Archive for Famous Birders


Heermann’s Birds

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One hundred fifty years ago today, Adolphus L. Heermann was killed, “having evidently stumbled and fallen,” when his collecting gun fired.

John Cassin, who knew him well, said of Heermann in earlier, healthier days that no better man could be had for a collecting expedition. In 1853, Cassin dedicated a “beautiful gull” to his friend, an

acknowledgment due to his accomplishment as a naturalist, and his perseverance and success as a scientific traveller.

In Washington, D.C., Spencer Baird was equally impressed by Heermann and his work in the field. On working through a collection of sparrows from the west, Baird encountered one that Heermann had sent from Tejon Pass, California, resembling a song sparrow but

differing very appreciably from a large number of specimens from Washington and Oregon…. I have come to the conclusion that the species is worthy of specific separation, and have accordingly named it Melospiza heermanni, after its accomplished collector and discoverer.

Today we “know” that that California bird is “just” a subspecies of the song sparrow. But there’s no reason not to call it the Heermann’s song sparrow, especially today.


Dialogue in the Drawers

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If you’re not already crazy, thinking hard about Passerculus sparrows will drive you there fast.


The only consolation: greater spirits than ours have been confused by these streaky devils.

Robert Ridgway corrected the labels of the co-types of the San Benito sparrow to read “P. guttatus Lawr.!”

I assume it was the explanation point that rankled. In any event, not long thereafter, Elliott Coues corrected his corrector, adding beneath Ridgway’s notation the words “Scarcely! stet sanctorum–C.”

I don’t know whether the two actually ever sat down to talk about those skins. But each had made his point, loud and clear.



Smelly Sparrows

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One of my favorite lines in the history of American ornithology comes from J.P. Giraud‘s description of one of my favorite birds, the Henslow’s sparrow.

Henslow sparrow, Robert Ridgway

Shotgun birders like Giraud found this species no less maddeningly elusive than today’s observers. Happily, though, writes Giraud,

from the eagerness with which it is pursued by dogs, we may infer that it possesses considerable game effluvia.

As late as the 1970s, it seems, hunters in Louisiana were complaining that their dogs were pointing these grassland “stinkbirds” instead of quail.

Gellert, you have a mission.


Dark Trails, Bright Birds

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Today marks the 150th birthday of George Kruck Cherrie, an Iowa boy who grew up to become “prince of tropical American bird collectors.”

But he worked inside, too. In 1891, when he was 26 years old, Cherrie discovered and described a new species of tanager in the collections of the Costa Rica National Museum. The six specimens –which seem to be no longer in San José — had been collected a few years earlier by none other than José C. Zeledón.

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Cherrie’s new tanager has had its taxonomic ups and downs, but Ramphocelus costaricensis is once again recognized as a full species distinct from the Passerini’s. And once again we call Cherrie’s tanager the Cherrie’s tanager.

R. costaricensis is well worthy to hold a place of honor among the song birds,

as worthy as the species’ discoverer is of his own place of honor among American collectors and ornithologists.

Categories : Famous Birders, Iowa
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Malherbe’s Woodpeckers

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Alfred Malherbe.JPG

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Alfred Malherbe, one of those great French amateurs to whom we owe so many collections — and so many pretty books.

Malherbe was born on Mauritius on Bastille Day 1804, but returned with his family to their native Metz, where he was appointed to the bench at the age of 28. His real passion, though, was natural history, and over the last two decades of his life he served as director of the Metz museum and president of the Société d’Histoire naturelle de la Moselle, the eventual heritor of his own extensive collections.

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Malherbe is most famous today — if he is famous at all — for his Monographie des picidées, published in four volumes between 1861 and 1863.

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More than 15 years in the making, the work was greatly lauded on its appearance. Félix Guérin-Méneville greeted the first livraison in the pages of the Revue et magasin de zoologie:

One can find nothing more beautiful than this work by M. Malherbe, and one can confidently state that in the perfection of its execution it exceeds anything that has been produced up to now in France or abroad.

The plates, prepared from paintings by Luc-Joseph Delahaye and others, Guérin-Méneville called “magnificent … of an accuracy and truthfulness in color and form such as one rarely finds in the most luxurious of works.” All of the considerable number of new species described by Malherbe are depicted the size of life.

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Charmingly, and invaluably, Malherbe begins his text volumes with two chapters treating of woodpeckers and people — a subject worthy of an entire book in itself. We learn about Picus and Canente, Picumnus and Pilumnus, and the powerful love philtre known as jynx. Malherbe collects stories of superstition from the Romans to his own nineteenth-century day, accounts of the medical and venatorial use of woodpeckers and their parts, and, naturally, tales of rustic feasts built around the flesh of picids,

which they even claim is delicious…. But having been so curious ourselves as to taste the flesh of French great spotted and green woodpeckers, we share the judgment of Audubon … who affirms that the flesh is detestable, that it tastes strongly of formic acid and is extraordinarily disagreeable….

They may not be tasty, but Malherbe takes a firm stance on woodpecker conservation.

If one considers the terrible ravages committed in orchards, forests, and farms by the innumerable myriads of insects in their terrible swarms, one can ask whether on balance the woodpeckers, far from being harmful, are not rather extremely useful to the owners of forest and field by devouring an immense quantity of larvae, caterpillars, and insects of all kinds every day, particularly when they are feeding young…. Count up the number of fruit trees, especially peaches, that perish from [insect damage], and you will become indulgent of these birds that are the principal destroyers of such insects.

Gone, happily, are the days when there were bounties on the heads of sapsuckers and other woodpeckers — in part, perhaps, thanks to the beautiful work prepared by Alfred Malherbe.

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