Archive for Famous Birders

Aug
22

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.

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Aug
13

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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Aug
01

Reading Like a Positivist

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Ever stop to think about just how you read your bird books?

Lately I’ve been reading all the published works of Louis Pierre Vieillot.

Who? 

That’s exactly the point of my plowing through the old books: to bestow on Vieillot the fame history has cheated him of.

At this early stage in the project, it’s a very different sort of reading I’m engaged in. I’m not learning much about birds, but I am learning, bit by painfully excavated bit, something about Vieillot’s life.

That’s a misuse, an abuse, even, of a text, the unpardonable sin of biographism. But it’s worth it, isn’t it, to learn, for example, that Vieillot was afloat on the North Atlantic at the latitude of Nova Scotia one August — August of a year I have yet to determine. And to discover that his may be the earliest record of cave swallows from northeastern North America, when

several of these birds landed in the rigging of the ship I was on.

Maybe the whole story of Vieillot’s life is still waiting for me in an archive in Rouen or Paris. But if not, I’ll keep reading like a positivist.

Petrochelidon fulva 1894.jpg
Petrochelidon fulva 1894” by Richard Bowdler SharpeA monograph of the Hirundinidae. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Jul
18

Ecclesiastical Tanagers

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Palm Tanager

Among the birds discovered by Freyreiss and Maximilian in Brazil was a glossy gray-green tanager, a lively bird encountered in almost every dense tangle of palm fronds along the coast.  

But back up. “Discovered” may be saying too much.

Desmarest, T episcopus = palmarum

As Maximilian himself pointed out, the palm tanager was already known to European science, just misidentified:

This bird has hitherto been treated as the female of the Tanagra Episcopus, and it is depicted as such in Desmarest. This is an error, however, as Tanagra Episcopus, or Sayaca (the Sanyaçú of the Brazilians of the east coast), is very different from this supposed female, a bird of which we have often received both sexes, which resemble each other quite closely. This latter bird, formerly thought to be the female, is entirely different from the Sanyaçú even in its very soft, twittering voice. Because it is constantly found among the cocoa palms, I name this bird Tanagra palmarum.

I have to confess that before I read this passage this morning, I’d forgot that the blue-gray tanager was named “bishop.” And now I’m wondering why.

Blue-gray Tanager, Tobago

This pretty and familiar tropical thraupid barely escaped being called virens, a name — meaning “greenish” — that would have made less sense even than most tanager names. Instead, thanks to some timely intervention by the ICZN, it still, again, bears the Linnaean epithet episcopus, making it one of those almost innumerable birds named for churchmen and churchwomen, from popes all the way down to nunlets and monklets. So how did Linnaeus come to name this tanager in particular episcopus, the bishop bird?

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The short answer: It wasn’t his idea in the first place. We tend to credit (or more often to blame) the Swedish nomenclator for all the scientific names with his initial after them, but in fact, a goodly number — anybody know offhand just how many? — of the names in the Systema were not coined by Linnaeus but adopted from his many sources. This is one of them. Linnaeus called the tanager episcopus because Mathurin Brisson had done it first.

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Brisson gives a very detailed description of the specimen in Réaumur’s cabinet, sent from Brazil by two French collectors; but he offers no clue as to why it should have been appointed bishop among the birds. Perhaps it was the episcopal hue of the lesser coverts, “grayish white with a hint of violet,” though that seems a bit of a stretch. More likely, I think, this was Brisson’s witty way of easing the transition between his accounts of the various tanager species and those that immediately follow in his Ornithologie.

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What better way to introduce the full suite of cardinals than with a bishop?

Brisson’s gentle joke had, as they say, legs. Not only did Linnaeus immortalize the name episcopus, but his successors found in it the inspiration to create an entire little curia of ecclesiastical tanagers.

Desmarest, L'´vêque

Desmarest, in his 1805 Histoire naturelle des tangaras, des manakins et des todiersretained what he thought were both sexes of the “tangara évêque,” and added to the ranks a Peruvian bird brought to the Paris museum by a French collector, a bird he named Tangara archiepiscopus, the archbishop tanager.

yellow-wigned tanager, Desmarest

Desmarest had access to specimens of both sexes of this species, resulting in the odd caption “the female archbishop” — surely something that led to a little bemused head-shaking even in Napoleonic France.

