Archive for Famous Birders


eBird, v.1895

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Bar graphs are so much a part of birding publications nowadays, e- and paper, that it’s tempting to think they were always there. They weren’t: only in the past thirty years or so, and largely thanks to its use in the ABA/Lane guides, has the bar graph passed from a welcome novelty to an expected component of finding guides and local ornithologies.

That’s not to say, of course, that such things are entirely new.

Lynds Jones bar graphs

In 1895, having taken up his position at Oberlin, Lynds Jones decided to publish the results of five years’ “systematic study of bird migration” in central Iowa. Over five full pages, he arranged 110 species in the sequence of their usual springtime arrival:

In these charts an attempt has been made to indicate not only the dates of arrival and departure … but the time of arrival or departure, or both, of the bulk of each species. This is indicated by the heavier portion of the lines opposite the name of each species, the lighter portion indicating simply its presence….

Was Jones the first to publish bar graphs showing the seasonality and abundance of birds? Let me know if you have any earlier examples.

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Green Heron 2

In 1912, Harry C. Oberholser set out to sweep the Augean stables of green heron taxonomy,

to clear away, as far as the present material will permit, the confusion now existing with regard to the relationship and distribution of the various races… with their intricate relationships and rather peculiar geographical distribution.

Of the eighteen subspecies Oberholser claimed to be able to distinguish, only four have stood the test of timebahamensis from the eponymous islands; frazari from southern Baja; anthonyi of western North America; and the nominate virescens of eastern North America and middle America south to Panama.

Oberholser’s splittery may belong to the past, but one conclusion reached in his revision still rests its dead hand heavy on the list of American birds.

Screenshot 2015-01-18 12.11.31

We owe the standard scientific binomial of the green heron to Linnaeus himself, whose Ardea virescens appeared in the Systema naturae of 1758, the first edition to “count” in zoological taxonomy.

It’s a good description:

a heron with a somewhat crested rear crown, a green back, a rusty breast….

The Linnaean statement of range at first strikes us as a bit vague: this bird “lives in America.” But it makes sense if we look at the ornithological sources on which Linnaeus based the name.

Catesby Green Heron Pl and txt 80

Mark Catesby had recorded the bird in Carolina and Virginia, while Hans Sloane and John Ray had prepared their descriptions — the former English, the latter Latin — from a specimen taken, it would appear, in the West Indies.

“Habitat in America” seems a reasonable way to describe the composite range of so widespread a bird.

Oberholser, however, knows better.

In his 1912 revision, he writes that “Linnaeus’s diagnosis fits only the green heron,” as do, obviously, Catesby’s text and plate. But Ray and Sloane, on the other hand, “without much doubt” in fact recorded not the green heron but the least bittern.

Oberholser concludes that

This makes Catesby’s description the sole basis of [Linnaeus’s] name, and since most of his [Catesby’s] birds came from the coast of South Carolina, it seems best to restrict the type-locality to that region,

thereby excluding Sloane’s and Ray’s contributions to the Linnaean project.

Oberholser’s restriction is still treated as authoritative in the latest edition of the AOU Check-list:

Screenshot 2015-01-18 13.55.11

But was the bird described by Ray and by Sloane really what we know today as a least bittern?

Both those authors describe the bird, apparently a specimen dissected by Sloane on his tour of the West Indies, as “fourteen Inches long from the point of its Bill to the end of the Tail,” with a wing span of about 20 inches — a bit on the small side for a green heron, but largish for a least bittern. Critically, neither remarks on the whitish or tawny panels so conspicuous on the spread wing of the least bittern, but they do note that the wings have “some whitish and tawny Spots here and there,” as in a non-adult green heron. None of the bittern’s distinctive wing and back pattern is apparent in Sloane’s illustration.

