Archive for Famous Birders

Harper Lee, whose second (first!) novel is to appear this summer, celebrates her birthday today.

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!

Comments (2)

Almost five weeks left to see the final installment of the three-year Audubon show at the New-York Historical Society. If you haven’t gone, go; if you’ve gone, go again.

Unless you’re very, very young or of very, very long-lived stock, this is one of those rare opportunities that can be truly described as once in a lifetime. Starting in 2013, continuing last spring, and ending now on May 10, all (all!) of the original watercolors Audubon painted for The Birds of America have been on display — not the famous plates reproduced for sale to the subscribers, but the paintings themselves, from Audubon’s own brush. They’re an eye-opener, for would-be sophisticates who have long dismissed Audubon as kitsch and for birders hoping to discover more about Audubon, his times, and his birds.

I visited again last week, and was once again bowled over by the technical skill, the compositional imagination, and, yes, even the beauty of many of the paintings; I was not alone in standing rapt before the American bittern last week. But there’s a lot more to do at this exhibition than just ooh and aah.


One of the first decisions the curator, Roberta Olson, had to make when planning her exhibition was the sequence in which to present the more than 435 (!) objects to be displayed. In a canny move indeed, she settled on an order created by Audubon himself: the paintings have been shown not in taxonomic order, not in the order in which they were prepared, but in the order in which they were copied by the engraver and shipped to the subscriber.

Notwithstanding a nonsensical comment in the exhibition text — Audubon “believ[ed] that this order resembled that of nature” — that sequence was, and is, purely arbitrary, motivated simply by Audubon’s and his publisher’s eagerness to keep their subscribers’ interest by alternating big birds and small. For the modern viewer, this arrangement has the disadvantage of separating the images of similar birds — even in some cases images of a single species — and rendering direct comparison impossible; but there was no better solution, and this one has at least the advantage of giving the viewer an experience like unto that of the original subscribers opening their tin boxes of plates.

In this third and final installment, the sequence also makes abundantly plain what the exhibition texts (repeatedly) call Audubon’s “rushing toward the finish line on the project.” We see the paintings becoming more crowded, with more birds and, in many cases, more species to the sheet, and much more clearly than before, we see Audubon painting for the engraver, producing images intended from the start to be parted out and recombined into “composite” plates.

Unfortunately, that crowding is reproduced this time around in the physical space devoted to the exhibition. Where the earlier installations spilled pleasingly into the hallways and a second, smaller gallery, the paintings this time are all hung in a single large room. Not only is the wall space separating livraisons confusingly little, but many of the paintings are placed so high that they can hardly be enjoyed, much less studied. Binoculars, or a stepladder?

Screenshot 2015-04-07 14.58.28

This one, for example, was far out of my visual reach, and I would have relished the chance to see it at eye level — especially given that the bird, which was not engraved for the Birds of America (the plant was), is identified as a Bachman’s warbler. In life and in the image above, it is obviously a mourning warbler, ironically enough a species Audubon probably saw less often than the Bachman’s.

This is not the only mislabeling in this installment. Two different tropical siskins in two different paintings are misidentified as lesser goldfinches; one (in the watercolor that would become Plate 433) is the yellow-faced siskin of Brazil, the other (400) is the widespread black-headed siskin. (Audubon himself corrected the first error in the Synopsis.) The shorebird hanging beside two black-bellied plover paintings is certainly not a dowitcher, as the exhibition label suggests, but rather a poorly remembered red knot or, perhaps, another black-bellied plover. And I suspect that with its big orange throat pouch and conspicuously fleshy lore, Audubon’s “Townsend’s cormorant” is not a Brandt’s at all but a double-crested.

Screenshot 2015-04-07 15.43.28

Yes, looking close turns up these lapsus, but looking close also offers some spectacular insights into the Audubonian process. Especially revealing are the penciled traces of dialogues between the painter, his agents, his engraver, and even the eventual recipient of the plates. Next to the Forster’s tern, for example, Audubon writes several lines about an undescribed species he had seen by the “thousands” in New Orleans in the winter of 1820-21; but without a specimen,

[I] dare not publish it, I have notwithstanding named it “Black-billed Tern” Sterna Ludoviciana J.J.A.

