Archive for Famous Birders

Oct
18

On the Eating of Birds by Spiders

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Wikipedia strikes again. Or rather, Wikipedia strikes out again.

We are informed (or were informed — I trust that the article will be corrected anon) that

Linnaeus’s name avicularia is derived from the Latin avicula, meaning “little bird,” and refers to a 1705 illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian, showing a tarantula feeding on a bird.

What’s worse, though, is that this bit of garble was obviously the direct source for a recent blog entry that credulously repeats the same naive misapprehension.

It’s quite true that Merian shows a spider eating a bird, and that the pioneering entomologist identifies that bird as a “Colibritgen,” a hummingbird. There is no indication in her text, however, that the striking plate “illustrates a real event that she witnessed in Suriname.” And Linnaeus’s inspiration for the name avicularia in fact antedates Merian’s work by some decades.

A look at the original description of Linnaeus’s Aranea avicularia — rather than at Wikipedia — reveals that Merian’s work was simply one of the several illustrated natural history sources the Archiater consulted. (You can click on the pictures.)

And one of those sources, Adam Olearius’s 1674 catalogue of Duke Frederick III’s Kunstkammer Gottorf Castle in Schlewsig-Holstein, labels its big hairy spider Aranea avicularia.

This was twenty-five years before Merian undertook her groundbreaking expedition to the Guyanas, and more than three decades before she published the greatest of all early modern entomologies.

All well and good — but what about the behavior behind the spider’s grimly humorous epithet avicularia, “the birdkeeper”?

The existential battle between hummingbirds and spiders is a commonplace in nearly all of the early European literature about the little birds, from the sixteenth century on. No one before or since has depicted it as dramatically as Sybilla Merian, but to suggest that she discovered the phenomenon is wrong — especially given the modest parenthetical comment she inserts into her discussion of the hummingbird:

zoo als men my gezegt heeft,

“as they have told me.”

Aren’t her real accomplishments enough without adding fictional deeds to them?

 

 

 

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Sep
04

A Longspur Postscript

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The would-be type of Audubon’s Smith bunting provides a troubling example of how specimen data can be corrupted in the chain of publication.

We know from Audubon himself that he saw this species alive only once, in 1820, when he failed to secure a specimen. Not until 1843 did he handle specimens in the United States, when birds collected in southern Illinois were brought to him in St. Louis; the specimens had been secured by John G. Bell and Edward Harris, not by Audubon, who stayed in the city during his companions’ two-week excursion.

Nevertheless, with two of those skins on the table before him, Spencer Baird credited one to Audubon as collector — no doubt less a case of flattery (Audubon had been dead six years when Baird et al. published their Birds) than a poor solution to the difficulty of fitting all of the provenance information into the specimen chart.

More puzzlingly still, that skin, the single Bell/Harris example of the species apparently remaining at the Smithsonian, is now listed in the NMNH database as collected by Baird and received from Audubon — and deprived of its true date (April 1843), its true locality (Illinois, Madison County, near Edwardsville), and its true age (most certainly not a juvenile).

Innocent errors all, and no doubt easily resolved with another look at the specimen labels, but still a bizarre and instructive case of téléphone arabe in the history of ornithology.

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Sep
03

Smith’s Painted Buntling

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There are but few things I miss from those long-ago years in Urbana, and this clown-faced calcariid is one of them.

Like clockwork, end of March every year we would get out and walk the foxtail-choked stubble of last year’s corn, and there they were — the first northbound Smith longspurs of the spring.

There was an extra piquancy to finding these birds in our neighborhood, as the first individuals ever met with by western scientists in the US had been found not all that far away, in southern Illinois, in April 1843, as Audubon’s last expedition was preparing to leave St. Louis for the upper Missouri.

Edward Harris and John G. Bell, Audubon’s New Jersey patron and his hired preparator, respectively, had left the old man in the city and set off for the prairies to the northeast, where they busied themselves for two weeks exploring and collecting. Bell reported that they had found an unfamiliar bird “very abundant,”

generally in large flocks, and when on the ground began at once to scatter and divide themselves, rendering it difficult for us to shoot more than two at one shot; they run very nimbly….

Harris and Bell were up to the challenge, though, and eventually secured “several specimens,” two of which made their way into the Smithsonian collections (first, it seems, as personal gifts from Audubon to Spencer Baird) and one of which apparently remains there (it is impossible to reconcile the locality and age information provided in the electronic specimen record with what Baird says of the skin).

Audubon did not recognize the little dead finches, either, and he published them as representing a new species, the Smith lark-bunting, Plectrophanes Smithii. The name honored his “good friend Gideon B. Smith, Esq., M.D.,” the entrepreneurial entomologist whom Audubon had visited in Baltimore at the start of his 1843 voyage.