Desmarest, female archbishop tanager

Unfortunately for Desmarest, this species, known today as the golden-chevroned tanager, had already been described by Anders Sparrman a generation earlier, from a specimen the Swedish naturalist thought had been collected somewhere in the East Indies.

Golden-chevroned tanager, in Sparrman, Mus Carl

Today, the bird is stuck, and we are stuck, with the accurate but not very evocative name Sparrman gave it: ornata.

Accuracy and priority proved only a minor setback to tradition, however.

In 1830, Hinrich Lichtenstein prepared a list of specimens sent back to Berlin by the German collectors Deppe and Schiede; those skins representing species already held in the Berlin museum were offered to private collectors “for cash payment in Prussian courants.” Some of those specimens represented still undescribed species, making Lichtenstein’s Preis-Verzeichniss the location of original publication. Among the nova: a yellow-green, blue-headed tanager with black wings with a yellow panel. Lichtenstein named it Tangara Abbas, the abbot.

Yellow-winged Tanager

It has been suggested, with no contemporary documentation, that “abbas” refers in a roundabout way to the given name of a man, Abbot Lawrence, who may or may not have met one or the other of the Deppe brothers sometime or another.

As far as I can discover, no one else has ever come close to believing that, and when this lovely little bird of Mexico and northern Central America hasn’t been called the yellow-winged tanager, it’s gone by the English name abbot tanager — not “Abbot’s,” as one would otherwise expect.

Apart from that slender shred, there’s an additional bit of far more convincing evidence that places this tanager, too, firmly in the tradition of ecclesiastical names.

Lesson, Cent Zoo, drawing Prêtre

For all his great merits, René-Primevère Lesson was notorious — is still notorious — for the utter lack of respect he showed for other ornithologists’ nomenclatural acts. When Lesson turned to this species in 1831, which he found represented by several skins that had been shipped from Mexico to Paris (take that, Prussians), he simply renamed it, calling it Tanagra vicarius, “le tangara vicaire,” the vicar. Lest his reader overlook the clerical connection, Lesson compares the vicar to two other tanager species — the bishop (our blue-gray) and Tangara prelatus, the prelate tanager (Lesson’s name for the palm tanager).

Swainson, cana blue-gray tanager

Lesson was at it again in 1842. Eight years earlier, William Swainson had published a new bird he called the blue-shouldered tanager, Tangara cana; if I’ve kept up, this is now considered a subspecies of the blue-gray tanager (and I think it was this race that was introduced into Florida).

Lesson gave this taxon, too, a brand new name, Tangara diaconus, the deacon tanager. Could the theme be any clearer?

The synonymy of the tanagers is nearly as complicated as that of the hummingbirds, and has been so for more than 150 years. In the very middle of the nineteenth century, three ornithologists — Cabanis, Sclater, and Bonaparte — all set out, independently, to work out the relationships among the known species and to give them clear names, with the predictable result that not a few tanagers suddenly had three new names to go along with whatever old ones might have been attached to them before.

The eventual clearing up of the taxonomic mess, to the extent it was possible, was obviously a consummation devoutly to be wished; but it cost us those Lessonian tanager names, and with them a glimpse into what just may have been the longest-running gag in ornithological history.

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Jul
15

Casualties of War

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Auguste Ménégaux, who died on this date 78 years ago, was in Le Havre when war broke out in 1914.

A magnificent collection of living hummingbirds from South America, in very good health, arrived at the very moment that war was declared. The poor birds were neglected, and they all died on board the boat before reaching Paris, to the great dismay of their owner and collectors.

The business suffered setbacks in London, too, where

many collectors have been able to sell or trade their objects only at very low prices.

And who knows, Ménégaux asks ominously, what may have happened to the trade in live birds and specimens in Wallonia and Belgian Luxembourg.

We tend to think of the end of consumptive natural history hobbies as the result of a new ethic, the cultural abandonment of practices finally recognized as barbarous. But in fact there were other causes, not the least of them the First World War and the attendant breakdown of the international networks of collectors.

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