Archive for Famous Birders


“Never Assume the Obvious”

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Bonaparte's Gulls

real Bonaparte’s gull

One hundred years ago today, Ludlow Griscom was out shooting birds for his graduate alma mater, Cornell University. As Roger Tory Peterson told the story,

Firing into a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls, he shot a bird which he skinned and labeled as an immature Bonaparte’s. Then taking aim at one of the passing Common Terns, he dropped it into the water, retrieved it, and subsequently labeled it an adult Common Tern.

You can guess what followed when

both specimens were re-examined. The supposed Bonaparte’s was actually a Little Gull, the first record for upstate New York; the tern was an Arctic Tern…. May 20, 1916, had been a red-letter day, but Ludlow did not appreciate it at the time.

“Never assume the obvious,” the resolutely unchastened Griscom told his disciples. But Peterson, telling this tale long after Griscom’s death, did just that. It would seem to be obvious that Griscom made up his own skins. Not this time, though.

Look what I found:

Screenshot 2015-08-20 14.20.44

I guess we know what America’s greatest bird painter was doing, too, one hundred years ago today.

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Other People’s Bird Books: Bonaparte’s Pigeons

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This one is, simply put, spectacular. The front wrapper of the University of Wisconsin’s copy of the offprint of Charles Bonaparte’s Coup d’œil sur l’ordre des pigeons bears this inscription:

Screenshot 2016-04-05 16.31.56

The black ink is a bit hard to read on the green ground, and it didn’t help that Bonaparte or someone smeared the leaf, but it reads

M. Waterton

Walton Hall near York, from his friend the author — 

care of Mr. Gould.

Bonaparte and Charles Waterton had been on good terms ever since the ships they were traveling on collided in June 1841, an accident that resulted in their reconciliation after some earlier hurt feelings. Gould, of course, is John Gould, the English artist and entrepreneur, a frequent go-between for Bonaparte and his colleagues in Britain.

This little book passed through some pretty famous hands before it somehow made its way to Madison.

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The First Lawrence’s Goldfinch in Europe

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Lawrence's Goldfinch CSP February 27 2007 068

We’re happily, gratefully spoiled. Need a note from an obscure regional journal published half a century ago? One e-mail, and the text is on my computer desktop within minutes. Wonder what the type specimen of a bird looked like? I can see it in three dimensions on the museum’s website. Want the original account of a species’ discovery? It’s right there in my e-bookmarks. All pretty miraculous.

Sometimes, though, I’m surprised at how quickly information and objects could move even a century and a half ago. The beautiful and relatively uncommon Lawrence’s goldfinch offers an example.

John Graham Bell, Audubon’s companion on the Missouri and Theodore Roosevelt’s mentor in the taxidermy shop, first encountered this pretty little finch in Sonoma, California. He deposited his specimens in Philadelphia, where John Cassin published a formal description of the species in 1852.

Cassin named the bird

in honor of Mr. George N. Lawrence, of the city of New York, a gentleman whose acquirements, especially in American Ornithology, entitle him to a high rank amongst naturalists, and for whom I have a particular respect, because, like myself, in the limited leisure allowed by the vexations and discouragements of commercial life, he is devoted to the more grateful pursuits of natural history.

(Lest there be any worry that Cassin had slighted Bell, in the same paper the Philadelphia ornithologist named the pretty California sage sparrow still — again — known as Bell’s.)

Not much more than a year later, in mid-December of 1853, Charles Bonaparte was able to introduce the bird to his colleagues in Paris, in a letter describing the specimens brought back from the New World by Pierre Adolphe Delattre:

Our collection dazzles especially in the finches…. One… now appears for the first time in Europe, the pretty Lawrence’s goldfinch, discovered by Mr. Cassin in Texas and collected by Mr. Delattre in California.

As usual, Bonaparte could not resist going on to re-describe the species, but this time at least he preserved Cassin’s scientific name.