The practiced eye will have noticed in that last paragraph that while Smith is still commemorated in the bird’s official English name, he goes unmentioned in the current scientific name, Calcarius pictus (“painted spur-bird“). This not uncommon circumstance — have a look at the hawk and the sparrow named for Edward Harris, to take two well-known examples — typically arises when a competing scientific name is found to have priority only after the English name has attained currency; it’s no surprise in North American ornithology that Audubon, a powerful voice and a not always careful bibliographer, is so often prominent in these stories.

In the case of the longspur, it is entirely understandable that Audubon and his companions in St. Louis overlooked the fact that the species had been published and named more than a decade earlier. William Swainson’s handsome lithograph of a single male shot on the banks of the Saskatchewan River in April 1827  (the specimen once in the collections of the Zoological Society of London, but now apparently lost) was completed in 1829; the formal description and name, Emberiza picta, were published in the volume dated 1831 of the Fauna boreali-americana.

Smith longspur 1827 specimen

Swainson’s lithograph, the first image above, shows the bird in all its springtime glory, but Bell and Harris were less fortunate. Though these longspurs can be quite bright indeed as they pass through Illinois, Audubon’s plate, the second above, shows that his companions encountered, or at least shot, only females or males still early in their pre-alternate molt. Though Audubon’s use of the name “lark-bunting” suggests that he may have recognized the novum as somehow longspurrish, there is really no reason to expect that he, Harris, and Bell should have recognized their smudgy brown birds as identical to the dapper badger-faced creature from Carlton House.

Audubon painted bunting Smith longspur plate 400

And that in spite of the fact that Audubon himself had experience, in the field and in the hand, with Swainson’s “painted buntling.” (Extra credit, by the way, if without benefit of google you can identify the tail in Audubon’s image.) To prepare his plate for the Birds of America, Audubon borrowed the original Saskatchewan skin of “this handsome species” from the Zoological Society. Examining the specimen in the 1830s, he was reminded of something he had seen himself on the wintertime prairies:

That the Painted Bunting at times retires far southward, probably accompanying the Lapland Longspur, is a fact for which I can vouch, having seen one on the shore of the Mississippi in December 1820, which however I missed on wing after having viewed it about two minutes, as it lay flat on the ground.

Though is not entirely unheard of for male Smith longspurs to appear in breeding aspect in early winter, Audubon was certainly fortunate to witness the phenomenon — and to remember it so clearly nearly two decades later.

The phantom from Illinois survived in the scientific literature for the better part of a decade, listed on Audubon’s authority as distinct from the Swainsonian picta by no less than George Robert GrayJean Cabanis and Charles Bonaparte.

Baird et al. 1858 Smith longspur

Sometime in the 1850s, it was somehow determined that Audubon’s Illinois bird — the longspur he named for Smith — was in fact simply the “immaturely marked” plumage of Swainson’s painted buntling. Whatever debate and discussion may have taken place seems to have gone on behind the published scenes, but the ever so slight broadening of the specimen record available to Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway may have helped: the two Robert Kennicott skins (neither of which I can find in an NMNH search) bracket the migration of the species through the Mississippi Valley, and I assume (dangerous thing, that) that they provided the points of triangulation to finally confirm the identity of the earlier Illinois specimens.

Smithsonian Smith longspur 1858 specimens

It was Baird and his collaborators who struck the nomenclatural compromise by recognizing the priority of Swainson’s picta/us but retaining Audubon’s vernacular tribute to Gideon Smith. We should continue to think of the good doctor whenever we see this species, but I hope that next time we run into one — on the breeding grounds or on migration through a chilly midwestern field — we try to remember, too, that it took years of effort by some of the century’s most important ornithologists to figure out that two species were in fact only one.

 

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Jun
29

A New Way of Fowling

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The most famous spotting scope in American birding history is surely this one, purchased by Henry David Thoreau in March 1854 and used to look at the tops of trees and the birds in them.

Again and again, on long car rides and in slow moments afield, I’ve been told that Thoreau’s was the first spyglass ever dedicated to watching birds. It wasn’t, of course. Audubon was continually peering through a telescope, his own or one borrowed from the captain of whatever ship he happened to be on.

Going back even farther, Hans Sloane reports using a glass to stare at hummingbirds on the tantalizingly nearby shore when his ship was becalmed on its arrival at Jamaica — in 1687.

