Archive for Famous Birders
It’s not mid-summer yet, and our suburban lot is hardly mid-wood, but Ovenbirds are busy pompously pacing off the margins of our backyard.
The first Ovenbird known to European science was collected
at sea, in November 1751, by … Tho. Stack, M.D. and F.R.S in his Voyage to Jamaica, as the ship lay becalmed, about eight or ten leagues distant from Hispaniola.
Stack, who served as librarian to Hans Sloane, gave the skin (and that of a Black-throated Blue Warbler collected under the same circumstances) to George Edwards, who rightly surmised that the bird was a migrant — a suspicion confirmed by Edwards’s “good friend Mr. W. Bartram of Pensylvania,” who told him that this Golden-crowned Thrush arrives in the vicinity of Philadelphia in April to spend the summer. Bartram also provided the first description of the species’ nesting habits:
the Golden-crowned Thrush builds its nest upon the ground, and always chuses the south side of a hill… it makes a hole in the leaves, like a little oven, and lines it with dry grass, and lays five white eggs spotted with brown.
Neither Edwards nor Bartram took the broad onomastic hint: rather than name the bird Ovenbird, they persisted in calling it a “thrush,” the Golden-crowned in Edwards’s case, the infinitely fussier “T. minimus, vertice aurio, the least golden crown thrush” in Bartram’s. Brisson, too, named the bird for “the beautiful golden color of its crown,” “le figuier à teste d’or de Pensilvanie.”
Alexander Wilson disapproved.
“The epithet golden-crowned,” he wrote, “is not very suitable for this bird, that part of the bird being rather of a brownish orange; yet, to avoid confusion, I have retained it.”
The confusion Wilson was so eager to avoid, I assume, was the use of the name “Ovenbird” for a variety of Old World species that also build domed nests. Lockwood, surprisingly, mentions the name not at all, but Swainson (no, not that Swainson) cites it as applied to the Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, and Long-tailed Tit; the Oxford English Dictionary also lists the Wood Warbler among the feathered furnace builders of Europe.
Audubon was, to my knowledge, the first to publish the name in connection with our ground warbler:
The nest is so like an oven, that the children in many places call this species the “Oven Bird.”
The American Woodsman, himself, though, had put away such childish things, and insisted that the bird be called, as in his predecessors, the Golden-crowned Thrush — and railed against “certain naturalists” who classed it instead as a warbler (or, for that matter, an accentor).
Nuttall, a few years beforeAudubon, also used the name, but even by the end of the nineteenth century, the modern name Ovenbird had failed to entirely displace its more prosaic competitors. In the Century Dictionary, Coues describes its usage as merely “local,” and even the final, posthumous edition of the Key lists it last among the species’ English names, after “Golden-crowned Wagtail Warbler,” “Golden-crowned Accentor,” and “Golden-crowned Thrush.”
And this in spite of the fact that the AOU had spoken. The first edition of the Check-list, whose English names were “selected with due regard to [their] desirability,” installed “Oven-bird” as the authoritative vernacular name of the species, and so it has remained, even retaining its quaint hyphen through the Fourth Edition.
I’m glad that the AOU adopted the name it did, resisting the temptation to simply translate the Linnaean aurocapilla to create a bland and, to agree with Wilson, not entirely accurate moniker for a bird so much of whose charm lies in its habits. “Golden-crowned Warbler” would have made of our Ovenbird a diminished thing.
It’s spring, and over much of the continent “the Veeries sing their songs of long ago.”
Here in New Jersey, too, that weird spooling, swirling buzz is heard of a warm evening. But when we hear it here in the mid-Atlantic, some of us are likely to call the cinnamon-backed songster not by its official, onomatopoetic name, but by another, one that commemorates the name of the man who first described it to science.
Especially this year, of course, the bicentennial of Alexander Wilson’s death.
Oddly enough, though Wilson recognized that the bird he was describing was new and clearly different from any of the other American thrushes he was familiar with, he assigned to it the names, both Latin and English, of another bird.
With reference to the rich brown of the bird’s back, he called his novum Turdus mustelinus, the Tawny Thrush, both of which, as Wilson himself noted, were in use already for the bird we know as the Wood Thrush.
The difficulty Wilson’s sloppiness had created was noticed almost immediately. When James Francis Stephens copied out Wilson’s description of the bird for the General Zoology of 1817, he observed politely that
it is not a little surprising that Wilson in his American Ornithology should increase the confusion by giving a name that was applied by Pennant to the [Wood Thrush], when he was confident this bird was a distinct species.
Stephens gave the bird new names, both English and scientific, calling it the Brownish Thrush Turdus fuscescens; we still know the species under that latinized epithet today.
