Archive for Famous Birders

Grönvold lapwings

There is a vast, entirely unmanageable literature by and about ornithologists in the First World War. Even that heap of letters and books and articles and memoirs, though, cannot possibly make mention of all the millions who died while the larks trilled above the trenches and nightingales chanted from forests stripped bare.

Instead, we’re left to remember only the famous, among them Wyndham Knatchbull-Hugessen, killed in action at the age of 29, early in the course of the British offensive at Neuve-Chapelle.

Knatchbull-Hugessen had rejoined the Grenadier Guards on returning from a collecting trip to the Neotropics, part of his work with Charles Chubb on what was to have been a monumental, 16-volume survey of the birds of South America.

The first volume appeared in 1912, but on Knatchbull-Hugessen’s death three years later,

so little text had … been completed, and the work as projected was so extensive and costly, that nothing could be done in the way of completing even a second volume….

As often happens, however, the preparation of the text and the painting of the illustrations had proceeded at different rates. The artist, Henrik Grönvold, had made somewhat better progress, and in 1915, the publishers determined that the finished images should be issued even in the absence of the intended text. H. Kirke Swann provided brief descriptions for each of the 38 plates, which included ratites, tinamous, cracids, and a selection of water birds and waders.

Those plates would not be the only ornithological monument to Knatchbull-Hugessen. In 1916, Chubb proposed a new genus name for the spot-throated hummingbird, Brabournea. The name — later shown to be invalid — honored his late co-author, Knatchbull-Hugessen, the baron of Brabourne, killed in France a hundred years ago today.   

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White Nun

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Did John James Audubon shoot a female smew on Louisiana’s Lake Barataria in the winter of 1819? He says so:

It was an adult female in fine plumage…. I have taken the liberty to add one of the other sex from an equally fine specimen.

Of course, nobody believes it.

Audubon’s oedipal anxieties about the Father of American ornithology came out clearly in his prose introduction to the species, nearly half of which he devotes to his “strong misgivings” about the records reported by Wilson, who “was in all probability misinformed.” Rarely content just to let his great predecessor simply be wrong, Audubon goes on to accuse Wilson of having deceived his readers:

it is my opinion that his figure was made from a stuffed European specimen which was then in Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia,

a proceeding clearly and tendentiously distinguished from Audubon’s own. “Having found it,” Audubon “made a drawing of [the Louisiana bird] on the spot.”

I didn’t believe it either. But somehow, the aura of the original watercolor, which Alison and I were fortunate enough to see yesterday, is powerful enough to make me wonder.

Even in Audubon’s lifetime, even his friends had reservations about the Louisiana smew. Thomas Nuttall does not even cite the account, mentioning only that “the indefatigable Audubon” had not encountered the species on his tour of Labrador — and neither had Vieillot, Richardson, or Nuttall himself; Wilson, he says, accounted the bird an American species “probably on mere report.” Nuttall concludes that

As a native of America this appears to be a very doubtful species.

A few years after Audubon’s death, Thomas Brewer decided to “retain the smew among the birds of North America,” though “with no small degree of hesitation.” That formulation contrasts somewhat with his apparently unequivocal acceptance of the New Orleans record:

But one specimen has ever actually been known to have been obtained here. This was by Mr. Audubon, in Louisiana….

Spencer Baird was more circumspect, but no less self-contradictory, a short while later. Though he says of Audubon’s plate that the “female [was] figured from Am. specimen, male from European,” he also weighs the possibility that

Mr. Audubon may have even been mistaken.

By 1884, Baird was speaking with open skepticism about “the claim of Audubon to have obtained a single specimen, and that a female, on Lake Barataria,” and he writes that the specimen in Audubon’s painting was “said to have been” taken in the United States. In that same year, Elliott Coues — who had once admitted that the smew “could very possibly occur” in the region — deleted the species entirely from the second edition of his Key.

Now that someone had come out and more or less said it, and particularly since that someone was Coues, the American smew drifted over the ornithological horizon for a while. Neither the first nor the second edition of the young AOU’s Check-list mentions the species. In 1897, though, the committee — Brewster, Allen, Coues, Merriam, and Ridgway — revived the bird for the American list, not, though, from Audubon’s “claim,” but on the basis of a specimen “from northern North America” in the collections of the British Museum.