In a way, I suppose, even if (and surely they were) people were spying on birds with optical instruments before 1687, Sloane and Audubon and Thoreau all have a good claim to be the first, as each seems to have come up with the idea independently. So, too, did “A.P.,” a birder in Epping Forest, who in the spring of 1830 reported on his “new mode of examining birds, etc.”:

I have derived much delight from the use of a good pocket telescope, magnifying about thirty times, whilst exploring the recesses of our forest for the various species of the feathered tribe with which it abounds… I direct upon [a bird] my quiet vivifying tube; and thus the living specimen, sporting in all its native character (perhaps quite heedless of its inspector, at a distance of thirty, forty, or ninety yards), is brought within a visual range of one, two, or three yards of my eye… many an interesting spectacle. Being a warm friend to humanity, I may add, that I hope my practice of “fowling” will find many advocates.

So it has, so it has.

birders birding

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Jun
22

Sharpe’s Pygmy Finch

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Also known, as of this latest Supplement to the AOU Check-list, as the Morelet seedeater.

Morelet White-collared Seedeater

The re-split of the white-collared seedeater into the Morelet seedeater and the cinnamon-rumped seedeater will strike many birders as a “no-brainer,” and the NACC’s decision in this case aligns the AOS taxonomy with most other authorities’ treatment of these tiny tanagers. The only thing we’re likely to have trouble with is the spelling of the name of one of the “new” species.

As the NACC points out, both the scientific and English names of the northern bird commemorate the Burgundian natural historian, novelist, and illustrator Pierre Marie Arthur Morelet, active in the mid-nineteenth century in Africa, the Azores, Middle America, and the Caribbean. In 1850, two years after Morelet’s return from Central America, Charles Bonaparte published a new seedeater in his honor — but misspelled the explorer’s name in the species epithet, an error that has never been corrected and likely cannot ever be.

Morelet had collected the first specimens in northern Guatemala in 1847; Bonaparte examined them at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle shortly thereafter. I understand Bonaparte’s mention here of the MNHN curator Jacques Pucheran as identifying the author of a manuscript name, probably on the specimen label, adopted and then misspelled, or at least not corrected, by Bonaparte. In any event, we are stuck with the error, and with the disparity between the number of consonants in the English name and in the scientific name.

Less than a year after Bonaparte’s publication, John Porter McCown collected two male seedeaters in Brownsville, Texas, the first records of the genus north of Mexico. Now numbers 41295 and 41296 in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, these birds were at first identified by George N. Lawrence as white-throated seedeaters, a species known only from northeastern South America. In July 1856, Philip Lutley Sclater demurred, suggesting that the individuals Lawrence had described were probably in fact representatives of the Morelet seedeater. Two years later, with at least one of the McCown specimens at hand, Spencer Baird — in an authoritative book written with the assistance of George Lawrence — agreed.

White-collared Seedeater, male, Guatemala

We know today that Sclater and Baird were right, but it took decades for the matter to be settled. In 1888, Richard Bowdler Sharpe determined that the Texas birds were female ruddy seedeaters; in what should have been a sweet piece of poetic justice, Lawrence himself had described that species six years earlier.

In gentlemanly response, Lawrence re-examined other Texas specimens belonging to George Sennett, then on deposit at the American Museum. He was able to dismiss their allocation to the ruddy seedeater, but found at the same time that they were not identical to “the true S. morelleti,” either. He accordingly described the northerly specimens as a new taxon, S. morelleti sharpei, recognizing in the subspecific epithet his “friend, Mr. R.B. Sharpe, as he is the only one to have recognized it as being distinct” from nominate morelleti. 

The source of all that confusion was the dull plumage of males in the northern portions of their range. Generations of birders have been mildly disappointed on seeing their first Texas seedeaters at how far from truly “white-collared” the birds there are. Robert Ridgway, in declining to recognize Lawrence’s sharpei, speculated that “fully adult males have simply not yet been taken” north of Mexico, and that it was just bad luck that we in the US did not get to see the more dramatically marked individuals. The AOU quickly removed sharpei from its list of recognized subspecies.

In 1907, with a wider range of specimens available to him, Joel Asaph Allen figured it out. It was not a case, he wrote, of coincidence, but one of genuine geographic variation:

the adult males of the Texas form do not acquire the broad black pectoral collar and the black back of typical morelleti, and … in consequence … have been considered as … immature.

The differences extended to females as well, and Allen found them sufficient to reinstate Lawrence’s sharpei. The bird variously known in English by such names as the little seedeater, the Sharpe finchlet, and the Sharpe pygmy finch re-entered the AOU Check-list the next year. It is still recognized as a valid subspecies by the most authoritative world lists.

Next time you get to see a Morelet seedeater, remind yourself who Morelet was. But also give a thought or two to those who dedicated so much time to figuring out just what the French naturalist had collected on that day in 1847.

 

 

 

 

 

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