Archive for Famous Birders

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.

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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 wehre these birds came from. I know well 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.

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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.

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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.


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Shorebirds and Their Legs

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Semipalmated Sandpiper

Some of us still remember those long-ago days when we were told to identify shorebirds by the color of their feet. I spent a lot of time as a boy birder trying to tell the difference between gray, gray-green, olive-gray, olive-green, green, and yellow, and it was with huge relief that I was finally introduced to more sensible ways to identify these loveliest of birds.

For nearly forty years I’ve believed that the leg-color chestnut was the invention of the Griscom gang on the 1910s and ’20s, whence it passed, like so much else, into birding culture by way of the Peterson guides. And then I saw this:

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This is Linnaeus himself, in the Tenth Edition of the Systema, on the difficulties of shorebird identification:

The species of snipe, shanks, and so on are distinguished only with difficulty, as they vary with sex and age and hardly differ in plumage color; those with red feet are rightly to be treated separately from the others, as the feet do not vary.

As early as the Fauna svecica, Linnaeus was focusing on foot color to distinguish otherwise similar sandpipers:

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Offhand, I can’t think of many other sets of field marks that lasted two and a half centuries. You?

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Brooks’s Blackbird

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Allan Brooks

Today marks the 146th birthday of Allan Brooks, the Anglo-Canadian painter and ornithologist. One of the most widely traveled collectors of his (or any other) day, Brooks shot and sketched birds from Ottawa to Auckland and most places in between.

In March 1928, Brooks and J. Eugene Law were in Arizona. On the 14th, they discovered an odd icterid at a tank in southern Pinal County; Law was able to kill the bird the next day.

In the hand the bird proved to be about the size of a male Yellow-headed Blackbird…. iris dark brown… entire plumage black, slightly glossed with bluish purple, wings and tail more greenish… tail with thirteen rectrices, strongly graduated… quite flat without trace of plication….

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Before Law collected the bird, it had

walked about sedately, frequently posing with its head thrown back, the bill pointing straight up and the neck slightly extended.

Brooks sent the specimen east to the Smithsonian, where the skin and trunk skeleton are now USNM 313651 and 322691. After examining the bird, Charles W. Richmond was of the opinion that it was most likely “a very new species” of grackle; Alexander Wetmore agreed. “Neither,” Brooks adds, “considered it to be a hybrid.”

Today, no one really believes that Brooks and Law discovered a new blackbird on that spring day in Mammoth. Jaramillo and Burke — Canadians around every corner here! — report that an analysis of the specimen’s mitochondrial DNA identified its female parent as a grackle of one species or another; more DNA was removed from the bird’s foot in 2004, but I don’t know what the results, if any, were of that study.

The BNA account for the great-tailed grackle identifies the Arizona bird as a hybrid between that species and the red-winged blackbird, an unexpected pairing given the care female great-tails take to avoid mating with even the much more closely related, much more similar boat-tailed grackles.

Whatever it was, whatever it is, the Pinal County nondescript remains testimony to the good eye of Major Allan Brooks. And to the good aim of Gene Law, of course.


Lovebirds to the Very End

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and those little Agapornis parrots are showing up on cards and computer screens around the world.

rosy-faced Lovebird

But lovebirds aren’t the only lovebirds.

Buffon writes of The Amorous Titmouse that

we owe our knowledge of this species to the Abbot Gallois, who brought it back from the Far East and showed it to Mr. Commerson in 1769…. The epithet “amorous” given to this species indicates quite well the dominant quality of its temperament: In fact, the male and female caress each other endlessly; at least when caged, that is their sole occupation.

They give themselves over to love, we are told, to the point of exhaustion, and in this way they not only mitigate the annoyances of captivity with pleasure but curtail them; for it is obvious that such a practice means that they cannot live for very long, in accordance with the general principle that the intensity of existence diminishes its duration.

If that is their goal — if in fact they are striving only to end their captivity quickly — one must confess that in their despair they choose a very sweet way to do it.

Mr. Commerson does not tell us whether these birds perform with equal ardor the other functions required to perpetuate their species, such as the building of a nest, incubation, and parental care.

We know nothing more of this species, alas, than its affectionate habits, and it may well be extinct. But, as they say, what a way to go.

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Apparently Harper Lee is about to publish a second novel.

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!

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