Archive for Famous Birders

Edwards, Frizzled Sparrow, Gleanings

In 1751, George Edwards’s “generous encourager” Mrs. Clayton, of Flower in Surrey, seems to have engaged the painter and ornithologist to record the birds of her aviary. It was not an unusual request: Edwards tells us that by then he had

been for a good part of the Time employ’d by many curious Gentlemen in London to draw such rare foreign birds as they were possess’d of…. as the like Birds might perhaps never be met with again.

With the permission of his subjects’ owners, Edwards

never neglected to take Draughts of them … for [his] own Collection

as well, and it was those drawings that he published — though he was “backward in resolving to do it” — in the Natural History of Birds and in the Gleanings. 

His visit to Flower turned up a number of birds new to him and to science, among them a curious passerine with

the bill white, the head and neck black: the back, wings, rump, and tail are of a blackish yellow-green, or dark olive colour: the breast, belly, thighs, and covert feathers under the tail, are of a yellow colour: the legs and feet are of a dusky colour…. Many of its feathers are curled….

Logically enough, he named it the black-and-yellow frizzled sparrow.

Edwards, Frizzled Sparrow

As complete as his description was and as precise as his engraving, though, there was one thing Edwards could not say with any confidence about Mrs. Clayton’s sparrows:

they are natives either of Angola or the Brasils, but I cannot determine which.

It’s a good four thousand miles as the bunting flies between Luanda and Sao Paulo, but such wild uncertainty was simply par for the course in the world of eighteenth-century ornithology. In a similar context, Buffon himself, who was in a better position than most to determine the provenance of his specimens, noted with a sigh

that nothing is more imperfectly known than the native country of birds that come from a great distance and pass through many hands.

When Linnaeus named Mrs. Clayton’s bird Fringilla crispa (“curly-haired finch”), he settled, apparently arbitrarily, on Angola as the terra typica. Others, though, more careful bibliographers than the great Swede, left the matter undecided: Brisson says “in the kingdom of Angola or in Brazil,” and even Gmelin, in his 1789 edition of the Systema, returns to Edwards’s original formulation, “either Angola or Brazil.”

Gmelin, Frizzled Finch

Why those two, so far-flung localities? Buffon fills us in on the “many hands” involved here:

As this bird came from Portugal, one concludes that it was sent from one of the chief colonial possessions of that country, namely, from the kingdom of Angola or from Brazil,

an explanation repeated a few years later by John Latham in his General Synopsis:

As we know it not except through Portugal, its native place is not certain.

By 1802, these birds were being imported into France. Louis-Pierre Vieillot owned a pair, but not even he could say where the species was native: Portugal, which remained reluctant to grant other Europeans direct access to its colonies, remained the only source. Twenty years later, Vieillot still did not know where his frizzle-feathered charges had come from.

That was bad enough. But gradually, the mystery shifted from the origin of the bird to its identity. Just what was Mrs. Clayton’s sparrow?

In hindsight, it’s obvious that the frizzled finch was a seedeater — and with that complete black hood, just as obviously a seedeater of Ridgely and Tudor’s Type II. But which one?

The identification and taxonomy of the Sporophila seedeaters is a tangle beyond compare. No synonymy agrees with any other, and certain of the specific epithets have seemed to float in space, available to anyone who cares to reach up and grab one to slap, more or less at random, onto a troublesome bird.

What we know today as the yellow-bellied seedeater has fallen victim to such haphazard naming more than once since it was first described by Vieillot in 1823. There’s no reason here to rehearse its onomastic fortunes and misfortunes, from gutturalis to olivaceoflava to nigricollis and forth and back and back and forth.

It’s enough to know that this species, widespread in the American tropics, including the former Portuguese possessions in Brazil, comes closest to Edwards’s frizzly finch.

I believe that it was Bowdler Sharpe who first sought to identify the mystery sparrow as this seedeater. In Volume 12 of the Catalogue, he adduces Edwards’s description and Linnaeus’s names first in the synonymy for Spermophila gutturalis — though in both cases with a hesitant question mark.

Far less cautious, Outram Bangs asserted outright that

Edwards’s plate agrees exactly in measurements and color with this species except that the yellow is a little too vivid.

Indeed, Bangs was so sure that Mrs. Clayton’s birds were yellow-bellied seedeaters that in 1930 he urged that Linnaeus’s name of 1766 — based on Edwards’s plate as “type” — be restored, such that the bird should henceforth be known as Sporophila crispa (Linné).

