Archive for Famous Birders


Suppression and Hypocrisy

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Sometimes it’s best not to tell people what you’ve seen.

It can be hard to keep quiet when you’ve discovered something really exciting, but there are times when the stakes are genuinely high, as they were along Florida’s Sebastian River in the late winter and spring of 1889.

On a birding trip to Brevard County that year, Frank Michler Chapman

found the only known roosting place of the Carolina paroquet … at the head of the Sebastian River in Florida … in a hollow tree. After he had gone, the place was found by another man, who, placing a gunny sack over the opening, captured all of them, and even cut down the tree, which he sold…. That was the last of the Carolina paroquet.

When Chapman told his story to the New York Times some 35 years later (and a half a decade after the much-mourned death of Incas in the Cincinnati Zoo), he neglected, conveniently, to mention the part he himself had played in the destruction of the Sebastian River flock. In 1890, freshly returned from Florida, Chapman reported to the Linnaean Society of New York:

Late one morning (March 15 [1889]) we found a flock of eight birds…. These birds took flight as we approached, but twice returned while we waited below, leaving five of their number with us. We secured in all, during our stay of one week, fifteen specimens.

As Noel Snyder rightly points out, the parakeet’s population in 1889 was likely still “substantial,” and neither Chapman’s collecting nor an anonymous Florida rube’s enterprise and ambition doomed the species.

Still, it remains difficult to reconcile the New York ornithologist’s repeated expressions of concern for the bird with his repeated collecting of specimens — as late as 1904, when Chapman, after finding only a dozen individuals in Okeechobee County, described the species in print as “apparently very rare,” he still shot four specimens, fully a third of all the parakeets he encountered.

As Snyder’s interviews and research discovered, the Carolina parakeet would survive as a species for another fifteen or twenty or thirty or even forty years, but Chapman’s elegiac tone in Bird-Lore and the Times makes his happy trigger finger even harder to understand — and even harder to forgive.

Photo by Pelican Island Audubon; specimen in the collections of Cornell University.


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I love a good appendix.

Lest you think I’m starting an especially ghoulish Halloween especially early, let me hasten to explain:

One of the best parts of Burtt and Davis’s Alexander Wilson is the two-page

list of books available to Alexander Wilson relating to zoology, especially ornithology, in the libraries of the American Philosophical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, and William Bartram,

a hugely informative catalogue followed by tables indicating how often Wilson cited each. These few precious pages answer lots of questions — and raise even more that we might not even have thought to ask. And they give us a good sense of just how sloppy a bibliographer Wilson could occasionally be.


In the third volume of the American Ornithology, Wilson announces the discovery of a bird he named Sylvia magnolia, the black and yellow warbler.

Wilson, magnolia warbler

He had collected two himself, and notes that Charles Willson Peale had earlier encountered “this elegant species” in the Philadelphia area.

With the pride of an immigrant, Wilson reminds his reader that

No notice has ever been taken of this bird by any European naturalist whose works I have examined.

Oh, really?

In 1758, eight years before Wilson’s birth, George Edwards presented a fine plate (better than Wilson’s) and a thorough description of the “yellow-rumped fly-catcher,” a bird he had received “preserved dry” from none other than a very young William Bartram, the very man who would nearly half a century later become Wilson’s patron and encourager. To Bartram goes the honor of discovery.

Edwards, magnolia warbler

Mathurin Brisson introduced the bird to continental readers in 1760, citing and largely translating Edwards’s text in the third volume of the Ornithologie. Buffon referred to both Edwards and Brisson for this species, taking the opportunity to gently reproach the Englishman for calling it a moucherolle – a flycatcher — rather than a warbler. John Latham listed the species in his Synopsis in 1783. Two years later, Thomas Pennant included a description of the species in the Arctic Zoology. In 1788, Wilson’s “new” warbler entered the Linnaean canon when it was listed in Gmelin‘s edition of the Systema. Latham used Gmelin’s name, maculosa, in his Index of 1790, published four years before Wilson arrived in America.

