Archive for Famous Birders

Fuertes slat-colored junco

It’s one of the infallible signs of the season. Sitting inside on a chilly day, a cup of hot chocolate warming the hands and busy feeders cheering the heart, every year about this time you can watch it creep across the internet: the description of the slate-colored junco as “leaden skies above and snow beneath.”

I’d love to know who’s behind the e-revival of that particular bit of kitsch. Or do you suppose that everybody is quoting the phrase directly from its source, Howard Elmore Parkhurst’s The Birds’ Calendar?

Parkhurst, slate-colored juncos

Parkhurst’s “informal diary” is now virtually unknown — apart, of course, from that throwaway line about the juncos. But it marks the birth of a very special sub-genre in the literature of American birding, namely, the Central Park memoir.

The observations here recorded, with slight exceptions, were all made in that small section known as “The Ramble,” covering only about one-sixteenth of a square mile…. Within this little retreat I have, during the year [1893], found represented nineteen of the twenty-one families of song birds in the United States; some of them quite abundantly in genera and species; with a sprinkling of species from several other classes of land and water birds.

Among the birds Parkhurst encountered in January was

the snow-bird, a trim and sprightly creature about six inches long, dark slate above and on the breast, which passes very abruptly into white beneath, as if it were reflecting the leaden skies above and the snow below…. Their sleek and natty appearance and genial temper commend them at once to the observer.

Parkhurst, Birds' Calendar

And Parkhurst’s “attractive” prose commended itself equally to the contemporary reader. His felicitous description of the junco appears to have been quoted abundantly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, almost (only almost!) always with an attribution to the author. It seems likely that Neltje Blanchan was the earliest vector of dissemination for the phrase, which passed from her Bird Neighbors into leaflets for schoolchildren, who no doubt were as taken by “Mr. Parkhurst’s suggestive description of this rather timid little neighbor” as were his adult readers.

In the years that followed, however, the quotation was loosed from its authorial origins, most often to be cited anonymously. In his 1968 entry for the Bent Life HistoriesEaton followed that “modern” practice in noting only that the junco had been “aptly described as ‘leaden skies above, snow below'” — not bothering to tell us by whom. Parkhurst’s words still appeared in quotation marks, but they had plainly become part of a shared store of birderly lore, no more requiring attribution than the observation that the white outer rectrices are “prominent in flight.”

Ernest Thompson Seton, slate-colored juncos

This has always been the path of a catchy phrase: invented by a single mind, admired by others, then finally taken over into a broader culture eager to forget that it ever had an origin. But the internet has introduced another, more sinister step.

Parkhurst’s words still circulate — especially this time of year — without his name attached. In a classic internet move, though, a google search now, once again, turns up the quotation with an attribution.

A new attribution.

Thoreau described [juncos] as “leaden skies above, snow below.”

I don’t know all of Thoreau. I don’t remember those words in what I have read of the oeuvre, though, and it seems suspect to me that the earliest printed assertion of his authorship (thanks, google) should be from no more than four years before the Mother Jones quotation above. Surely in the 101 years between Parkhurst’s Calendar and 1994 someone would have pointed out the theft. I’m left wondering whether the credit to Thoreau isn’t — gasp — made up, as are so many (it sometimes seems like most) of the attributions on the internet.

It’s one of the unhappy elements of this e-world that it’s awfully easy for us to just say things, whether they’re true or not. But, in an encouraging paradox, the same casual convenience lets us go ad fontes in search of the truth: it takes hardly more time to look up “leaden skies and snow” than it does to decide to type the name “Thoreau.”

So here, a couple of weeks early, is my 2015 resolution: To give Howard E. Parkhurst credit for everything he said or wrote, and to resist the easy temptation to throw attributions around at random.

Who’s with me?

Horsfall slate-colored juncos

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A Hummingbird Jubilee

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In 1832, Karl von Schreibers, director of the Imperial Cabinet and a founder of Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum, began publication of a new series reporting on the zoological discoveries of Austrian scientists in Brazil. The Collectanea ad faunam Brasiliae lasted only one issue, but that was enough for Schreibers to present what he thought were two undescribed hummingbirds sent back to Vienna by Johann Natterer.

Schreibers Collectanea ornith Bras

Neither, unfortunately, was truly new. The two larger birds in the plate by Michael Sandler, a pair of blue-tufted starthroats, had already been noted by Azara and formally published by Shaw as early as 1812 as the “scissars-tailed hummingbird,” Trochilus furcifer; it is now, like the other starthroats, classed as a member of the genus Heliomaster.