That specimen, the sternum of an adult female, was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company, one or another representative of which had collected it on an unknown date at an unknown locality in North America. For the time being, that was good enough for the AOU, and good enough for Coues, who had “not hitherto admitted [the species] to the Key.”

It wasn’t good enough for Daniel Giraud Elliot, though, who waxed downright snide in 1899:

 It is, so to speak, rather stretching a point, to include this beautiful species among the North American Water Fowl, with only an example of a female in the British Museum, purchased from the Hudson Bay Company, to prove the propriety of such a course. But I have always observed that ornithological committees are most lenient when the admission of a handsome bird (which under the most favorable circumstance can be regard[ed] as the merest exception straggler from foreign lands) into their native avi-fauna is to be considered.

One could make much of Elliot’s observation on the “pattern” of claimed vagrant smews in America:

At all events one cannot fail to notice that, up to this time, the male has rigorously and successfully avoided our shores.


Elliot’s view soon enough prevailed. Both the fourth and the fifth editions of the Check-list relegated the smew to the “hypothetical” list:

Audubon’s sight record of this Old World species, and several other alleged occurrences in America, are unsatisfactory.

That’s pretty sloppy. We know that Audubon shot the bird in Louisiana, whatever it might have been; and it would have been helpful indeed to have a citation or two to those “other alleged occurrences.”

One of them was certainly the British Museum sternum, which may no longer exist or be clearly labeled. Another was probably the female (Elliot was right!) obtained by Tristram from Lord Walsingham, the famous entomologist. (Did that specimen enter the BM in 1896 with the rest of the Tristram birds?)

And another was the earliest American report of the species I know of.

In 1785, when Audubon was just a mewling infant, Thomas Pennant published his account of the “smew merganser.” That page in the Arctic Zoology is most noticeable for laying the ghost of the “red-headed duck,” which Pennant now recognized as the female of the smew. But more to our purposes, he writes that

this species was sent to Mrs. Blackburn from New York, I think as a winter bird.

Ashton Blackburne, the man to whom we owe the first mid-Atlantic specimens of so many birds — from the red-shouldered hawk to his sister’s warbler — may also have collected North America’s first smew. (And just because he shipped that now lost specimen from New York doesn’t mean it wasn’t taken in New Jersey.)

All this was moot by 1960, at which point the regular occurrence of smews in Alaska was recognized; meanwhile, there have been good records (males — take that, D.G. Elliot) from scattered sites across the continent, though not, if rightly I recall, from Louisiana.

And so, ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Alexander Wilson didn’t know his buffleheads any too well, or that Audubon may, just may, have told a lie (gasp of amazement).

But I’d like to think he was telling the truth, and that the pretty little “redhead” in his so fine watercolor really did fall to lead shot on a Louisiana lakeshore — whence she entered into immortality.
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Apparently Harper Lee is about to publish a second novel.

Northern Mockingbird

It seems a good time to ask a simple question: Why is it a sin to kill a mockingbird?

Lee’s novel offers its own, internal justifications for the rule, but is it possible that there is some sort of tradition standing behind Atticus Finch’s injunction?

T. Gilbert Pearson, the famous Audubonian and conservationist, was 13 when he bought his first gun in 1886. This is what an aged Floridian he knew as Aunt Celie told him:

Honey, when you gits big enough to tote a gun don’t never kill nary a mockin’ bird. Every one of them little fowls takes kyer of some good man or woman what’s daid, and when you hear one asingin’ at night you knows dat some good soul done come back and is walkin’ about. A sperit kaint never leave its grave lessen its mockin’ bird hollers for it to come out.

I’d say that this story adds more than a bit of weight and depth to the novel’s title, wouldn’t you? High school sophomores, take note!

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The Beginning of a Career

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One hundred years ago today, George Miksch Sutton’s first published drawing, the portrait of a captive Greater Roadrunner “in an attitude of fright,” appeared in Frank Chapman’s Bird-Lore.

Screenshot 2014-02-27 16.03.12

When the bird was startled by an unexpected mouse one night, the

lower mandible droop[ed], the wings lift[ed], and the tail spread to its fullest extent.

Chapman praised “Master Sutton,” then fifteen years old, as “an observant boy.”

Little did anyone know then.


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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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