Archive for Famous Birders


Buying Prince Masséna’s Birds

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magnificent hummingbird

In 1846, Dr. Thomas B. Wilson, one of the great early benefactors of the Academy of Natural Sciences, asked his brother in England “to make a collection of birds” for the Philadelphia institution. Edward Wilson set about the task with his usual industry, and soon came to J.E. Grey at the British Museum.

Grey suggested, sensibly enough, that rather than assemble specimens piecemeal from dealers, Wilson purchase one of the several complete collections then on the market.

I mentioned two or three, among the others Prince Masséna’s collection in Paris…. I said that I intended to go to Paris in a very short time, and that, if he liked it, I would see what could be done.

Wilson, fearing that that famous cabinet would be beyond even his lavish budget, hesitated, but a few days later agreed to give it a try. Grey arrived in Paris,

and immediately sent a note to the Prince Masséna, saying that I was willing to purchase the collection of birds … and that I was prepared to pay for it in ready money. While sitting at dinner at the table d’hôte, an aide-de-camp came in, all green and gold, with a cocked hat and a large white feather, to inquire for me, with a message from the Prince to inquire what I intended by ready money, and … if I was ready to pay the sum that evening.

The banks were already closed, but the next morning, Wilson

gave his highness a cheque … and he gave me a receipt and handed me the keys of the cases, and I sealed them up, the affair being settled in a few minutes.

Wilson was “much pleased with the purchase,” as one might imagine, and the collection, “a very large and good one,” is now one of the greatest treasures held in any American museum.

Gould, Massena trogon 1838

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Poor Thekla

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Wage Du, zu irren und zu träumen….

Ted’s finally done it. Read (and enjoy) his “Big Night” carefully, and you’ll discover that he’s finally carried through on the threat to eliminate the possessive ‘s in the English names of birds.

I like it.

Of course, he’s not the first resident of Boulder to have an opinion about such things. In 1907, Junius Henderson (who seems to have had no objection to barbarous capitalization) posed the rhetorical question

why on earth should it be Baird’s Sparrow? In many such cases, the man whose name is given to the bird has never even seen the species, has had nothing to do with its discovery…. Baird is as much honored by speaking of the Baird Sparrow as by using the possessive.

Six years earlier, Richard C. McGregor had argued more soberly for the practice of dropping the offending ‘s: he quotes a letter from C. Hart Merriam in which it is pointed out that

the species are not in any way the property of the persons whose names they bear, but are merely named in honor of these persons…. the National Board on Geographical Names has for many years abandoned the use of possessives in all geographical names…. the Forestry people in their catalogue and checklist of forest trees of the United States have dropped the possessive….

Joseph Grinnell summed it all up in his review of the 1910 edition of the AOU Check-list:

We are disappointed to observe that the useless possessive is retained in personal names,

a matter noted expressly in the Supplement immediately preceding the new list’s publication.

It took forty-three years (!), but W.L. McAtee responded specifically and, as usual, confidently to all the current arguments:

the English possessive is equivalent to the Latin genitive…. It is true that the United States Geographic Board has abandoned the use of the possessive… but… those names are not based on Latinized genitives…. The most common objection to the use of the possessive case is that the bird does not actually belong to the man… a puerile [argument] at best.

McAtee also took up an argument Gerald H. Thayer had offered as early as 1910: such common surnames as Black, White, Moor, Fish, and so on are

as likely to belong to naturalists as to anybody else. Surely this is a sufficient rebuttal of the arguments in favor of dropping the possessive ‘s and apostrophe from the common names of birds and beasts named for men.

Apparently it was sufficient — if specious — and the AOU, and most English-language lists, have retained the possessive ‘s ever since.

There is one persistent and incomprehensible exception, though.

When Christian Ludwig Brehm received a series of larks his sons had collected in Spain, he found that the birds

differ on even the very first glance so much from all the other crested larks that there can really be no dispute about the validity of this new species,

a species he named Galerita Theklae, “Thekla’s Haubenlerche.”

