Archive for Famous Birders


A Passenger Pigeon from the Collection of Elliott Coues

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In his Birds of the Northwest of 1874, Elliott Coues recalled that

Some years since a great flight of Pigeons occurred near Washington, where for several days, in the fall, the woods were filled with the birds…. I once killed a specimen so newly from the nest as to cause me to believe that it had been hatched in the vicinity.

Coues does not tell his reader where that specimen ended up, but I think I know.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.

Coues collected this fresh juvenile Passenger Pigeon, aged by the “white crescentic edges of the feathers, especially on back and wings,” at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington on October 14, 1859. A quarter of a century later, Coues and his old field companion Webster Prentiss would recall that autumn as “the last large flight we remember” in the area.

The skin bore the number 450 in Coues’s personal cabinet, but somehow made its way into the famously vast collections of H.B. Tristram, where it was assigned the label 17066. It is not clear when Tristram acquired the skin, as the specimen is not identifiably listed in his 1889 Catalogue.

Tristram’s collection was purchased by the Liverpool Museum in 1896, and Coues’s pigeon resides there still.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.





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These days find us — some of us — remembering Pierre Belon, the greatest of French Renaissance natural historians, who was murdered by Counter-Reformationist thugs in the Bois de Boulogne 450 years ago this month. Belon’s Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, published in 1555 in Paris, remains one of the most valuable compilations of classical, medieval, and early modern ornithology around, well worth consulting whenever a historical question arises.

The introductory material includes a chapter titled “The chief marks available to us as characters by which to identify birds” — one of the earliest and most complete tracts on a subject that is at the heart of our hobby today. Writes Belon,

The bill and the feet are the principle characters indicated by the ancient authors as necessary to attend to when identifying and distinguishing birds.

But identification also profits from the observation of the birds’ habits:

We must also notice the differences in the birds’ housekeeping if we are to give them their correct names…. Some live by capturing prey … others live by eating only worms … others feeding on seeds and grains or thorny plants … and others catching ants and flies.

And we shouldn’t forget how important habitat is, for birds and birders alike:

There are those who dwell in wild places, unlike the birds that are always around people. Many birds keep to the mountains, others to the forests, others to rocky places.

Belon also reminds us that many birds exhibit seasonal movements:

There are several birds that habitually change their location: because of the great cold in the mountains, they come down in the winter to live on the fields, then return in the summer both to avoid the heat and to find food. Many also leave fresh water habitats in winter to take up residence on salt water since that does not freeze.

And others are “completely migratory”:

They have a certain time in the year for leaving one place and arriving in another, as if they had set a date…. The swallows, unable to withstand the winter here in Europe because of both the cold and the lack of suitable food, depart for Africa, Egypt, and Arabia, and find the winter there essentially like the summer here, and so have all they need to live by.

The wintertime strategies of swallows were still the subject of lively debate two and a half centuries later, but Belon and his sources had it right.

Belon is also ahead of his time in pointing out the importance to the ornithologist of a thorough knowledge of status and distribution:

Just as many birds are of necessity migratory, at the same time there are those that are unable to ever move from their home. For as one sees that some countries have forests in which unique tree species grow that are not found anywhere else, in the same way there are certain birds living in those areas that could not survive elsewhere even if one were to transport them.

It’s all very modern, isn’t it?

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Pierre Sonnerat’s Birds

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Today marks the bicentennial of the death of Pierre Sonnerat, explorer and author of important early works on the natural history of New Guinea and Indochina.


Sonnerat was the nephew of Pierre Poivre (yes, the original Peter Piper) and the artistic assistant to Philibert Commerson, linking him to some of the most influential naturalists of his day.

Like Commerson and Poivre, Sonnerat was primarily a botanist — he even has an entire family of plants named for him (though apparently, fide our friends at Wikipedia, the Sonneratiaceae have now been lumped with the loosestrifes). The reports of his voyages to the east, though, are full of enthusiastic, colorful, and in part perhaps fictitious accounts of all sorts of natural phenomena, including, of course, birds.