Schreibers just missed priority with the ornately plumed little one, numbered 2 on the plate: Lesson had described it a few months earlier in his Trochilidées, naming the bird Ornismya gouldii (now Lophornis gouldii) in honor of “a scientist well known in England, the author of A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains” and, of course, no mean trochilidist himself.

But the Viennese scholar knew none of this. He thought that the birds were his for the naming, and so he named them: the larger one Trochilus regis, the smaller Trochilus reginae.

The assumption today seems to be that Schreibers was buttering up his boss. But in 1832, Franz II was no mere king, his wife Caroline Augusta no mere queen: they were the emperor and empress of Austria, and to demote them, even on a specimen label, would have been what even back then was probably called a bad career move.

Happily, we know from Schreibers himself who the intended eponyms really were. In September 1832, in the course of that year’s Congress of German Natural Historians and Physicians held, on the emperor’s invitation, in Vienna, Schreibers introduced the new Collectanea project to to his assembled colleagues, exhibiting as a sample the first fascicle — his descriptions of the two hummingbirds.

While the text itself does not specify the rex and regina to whom the birds are dedicated, Schreibers’s introductory remarks to the Congress do: he has named the birds “in honor of the king and queen of Hungary.”

Schreibers was looking to the future with that dedication. Ferdinand, the Austrian crown prince, had become King of Hungary in 1830; when he married Maria Anna of Savoy the next year, she became Queen of Hungary. Ferdinand would succeed to the imperial throne on the death of his father, Franz II.

A closer look at those dates reveals a special piquancy in the dedication — coincidental or not. Ferdinand’s coronation had been staged in Bratislava, then part of Hungary and Schreibers’s home town, on September 28, 1830. The Collectanea series, with the description of the two regal hummingbirds, was announced to the world on September 27, 1832, the eve of Ferdinand’s second anniversary as Hungarian monarch.

Were the hummingbird descriptions meant as a jubilee gift? It’s possible. What is certain is that the remarks made in the September 28 gathering of the Congress’s Zoological Section were directed ever so gently at the imperial family. “It is regrettable,” the delegates agreed,

that the zoological specimens Natterer has collected in Brazil have thus far not been made known to the public…. If one delays a few more years, everything new will have been taken away by the English and the French.

It had already happened in the case of those hummingbirds.

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First In Line

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November 28, 1826, was foggy and dim in Edinburgh, and John James Audubon’s mood matched the weather. Bad enough that he had to spend two “dreadfully long” hours that morning sitting for a portrait (“durance vile,” he called it, “an arduous piece of business”); the afternoon only got worse, when Audubon was stood up — once again — by Sir Walter Scott.

Not all was lost, though. After dinner with the Lizarses that evening, Audubon saw the first proof struck for the Birds of America (“it looked pretty well”). And best of all, he learned that the Great Work had attracted its very first subscriber, a “Dr. Meikleham of Trinidad.”

We know a fair bit nowadays about many of Audubon’s subscribers. Meikleham, however, seems to have been among those early enthusiasts who let their payments lapse, costing the good doctor his place on the final list — and, it seems, the attention he might otherwise have been paid by historians.

The two men actually met the next evening chez Lizars. In his diary for November 29, Audubon records that

Dr. Meikleham … wishes me to go with him to Trinidad, where I shall draw, so he says, four hundred birds for him, for a publication of “Birds of the West Indies.”

It never happened, of course, but it’s a provocative thought, the geographic completion of Audubon’s own personal triangle trade, from Hispaniola to Europe to Trinidad.

But who was Meikleham?

I suspect that he was an interesting character. William Stuart Meikleham appears to have arrived in Trinidad about 1819, where he established himself as both a physician and a planter. He lived in La Pique, San Fernando, but ministered to patients in North and South Naparima, Savanna Grande, and Pointe-à-Pierre.

As an educated and apparently wealthy (his having stiffed Audubon aside) European, Meikleham played a prominent role in the local government and the colonial relations of Trinidad, especially, it seems, after the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean.

Ours was not the Dr. Meikleham charged with examining and treating the former slaves sent to Trinidad from other Caribbean islands after 1833. David Scott Meikleham married Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Septimia; that couple visited Edinburgh in 1843, but I don’t know how or whether the two Scots physicians were related.