Sloane, Green heron

Oberholser’s characteristic confidence notwithstanding, there is no reason not to believe, with Linnaeus, that Ray and Sloane were both describing the bird we know as the green heron. Thus, the limitation of Linnaeus’s sources to Catesby and the consequent restriction of the type locality to coastal South Carolina (which Oberholser had already managed to sneak into the 1910 edition of the Check-list) is, if not wrong, then at the very least unnecessary. I say we should give Sloane and Ray their due, too.

Ardea virescens Linnaeus, 1758, Syst. Nat. (ed. 10) 1:144. Based on “A small Bittern,” Ardea stellaris minor Ray, Syn. meth. avium, 1: 189.4; on “The small Bittern” Ardea stellaris minor Sloane, Voy. Isl. 2: 315; and on “The small Bittern,” Ardea stellata minima Catesby, Nat. Hist. Carolina 4: 80, pl. 80. (America = West Indies and Virginia and South Carolina.)  



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Screenshot 2015-01-15 08.56.58

The 56th plate in the Parade of Plumage was this one, of interest above all for being one of rather few in the Planches enluminées signed by Martinet as both painter and engraver.

Identification to genus is as straightforward as can be: these big, sloppy-tailed cuckoos with their huge arched bills can only be anis.

But which ones?

The larger one is obviously a greater ani, the erroneous eye color forgivable in an image prepared from a stuffed (and probably mounted) specimen. Indeed, the AOU tells us that the bird on this plate, like so many others in the Planches, served “in part” as Gmelin’s type when he named the species.

Screenshot 2015-01-15 09.07.57

There are two possibilities for the smaller bird here, but Boddaert helps us out with a Linnaean name, Crotophaga Ambulatoria. Ridgway is uncertain just which species that name, from the 12th edition of the Systema, refers to; in 1816, Vieillot declared the nomen essentially nudum:

Two other claimed species deserve no attention at all, because they owe their existence only to imperfect descriptions…. the second is the “walking ani” (Crotophaga ambulatoria, Latham). In fact, that bird has three toes pointing forward and one pointing back, and certainly cannot be an ani [or any other cuckoo, all of which have feet zygodactyl].

Göttingen’s Animalbase agrees. So we have to go, once again, ad fontes, to Buffon’s text itself. Unfortunately, our good Count says nothing about the upper mandible of the bird; that may suggest that this was not a groove-billed ani, but the argument from silence is a difficult one. So let’s look at the synonymies he gives in the footnotes.

Buffon says that his “ani des savanes,” called “petit bout de petun” in the Planches, is identical to the bird depicted or described in no fewer than 15 works earlier than his own. All the usual suspects are there, from Marcgrave to Brisson. Surely one or the other of those will let us identify this pesky cuckoo.

Indeed they do. Buffon praises Mark Catesby’s painting of the bird as a “bonne figure,” so let’s begin there.

Catesby, Smooth-billed ani

Not only does the English naturalist show –much better than Martinet — the distinctively high-ridged bill of a smooth-billed ani, but he describes it in detail in the accompanying text, where he names it “the Razor-billed Black-bird of Jamaica“:

The singular make of the bill resembles that of the Razor-bill… the upper mandible being remarkably prominent, rising arch-wise, with an high and very thin edge.

Klein, too (citing Catesby), says that the bird is “rostro novaculaeformi,” having a “knife-like” bill. Sloane writes that the upper mandible is

of a singular Make, distinguishing it from other Birds, for it was arch’d, or round, rais’d high, flat and thin on the upper round Edge.

Browne tells us that

the upper part of the bill, is flatted on the sides, arched and sharp above.

What clinches the deal is that these authors, all describing a bird that Buffon identifies as that of Planche 102, describe it from Jamaica.

Jamaica. Where the only ani is the smooth-billed ani.