I’ve piled up all those names and dates and references to make my point even more, ahem, pointed.

According to Burtt and Davis, Wilson in the American Ornithology cites Edwards 55 times, William Bartram 62 times, Brisson 82 times, Buffon 151 times, and Latham 173 times. He refers to Gmelin only once — and to Gmelin’s English translator, Turton, 64 times.

But not once, in the course of consulting these standard works a minimum of 588 times, did Wilson come across Edwards’s yellow-rump.

Why not? He just plain overlooked it, obviously. But little lapses like this only make their scarcity the more impressive in Wilson’s monumental work.

If you made it to the end of that heap of names and dates a couple of paragraphs up, you will be wondering what ever happened to Dendroica maculosa. To Wilson’s great and good posthumous fortune, Gmelin’s name Motacilla maculosa turned out to have already been used in 1783 by Boddaert to name the Karoo prinia. Wilson’s name, published in 1811, was the next available. 


That First Yellow-rump

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Myrtle warbler

It’s October now, and they’re everywhere here in northern New Jersey, woods and thickets and messy backyards full of their homely little tock notes.

Yellow-rumped warblers are so abundant and so familiar that we can forget that they had to be “discovered” for European science. But it should be easy enough to find out who deserves credit for shooting and describing the first one.

Shouldn’t it?

The first western scientist to apply the name “yellow-rump” to a parulid was, unsurprisingly, Mark Catesby. Catesby’s description , however, of his Virginia specimens is remarkably scant:

This is a Creeper, and seems to be of the Tit-kind. The most distinguish’d Part of this Bird is its Rump, which is yellow. All the Rest of the Feathers are brown, having a faint Tincture of Green. It runs about the Bodies of Trees, and feeds on Insects, which it pecks from the Crevises of the Bark. The Hen differs little from the Cock in the Colour of its Feathers.

None too informative, is it? Fortunately, Catesby’s plate should clear things up.

Or so one might think.

Catesby, The yellow-rump

Recently, most ornithologists have been content to identify Catesby’s yellow-rump with our yellow-rump, the bird now known as Setophaga coronata; it’s as good a guess as any, though I often wonder whether we might not be looking at, and Catesby describing, one of those so dull Cape May warblers one runs into this time of year.

What we do know is that Linnaeus, who named so many organisms in reliance on Catesby’s Natural History, did not believe that Catesby had depicted coronata, which the Archiater described instead from a handsome and well-detailed plate by George Edwards (whose Motacilla corona aurea was, of course, the inspiration for the Linnaean name).

Edwards, too, another of Catesby’s closest readers, failed to recognize in the old “yellow-rump” the warbler he, Edwards, was describing; indeed, he says in 1760, 28 years after the first publication of the Catesbeian plate, that

these birds, I think, may safely be pronounced non-descripts,

that is, members of a species not yet formally described to science.

What do you think? Is Mark Catesby’s “yellow-rump” a yellow-rump?


George N. Lawrence, born on this date in the long-ago year of 1806, was still a familiar figure at the American Museum four score years later, at the beginning of Frank Chapman’s career as an ornithologist.

Chapman would later report in his Autobiography that the 

kindly-faced gentleman … came at times to compare some recently received birdskin, and, doubtless, also for the pleasure of being with the specimens it had taken him nearly a lifetime to acquire,

specimens he had sold to the museum.

One day, Lawrence showed up with an unfamiliar hummingbird from Colombia, and Chapman, “with characteristic excess of enthusiasm over discretion,” determined that it was an entirely new species, one that he, with the older ornithologist’s blessing, formally described in the pages of the Bulletin in July 1889, under the name Amazilia aeneobrunnea:

This new species is so remarkably distinct as to scarcely require comparison with any other member of the genus.

But there was a catch, as Chapman reported in October of that year:

Since publishing [the] description of Amazilia aeneobrunnea … I happened to handle a Bogota example of Chrysolampis mosquitus…. A re-examination of the type of aeneobrunnea showed that the body [belonged] to this species [namely, Chrysolampis mosquitus], while the head and neck were those of Chlorostilbon haberlini.