William Meikleham died, apparently in Trinidad, on May 9, 1854. His widow, Julia, returned to England at some point thereafter, where she died in Liverpool on June 12, 1870.

Somewhere out there is an amateur genealogist with a thick file of facts about the Trinidad Meiklehams. And maybe, just maybe, those facts can be assembled into a new and compelling story about the connections between race, natural history, and colonial politics in the immediately post-abolition Caribbean.

Maybe Audubon can be in the story, too. The Meiklehams still owe him that much.

Purple Honeycreeper

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Follow Your Nose

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I have nothing but admiration, verging indeed on awe, for those birders out there on the frontiers of identification by sound. Distinguishing the nocturnal calls of the Spizella sparrows or sorting through the flight notes of the warblers, there’s nothing these pioneers aren’t working out.

Predictably, some birders are already looking for the next cutting edge. Maybe they’ll find inspiration in a story from a long-ago autumn day on New York’s Jones Beach:

On November 7, 1948, walking along the high water line at Jones Beach, a rather large (14.75 inches) primary feather was noticed.* Picked up and passed close to the nostrils it appeared to have the characteristic odor of the Tubinares.

The feather made its way to the desk of Robert Cushman Murphy at the American Museum, who wrote on November 26 to say that the feather was “beyond any shadow of doubt that of an albatross…. It most closely resembles Diomedea chlororhynchus,” the bird we now know as the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross.

The finder, David G. Nichols, pointed out the obvious lesson:

When one considers that the strong odor is the only reason that this feather was originally collected and identified, one is moved to speculate that similarly interesting plumage may occur along the beaches more frequently than is supposed. Drifted feathers might be worth some attention.

Just follow your nose.

Great black-backed gull

Just a great black-backed gull this time, and no, I didn’t stop to sniff.

* Apparently the feather walked to Long Island.

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The Watchman’s Rattle in the Wild

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Sometimes when you cast the bread of your ponderings onto the waters of the internet, you find it after a couple of weeks. 

And how.

I wondered whether the comparison of a kingfisher’s call to the watchman’s rattle had in fact originated with Alexander Wilson. My friend and colleague Mark writes in reply:

“I’m sure you’re right that Wilson was the source for most later descriptions of the kingfisher’s call. But perhaps not all?

“Today the watchman’s rattle seems like such a bizarre antediluvian relic that it’s hard for us to appreciate just how ubiquitous and distinctive a feature of the 19th-century soundscape it was, and how easy it would have been for different writers to seize upon it independently as a point of comparison for any sharp grating or rattling noise. It’s impossible to read much Victorian literature without encountering the rattle (“Wegg was a knotty man, and close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle” — Dickens, Our Mutual Friend), but your post made me curious about other instances in which the calls of birds and other animals were likened to it.

“So I poked around on Google Books for half an hour or so, and wow, there are a lot of them! Since you I say you’re interested in other examples of the simile, I thought you might like to see a sample of what I turned up. (I’ve omitted all the kingfishers, of which there were many, most or all of which were probably derived from Wilson; I didn’t find any earlier example of that particular comparison, so your conclusion about his priority still stands.)

J. Jackson, Journey from India towards England (1799), p. 116



W. Wordsworth, early draft ms. of “Benjamin the Waggoner” (1806)

photo of the actual page is available at the British Library; it’s the fifth page.


J. C. Hobhouse, A Journey to Albania and other provinces of Turkey in Asia (1813), vol. 2, p. 641


G. Ord, in the Journal of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences 1:2 (1818), p. 256



R. Sheppard and W. Whitear, in Transactions of the Linnaean Society of London 15 (1827), p. 15


J. Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), p. 158

J. Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), p. 187


T. Nuttall, Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada (1832), p. 551


T. Nuttall, Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada (1832), p. 563


New-England Magazine 2 (1832), p. 329


E. S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States (1835), vol. 2, p. 215


H. D. Thoreau, journal entry for April 4, 1853


H. Wheelwright, Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist (1861), p. 151


Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine 46 (1878), p. 177


F. Knight, By Leafy Ways (1889), p. 4


O. T. Miller, Atlantic Monthly 77 (May 1896), p. 671


“Along the way I also found the watchman’s rattle invoked to describe the sputtering of an angry Frenchman, the crackling of hot liquids, and all sorts of other things. Fun stuff!”

Fun stuff indeed. Many thanks to a kindred spirit for answering my question! 

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