Archive for Famous Birders

Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Oologist 31 -1914

A hundred years ago, there was still a tidy little list of North American birds whose nest and eggs had never been seen by white scientists. Among them: the dusky seaside sparrow.

The collectors of those days took their failure personal, and their inability to discover the home of

a bird whose range covered only a few square miles, and one that had been known to science for forty-one years, and whose nest had never been found, was a “slam” on the ability of us true Oologists.

In the early summer of 1914, Oscar Baynard and Henry Simpson set out to put things right. For a full week in May, Baynard and his “old side kick”

cruised the entire length of Merritts Island, visiting every place where there had ever been any records of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow…. on the morning of May 21st … I saw a Black Sparrow…. I killed the bird and upon dissecting same found it to be a male evidently in full breeding.

This sure made us feel good.

Encouraged, the collectors “plunged into the marsh” and quickly discovered “at least” twenty dusky seaside sparrows in the dense salicornia carpet. Four hours later, they had found no nest. Simpson suggested over dinner that the sparrows

did not lay eggs at all but had young like an animal.

And so after their meal, they took to the time-honored method of dragging the marsh with a weighted rope. It took no time at all before a bird flushed as if from a nest, which the searchers found and promptly collected, with its three “heavily incubated” eggs.

To say that we were elated is expressing it mildly and we did a regular Indian Tango or some other kind of dance…. We vowed we would find more nests or never leave the spot.

Baynard and Simpson lived up to their vow only too well in the days that followed, taking fledglings, nestlings, and two more sets of eggs. The third clutch they collected was so “heavily incubated” that one egg began to hatch on the way back to the boat; Baynard

was unable to save but one egg of this set.

“Save,” indeed.

Dusky seaside sparrow nest, Baynard 1914

Two of the nests and egg sets, along with the skins of the parent birds, were sold to John Eliot Thayer, of gull fame. Thayer in turn donated the first nest and clutch, collected on May 21, 1914, to Harvard’s museum, where they still reside.

Does it matter that, by my count, Baynard and Simpson killed at least 17 sparrows and sparrows in spe on those few May days a century ago?

I don’t know how to answer that question, or how to argue that the dusky seaside sparrow would have remained doomed regardless of the efforts of the collectors. But wouldn’t it be fine today to have seventeen dusky seaside sparrows and their hundred years of descendants buzzing away in the marshes of the Florida coast?



Cuvier’s Kinglet, Again

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With the recent apparent rediscovery in Ontario of the Townsend’s bunting, John James Audubon’s “nonce species” are back in the news. When pressed, most birders can name the bunting, the small-headed flycatcher, and the two warblers; but the fifth –and the most visually appealing — of the Audubonian mysteries for some reason gets no respect.

Cuvier's kinglet

Audubon collected a male of “this pretty and rare species” in Pennsylvania in the early summer of 1812. Nineteen years later, when he published the first volume of the Ornithological Biography, he had never seen another, and was unable

to learn that this species has been observed by any other individual.

In fact, however, Cuvier’s kinglet (named, over Charles Bonaparte’s recommendation, for “one at present unrivalled in the knowledge of general Zoology”) did enjoy – unlike Audubon’s other unica —  a modest afterlife in the nineteenth century.

In both editions of the Manual, for example, Thomas Nuttall proclaimed himself thoroughly convinced of the legitimacy of “this … interesting addition to the North American Fauna,” than which

no species can be better marked or more strikingly distinguished.

Audubon himself seems never to have given up hope. In 1840, he corresponded with Spencer Fullerton Baird about a “singular variety” of the ruby-crowned kinglet the seventeen-year-old Baird had shot that spring:

Have you compared the Regulus with the description of Regulus Cuvieri? Could you not send me your bird to look at?

