Archive for Birding Provence
At once familiar and eerie, the Barn Owl has probably attracted more legends — and more names — across its vast range than any other owl. In Provence, Crespon tells us, this common but strictly nocturnal ghost of a bird is known as “Béou-l’Oli,” a name that comes from the belief that this bird enters churches to drink the oil burning in the lamps.
It’s probably not true.
We’re lucky every April in Provence to see three species of Old World sparrows. We visit the Pont du Gard for our reliable Rock Sparrows, and House Sparrows — familiar but still irresistible — are common nearly everywhere we go. And the best of the trio, the charming Eurasian Tree Sparrow, flits and chitters around farmyards and up and down hedgerows as we wander the quiet backroads of southern France.
The official French name of this species is moineau friquet, the “vivacious sparrow.” Crespon, writing in nearby Nîmes in 1840, says that
when perched in a tree or a bush, it is constantly twisting and flitting, twitching and lowering its tail.
In the Gard, he reports, the bird is lou saouzin, the “willow sparrow,”
because one most often encounters it in willows near water or in the adjacent fields.
Whatever you call Passer montanus, it’s a good day when you can sit back under the skies of Provence and watch a busy little flock picking its way friskily along.
It may not look like much, but blame the photographer, not the bird, which is, of course, a Slender-billed Gull, the pink-bellied, snout-faced favorite of almost everybody on my spring-time tours of Provence.
Nowadays this gull is famously a Camargue specialty, but it was first recorded there only in 1840, by Crespon in his great Ornithologie du Gard. It’s no wonder that Provençal ornithology had gone so long without recognizing this scarce bird: The species wasn’t even described to science until October 1839, when the Italian entomologist Ferdinando Arborio Gattinara di Breme presented specimen material from Sardinia to the “savans ornithologistes” assembled at that year’s Congress of Italian Scientists in Pisa. There he dedicated it to his colleague and
friend Carlo Giuseppe Géné … the learned Professor of Turin, [who] has devoted such ardor
to the study of the island’s fauna. Director of the Turin Museum of Zoology, the still-young Géné served, coincidentally or not, as the secretary of the Zoological Section at the Pisa conference.
Breme’s epithet genei stands today, thanks to a hair’s breadth of priority. Just a few months after the publication of Breme’s descriptio princeps, Coenraad Jacob Temminck included an account of the bird in the final volume of his Manuel. Temminck’s type specimen came from Sicily, and he suspected — rightly — that
this new species has always been confused with its congeners and is more common around the Mediterranean that one might assume.
Apparently unaware that Breme had described the same bird in Pisa, Temminck gave his “new” species the names tenuirostris and ”mouette à bec grèle,” which still today provide the English name of the gull (the French now call it the “goéland railleur,” the “laughing gull,” a name dangerously close, it seems to me, to that of its abundant giggling congener, the “mouette rieuse“).
But that’s not the end of it. After slipping happily under the ornithological radar for all those centuries, the Slender-billed Gull was suddenly, it seems, hot property in the mid-nineteenth century. In the space of a scant year, the poor bird was described by Breme, by Temminck, by Keyserling and Blasius (“Larus gelastes,” another “laughing” name), and by Charles Lucian Bonaparte, who — no doubt with a bit of familial pride — was able to add Corsica to the species’ known range.
Bonaparte had chaired the Pisa meeting at which Breme announced his new species, but that didn’t stop him from re-naming the bird in 1840 in his Iconografia della fauna italica. Though both Géné and Temminck were subscribers to that work, Bonaparte took the opportunity to name the gull anew in honor of Raffaelo Lambruschini, in token of the
respect, friendship, gratitude, and esteem that we have long wished to express to him.
Like Bonaparte, Lambruschini — agronomist, educator, and clerical reformer — was a convinced democrat and nationalist, and given that he seems to have had no real interest in ornithology himself, I think we should understand Larus lambruschinii as one of Bonaparte’s “political” species, written up – to borrow Sclater’s words from another context – as a convenient opportunity for “promulgating his republican sympathies.”
It’s a small point, perhaps, but one that has gone unnoticed up to now. Patricia Stroud’s fine Emperor of Nature makes the argument that it is especially in the ornithological “portion of the Fauna italica that the relationship between science and politics is evident,” noting that “the real reason” for Bonaparte’s dedication of the work to the Grand Duke of Tuscany “was Leopold’s support of the” Congress of Italian Scientists (166-167). But Stroud makes no mention of Lambruschini and his gull, a story that would have made her point in the clearest possible way.
Lambruschini’s name doesn’t even appear in most of the standard ornithological onomastica. It does show up in Jobling, but he names the wrong Lambruschini: Luigi Lambruschini was actually our man’s uncle, a famous cardinal of the Catholic Church and a staunchly anti-republican royalist and papist. It’s hard to imagine a less sympathetic figure from the younger Lambruschini’s political point of view, or one less likely to be memorialized by Bonaparte.
Rare, beautiful, and sought-after, the Slender-billed Gull is more than just a tick on the eager birder’s list. As even this quick look at the history of its discovery and description shows, the bird stands at the very intersection of science and politics in mid-nineteenth-century Europe.
Interested in intersections? We are too.
On every one of my Birds and Art tours of Provence, I catch my breath at our first sight of the Camargue’s Greater Flamingos. No matter how familiar, no matter how common, it’s a shock every time to be reminded that these improbably colored, impossibly shaped birds are really real.
Frank Chapman, writing more than 100 years ago about the American Flamingo, was equally dazzled:
With legs and neck fully outstretched, and the comparatively small wings set half-way between bill and toes, they look as if they might fly forward or backward with equal ease.
In one of the most notorious cases of, shall we say, textual borrowing in the American birding literature, the early editions of an influential field guide first published in 1934 put it this way:
its extremely long neck is extended droopily in front and its long legs trail similarly behind, giving the impression that the bird might as easily fly backward as forward!
The exclamation point notwithstanding, any undergraduate writing that same sentence could expect a summons to an earnest chat with the dean. Unlike birds, words aren’t really supposed to fly “forward and backward with equal ease.”
Want to see lots of flamingos and debate — over the best food and wine in the world — whether there can be such a thing as plagiarism in a field guide? Join us in April 2014!
We see a lot of Black Kites on our spring tour of Provence, and once in a while we’re lucky to run across this species’ larger, brighter, fancier cousin, the Red Kite.
The French call the common species “milan noir,” but the larger, more colorful bird gets a much finer name, “milan royal.” I’d always assumed that this was to reflect the more noble nature of the Red Kite, but Crespon tells a very different story:
This bird of prey is surprisingly timorous; the weakest of our other raptors, even crows and ravens, can put it to flight and make it drop its prey. They say that its name comes from the fact that princes used to amuse themselves by letting the tiniest falcons or sparrowhawks give chase to it.
The ornithologist of Nîmes presumably has this story from Buffon, who goes on to relate his own “plaisir” in watching
this cowardly bird — endowed with everything that should give it courage, lacking neither weapons nor strength nor maneuverability — nevertheless refusing to fight, instead fleeing from the Sparrowhawk that is so much smaller than itself, twisting and rising to seek refuge in the clouds, until the smaller bird catches up to it and strikes it with its wings and bill, even forcing it to the ground, less wounded than simply beaten, vanquished rather by its own fear than by the fortitude of its enemy.
So much for grandeur and nobility. Still worth seeing, though!