We have named this lark for our unforgettable daughter, who died on July 6, 1858, in her twenty-fifth year.

Thekla Klothilde Bertha Brehm

Touching indeed — especially given that the bereaved father was writing no more than three weeks after the young woman’s death.

Touching, but largely ignored in English-speaking ornithology, which almost with one voice calls this bird the Thekla lark, flouting the otherwise carefully preserved rule of the possessive ‘s.

I suspect that a misunderstanding of the German “Theklalerche” is behind this lapse — that someone at some time failed to recognize a personal name in “Thekla” and read it instead as, say, a geographic label.

And that is an injustice to both Brehms, father and daughter. If we’re going to have “Baird’s sparrow,” let’s also have Thekla’s lark — or better still, let’s lose all those possessives consistently.

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A Towhee Type

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We’ve been a bit far north these past couple of weeks to have a real chance at green-tailed towhees, but we’ve been keeping eyes and ears open just in case one of those lovely sparrows — some say the loveliest — should happen to “overshoot” on its way to the breeding grounds.

As yesterday’s entry here pointed out, the generic affinities of the species were matter for discussion and debate for a long time. Beyond that question, though, there was another, more material: For twenty years after the species’ first description, we just didn’t know exactly what a green-tailed towhee was.

The species was first published by Audubon, as the green-tailed sparrow, in the last volume of the Ornithological Biography. Audubon never saw the bird himself, and never painted it; he bases his description of this “true Fringilla” instead on what seem to be two separate letters from John K. Townsend, who shot a “new and singularly marked Sparrow” on July 12, 1834. Townsend informed Audubon that

the specimen is, however, unfortunately young, and the plumage is not fully developed. I feel in great hopes of finding the adult….

In what appears to have been a subsequent letter, Townsend is forced to report that

In this I was, however, disappointed: I never saw it afterwards.

In fact, it was not until September 1842 that the towhee seems to have been encountered again — encountered, but not recognized. Somewhere in the Rockies, “about half way between New Mexico and the Colorado of the west,” William Gambel collected a single male of a bird that he named Fringilla Blandingiana, in honor of the discoverer of the turtle. Gambel was almost certainly aware of Audubon’s publication of the green-tailed towhee, but his bird, unlike Audubon’s, was an adult, and neither Gambel nor his colleagues at the Philadelphia Academy put the two together.

Six years later, in 1848, Baron de Lafresnaye received an adult bird in a shipment of Mexican and South American specimens sent by a M. Salé to his mother. Obviously unaware of Gambel’s description, and apparently likewise failing to compare it to Audubon’s, Lafresnaye described this “touit à coiffe rousse” as a new species, Pipilo rufo-pileus — thus assigning the species for the first time to the genus Pipilo.

It did not help that the original Townsend/Audubon specimen had somehow slipped into obscurity. John Cassin in 1855 asserted expressis verbis that there had never been such a skin — in spite of Townsend’s clear claim to have taken the specimen.

What gives?

It would take a few years to figure it all out, but clarity shone forth with the publication in 1859 of the ornithological volume of the Pacific railroad surveys. While Spencer Baird was still using the name blandingiana in 1852, seven years later he, with Cassin and George Lawrence, was able to determine that blandingiana and rufopileus were mere synonyms of the Audubonian chlorurus.

And they were able to do so because the Townsend specimen had turned up — in Baird’s own cabinet, whence it passed into the collections of the Smithsonian as number 1896. Comparison of that skin with a slightly older male specimen and a series of adults led them to conclude that the Townsend skin

is unmistakeably the Pipilo here described, and settles the question in favor of the priority of the name chlorurus.

The odd outlier aside (Ridgway cites blandingiana as late as 1868), that has been the bird’s specific epithet ever since. And if anyone doubts that it should be so, Townsend’s bird from July 1834 still lies peaceful on its back in Washington.