They were winter Forster’s terns, of course, but even this short note gives us a glimpse into Audubon’s concern for the accuracy of his work — and a certain anxiety about its reception.

The most complex of the conversations on display this time is certainly that inscribed on the painting of the rufous hummingbird. Audubon here issues detailed instructions to both Havell and his son Victor, while his crossing out of one name — “Nootka Sound Humming Bird” — and replacing it with another –“Ruffed Humming Bird” — engages both the past and the future, as Audubon does justice to his nomenclatural predecessors and simultaneously places himself in the taxonomic vanguard.

One of Audubon’s notes, on his painting of the pine grosbeak, shows the intensity with which at this point the artist was thinking of the relationship between the images in the Birds of America and the texts of the Ornithological Biography. Beneath the crimson bird, he writes

Pay attention to Note diseased legs!

Indeed, the left foot of the male grosbeak in the painting is grotesquely thickened — a feature Havell omits from the engraved plate. In the Ornithological Biography, however, Audubon explains what he meant to have illustrated. He quotes his Nova Scotia correspondent Thomas M’Culloch:

These birds are subject to a curious disease, which I have never seen in any other. Irregularly shaped whitish masses are formed upon the legs and feet. To the eye these lumps appear not unlike pieces of lime; but when broken, the interior presents a congeries of minute cells, as regularly and beautifully formed as those of a honey-comb. Sometimes, though rarely, I have seen the whole of the legs and feet covered with this substance, and when the crust has broken, the bone was bare, and the sinews seemed almost altogether to have lost the power of moving the feet.

This is not the only example where the instructions on the watercolor were ultimately rethought and revised. Had Audubon’s original plan been followed, his plate 390 would have been completed with two dickcissels; instead, a lark sparrow came to occupy the space left at the top of the sheet. Here and elsewhere among the paintings preparatory to the composite plates we find the poses of individual birds obviously planned to ease their insertion into new contexts, the logical conclusion of the “collage” technique Audubon experimented with throughout his career.

One of the most tantalizing annotations belongs to one of the most fascinating paintings (this one hung right at eye level), that of the Townsend’s bunting. Unfortunately, the extensive inscription, which covers several long lines next to the figure of the bird, was erased at some point, though enough dim traces remain that it would likely be recoverable, at least in part, from the right angle under the right light: trivial though the content might prove to be, it could still double the nearly first-hand information we have about the bird — and perhaps even cast a little much-needed light on the recent second record of this mysterious animal.

Close looks at others of the paintings on exhibition here could contribute to other open questions, too. The apparently increasing incidence of pink-tinged plumage across several species of gull has puzzled observers for a decade or so now; but so far as I know, no one has pointed out that Audubon’s 1829 laughing gull painting shows the adult’s underparts nearly covered by a saturated dull rose. Havell’s plate does not.

Other elements of the original watercolors may be less potentially significant, but are delightful all the same. Behind Audubon’s exquisite least sandpipers is a roughly sketched landscape; one wonders what Audubon had in mind when he penciled in two donkeys, one standing and the other in repose, and why the charming scene was taken over neither by Havell nor in the octavo edition of the plates.

It has been a joy these past three years to come to know Audubon as a painter of shorebirds — and to recognize in him one of the very best of that rarefied lot. Even Homer dozes, though. As I lingered over the two (and a half? — see above) black-bellied plover watercolors on display, it suddenly struck me that there was something missing in one of the birds otherwise so well painted.

Two somethings, in fact: the basic-plumaged plover’s hind toes.

Screenshot 2015-04-07 17.48.37

Neither this nor the inaccurate wing pattern of the female northern shoveler was corrected in the engraving. By no stretch of the imagination earthshaking, but still worth noticing.

And noticing is what birders do best, isn’t it?

Categories : Famous Birders
Comments (0)

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.   

Comments (0)

White Nun

Posted by: | Comments (0)


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.
Comments (0)

If you spend any time at all nosing around in the past and the personalities of birding and ornithology, you soon enough come across the riotous wealth of genealogical websites out there.

