Archive for Famous Birders
Though the species is well known to be migratory, individual Pied-billed Grebes strike me (misleadingly) as among the most sedentary of birds. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen one in anything even approaching truly sustained flight, and sometimes I wonder whether they don’t use some sort of subterranean Northwest Passage to move through the continent’s aquifers with the seasons.
John James Audubon had more confidence in the grebes’ aerial abilities, which he describes in a decidedly overwrought apostrophe in the Ornithological Biography:
I know you can fly too…. September has come … the evening is calms and beautiful; you spread out your wings, reach with some difficulty a proper height, and swift as meteors glide through the air, until, meeting with warmer waters, you alight on them.
Poetic lie-cense, I guess we can call it.
Ho hum, thinks the birder from eastern North America: just another Northern Cardinal.
But as our Linnaean Society field trip to Phoenix this past week reminded us, a close look at that bird in the southwestern US and northern Mexico reveals a bird a little less contemptibly familiar than we might expect.
The red cardinals of Arizona are startling and striking, big and long-tailed and long-crested. The species’ best-known field mark, the black mask surrounding the bill, is noticeably reduced compared to the same patch in eastern birds, often not quite meeting across the forehead, making that brilliant red helmet stand even taller.
It’s no wonder that Robert Ridgway found these birds “easily distinguishable.” In 1885, he described a series of specimens from Arizona as belonging to a new subspecies, which he named Cardinalis cardinalis superbus.
In the 70 years after Ridgway’s description of the bird, this distinctive race — one of sixteen most authorities still recognize across the Northern Cardinal’s extensive range in North and Middle America — went by the sensible and straightforward English name of the Arizona Cardinal, a name lost, like so many others, when the 1957 edition of the AOU Check-list created standardized vernacular names for North America’s birds at the species level.
More and more, I think, American birders are returning to the English subspecies names propounded in earlier editions of the Check-list. In this case, though, there’s an alternative better even than “Arizona Cardinal.”
Though Ridgway provided no etymology when he named his new cardinal, it seems likely that he understood superbus to mean simply “superb, outstanding, excellent.” But in real Latin, as opposed to scientifiquese, the word is much richer. From the vaunting ambition of Turnus in the Aeneid to the traditional mortal sins of the medieval church, “superbus” and “superbia” referred to one’s own hubristic estimation of oneself as superb or outstanding or excellent.
Doesn’t this bird look superbus? We could do worse than to call these Arizona birds Prideful Cardinals, glowing as they do in the certainty of their own superbness.
In 1801, Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot described the Puerto Rican Emerald, a bird he named Trochilus magaeus in honor of René Maugé de Cely,
the first to make this bird known …. This naturalist, moved by his zeal for the subject, has just undertaken a new voyage with Captain Baudin to New Holland and the islands of the Pacific Ocean; ornithologists hope that he will return with notes about the birds of those regions, almost all of them still unknown — notes that will be the more precious for having been made on site by an enlightened observer. The Museum expects that his efforts will result in new, well-preserved skins as perfect as those he brought us from the Spanish island of Puerto Rico.
Vieillot, of course, could not know how that voyage would end for Maugé.
Lesson, writing of the bird in his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches, would (incorrectly) chastise his predecessor for not recognizing it as the same species already depicted and described under different names in Edwards, Brisson, and Buffon.
Nevertheless, says Lesson,
we have retained the name of Maugé for this species out of respect for the memory of that zealous and estimable traveler, who died the victim of his own zeal on the expedition to southern lands commanded by Baudin.
Two hundred twelve years ago today, on February 21, 1802, Maugé succumbed, barely 40, to dysentery.
As near as the history of calendar reform lets us tell, today is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Christopher Merrett, author of the first complete list of the birds of Britain.
His Pinax rerum naturalium britannicarum, first published in the annus mirabilis/horribilis of 1666, covered all the plants, animals, and fossils known from the island.
As a physician, Merrett was naturally most well-versed in botany, agreeing with his predecessors that
plants were of greatest use in helping the human race, in so far as they sustain human life and protect and restore human health.
As to the birds, he tells the reader in his Introduction that he consulted in large part
Gesner, Aldrovandi, and Johnston, who have all treated them quite fully; and in some cases, our Turner, that most industrious researcher of his day, who published a book on birds that, though light in weight, was substantial in good judgment.
Merrett cites other sources passim in the list itself, among them
that noble man Dr. Willoughby, the most diligent and most intelligent investigator of nature not just throughout Britain but over the greater part of Europe.
Most of the catalogue of birds relies on records published by those authorities, but Merrett also includes a few of his own sightings, including that of “a Skreck,” also known, he says, as “the Butcher, or murdering Bird”:
I have seen it three or four times in the summer near Kingsland.
Of the Nightjar, he notes that a Sir Cole collected one on Hampton Heath in 1664, “quite a rare bird.”
