Archive for Famous Birders


Daniel Giraud Elliot

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Daniel Giraud Elliot.jpg

Today marks the centennial of the death of the splendidly bearded and splendidly productive Daniel Giraud Elliot.

A founder and president of the American Ornithologists’ Union, Elliot was also a benefactor of both the American Museum and the Field Museum; he served for a dozen years as curator at the Field, but over most of his long career as collector, author, and explorer, Elliot was — following a long tradition not yet entirely vanished — an enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateur in the most honorable sense of the word.

Elliot’s scientific contributions are probably of only historical interest today. What lingers, though, and what birders still remember him for, are the great illustrated monographs in the European style, with plates by Joseph Wolf and J.G. Keulemans. Nothing can commemorate Elliot more appropriately than a browse through those images, still some of the finest ever produced.

My favorites are the hornbills. Published — like most of his larger projects, at Elliot’s expense — when the author was only 46, the Monograph of the Bucerotidae is as stunning now as it was when it appeared in 1882, and the plates, “the happy results of  Mr. Keuleman’s talented pencil,” remain as desirable.

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Ten years earlier, Wolf had prepared the plates for Elliot’s birds of paradise. It’s hard to disagree with Elliot’s assessment of his collaborator:

The drawings executed by Mr. Wolf will… receive the admiration of those who see them; for, like all that artist’s productions, they cannot be surpassed, if equalled, at the present time.

It takes a painter of great skill to keep these spectacular birds from looking merely gaudy.

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Wolf manages to do just that, though.

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As a very young man in the 1860s, the author painted the birds himself in his monograph of the pittas.

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Frank Chapman, with the benefit of hindsight, would later allude a bit dismissively to Elliot’s abilities with the brush, but the pitta plates show him not entirely without talent as an illustrator.

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A century is not the long time I once thought it was, and it is both humbling and encouraging to think that Elliot began his career at a time when Baird, Cassin, and Lawrence were the bright lights of American ornithology — and that his own works, now dedicated to mammals rather than to birds, were still appearing in the same twentieth century when we were born.

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The Deserving Aglaé

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John Cassin was famously no friend of the practice of naming birds for people. Squabbling gently with his friend and colleague Spencer Baird over the naming of a new vireo, he wrote that

this kind of thing is bad enough at the best, but to name a bird after a person utterly unknown is worse.

There are plenty who agree with him today, and there were plenty who agreed with him in the mid-nineteenth century, when the rage for birdy patronyms was at its height. In 1839, for example, the baron de La Fresnaye expressed his own displeasure at the practice — even as he indulged in it himself. In naming a new American bird for the wife of a Bordeaux collector, La Fresnaye protested that

our sole intention in dedicating this species to Mme Brelay has been to pay tribute to the very special enthusiasm with which she herself has engaged in ornithology and collaborated with M. Brelay in forming his collection, which already includes many thousand individual birds.

But the lady ornithologist was an exception.

We by no means approve of the custom of giving new birds the names of women who are often enough entirely without any interest or expertise in ornithology; though the author of the name may be bound to them in friendship or family relations, these women can be of no interest to the larger circle of naturalists. We believe that the application of a proper name to a bird is in fact acceptable only when it commemorates that of some naturalist, author, explorer, painter, or zealous collector who has already rendered or is in the course of rendering some service to science.

La Fresnaye’s few flattering words are essentially all we know about the Brelays’ ornithological pursuits. Some of their specimens are still preserved in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the family historians are at least able to provide Mme Brelay’s dates of birth and death, but I fear that the bigger story was lost while the collections passed from the Brelays to La Fresnaye to the Verreaux brothers to the Boston Society of Natural History to, finally, Harvard.

Oh: the bird. Mme Brelay was immortalized 175 years ago in the species epithet of the rose-throated becard. Not a bad bird to lend one’s name to, not at all.

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Other People’s Bird Books: Jean Hermann and a Halloween Costume

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The famous Strasbourg naturalist and collector Jean Hermann was also a dedicated bibliophile. His personal library — eventually the foundation of the library of the Strasbourg Museum of Natural History and now in large part held in the university library of the city — was notable for its completeness and for the care with which he annotated the books, many of them in great and obsessive detail.

Hermann’s copy of the Pomeranian ornithologist Jacob Theodor Klein’s Prodromus is disappointingly clean. A Latin note on the flyleaf, though, reveals his bibliographic sophistication:

the images are missing in the German edition of Reyger, though that is the more authoritative text of the two, so much so that it is worth acquiring both editions.

Among those engravings are some of the most uncanny images in the history of ornithological illustration. This one in particular, depicting the early steps in the dissection of a Bohemian waxwing, strikes me as the inspiration for a fine costume for Halloween.

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Plus ça change

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On October 23, 1896, Frank L. Burns “secured” the first Henslow’s sparrow he had ever encountered in his home state of Pennsylvania.

henslow's sparrow, Fuertes

Burns didn’t shoot it. He didn’t net it or trap it. He didn’t even pick it up from under a plate glass window.

A large black and white cat was seen along the fence of a pasture field, with something in her mouth…. It proved to be an [adult Henslow’s sparrow] in excellent plumage, with the exception of the primaries and secondaries, which were scarcely three-fourths grown. This, together with its extreme fatness, rendered it an easy victim to tabby.

We know that Burns skinned the bird. The fate of the cat is less certain.

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Heermann’s Birds

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PUerto P, Sonora, January 24, 2007 126

One hundred fifty years ago today, Adolphus L. Heermann was killed, “having evidently stumbled and fallen,” when his collecting gun fired.

John Cassin, who knew him well, said of Heermann in earlier, healthier days that no better man could be had for a collecting expedition. In 1853, Cassin dedicated a “beautiful gull” to his friend, an

acknowledgment due to his accomplishment as a naturalist, and his perseverance and success as a scientific traveller.

In Washington, D.C., Spencer Baird was equally impressed by Heermann and his work in the field. On working through a collection of sparrows from the west, Baird encountered one that Heermann had sent from Tejon Pass, California, resembling a song sparrow but

differing very appreciably from a large number of specimens from Washington and Oregon…. I have come to the conclusion that the species is worthy of specific separation, and have accordingly named it Melospiza heermanni, after its accomplished collector and discoverer.

Today we “know” that that California bird is “just” a subspecies of the song sparrow. But there’s no reason not to call it the Heermann’s song sparrow, especially today.

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