Archive for Famous Birders


Happy 200th Birthday!

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Brewer's Sparrow CSP November 20, 2006 033

Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Brewer.

Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbird

This giant of American ornithology lives on today only in a few bird names.

mallard domestic

Two hundred years is a long time, and it’s no surprise that Brewer is otherwise so little known today: time erodes. But his might be a more prominent name had he not ended up on the wrong end of a stick wielded by Elliott Coues.

House Sparrow

If nobody really won the Sparrow Wars (unless it was the house sparrow), Brewer was definitely the loser, and his name is still sullied by Couesian insult 135 years after his death.

Today, though, causa pietatis, we can remember Brewer for the positive contributions he made to American ornithology and natural history.

Thomas Brewer signature

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The Day the Magpies Died

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Who can keep track of the quarrels and tussles between England and France and Burgundy in the later Middle Ages? All those Louises and Henrys and Charleses and Philips have always run together for me, even back in the days when it was my job to help others keep that sort of thing straight.

One story from that tumultuous time (you didn’t think I’d get through this without saying “tumultuous,” did you?) has always shone bright in the distant mirror, though: the slaughter of the magpies in 1468.


That was the year when Charles the Bold maneuvered Louis XI (known to his many friends as “The Universal Spider”) into turning over much of his territory in the Lowlands and abandoning his allies from Lüttich. The treaty sealing Louis’s humiliation was signed in the northern city of Péronne and ratified in October by the French parliament. According to the historian Louis Roy (no relation to the arachnid),

the inhabitants of Paris, given as they were to independent thinking and a constant spirit of mockery, taught their birds to whistle the word “Péronne.” The birds learned so well that once he had returned to his capital, the king could not walk the streets without hearing repeated on every side “Péronne,” the name of the city that brought back such unpleasant memories.

Louis did the only thing he logically could do: On November 19, 1468, a decree went forth confiscating “any magpie or jay able to speak the word Péronne or other such fine vocables.” Convicted of lèse-majesté, these “singular prisoners of the State” were — so says Louis Roy — summarily transported to Amboise, where they were massacred at the edge of the forest.

The shameful Treaty of Péronne was abrogated two years later. It was too late, though, for the magpies of Paris and their voluble kin.


Your Admirer, Carolus

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I was made curious the other day when someone told me that the concept of the “species” was a Linnaean invention. Obviously, that’s not true, but it moved me to do something I’d never done before — namely, to actually read the “Observationes” that accompany the first edition of the Swedish taxonomer’s Systema naturae, published 279 years ago (fugit irreparabile tempus indeed!).

Screenshot 2014-11-18 09.05.56

There’s plenty of Linnaean bombast, plenty of pre-Darwinian quaintness, and a fine assertion of the value of the systematic project:

The first stage of wisdom is to know things themselves. That knowledge consists of the True Idea of objects; objects are identified and known by dividing them systematically and giving them suitable names; so much so that division and naming shall be the foundation of our knowledge.

Zoology in particular, Linnaeus goes on to say, has neglected this fundamental task:

If we look closely at the zoological works of the authoritative writers, we find that the greatest part is nothing but fantastic tales, vague writing, imperfect engravings, and often excessively long descriptions. Truly the list of those who have attempted to organize zoology into species and genera guided by systematic laws is very short, if we except the noble Willughby and the renowned Ray.

Both of those great naturalists were long gone by 1735, but surely a fan letter like that had no trouble penetrating beyond the veil.

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Small and fragile, birds have always posed a challenge to scientific collectors, who over the centuries have developed a startling range of techniques for taking them more or less intact and whole. Indeed, the smallest species were often secured by shooting them not with lead but with sand or ash, in hopes of minimizing the damage to tiny feathers and tender skin.

Sometimes, however, intentionally or otherwise, less punctilious methods have been brought to bear. In the early spring of 1917, for example, M.A. Carriker, Jr., unexpectedly obtained three specimens of the white-collared swift on the grounds of his in-laws’ plantation in Santa Marta, Colombia:

While blasting out the intake for a flume at Cincinnati on March 19, 1917, a colony of this large swift was discovered nesting in a shallow cavern behind a waterfall. The place was absolutely inaccessible, so that no idea of the number of nests could be had. Only one nest, which happened to be near the top, was secured, together with the occupants, which had been stunned by the blasting, and proved to be an adult female and two recently hatched young.

Miller, Cimelia physica, white-collared swift

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Tischbein the Birder

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On October 29, 1786, Goethe arrived in Rome, where he was met by the painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. The rest, as they say, is history: the two traveled Italy together, and their long friendship would be commemorated in Tischbein’s most famous painting, the most famous image of Goethe ever produced.

Tischbein, Goethe in der Campagna

A century and a half later, Roger Tory Peterson posed for a portrait of his own — striking a pose that I have always suspected was modeled on Goethe’s.

Whether that connection is real or — just barely possibly conceivably — imagined, there is another, more easily demonstrated. For Tischbein, the creator of so many famous portraits and classicizing history paintings, was a lapsed birder.

From Rome, the artist wrote to Johann Heinrich Merck

I was once a great amateur of birds and knew almost all the species, especially the native ones. In Holland I saw some very fine ones. I like birds very much; it seems to me that they occupy the same place in living nature as flowers in a nature morte. The bright, beautiful colors and the feathers in themselves are a beautiful thing. I’ve seen some here I didn’t know before: a green bird that resembles a kingfisher but is a type of thrush; a blue thrush; and another little birdlet like a wren.

Tischbein, who had etched some of the early plates for the Nozeman – Sepp Nederlandsche vogelen, even considered producing an illustrated guide to the birds of Rome:

If I could be certain that these birds were not already known, I would have them drawn and their life histories added.

It didn’t happen. And maybe that’s just as well.



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