Merrett also offers his clarifications of the reports of others:
Cornix aquatica. Turner saw this bird on the river banks…. I tend to believe that it is the murre of Cornwall.
Some of those corrections, including this one, are nothing but Verschlimmbesserungen. As Mullens points out,
this is the Water-Ouzel, or Dipper. Merrett has been misled by Turner’s use of the Northumbrian name “Watercraw” … and has placed it among the Corvidae. He has further confused the matter by suspecting it to be the Cornish “Mur” … the Razor-Bill.
Merrett also passes on some facts that strike the modern eye as unlikely.
Barn Swallows, he says, spend the winter in marshes and seashore cliffs in Cornwall, and it is a shame that in between the Eurasian Oystercatcher and the Crossbill Merrett — not unlike so many of his contemporaries — should have listed the “Bat, Flittermouse, Rearmouse,” a bird that appears on summer evenings and spends the winter hidden away in cellars.
One source Merrett relied on that is no longer available to most of us was the ornithopolae of London — the bird sellers. It was from them that he had his knowledge of several species, especially of certain less common waterfowl.
The “Gaddel” — our Gadwall –
is known by that name to our birdcatchers; it is a bird of the size of a Mallard, its bill very like that of a teal, but somewhat more bluish.
A Mr. Hutchinson, bird merchant in London, informed Merrett about three species that he claimed to have seen on the plains around Lincoln.
The Nun [the Smew] is a water bird, slightly smaller than a teal; it has a round, thin, narrow bill, a bit curved on the upper mandible, and it is whitish on all its underparts, blackish above. The head is crested, whence it may well have its name, that is a say, from a nun wearing a hood.
Hutchinson and Merrett’s “Crickaleel” appears to be the Garganey, described as a small duck with blue on the upper wing. Their “Gossander” is more mysterious. This is a bird
with webbed feet and a crest. Its belly is yellow, its bill long and narrow. The flesh, fully cooked, turns yellow and then is transformed into oil; it is not edible. From the fields of Lincoln. This seems to be a type of “puphinus.”
It’s not clear at all whether this bird is a duck, an auk, or a shearwater, though its origin in Lincoln suggests that it may in fact have been simply a Goosander in the modern sense, a Common Merganser, with an overlay of characters from another species or two.
Obviously, Merrett’s list is of little value today to anyone hoping for an up-to-the-minute assessment of the avifauna of Great Britain. But it remains, 400 years after its author’s birth, an invaluable document of the process of ornithology at the turn of an era, when the corpses hanging in birdcatchers’s stalls, the traditional hearsay of medieval natural historians, and observations recorded by the first empiricists could all find their place in an authoritative avifauna.
It’s here, at long last, the second edition of David Sibley’s Birds. Over at Birding, we plan to publish an evaluation next month by one of the best bird illustrators on the continent — but I have a suspicion already that The New Sibley is going to do just fine, thank you, even independent of all the laudatory reviews to come.
I’m too busy enjoying the book to review it myself, but I will note that several of the shortcomings of the first edition are remedied here: most of the images are larger, there is much more information about habits and habitat, and a hundred new species — rarities and local specialties — have been added. The design of the page has been loosened up, with fewer boxes and horizontal lines, and while the ingenious and instructive four-column layout has been retained, it is visually more open, inviting the eye to move more smoothly across the “spread.”
It’s been pointed out already that just as the first edition’s browns sometimes tended to orange, this edition’s blacks and reds are often very deep. I can see that, most strikingly in the jarringly purple Scarlet Tanager in my copy.
But that doesn’t bother me.
It doesn’t bother me because I don’t look for realism and “accuracy” in field guide illustrations, whether paintings or (much less) photographs. I don’t expect “beauty,” either, though Lars Jonsson spoiled us for a while twenty years ago.
The paintings in the Sibley Guide, in either edition, are to my eye neither realistic nor beautiful. I would not, in other words, offer them to a visiting alien seeking to discover exactly what a Blue Jay looks like, and I would not hang them on my wall just for the sheer visual pleasure. But those same paintings, in both editions, are the most informative, the most instructive, the most useful images of North American birds ever put between two covers.
When I open a field guide, I’m looking not for the mimetic but for the diegetic; I want the images to contribute to an educational moment guided by the artist’s or author’s or narrator’s participation.
This is David Sibley’s genius (a word I rarely use). His paintings, “cartoon-like” in the best sense, not bound by any standards of mere representation, are perfectly suited to illustrate, even to exemplify, the identification techniques the guide propounds.
Even a successful nod in the direction of realism would add nothing, and could even compromise the book’s larger purpose — as it certainly does in Arthur Singer’s paintings for the Golden guide, in many of the paintings in earlier editions of the National Geographic guide, and in almost everything Roger Tory Peterson published after 1947.
Birders’ minds and birders’ eyes are nothing if not flexible, and over time, as we grow more familiar with our references, the pictures somehow come to look more and more like the birds. A good field guide makes that process faster — and this is a great one.