Archive for Famous Birders

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?

Screenshot 2015-07-15 14.04.56

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.

Screenshot 2015-07-15 14.24.10

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.

Screenshot 2015-07-15 14.42.07

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.

Screenshot 2015-07-15 20.31.46

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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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Jun
18

Buying Prince Masséna’s Birds

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magnificent hummingbird

In 1846, Dr. Thomas B. Wilson, one of the great early benefactors of the Academy of Natural Sciences, asked his brother in England “to make a collection of birds” for the Philadelphia institution. Edward Wilson set about the task with his usual industry, and soon came to J.E. Grey at the British Museum.

Grey suggested, sensibly enough, that rather than assemble specimens piecemeal from dealers, Wilson purchase one of the several complete collections then on the market.

I mentioned two or three, among the others Prince Masséna’s collection in Paris…. I said that I intended to go to Paris in a very short time, and that, if he liked it, I would see what could be done.

Wilson, fearing that that famous cabinet would be beyond even his lavish budget, hesitated, but a few days later agreed to give it a try. Grey arrived in Paris,

and immediately sent a note to the Prince Masséna, saying that I was willing to purchase the collection of birds … and that I was prepared to pay for it in ready money. While sitting at dinner at the table d’hôte, an aide-de-camp came in, all green and gold, with a cocked hat and a large white feather, to inquire for me, with a message from the Prince to inquire what I intended by ready money, and … if I was ready to pay the sum that evening.

The banks were already closed, but the next morning, Wilson

gave his highness a cheque … and he gave me a receipt and handed me the keys of the cases, and I sealed them up, the affair being settled in a few minutes.

Wilson was “much pleased with the purchase,” as one might imagine, and the collection, “a very large and good one,” is now one of the greatest treasures held in any American museum.

Gould, Massena trogon 1838

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Jun
06

Poor Thekla

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theklae

Wage Du, zu irren und zu träumen….

Ted’s finally done it. Read (and enjoy) his “Big Night” carefully, and you’ll discover that he’s finally carried through on the threat to eliminate the possessive ‘s in the English names of birds.

I like it.

Of course, he’s not the first resident of Boulder to have an opinion about such things. In 1907, Junius Henderson (who seems to have had no objection to barbarous capitalization) posed the rhetorical question

why on earth should it be Baird’s Sparrow? In many such cases, the man whose name is given to the bird has never even seen the species, has had nothing to do with its discovery…. Baird is as much honored by speaking of the Baird Sparrow as by using the possessive.

Six years earlier, Richard C. McGregor had argued more soberly for the practice of dropping the offending ‘s: he quotes a letter from C. Hart Merriam in which it is pointed out that

the species are not in any way the property of the persons whose names they bear, but are merely named in honor of these persons…. the National Board on Geographical Names has for many years abandoned the use of possessives in all geographical names…. the Forestry people in their catalogue and checklist of forest trees of the United States have dropped the possessive….

Joseph Grinnell summed it all up in his review of the 1910 edition of the AOU Check-list:

We are disappointed to observe that the useless possessive is retained in personal names,

a matter noted expressly in the Supplement immediately preceding the new list’s publication.

It took forty-three years (!), but W.L. McAtee responded specifically and, as usual, confidently to all the current arguments:

the English possessive is equivalent to the Latin genitive…. It is true that the United States Geographic Board has abandoned the use of the possessive… but… those names are not based on Latinized genitives…. The most common objection to the use of the possessive case is that the bird does not actually belong to the man… a puerile [argument] at best.

McAtee also took up an argument Gerald H. Thayer had offered as early as 1910: such common surnames as Black, White, Moor, Fish, and so on are

as likely to belong to naturalists as to anybody else. Surely this is a sufficient rebuttal of the arguments in favor of dropping the possessive ‘s and apostrophe from the common names of birds and beasts named for men.

Apparently it was sufficient — if specious — and the AOU, and most English-language lists, have retained the possessive ‘s ever since.

There is one persistent and incomprehensible exception, though.