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Sonnerat gave us, for example, the first image and description of the bird Scopoli would later name Columba luzonica, the Luzon Bleeding-heart: “it looks as if,” he rather vividly writes, this snow-white pigeon

had been stabbed with a knife and its own blood stained the feathers around the wound.

He was equally impressed by the kingfishers of the Asian tropics (“Europe,” he notes,”I believe has only one species”). His account of the family’s dining habits reflects some close observation and considerable admiration for these birds:

They all live from fish, which they capture by diving rapidly from the branches where they wait until some fish appear at the surface of the water; whereupon the kingfisher drops with precision onto its prey and seizes it in its beak without letting any other part of its body so much as touch the water…. If by chance a perched kingfisher drops its fish from the branch, it is so quick in its movements that it can catch its prey again before it falls any great distance. There are no other birds so fast of flight, so rapid of movement, or so keen of vision.

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Sonnerat’s observations on the puzzling distribution of parrots leads him to meditate on island zoogeography:

While on the Asian continent one finds the same species spread across great distances and covering a very wide range, each of the islands where one finds parrots harbors one or more species that are unique to it and not found on other islands even in the same archipelago, however short the distance from one to the other. But it is not as if these birds were sluggish or capable of only brief flights…. And how is it, moreover, that when the archipelagos were formed, which can only be parts of the continent torn off and separated by revolutionary events, and when the islands of which they are composed were separated one from the other, there were not at the moment of revolution individuals of a single species scattered throughout the areas that would form those separate islands? Should we say that those species perished in certain areas but survived in certain others? What possible support could there be for such an assertion? Should we look to the influence of the climate or food? Those two conditions are not and cannot be sufficiently different in areas so close to each other, sharing the same sky and the same fruits, as to produce the changes and alterations that one would have to attribute to them. There must be another explanation, but I leave the question to the debates of other naturalists….

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In the case of some species, Sonnerat was of a decidedly practical bent. Noting that the Secretarybird, in spite of its chicken-like bill, happily hunted rats, he suggested that

it could be useful in our colonies, and would probably not be difficult to breed there.

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In 1790, Sonnerat was named Commander of Yanaon, in French India; three years later, that city fell to the British, and Sonnerat was imprisoned in Madras. He was not released until 1813, when he returned to France — only to die on his return to Paris on the last day of March 1814.

Today, Sonnerat lives on in the scientific names given to the Greater Green Leafbird, the Banded Bay Cuckoo, and the Gray Junglefowl. His reputation has suffered as errors and outright fabrications have been discovered in his works: the Secretarybird, for instance, could not have come from anywhere near the Philippines, and that notorious Kookaburra – which Sonnerat claimed to have discovered in New Guinea — is now thought to have been based on a stuffed bird given to him by Joseph Banks.

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But as Denys Lombard put it in the Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,

The fact that Sonnerat was not an objective observer, sometimes even unscrupulous, hardly matters in the end…. [He was active] on the dividing line between two worlds, motivated by the desire for scientific discovery and anxious to join the learned societies of London and Paris, but at the same time pragmatic and eager for conquest.

As such, Sonnerat was a characteristic figure of his time, and one well worth remembering, at least once a year.


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March 26, 1870, that is.


In the case of Robert Ridgway, we happen to know. The nineteen-year-old illustrator was in Washington, and he spent that morning in a visit to the city’s market, where he purchased fresh male specimens of the Passenger Pigeon.

The birds’ irides, he would later write, were

scarlet or scarlet-vermilion; bare orbital space livid flesh color; legs and feet lake-red, or pinkish-red…. Now extinct.

All that's left.

All that’s left.

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The Downy Woodpecker

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No one can fail to be charmed by our smallest woodpecker, the neat little Downy.

Downy Woodpecker

As Alexander Wilson put it 206 years ago,

the principal characteristics of this little bird are diligence, familiarity, perseverance, and a strength and energy in the head and muscles of the neck, which are truly astonishing.



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