Seven years later, in 1824, Charles Lucian Bonaparte was able to overlook Stephens’s name to give the bird a new one of his own devising.
The name of mustelinus must … be restored to the [Wood Thrush]; and as the present species will then be destitute of a name, I propose for it that of T. Wilsonii.
Bonaparte, like so many Philadelphians, was a great fan of his late colleague’s work, but even he seems to have had a niggling worry or two about pushing it too far:
I do not consider myself censurable for the frequent repetition of the name of this great ornithologist, as applied to species in different genera; it is a tribute of respect which I conceive justly due to one who has done so much for the benefit of my favourite science.
Interestingly, however, Bonaparte does not appear to have suggested changing the English appellation as well, continuing to cite his Turdus wilsonii as the Tawny Thrush. The vernacular name Wilson’s Thrush appears to have been used first by John Richardson and William Swainson (himself of thrush fame, of course) in the Fauna boreali-americana, where they describe the Wilson’s Thrush in part from specimens killed right here in New Jersey.
It is with peculiar satisfaction that … we find our own observations confirm, in their full extent, the judicious remarks made upon this species by the Prince of Musignano (i.e., Bonaparte); and gladly do we follow him in commemorating it by the name of the great American ornithologist.
Unlike Bonaparte, Swainson knew that the bird already had a properly formed, properly published scientific name: but it didn’t matter.
True it is, that, by the strict rules of priority, we may not perhaps be justified in so doing; this species having received, in a popular compilation [take that, Stephens!], another name. But not even the laws of nomenclature … must upon every occasion impose shackles upon superior minds. Few ornithologists will be disposed to withhold from the memory of Wilson the only honour it is now in their power to give.
One who might, just might, have been so disposed was John James Audubon.
In the text of the Ornithological Biography, Audubon does, once, use the name Wilson’s Thrush, but the full species account and the plate are labeled Tawny Thrush, a typically ambivalent rhetorical move on the part of the man who just never could come to terms with his “illustrious” predecessor (and who, incidentally, seems to have mistaken the song of the Hermit Thrush for that of this bird).
Thomas Nuttall had no such compunctions: his account of the species is headed “Wilson’s Thrush, or Veery,” the first published use of the modern name I am aware of. Coues, too, used those two names, in that sequence, in the first edition of his Check List — but retained only Wilson’s Thrush in the second. Following Coues’s lead, the American Ornithologists’ Union also used the patronym in the first two editions of the Check-list.
The Fifteenth Supplement, published in 1909, changed a large number of English names, some of them for reasons that seem to range from arbitrary to inconsistent. (“Prairie Hen” was changed to “Prairie Chicken,” but “Sage Grouse” to “Sage Hen,” to adduce just one example.) Among the victims was the name “Wilson’s Thrush,” apparently deemed a “book name” and replaced by Veery, as a name more “in use where the birds live.”
I for one regret the loss of the old name. “Veery” may, to more imaginative ears than mine, recall the song, but it indicates relationship no better than such other inscrutable names as “Sora” or “Bufflehead.” And it misses out on another chance to commemorate the Father of American Ornithology, who deserves a little remembering this year.
I’ve been unfair to Audubon.
For years — for decades, in fact, ever since, as a fourth grader, I first learned about the man and the work — I’ve judged him, and harshly, solely on the evidence of the engraved plates that make up the The Birds of America.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to have been affiliated with a couple of institutions that own full sets, and I’ve always appreciated the big books as masterpieces of technology and entrepreneurial drive. But art? Not really.
My mind was changed, completely and abruptly, in late April when I finally made my way to the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition of some 220 of Audubon’s paintings — not the plates that were printed, colored, and sold to subscribers, but the actual paintings that served as the exemplars for the engraver.
Like most of us, the closest I’d ever come to seeing anything from Audubon’s paintbrush was the rather poor reproductions, on decidedly poor paper, of the watercolors published and republished in the 1970s and 80s. The originals themselves have been shown only very rarely in the 150 years since they were purchased from Lucy Audubon – but they are astonishing, startling, eye-opening.
They’re really good.
Not only do the paintings reveal an artist in masterful command of his media, but they also, just as surprisingly, have a few things to teach us about the birds Audubon was painting. Take his Snow Bird, the bird we know today as the Dark-eyed Junco.
The engraving of this otherwise so engaging sparrow in Birds of America has always left me cold. It’s bland and dull, and the coloring of the specimens I’ve seen has always seemed vague, especially on the lower bird, the male, whose breast and hood just don’t seem to want to join up as they do in real life. Poor draftsmanship, poor engraving, poor coloring: it doesn’t really matter where the sloppiness was introduced.
