Archive for Famous Birders


The Laughing Tern

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Gull-billed Tern

On May 16, 1818, Wilhelm Schilling encountered a small flock of this handsome tern for the first time on German soil. He collected one, and did not see the species again until June 1819, this time three pairs on the island Lips; this time he collected all six. A few returned to Lips the next year, only to wind up themselves on their backs in Schilling’s specimen drawers. The next year, 1821, the species “was entirely absent from these localities,” which led Schilling and his colleague Ludwig Brehm to conclude that

this is a nomadic bird on the islands of the Baltic Sea, which breeds there only occasionally and in warm, dry years.

On examining Schilling’s specimens, Brehm recognized the bird as Montagu’s Sterna anglica and Wilson’s Sterna aranea — but he liked neither of those names, and so he gave it a new one, Sterna risoria.

Gull-billed Tern

Brehm explains the new species epithet as a translation of the name by which the bird was known on the island of Rügen, “kleine Lachmöwe,” the little laughing gull.

It has a loud call, similar to human laughter, sounding like hähä or hä, which in its many variations expresses the bird’s different moods. Schilling heard this call from those that he saw in May 1818. When he shot at one and missed, it climbed high into the air and seemed to want to mock the unhappy marksman with its laughter.

However suitable the name risoria, Brehm couldn’t, of course, just go around changing things to tease his friends. In fact, this species had already accumulated a considerable stock of synonyms by the time Brehm’s name was published in 1822; the earliest had been given it sixty years earlier by Linnaeus himself, Sterna nilotica, the Nile tern. 

But Brehm was not defeated. In 1830, he determined that the catch-all genus Sterna could profitably be split up, with the Gull-billed Terns occupying one of their own.He named the new genus Gelochelidon, the “laughing swallow.” 

Audubon g-b tern, octave ed.

Even today, not everyone understands Brehm’s genus name. I often hear it spoken, and even see it written, as if it were “Geochelidon,” a hypercorrection first made in print by the great German and Cuban ornithologist Juan Gundlach. Gundlach doesn’t explain himself, but I suspect that he, like some of our own contemporaries, thought of this elegant bird as a “ground tern” of sorts — after all, it doesn’t dive, and even by tern standards, this species spends a great deal of its time loafing on mud and gravel bars.

It doesn’t much matter. But getting the name wrong comes at a cost: the cost of the mental image of that lucky tern flying high over Schilling’s head, filling the skies above Rügen with the sound of triumphant laughter.  

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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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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.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 09.11.23

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.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 09.24.04

Wolf manages to do just that, though.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 09.22.08

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

Screenshot 2015-12-22 09.41.47

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.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 09.41.06

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.

Categories : Famous Birders
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