Archive for Famous Birders

Ridgway 1873 portrait

I’m as big a fan of Robert Ridgway as anybody, and I couldn’t be more delighted that at long last, decades after we all learned to say “buff-collared nightjar,” the man is once again commemorated in the English name of a US bird.

Welcome, Ridgway’s rail!

The Smithsonian ornithologist was just 24 years old when he described this bird — not, mark well, as a new species but rather as a new race, obsoletus, of the king rail.The type specimen, A 6444 in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History, was sent east from San Francisco, California, where it had been obtained in March 1857 by George Suckley. Obtained, but not exactly collected: as Suckley reported in 1859,

The king rail [= today's Ridgway's rail] is very common in the San Francisco market…. A fine specimen was presented to me in San Francisco by F. Gruber, an excellent practical taxidermist of that city.

Edward William Nelson fills us in:

F[erdinand] Gruber was a German taxidermist, in San Francisco, who was well known in the ’70′s and ’80′s of the [nineteenth] century. He had a shop for a long time on California Street… a small gruff man, rather repellant at first contact but … under the crust was a most friendly person to any young naturalist interested in birds.

Crusty or not, Gruber would be named the first curator of ornithology at the California Academy of Sciences. His place in ornithological history was assured in 1870, when Robert Ridgway (who else?) described a new species of hawk from California, which he named Onychotes gruberi for that

zealous naturalist and accomplished taxidermist of San Francisco, having added much to our knowledge of the birds of California, through the frequent contribution of valuable specimens.

The honor was hardly diminished 15 years later when Ridgway re-examined the specimen and determined that it was, in fact, a Hawaiian hawk that had made its way — no doubt already a skin — into Gruber’s store.

George Suckley, too, was the beneficiary of Ridgway’s gratitude when it came time to name a small sooty falcon from Washington Territory. Ridgway gave his new subspecies from “the northwest coast region of heavy rains and dense forests” the scientific name suckleyi. We knew it for a while as Suckley’s pigeon hawk, but now it is, more blandly, just the black merlin.

I’m glad that Ridgway has his rail. But we mustn’t forget, it seems to me, that he got it from Suckley, who got it from Gruber, who got it from an unknown rail hunter in the long-ago market stalls of San Francisco.

Even bird skins have their stories.

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Screenshot 2014-08-12 14.19.35

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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Aug
21

Hapsburg Eagles

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We tend to date the beginning of the First World War from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant consort. But for those who enjoy the game of “what if,” it was another archducal death, equally violent, that created the circumstances leading to the greatest slaughter in European history — until the next, of course.

The argument goes like this: If Archduke Rudolph, born on August 21, 1858, as the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph, hadn’t murdered young Mary Vetsera and then killed himself on that winter’s day in 1889 at Mayerling, Rudolph — famously and openly sympathetic to the cause of decentralization — might have tempered his father’s absolutism, and the promise of his eventual succession to the throne could have mollified the nationalists in the empire. Instead, the crown prince’s death only strengthened the hand of the conservative forces at the Hapsburg court, and the frustration of the empire’s national minorities festered, only to burst in Sarajevo.

Enough — far more than enough — has been jabbered over the past 125 years about Rudolph’s death, but little is said nowadays about his scant three decades on earth. And today almost no one remembers that he was a birder.

Rudolph’s mentors in matters natural historical included Alfred Brehm and Ferdinand von Hochstetter, two of the most famous and influential scientists of their day — sometimes it paid to be a Hapsburg.

Ornithology, both observing and collecting, was for Rudolph a refuge from “the petty, irritating matters of daily life”:

A man needs diversion to keep his spirit and his body fresh, he must have the chance from time to time to flee everything he has created and the company of cultivated people; to hasten out into wild nature, into the only true magnificence, a magnificence that he himself is not capable of creating but that out of which he himself once emerged…. Only there can a real man feel truly comfortable and exist in the awareness that elements surround him that are mightier than he himself.

In April 1878, Rudolph and Brehm, accompanied by Eugen von Homeyer, the “father of Pomeranian ornithology,” Rudolph’s brother-in-law Leopold, and their collectors and crew set off down the Danube with a single question in mind:

  whether the Steinadler and the Goldadler represented distinct species of eagle or should be lumped as a single species.

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There was a great deal of what we can only call recreational collecting on that trip (“we were surprised ourselves by the number of birds we shot“). The party took a total of eight griffon vultures, one black vulture, seven imperial eagles, three lesser spotted eagles, two greater spotted eagles, fourteen white-tailed eagles, two ospreys, one short-toed eagle, three common buzzards, one red kite, nine black kites, five goshawks, one hobby, four common kestrels, one marsh harrier, two eagle-owls, one tawny owl, six ravens, seven hooded crows, one rook, one jackdaw, one magpie, one jay, five European rollers, two lesser gray shrikes, one nightjar, three cuckoos, two hoopoes, four turtle-doves, two rufous-tailed rock-thrushes, one ferruginous duck, one mallard, one graylag goose, eight great cormorants, five black terns, eleven black storks, one white stork, nine gray herons, two purple herons, four black-crowned night-herons, and “a series of twenty-six additional species of birds of less interest.”

And, of course, lots and lots of indeterminate Aquila eagles. Brehm was able to use the shocking number of specimens taken to answer the question of their identity or non-identity to his satisfaction. In the second edition of his Thierleben, published the following year, he wrote that

Naumann and Pallas, along with my father, separated the Steinadler from the Goldadler, while more recent scholars tend to understand them as age-related plumages or simple variants of a single species. Recently, inspired by the eagerness for research of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and accompanied by Eugen von Homeyer, I examined and compared some eighty of these questionable eagles, and I must agree with the scientists named above…. I believe it is correct to maintain both eagles as separate species until unequivocal proof of their belonging to a single species has been produced. These birds are certainly very closely related to each other, and the distinctions between the two are very subtle given that the immature plumages of both are so similar as to be easily mistaken, and even the adult plumages are not so clearly different as Naumann’s account might lead one to believe.

Brehm notwithstanding, we now know that those “more recent scholars” were right, and that all of the doubtful birds shot on the Danube belonged to a single species, the golden eagle – the same eagle that in double-headed form ornaments the sarcophagus of Crown Prince Rudolph in Vienna’s Capuchin Church.

 

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Aug
11

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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Aug
01

Named for a Neighbor

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Screenshot 2014-06-12 16.13.56

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.

 

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