Bonaparte’s misidentification of the discoverer — it was Bell, not Cassin — and of the type locality — it was California, not Texas — suggests to me that he had not yet actually read the description published the year before. Then as now, though, news traveled quickly along the ornithological grapevine.

Just not yet at the speed of light.


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Daniel Giraud Elliot

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Daniel Giraud Elliot.jpg

Today marks the centennial of the death of the splendidly bearded and splendidly productive Daniel Giraud Elliot.

A founder and president of the American Ornithologists’ Union, Elliot was also a benefactor of both the American Museum and the Field Museum; he served for a dozen years as curator at the Field, but over most of his long career as collector, author, and explorer, Elliot was — following a long tradition not yet entirely vanished — an enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateur in the most honorable sense of the word.

Elliot’s scientific contributions are probably of only historical interest today. What lingers, though, and what birders still remember him for, are the great illustrated monographs in the European style, with plates by Joseph Wolf and J.G. Keulemans. Nothing can commemorate Elliot more appropriately than a browse through those images, still some of the finest ever produced.

My favorites are the hornbills. Published — like most of his larger projects, at Elliot’s expense — when the author was only 46, the Monograph of the Bucerotidae is as stunning now as it was when it appeared in 1882, and the plates, “the happy results of  Mr. Keuleman’s talented pencil,” remain as desirable.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 09.11.23

Ten years earlier, Wolf had prepared the plates for Elliot’s birds of paradise. It’s hard to disagree with Elliot’s assessment of his collaborator:

The drawings executed by Mr. Wolf will… receive the admiration of those who see them; for, like all that artist’s productions, they cannot be surpassed, if equalled, at the present time.

It takes a painter of great skill to keep these spectacular birds from looking merely gaudy.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 09.24.04

Wolf manages to do just that, though.

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As a very young man in the 1860s, the author painted the birds himself in his monograph of the pittas.

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Frank Chapman, with the benefit of hindsight, would later allude a bit dismissively to Elliot’s abilities with the brush, but the pitta plates show him not entirely without talent as an illustrator.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 09.41.06

A century is not the long time I once thought it was, and it is both humbling and encouraging to think that Elliot began his career at a time when Baird, Cassin, and Lawrence were the bright lights of American ornithology — and that his own works, now dedicated to mammals rather than to birds, were still appearing in the same twentieth century when we were born.

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The Deserving Aglaé

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John Cassin was famously no friend of the practice of naming birds for people. Squabbling gently with his friend and colleague Spencer Baird over the naming of a new vireo, he wrote that

this kind of thing is bad enough at the best, but to name a bird after a person utterly unknown is worse.

There are plenty who agree with him today, and there were plenty who agreed with him in the mid-nineteenth century, when the rage for birdy patronyms was at its height. In 1839, for example, the baron de La Fresnaye expressed his own displeasure at the practice — even as he indulged in it himself. In naming a new American bird for the wife of a Bordeaux collector, La Fresnaye protested that

our sole intention in dedicating this species to Mme Brelay has been to pay tribute to the very special enthusiasm with which she herself has engaged in ornithology and collaborated with M. Brelay in forming his collection, which already includes many thousand individual birds.

But the lady ornithologist was an exception.

We by no means approve of the custom of giving new birds the names of women who are often enough entirely without any interest or expertise in ornithology; though the author of the name may be bound to them in friendship or family relations, these women can be of no interest to the larger circle of naturalists. We believe that the application of a proper name to a bird is in fact acceptable only when it commemorates that of some naturalist, author, explorer, painter, or zealous collector who has already rendered or is in the course of rendering some service to science.

La Fresnaye’s few flattering words are essentially all we know about the Brelays’ ornithological pursuits. Some of their specimens are still preserved in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the family historians are at least able to provide Mme Brelay’s dates of birth and death, but I fear that the bigger story was lost while the collections passed from the Brelays to La Fresnaye to the Verreaux brothers to the Boston Society of Natural History to, finally, Harvard.

Oh: the bird. Mme Brelay was immortalized 175 years ago in the species epithet of the rose-throated becard. Not a bad bird to lend one’s name to, not at all.

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