Screenshot 2015-02-26 16.14.07

Grateful as I am for the occasional hints and clues these — mostly amateur, I assume — family treeclimbers provide, I’m more often struck by how the determination with which many of them excavate the names and dates of their ancestors goes unmatched by any effort to establish a historical context. It’s amusing and thought-provoking (and sometimes just plain provoking) to see names famous in “our” world pop up in a genealogy with no indication at all of their long-dead bearers’ considerable accomplishments .

So much the more gratifying, then, to find a family that is fully aware of the ornithological attainments of its forebears, among them Hans Graf von Berlepsch, who died in Göttingen 100 years ago today.

Hans Graf v Berlepsch

The Berlepsches seem to have been destined for ornithological greatness as early as the twelfth century. According to the count’s younger cousin, another ornithological Hans, Baron von Berlepsch, the family’s coat of arms bears five parrots:

Heraldic legend tells us that on his travels through the land, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, followingthe custom then current, spent the night in the castle of a Berlevessen (the name was altered to Berlepsch only in the fifteenth century). When the next morning the emperor saw his host amusing himself with unknown green birds, he chastised him for it, as unbefitting a noble knight. Berlepsch responded, “You are doing me an injustice. You should first have asked where these birds came from. I know what is suitable for a knight, and I do just that. When it is necessary and I have the opportunity, I draw my sword; but when things are peaceful, I think such activities as this are permitted. Thus, I followed you when you proclaimed a crusade, and I brought these parrots back from there with me.” Barbarossa saw that he had been wrong and said, “And so you shall bear these birds in your coat of arms from now on as a reminder of your crusade and of this episode today.”

As his eulogist Carl Hellmayr reports, Hans, Count von Berlepsch traced his own interest in natural history to a more immediate source: As a child on his father’s estate Fahrenbach, Berlepsch was instructed by a series of tutors, one of whom, Pastor Degering, inspired in his young pupil a fanatical interest in orchids.

By the time he was a teenager, his obsession had shifted to birds, and the oldest skins in what would later be a vast collection were prepared in the spring of 1868. Five years later, having purchased a considerable collection of Brazilian specimens from a dealer in Halle, Berlepsch published his first scientific work, an extensive essay on the ornithology of the province of Santa Catarina.

Screenshot 2015-02-26 17.59.22

Hellmayr says that it was just chance that Schlüter happened to have this Brazilian collection on hand, but that that accident

would determine the future course of the young ornithologist, who from then on devoted his particular interest to the study of neotropic birds. No opportunity to build the growing collection further was passed by,

and Berlepsch must have spent a fortune buying skins in Leipzig, Coburg, Kassel, Hanover, London, and Paris before settling in to his study in Hannoversch Münden, from which he directed an extensive network of collectors in South America: Hellmayr mentions Jhering, Minlos, Lorent, the Garlepp brothers, and others, all of whom sent skins back to Europe for the Berlepsch collection.

At the time of his death in 1915, that collection included more than 55,000 specimens, among them no fewer than 6000 hummingbirds, and almost 300 types, chiefly of South American taxa. Hellmayr had concluded his Nachruf with the wish that the Berlepsch collection remain in a German institution — a wish fulfilled a year later, when the Senckenberg purchased the entire lot.

Now forming more than half of the ornithological holdings of that museum, Berlepsch’s birds are a fitting memorial, as are, of course, the many taxa named in his honor.

Screenshot 2015-02-26 19.02.41

All those names are ample testimony to the esteem in which Berlepsch was held by his ornithologists around the world. One of the most touching moments in all of taxonomic history has to have come on October 30, 1897, when Berlepsch attended a meeting of the British Ornithologists’ Club.

Berlepsch took the opportunity to enter into record a new tanager, collected for him in Ecuador by F.W.H. Rosenberg; he named it for Walter Rothschild. A bit later that same evening, three additional Ecuadorean nova were exhibited by Rothschild, among them a tinamou, which he named Crypturus berlepschi for his Hessian colleague. Mutual admiration, yes, and well deserved on both sides.


Comments (0)

 Subscribe in a reader

Nature Blog Network