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A Birds and Art Tour from 1840

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One hundred eighty-five years ago, the recently widowered Charles Waterton set off for the continent, in search of warmer climes in the south of Italy.

On the way, accompanied by his sisters-in-law and his tiny son, Waterton stopped in the “fine old city” of Bruges, where he had married his late wife in the convent school where she had been educated.

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Waterton, the premier taxidermist of his day, naturally spent much of his time in the natural history collections — most of them, he reports, old-fashioned and full of horribly prepared, misshapen specimens — but he also devoted himself to the artistic treasures of that loveliest of medieval cities.

He singled out for praise one of the convent’s paintings,

a picture of a boy laughing at his own performance on the fiddle. So true is this to nature, that you can never keep your eyes from gazing on it when you are sitting there.

Waterton liked the painting so much, in fact, that he light-heartedly fantasized about stealing it, “were thieving innocent, and the act injurious to none.”

His other favorite in Bruges was a still life by Frans Cuyck van Myerop, featuring “a dead bittern suspended by the leg.”

Van Myerop, Stilleven met dode vogels

Beautiful indeed, and a fitting reminder of transitoriness today, on this 150th anniversary of Waterton’s death.

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Do you ever get the feeling that the nineteenth-century world was so small that anyone who was anybody inevitably bumped into everyone who was somebody? In the ornitho-realm, think of Alexander Wilson and John Greenleaf Whittier — or John James Audubon and virtually every single one of his notable contemporaries.

Charles Waterton

Most such meetings were felicitous encounters, but late the night of June 17, 1841, two ornithologists bumped into each other in the worst possible way. As The Tablet reported, that afternoon

the Pollux, a new and very pretty steamer, left Civita-Vecchia with every promise of a most delightful passage to Leghorn. As evening closed in the daylight failed, but the night was pleasant, the sky serene and starry, the sea calm and smooth. These circumstances had fortunately induced many of the passengers to sleep on deck. About an hour before midnight, some one being still awake noticed a vessel approaching, and already so near as to cause alarm. It was some time before any one could be found to look to the danger — and when perceived, the vessel was only just turned with its broadside forward when the other vessel, also a steamer, ran into her amidships, with a shock that threatened instant destruction to both.

The Yorkshire naturalist, ornithologist, and taxidermist Charles Waterton was on board the Pollux with his sisters-in-law and young son:

it was evident that she had but a very little time to float. I found my family all around me; and having slipped on and inflated my life preserver, I entreated them to be cool and temperate, and they all obeyed me most implicitly. My little boy had gone down on his knees, and was praying fervently to the blessed Virgin to take us under her protection, while Miss Edmonstone kept crying out in a tone of deep anxiety, “Oh, save the precious boy, and never mind me!”

Bonaparte Charles Lucien 1803-1857.png

Waterton and his family, and indeed all but one of the passengers on the Pollux, were indeed rescued. Credit for averting total destruction went to — get this! — Charles Bonaparte, who just happened to be on the Mongibello when that ship so quickly sank the Pollux:

Had it not been for Prince Canino, Charles Buonaparte, it is more than probable not a single soul would have been saved. The Pollux would have been literally cut in two had he not had the paddles of the Mongibello reversed; the Mongibello could not have got the passengers to her deck in time had not he seized her helm, and brought her alongside the sinking vessel, which, within fifteen minutes after the first shock, had disappeared.

According to Waterton, his princely colleague’s ministrations continued even after the Mongibello and its shipwrecked passengers reached the harbor at Livorno:

Prince Canino pleaded our cause with uncommon fervor. He informed [the port officials] that we had had nothing to eat that morning…. He described the absolute state of nudity to which many of the sufferers had been reduced, he urged the total loss of our property, and he described in feeling terms the bruises and wounds which had been received at the collision…. The council of Leghorn relented, and graciously allowed us to go ashore.

Waterton would never forget the bravery and generosity of the Franco-Italian ornithologist, and neither should we.

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