Most of the engravings are more or less faithful renderings of Audubon’s originals: but not this time. The painting, prepared from specimens collected in Louisiana, differs strikingly from the engraved plate in depicting a male bird with a decidedly black, highly contrasting hood, sharply set off in a straight line from the softer gray of the breast sides and flank; the lower edge of that hood extends into the white lower breast, creating a “convex” border.
You know where this is headed, don’t you?
Audubon’s bird was not your everyday Slate-colored Junco. Instead, the bird that he shot and drew was a male Cassiar Junco, and his painting was the first depiction ever of a “flavor” of juncos that would not be formally described until 1918, nearly a hundred years later.
I don’t know whether we have any of Audubon’s instructions to the colorists responsible for finishing the plate, but I still think that we can figure out with some certainty what happened. I’m guessing that Audubon was slightly puzzled when he reviewed his Louisiana painting, and that he asked the engraver and the colorists to “correct” the pattern of the bird’s breast and sides to match that of the Slate-colored Junco, the taxon he would later describe in the Ornithological Biography.
Had I not seen the painting hanging in New York, I would have gone on in my benighted way, shaking my head over another botched Audubonian bird. Instead, I wind up admiring more than ever before the ornithologist who discovered the Cassiar Junco — and the artist who gave us such a fine depiction of a wonderful but long unrecognized bird.
In the first scientific description of the species, George Ord says that Wilson’s Plovers ”utter an agreeable piping note, and run swiftly.”
Some of them not swiftly enough. Two hundred years ago today, on the sandy shores of Cape May, Alexander Wilson shot the first of these birds known to science — two males and a female, the last “containing an egg half grown, apparently within a week of being ready for exclusion.” That egg was never “excluded,” to use Ord’s typically fussy word, and she and one of her consorts wound up wearing tags in Peale’s Philadelphia museum.
That excursion in May of 1813 was the last of Wilson’s six trips to New Jersey. The four weeks he and Ord spent together on the shore must have been exciting, but they were anything but relaxing. On the return to Philadelphia, Wilson threw himself back into the work on volume 8 of the American Ornithology, and ”the excess of toil” and the “flood of business” weakened him so much, says Ord, that the dysentery that befell him mid-August proved fatal.
Titian Peale and Ord went back to New Jersey’s southern coast in May 1814, where they found the bird Ord had named for his “ever-regretted friend” to be fairly common from Great Egg Harbor to Brigantine Island.
Things have changed. The Wilson’s Plover is one of the state’s rarest shorebirds nowadays, and hasn’t bred in New Jersey for fifty years. But there are hopeful signs. This century has seen spring overshoots almost every year, and two years ago a bird spent the last half of September in Cape May. Maybe this will be the year — two hundred years after its discovery, and two hundred years after the death of its discoverer — that this species returns to nest where it was first seen.
Today is the hundredth anniversary of the death of William Crispin, a corresponding member of the DVOC, “a naturalist of ability, a man of integrity, a good husband and father, and a credit to himself and to those who were his.” Crispin, a “celebrated tree climber” who now rests in the shade of his hometown of Salem, New Jersey, was also an egg collector, and he met his untimely death when he fell from the cliff where he was attempting to take the clutch of a pair of Peregrine Falcons.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and there’s beaucoup bonum in the several eulogies published in The Oologist: He was remembered as “frank, cheery, open-hearted and fearless; cool, collected, careful and conscientious,” the oologist’s oologist.
Crispin’s nest data are cited many times in Bent’s Life Histories, and he is best remembered in New Jersey for the “vigorous campaign” he mounted to document (and, of course, to collect) the eggs of Upland Sandpipers in the state, a species he already considered “South New Jersey’s Will-o’-the-wisp.” After dragging the fields with a rope several times, Crispin finally had a set in hand, at which point the female sandpiper
circled round uttering the usual nesting note of the species, left and returned again, circled for a few moments and left for good.
A sad story — but wouldn’t it be great if the occasional egg thief were the only problem this species faced in New Jersey?
Crispin’s collection, like most such things, was dispersed on his death. Looking back, there’s some irony in his ornithological executor’s donation of a clutch of Wood Duck eggs — ”such a valuable set” — to the Philadelphia Academy (are they still there?), while he tells us nothing of the disposition of the “nearly one thousand” Osprey eggs or the “large series” of Bald Eagle sets Crispin took over the years.
It’s best to put on our late-nineteenth-century glasses before sitting down to judge the activities of our blithe forebears, and no doubt Crispin and his colleagues made some notable discoveries that advanced the ornithological science of their day. But I still find it hard to read passages like this, describing the preparation of the sixteen Wood Duck eggs later given to the ANSP:
The eggs were far advanced in incubation, making it necessary to bore auger holes about 1/4 inch in size in order to save them.
Different times, a hundred years ago. Let’s hope it’s a little safer out there today. For everybody.