So far as I know, Baird never replied, but the Nestor of American ornithology was still more or less in the camp of the believers nearly twenty years later (and seven years after Audubon’s death), when he included the Cuvier’s golden crest in his 1858 report on the birds of the railroad surveys:

I have introduced the diagnosis of this species from Audubon for the sake of calling attention to it and of completing the account of the genus.

There was still no second record of the species (or, as the author rather pointedly recalls, “of several other species not found in the United States by any one else” but Audubon), and Baird’s uncertainty would be noticeably greater in the History of 1874:

This species continues to be unknown, except from the description of Mr. Audubon….

Elliott Coues did not even number the species in his 1872 Key, observing in a note only that the bird was “not now known.” The final edition of the Key has nothing to add: R. cuvieri

continues unknown.

Not unknown to everyone, though.

Writing the year before publication of Coues’s first Key, the Canadian physician, birder, and all-around kook Alexander Milton Ross offered no indication that the “Cuvier’s golden-crested wren” was in any way remarkable. In Canada, he says,

this wren usually accompanies the two preceeding species [namely, the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets], in their spring and fall migrations.

Ross’s were the last “sightings” of this distinctive bird, one that the American Ornithologists’ Union has from the very start relegated to the Check-list‘s appendix of “hypothetical” species. Today, Audubon’s mystery kinglet is thought to be most likely “an aberrant plumage” of the golden-crowned kinglet, but who knows? Maybe the lost specimen from Fatland Ford really was something, and the rest of us – pace Alexander Milton Ross — just haven’t been looking hard enough.

Let me know the next time you run into a kinglet with a black forehead. It just might be history in the re-making.


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Figuring Out the Woodpeckers

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Alexander Rider, Black-backed Woodpecker, Bonaparte

Got a woodpecker question? Gerard Gorman’s new guide to the world’s picids is likely to answer it.

We weren’t so lucky back in 1828, when Alexander Rider produced the first painting of a black-backed woodpecker, for publication in Charles Bonaparte’s American Ornithology. To my eye, this is one of the most charming figures in the entire four-volume work, ornamental and informative all at once in spite of its classically Riderian stiffness.

But there’s more to this figure than mere prettiness. The story begins with Bonaparte’s caption:

Screenshot 2014-07-22 11.25.43

That’s right: The prince of ornithology identifies this bird, which Rider painted from the “finest male specimen” in Bonaparte’s own collection, as the northern three-toed woodpecker, Picus Tridactylus.

Study of the accounts in other works convinced Bonaparte

that [this] species is subject to variations in size and plumage… thus, in some specimens the [nape] is described [as] white, or partly whitish, instead of being wholly black: the back is also said to be waved with white….

Those specimens, obviously, were of the “real” American three-toed woodpecker, even the darkest individuals of which differ from the black-backed in their white markings above. But Bonaparte, not recognizing that he had before him an undescribed species, analyzed the difference as one of age:

the young of both sexes are of a dull blackish… the feathers of the back being banded with white, giv[ing] to that part a waved appearance…

American Three-toed Woodpecker

The logical result: America had but one species of six-toed woodpecker, adults of which had solid black backs and the young barred. Bonaparte was proud of having at last solved the puzzle:

we feel much gratification in being enabled to unveil to ornithologists the mystery of these diversities in this species, by merely pointing out the sexual differences, as well as those originating in the gradual change from youth to maturity….

With the benefit of 185 years of hindsight, of course, we know that Bonaparte was wrong. Not five years after the publication of the American Ornithology, William Swainson re-analyzed Bonaparte’s bird as a distinct species, the Arctic three-toed woodpecker.

black-backed woodpecker, Fauna bor-am

In addition to what were now the obvious differences in plumage, the new woodpecker was “in every respect” larger than what Swainson called “the common species,” with a bill “considerably longer in proportion” and the wing more pointed in structure. Swainson’s formal description mentions Bonaparte only in the synonymy, but the paraliptic remark in the account of the American three-toed woodpecker must have stung:

it would be tedious, and it is perhaps unnecessary, to show in what manner all preceding ornithologists have confounded the northern three-toed Woodpeckers.