Smooth-billed Ani

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A Not Very Tricky Threskiornithid

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Screenshot 2015-01-14 18.36.23

This one, number 35 at the Parade of Plumage, is a little easier than the last. With that dark plumage and decurved bill, it’s obviously an ibis, but the plate is not detailed enough or, perhaps, accurate enough to let us just eyeball it for an identification. So let’s look at what the text has to say:

This bird, which the colonists of Cayenne have called “the flamingo of the woods,” does in fact live in forests along streams and rivers, and it stays far from the sea coasts, which the other “courlis” hardly ever leave; it also has different habits and does not go around in flocks, but only in pairs; to fish, it perches on logs flotting in the water…. All its plumage has a tinge of very deep green on a background of dark brown, which looks black from a distance, but up close gives off rich reflections of bluish or greenish….

A green-glistening curlew-like bird living in the woods of northeastern South America? There’s really only one possibility, but let’s see if we can’t find some corroboration.

Gmelin, in his edition of the Systema naturae, cites our plate as showing a specimen of the bird he names, logically enough, Tantalus cayennensis.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 18.54.06

Avibase tells us that that is the protonym for what we now know as Mesimbrinibis cayennensis, the bird we call in English the green ibis.

A nice and unexpected confirmation came my way when I looked up “Mesimbrinibis” (it turns out to mean “southern ibis”): Jobling actually identifies the Martinet plate as representing that monotypic genus.

It’s nice to have an easy one to deal with once in a while.

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Come on, couldn’t they please start with an easy one?

Western Plaintain-eater, Pl enl 478

Like most of the participants in the recent Parade of Plumage contest, I cringed when I saw the very first image up for identification: What on earth could that be, and how on earth would I figure it out?

Boddaert to the rescue:

Screenshot 2015-01-14 16.56.21

At least now — no thanks to the typo in the page number, which should in fact be 275 — we can see what Buffon had to say about the plate prepared for him by Martinet:

The bird called “tanas” by the inhabitants of Senegal, presented to us by Mr. Adanson under the name “fishing hawk” (see number 478 of the Planches enluminées), resembles our [peregrine] falcon almost entirely in the colors of its plumage: but it is slightly smaller, and on its head it has long protruding feathers, which fall back to form a sort of crest, thanks to which this bird can always be distinguished from others of the same kind: it also has a yellow bill, less curved and thicker than that of the falcon; it differs further in the very clear notches of both mandibles, and its habits are also different, fishing rather than hunting….

Not overly helpful. But Boddaert also gives us a binomial name, Falco Piscator, and a quick look at the Richmond Index gets us started.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 17.12.19

The trail grows warmer with a simple google search. In the Novitates zoologicae for 1924, no less an authority than Ernst Hartert rehearses the taxonomic history of the bird in the Martinet plate:

Falco piscator Boddaert, Tabl. Pl. Enl., p. 28, is a name bestowed on Daubenton’s pl. 478, on which is represented a bird from Senegambia, obviously meant for our old Chizaerhis africana. I was at first inclined to reject this plate, because the tail is much too short, but as Mr. Sclater pointed out to me the peculiar bill is quite characteristic, the colour on the whole agrees well, and the tail is much foreshortened; the bill and the long occipital crest are well described by Buffon, and we must therefore overlook the much too rufous colour of the head, the shortness and the colour of the tail, and the descriptions of the habits, which were really meant for a bird of prey, but carelessly applied to this plaintain-eater.

Hartert follows Bannerman in assigning the bird on plate 478 the name Crinifer piscator (Bodd.); the genus name Crinifer, “crest wearer,” coined in 1821 by F.P. Jarocki, has priority over what Hartert calls “our old friend Chizaerhis” and, obviously, is to be preferred over Boddaert’s Falco.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 17.32.08

Avibase then confirms that Crinifer piscator is still, 90 years later and over Peters’s objection, the bird’s correct name; it is known in English as the western plaintain-eater. Absent a physical specimen, the plate from the Planches enluminées serves as the formal type.

Happily, number two in the contest was easier.

Congratulations to Susie Haberfled for taking first place in the Parade!


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