Charles Hellmayr disagreed. Vehemently. In the Catalogue of Birds of the Americas, Hellmayr does not even include Bangs’s Linnaean name in the synonymy, instead rejecting it in a snarl of a footnote:

I am, however, quite unable to recognize our bird in “The Black and Yellow Frizled Sparrow” … which formed the exclusive basis of Linné’s account. The bright yellow belly and the heavy, acutely pointed bill, which in shape, recalls that of a Siskin, render the identification more than problematical, and I hesitate to sacrifice a certainty for the benefit of an uncertainty.

And there, so far as I know, is where it stands. Debate about the frizzled sparrow fizzled seventy-five years ago with Hellmayr’s dismissal of the only plausible identification, and Mrs. Clayton’s bird is consigned to the dustheap of nonce species, forgeries, and incompetent errors.

It’s probably just a tanager anyway.

Comments (0)

Ruby-throats in Paris

Posted by: | Comments (0)

The French ornithologists of the nineteenth century were always complaining about one thing or another in what was by then the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.

Lesson ruby-throated hummingbird pl 48

I suspect that much of their carping was little more than vaguely oedipal resentment of Buffon, who had so greatly dominated the institution back when it was still the Jardin des plantes; but when it came to the presentation of certain of the specimens, they seem to have had some legitimate grievances.

When René Primevère Lesson came to write the account of the ruby-throated hummingbird for his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches, he found — a surprise to me — that

skins of this species are very rare in European collections. Our description will be based on three specimens in very fresh plumage in the possession of the Duke of Rivoli,

him of multifarious hummingbird fame.

And why did Lesson not simply use the specimens in the Museum?

The one specimen in the Museum galleries appears to have undergone a change as a result of sulfurous fumigation, as the ruby of the throat has transformed into a clear yellowish topaz.

Forty years earlier, Buffon had described what was presumably the same individual in very different terms:

The throat has the brilliance and fire of a ruby, mixed with a golden color when seen from the side, and a dark garnet color when seen from below.

It is unlikely that the structural colors of a hummingbird’s gorget would be destroyed by even the most intense fumigation.

Maybe the bird was dusty.

Or more likely, Lesson is complaining, as so many others of his contemporaries complained, about the rigidity with which keepers and curators in the Museum refused to allow scientists and scholars to open the cases for a closer look at the specimens. Forced to look at the bird through glass, at an inflexible angle, Lesson found the ruby, the gold, and the garnet of this species reduced — figuratively, at least — to topaz.

Lesson, rubis jeune age



Comments (0)

Did Anybody Ever Really Think That?

Posted by: | Comments (2)

whiskered tern and gull-billed tern

The find of the fall — so far — at Cape May has been the continental US’s third whiskered tern, discovered a couple of days ago and still showing nicely, I hear. I’ve got fingers, toes, and eyes crossed that it linger until next Monday, when my group will be there with hopeful bells on.

In all the excitement, there’s inevitably been some shooting from the hip about this bird’s name, Chlidonias hybridaand we’ve been reminded more than once now over these past days that the species owes that funny epithet to the quaint belief that these birds actually were hybrids.

But that’s not true. Though there are plenty of cases in which “good” species were originally mistaken for the products of miscegenation, this isn’t one of them.

Peter Simon Pallas observed this “extremely rare bird” a few times in the course of his expedition to central and eastern Russia, and almost 40 years later, he gave it its first formal scientific description in the Zoographia Rosso-asiatica. He named it Sterna hybrida, not because he or anyone else had thought it was a hybrid, but because its appearance combined features of the “white” and of the “black” terns.

You might say that it was born of the black and the common tern.

You might say — “diceres” — but no one did.

Of course, Pallas was not the first to see this widespread tern. He himself indicates that it had perhaps already been described and depicted — in neither case very well — in Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s pre-Linnaean Danubius pannonico-mysicus, where the bird is said to differ from the black tern in its reddish bill and feet.

Marsigli, whiskered [or black?] tern

The account of the plumage here more closely recalls, if anything, a molting black or white-winged tern; indeed, Brisson would later use Marsigli’s description as the basis for his own “patchy tern,” Sterna naevia, which, if memory serves, Bonaparte eventually identified as a black tern.

