Archive for Famous Birders


Lovebirds to the Very End

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and those little Agapornis parrots are showing up on cards and computer screens around the world.

rosy-faced Lovebird

But lovebirds aren’t the only lovebirds.

Buffon writes of The Amorous Titmouse that

we owe our knowledge of this species to the Abbot Gallois, who brought it back from the Far East and showed it to Mr. Commerson in 1769…. The epithet “amorous” given to this species indicates quite well the dominant quality of its temperament: In fact, the male and female caress each other endlessly; at least when caged, that is their sole occupation.

They give themselves over to love, we are told, to the point of exhaustion, and in this way they not only mitigate the annoyances of captivity with pleasure but curtail them; for it is obvious that such a practice means that they cannot live for very long, in accordance with the general principle that the intensity of existence diminishes its duration.

If that is their goal — if in fact they are striving only to end their captivity quickly — one must confess that in their despair they choose a very sweet way to do it.

Mr. Commerson does not tell us whether these birds perform with equal ardor the other functions required to perpetuate their species, such as the building of a nest, incubation, and parental care.

We know nothing more of this species, alas, than its affectionate habits, and it may well be extinct. But, as they say, what a way to go.

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In July 1896, the wealthy California collector A.W. Anthony and his party set out from San Diego for a tour of the west Mexican islands.

AW Anthony

One of Anthony’s companions, Horace Amidon Gaylord, D.D.S., reported that their schooner “anchored at the Mecca of the expedition, Guadalupe Island,” on September 17. Anthony immediately proceeded to the very top of the island and set up camp, hoping to descry one of the three or four Guadalupe caracaras that the local goat hunters assured him still survived.

Don Eckelberry

Don Eckelberry

He had no luck. But on September 20, a group of hunters hailed Gaylord to tell him that a “Quelili,” apparently an echoic name for the bird, had landed in a cypress near their cabin.

A shot while the bird was still in the tree, and another, as, wounded, it circled within range, secured the only Guadalupe caracara of the expedition.

The Gaylord caracara, now in the Carnegie Museum, was not the last to be collected. The estimate of only three or four survivors in 1896 was, it turns out, low.

In 1898, a hunter by the name of Harry Drent returned from Guadalupe Island with a load of goat meat — and four living Guadalupe caracaras. Drent captured the birds by shooting and winging the first, then using it as a decoy to lure in three others, which he lassoed with a short rope. He later told a San Diego paper that

I have been offered $100 for the four, but I will not sell them. I have written the Smithsonian Institute, and am confident that I shall secure a high figure.

While awaiting his windfall from Washington, Drent exhibited the birds in the back room of “a saloon on Fifth Street near G” in San Diego, where they “attracted lots of attention” but were eventually evicted by the saloon owner “on account of their dirty habits.”

After taking his birds to California, Drent claimed that only three caracaras remained on Guadalupe. In fact, the species persisted, as the famed Rollo H. Beck discovered in 1900. Thirty years later, he wrote that

Although I had no idea of it at the time it seems probably to me that I secured the last of the Guadalupe caracaras on Guadalupe Island on the afternoon of December 1, 1900. Of 11 birds that flew toward me 9 were secured. The other two were shot at but got away. The 11 birds were all that were seen….

And all that would ever be seen again.

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“Never Assume the Obvious”

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Bonaparte's Gulls

real Bonaparte’s gull

One hundred years ago today, Ludlow Griscom was out shooting birds for his graduate alma mater, Cornell University. As Roger Tory Peterson told the story,

Firing into a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls, he shot a bird which he skinned and labeled as an immature Bonaparte’s. Then taking aim at one of the passing Common Terns, he dropped it into the water, retrieved it, and subsequently labeled it an adult Common Tern.

You can guess what followed when

both specimens were re-examined. The supposed Bonaparte’s was actually a Little Gull, the first record for upstate New York; the tern was an Arctic Tern…. May 20, 1916, had been a red-letter day, but Ludlow did not appreciate it at the time.

“Never assume the obvious,” the resolutely unchastened Griscom told his disciples. But Peterson, telling this tale long after Griscom’s death, did just that. It would seem to be obvious that Griscom made up his own skins. Not this time, though.

Look what I found:

Screenshot 2015-08-20 14.20.44

I guess we know what America’s greatest bird painter was doing, too, one hundred years ago today.

Categories : Famous Birders
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Other People’s Bird Books: Bonaparte’s Pigeons

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This one is, simply put, spectacular. The front wrapper of the University of Wisconsin’s copy of the offprint of Charles Bonaparte’s Coup d’œil sur l’ordre des pigeons bears this inscription:

Screenshot 2016-04-05 16.31.56

The black ink is a bit hard to read on the green ground, and it didn’t help that Bonaparte or someone smeared the leaf, but it reads

M. Waterton

Walton Hall near York, from his friend the author — 

care of Mr. Gould.

Bonaparte and Charles Waterton had been on good terms ever since the ships they were traveling on collided in June 1841, an accident that resulted in their reconciliation after some earlier hurt feelings. Gould, of course, is John Gould, the English artist and entrepreneur, a frequent go-between for Bonaparte and his colleagues in Britain.

This little book passed through some pretty famous hands before it somehow made its way to Madison.

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The First Lawrence’s Goldfinch in Europe

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Lawrence's Goldfinch CSP February 27 2007 068

We’re happily, gratefully spoiled. Need a note from an obscure regional journal published half a century ago? One e-mail, and the text is on my computer desktop within minutes. Wonder what the type specimen of a bird looked like? I can see it in three dimensions on the museum’s website. Want the original account of a species’ discovery? It’s right there in my e-bookmarks. All pretty miraculous.

Sometimes, though, I’m surprised at how quickly information and objects could move even a century and a half ago. The beautiful and relatively uncommon Lawrence’s goldfinch offers an example.

John Graham Bell, Audubon’s companion on the Missouri and Theodore Roosevelt’s mentor in the taxidermy shop, first encountered this pretty little finch in Sonoma, California. He deposited his specimens in Philadelphia, where John Cassin published a formal description of the species in 1852.

Cassin named the bird

in honor of Mr. George N. Lawrence, of the city of New York, a gentleman whose acquirements, especially in American Ornithology, entitle him to a high rank amongst naturalists, and for whom I have a particular respect, because, like myself, in the limited leisure allowed by the vexations and discouragements of commercial life, he is devoted to the more grateful pursuits of natural history.

(Lest there be any worry that Cassin had slighted Bell, in the same paper the Philadelphia ornithologist named the pretty California sage sparrow still — again — known as Bell’s.)

Not much more than a year later, in mid-December of 1853, Charles Bonaparte was able to introduce the bird to his colleagues in Paris, in a letter describing the specimens brought back from the New World by Pierre Adolphe Delattre:

Our collection dazzles especially in the finches…. One… now appears for the first time in Europe, the pretty Lawrence’s goldfinch, discovered by Mr. Cassin in Texas and collected by Mr. Delattre in California.

As usual, Bonaparte could not resist going on to re-describe the species, but this time at least he preserved Cassin’s scientific name.

Bonaparte’s misidentification of the discoverer — it was Bell, not Cassin — and of the type locality — it was California, not Texas — suggests to me that he had not yet actually read the description published the year before. Then as now, though, news traveled quickly along the ornithological grapevine.

Just not yet at the speed of light.


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