Indeed, even just after the publication of the Fauna boreali-americanaAudubon and Nuttall were still following Bonaparte’s classification.

Audubon did not recognize the two species as distinct until very late in the preparation of the Birds of America, noting in the final volume of the Ornithological Biography that he, like everyone else, had “looked upon” the bird we know as the American three-toed woodpecker “as the young of the species just mentioned,” namely, our black-backed woodpecker.

Nuttall, too, came around in the 1840 edition of his Manual, listing both species — the one glossy black above, the other “varied with black and white.”

Good to have all that settled.

Unfortunately, even after the true relationship of the two birds had been figured out, their English names continued to be a source of confusion for more than a century to come. In particular, the label “northern three-toed” has been applied at one time or another to each, and it is a relief — a more or less permanent one, I hope — that that name has been retired.

As if all this weren’t enough, there remains the question of Vieillot’s Picus hirsutus, cited by the older authorities as the original description of our American three-toed woodpecker. But that, thankfully, is another story, a story that will have to wait for another time.

Woodpeckers, Ridgway, Baird History

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A Woodpecker Black as a Crow

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Lewis and Clark don’t get much credit nowadays for their contributions to the natural history of the Great Plains. We all know about their discoveries, of course, from black-tailed prairie-dogs to western meadowlarks; but the standard story, I think, treats the acquisition of those novelties as merely incidental to the purposes and efforts of the Corps of Discovery.

And there’s something to it. In his charge to the expedition’s leaders, Thomas Jefferson seems to have intentionally suppressed his own unbounded interest in things wild and alive, emphasizing instead — no doubt to the benefit of suspicious minds in Congress — the military and economic goals of the great journey.

At the same time, though, a rereading of the journals of Clark and Lewis reveals that though their priorities may have been elsewhere, they were, when it came to it, much better observers than we sometimes recall.

On July 20, 1805, Meriwether Lewis

saw  a black woodpecker … about the size of the lark woodpecker as black as a crow. I indevoured to get a shoot at it but could not. it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys a good deel like the jay bird.

Not until May of the next year did the expedition procure specimens of the bird, but what strikes me is just how perceptive Lewis was in describing the bird he “indevoured” to shoot in that first encounter. Even now, twenty-one decades later in the twenty-first century, the field character most of us most of the time to identify the Lewis’s woodpecker is that odd, powerful, corvid-like flight.

And the first white man to see the bird was the first white man to notice that flight. Well done, Meriwether Lewis.

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That Faintest Whiff of Hummingbird

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Crimson Topaz

It’s 150 years this year since William Charles Linnaeus Martin left this earth, but his vast corpus of writings continues even now to open a window on Victorian agriculture and natural history.

One of the most popular and prolific authors of his day in such subjects, Martin moved in good circles, and had access to the finest collections in Britain, including the birds belonging to his “obliging friend” John Gould, which and whom he consulted liberally in preparing his General History of Hummingbirds.

One day, Gould had a surprise waiting for his literary colleague,

a very petrel-like species [of hummingbird]…. Its short tarsi, its peculiar structure of wing, and its dull plumage, were, at a glance, apparent; but that decided oleaginous odour which is exhaled from the skin of the Petrels and other allied oceanic birds, was what most surprised us; it was perceptible as soon as the specimen was taken from the box, and had we not used the sense of vision, as well as that of smell, we should have said, this is a small Petrel….

Martin neglects to identify that peculiar trochilid for his reader, but he does offer some speculation on its habits:

It is not improbable that it may feed on minute Mollusks, semi-microscopic Crustaceans, and the larvae of aquatic insects….

Gould himself debunked that idea, dismissing the hummingbird’s musky aroma  as “merely a coincidence.” But with August just around the calendar corner, the southbound hummingbirds will be thronging our feeders soon enough. I’ll be out there this year with my mind open and nostrils flared.

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