Chapman had been fooled by a fake, “one of those taxidermal deceptions which not infrequently puzzle and sometimes, as in the present case, completely deceived unsuspecting ornithologists.” At least, he added wryly, he could have “the peculiar pleasure of placing the body” of the hummingbird “in one genus and the head in another.”

Before his retraction was published, Chapman had a chance to show the specimen to Daniel Giraud Elliot, the author of an important monograph on the hummingbirds. Chapman writes that

barely had he glanced at it when, looking at me over the tops of his glasses, he said, “See here, my boy, there’s something wrong,”

whereupon Chapman showed Elliot — possessor of “a boyish heart” and a “love of birds and fun” — the manuscript of his palinode.

What Lawrence had to say about it all I know not.

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What would any of us do without the Biodiversity Heritage Library? Those millions of scanned pages answer questions we might not even have dared ask twenty years ago, and I can’t count the hours of sloggery and the gallons of gasoline they’ve saved me.

Every once in a great while, though, one runs across a scanning error: a pudgy thumb across the text, a blurry page, even — on the rarest of occasions — a missing leaf. Sometimes what is not here truly was not there: not every old book has come down to us intact. But most of the time the pages were simply flipped too fast and something was missed.

Happily, it’s easy to report problems like that, and the response from members of the BHL staff is always prompt and helpful. And sometimes, in the meantime you can help yourself.

Lately I’ve become interested in the history of the toucans, a group second only to the hummingbirds in their power to conjure up the exotic for European naturalists and collectors.

My favorite is the curl-crested aracari, a bizarre little toucan first collected in (apparently) Peru not even 200 years ago. Oddly, this weird but appealing species did not accumulate much of a pictorial record in the years after its discovery. Obviously, it is found in John Gould’s Monograph:

Gould Monograph ed. 1 Curl-crested aracari

and in the German translation by the Sturms of Gould’s second edition:

Sturm and Sturm, Gould's Monographie, Curl-crested aracari

Pickin’s are otherwise slender from those early days, and so I was excited to run across a reference to another example, a painting published in the Magasin de zoologie in 1836.

And of course the BHL includes the Magasin

But somebody at the Museum of Comparative Zoology nodded at the scanner, and the digital book goes from Plate 61 — a handsome magpie shrike — to Plate 63 — a great shrike-tyrant. The aracari was Plate 62.

Frustrating. But then again….

Prêtre, Curl-crested aracari

The plates in this volume of the Magasin bleed noticeably through the paper, leaving the ghost of a mirror image on each otherwise blank verso page. This one does, too: our Plate 62 may be missing digitally, but it was clearly present physically.

A little primitive photo editing:

Screenshot 2014-10-07 18.24.03

Pretty it ain’t, but it’s good enough to answer the questions I had wanted to pose of the image. First, the nomenclature used is that of Gould’s first edition, in which the bird is called Pteroglossus ulocomus. And second, more importantly, the image is not based on Gould’s, but is an original (if not overly imaginative) composition.

The explanatory text accompanying the plate is preserved on line. We learn there that this specimen, “the first of this pretty species” to be brought to France, and “perhaps to Europe,” was brought back by the surgeon of La Favorite from that ship’s circumnavigation of the world under the command of Captain Laplace.

Aha. I knew that the ornithological volume from that voyage had appeared in 1839, after long delays; but was it illustrated?

Back to BHL. And BHL comes through.

Our little toucan, the “aracari à crête bouclée,”  is the very first species treated in the report, in an account taken verbatim from that published in the Magasin in 1836. And it is depicted, happy wonder, on Plate 10, engraved after a painting by Edouard Traviès.

Here it is, in all its ramphastid glory.

Curl-crested aracari

It was the long way around, but well worth it. And can you imagine how long it would have taken us if we’d had to go to the library — the old-fashioned kind, I mean?


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