of the simile, I thought you might like to see a sample of what I turned up. (I’ve omitted all the kingfishers, of which there were many, most or all of which were probably derived from Wilson; I didn’t find any earlier example of that particular comparison, so your conclusion about his priority still stands.)

J. Jackson, Journey from India towards England (1799), p. 116



W. Wordsworth, early draft ms. of “Benjamin the Waggoner” (1806)

photo of the actual page is available at the British Library; it’s the fifth page.


J. C. Hobhouse, A Journey to Albania and other provinces of Turkey in Asia (1813), vol. 2, p. 641


G. Ord, in the Journal of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences 1:2 (1818), p. 256



R. Sheppard and W. Whitear, in Transactions of the Linnaean Society of London 15 (1827), p. 15


J. Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), p. 158

J. Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), p. 187


T. Nuttall, Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada (1832), p. 551


T. Nuttall, Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada (1832), p. 563


New-England Magazine 2 (1832), p. 329


E. S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States (1835), vol. 2, p. 215


H. D. Thoreau, journal entry for April 4, 1853


H. Wheelwright, Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist (1861), p. 151


Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine 46 (1878), p. 177


F. Knight, By Leafy Ways (1889), p. 4


O. T. Miller, Atlantic Monthly 77 (May 1896), p. 671


“Along the way I also found the watchman’s rattle invoked to describe the sputtering of an angry Frenchman, the crackling of hot liquids, and all sorts of other things. Fun stuff!”

Fun stuff indeed. Many thanks to a kindred spirit for answering my question! 

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Mademoiselle from Pontonx

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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.”

Green Woodpecker Bulgaria 2007 June

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.


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Happy 200th Birthday!

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Brewer's Sparrow CSP November 20, 2006 033

Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Brewer.

Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbird

This giant of American ornithology lives on today only in a few bird names.

mallard domestic

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.

House Sparrow

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.

Thomas Brewer signature

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The Day the Magpies Died

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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.


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