When Christian Ludwig Brehm received a series of larks his sons had collected in Spain, he found that the birds

differ on even the very first glance so much from all the other crested larks that there can really be no dispute about the validity of this new species,

a species he named Galerita Theklae, “Thekla’s Haubenlerche.”

We have named this lark for our unforgettable daughter, who died on July 6, 1858, in her twenty-fifth year.

Thekla Klothilde Bertha Brehm

Touching indeed — especially given that the bereaved father was writing no more than three weeks after the young woman’s death.

Touching, but largely ignored in English-speaking ornithology, which almost with one voice calls this bird the Thekla lark, flouting the otherwise carefully preserved rule of the possessive ‘s.

I suspect that a misunderstanding of the German “Theklalerche” is behind this lapse — that someone at some time failed to recognize a personal name in “Thekla” and read it instead as, say, a geographic label.

And that is an injustice to both Brehms, father and daughter. If we’re going to have “Baird’s sparrow,” let’s also have Thekla’s lark — or better still, let’s lose all those possessives consistently.

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May
31

A Towhee Type

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We’ve been a bit far north these past couple of weeks to have a real chance at green-tailed towhees, but we’ve been keeping eyes and ears open just in case one of those lovely sparrows — some say the loveliest — should happen to “overshoot” on its way to the breeding grounds.

As yesterday’s entry here pointed out, the generic affinities of the species were matter for discussion and debate for a long time. Beyond that question, though, there was another, more material: For twenty years after the species’ first description, we just didn’t know exactly what a green-tailed towhee was.

The species was first published by Audubon, as the green-tailed sparrow, in the last volume of the Ornithological Biography. Audubon never saw the bird himself, and never painted it; he bases his description of this “true Fringilla” instead on what seem to be two separate letters from John K. Townsend, who shot a “new and singularly marked Sparrow” on July 12, 1834. Townsend informed Audubon that

the specimen is, however, unfortunately young, and the plumage is not fully developed. I feel in great hopes of finding the adult….

In what appears to have been a subsequent letter, Townsend is forced to report that

In this I was, however, disappointed: I never saw it afterwards.

In fact, it was not until September 1842 that the towhee seems to have been encountered again — encountered, but not recognized. Somewhere in the Rockies, “about half way between New Mexico and the Colorado of the west,” William Gambel collected a single male of a bird that he named Fringilla Blandingiana, in honor of the discoverer of the turtle. Gambel was almost certainly aware of Audubon’s publication of the green-tailed towhee, but his bird, unlike Audubon’s, was an adult, and neither Gambel nor his colleagues at the Philadelphia Academy put the two together.

Six years later, in 1848, Baron de Lafresnaye received an adult bird in a shipment of Mexican and South American specimens sent by a M. Salé to his mother. Obviously unaware of Gambel’s description, and apparently likewise failing to compare it to Audubon’s, Lafresnaye described this “touit à coiffe rousse” as a new species, Pipilo rufo-pileus — thus assigning the species for the first time to the genus Pipilo.

It did not help that the original Townsend/Audubon specimen had somehow slipped into obscurity. John Cassin in 1855 asserted expressis verbis that there had never been such a skin — in spite of Townsend’s clear claim to have taken the specimen.

What gives?

It would take a few years to figure it all out, but clarity shone forth with the publication in 1859 of the ornithological volume of the Pacific railroad surveys. While Spencer Baird was still using the name blandingiana in 1852, seven years later he, with Cassin and George Lawrence, was able to determine that blandingiana and rufopileus were mere synonyms of the Audubonian chlorurus.

And they were able to do so because the Townsend specimen had turned up — in Baird’s own cabinet, whence it passed into the collections of the Smithsonian as number 1896. Comparison of that skin with a slightly older male specimen and a series of adults led them to conclude that the Townsend skin

is unmistakeably the Pipilo here described, and settles the question in favor of the priority of the name chlorurus.

The odd outlier aside (Ridgway cites blandingiana as late as 1868), that has been the bird’s specific epithet ever since. And if anyone doubts that it should be so, Townsend’s bird from July 1834 still lies peaceful on its back in Washington.

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