The sorting out of the marsh terns and their names took some time; as late as Coues’s “Review of the Terns of North America,” there still obtained “a state of great confusion,” and even more than a dozen years later, Taczanowski could mix up the names of the whiskered and the white-winged terns. We were well into the twentieth century before any sort of stability could be declared.

But never did we really believe that any of them were hybrids.

whiskered tern, France

And why is it hybrida? We’re told that this is a noun “in apposition” and not an adjective. Hmph.


The More Things Change?

Posted by: | Comments (4)

Coues, signature

It’s Elliott Coues‘s birthday today, an event celebrated by precisely no one. Nil nisi bonum, of course, and there is a great deal indeed of good to be said of the man and his work — but his daemon (to use a good Couesian word) was an irascible one, and it all too often got the better of him in print.

I’ve been rereading the editorial columns Coues published during his stint at The Osprey, Theodore Gill‘s journal of ornithology and natural history. As his most recent biographers remind us, Coues was fatally ill while he served as editor in chief; while that fact may help to explain the “arrogance and animosity” of Coues’s editorials, it does not make them any less shocking.

Take, for example, Coues’s out-of-the-blue scratching of a 25-year-old old scab in the April 1897 number of the magazine. Without any apparent motivation, Coues goes back a full quarter of a century to rehearse an unseemly squabble between Charles Bendire and the Smithsonian Institution in the person of Spencer Baird.

Coues takes the opportunity to label Bendire — dead just two months — a “bumptious and captious German” who discovered insult and offense at every corner, and to remind his reader, entirely gratuitously, that Thomas Brewer, the co-author of Baird’s History of North American Birds, was a “narrow-minded, prejudiced, and tactless person.”  

Happily for science, Baird and Bendire reconciled. And whose “friendly intervention” do we have to thank for that? Coues modestly informs us:

I was the one who turned Bendire over to Baird, shortly after my original discovery of him, and … this intermediation led directly to the consummation with which all are now familiar,

namely, the incorporation of Bendire’s collections into the “unrivaled oological cabinet in the National Museum.”

Given that Bendire, Baird, and Brewer were all safely dead, Coues should have been able to get away with his story. But there were still among the living those who protested.

In just weeks, the incomparably named Manly Hardy wrote from Maine “as an old friend of Major Bendire.” Hardy adduces a letter in which Bendire describes Brewer as “one of the best friends I had” and goes on to regret that Coues, for whom Bendire “on several occasions expressed … his intense dislike,”

has never forgiven me for the strong friendship I always showed for Dr. Brewer. He is not satisfied even now [February 1883, three years after Brewer's death] to let him rest in his grave and loses no opportunity to belittle him whenever he can.

Beyond that, Hardy notes that as late as 1883 Bendire was still of two minds about donating his eggs to the Smithsonian. And as to Coues’s

claim of “discovering” Major Bendire, the Major’s friends always have supposed that he discovered himself…. Dr. Coues had about as much to do with discovering Major Bendire as the dog did in discovering the moon — the moon shone too brightly for his peace of mind, and he barked at it.


Coues was down — but not out. He responded with a long series of excerpts from his own correspondence with Bendire and with Baird (he admitted, on reviewing the record, that “there was more Baird and less Brewer in it than I intimated”), which demonstrated to his satisfaction that he had been “exactly right.” As to Hardy’s “silly” and “gratuitous” objections,

Who this person may be I have no idea, except that I lately edited for him a paper on some Maine birds which was published … after I had taken the trouble to make it presentable by fixing up its bad spelling and worse grammar.

And Coues remained resolute in his criticism of Bendire’s prickly punctilio and Brewer’s “foolishness”:

Everybody knows that Dr. Brewer made a fool of himself about the [House] Sparrows for years, and the fact that he then died does not alter the other fact of what he did when he was alive…. I do not find that Maj. Bendire’s recent demise alters one iota the merits of his quarrel of 1872-73…. Dying makes a great difference to the person chiefly concerned, but has no retroactive effect upon the events of his life, and only sentimentalists allow it to influence their estimate of personal character.

On that principle, then, Happy Birthday. I guess.

Comments (4)

High Praise: Rousseau on Buffon

Posted by: | Comments (0)

In November 1764, Rousseau wrote of the natural historian:

I believe that Buffon is the equal of any of his contemporaries as a thinker and a philosophe; but as a writer, he has no peer. He wields the most beautiful pen of the age.

Buffon, born September 7, 1707

Categories : Famous Birders
Comments (0)

 Subscribe in a reader

Nature Blog Network