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Jun
18

Cast Photos: “Sanctuary”

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Percy MacKaye’s fantasy masque “Sanctuary” was quite a big deal in the early part of the last century. It quickly became a standard part of the program whenever a bird refuge or nature center was dedicated, and inspired everything from songs to high-design bird baths.

The play was premiered in September 1913 at the dedication of the Helen Woodruff Smith bird preserve in Plainfield, New Hampshire. The cast at this first performance was an illustrious one:

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Both Eleanor and Margaret Wilson took part in this first performance, Margaret singing the prelude and her sister taking on the role of Ornis, the collective spirit of birddom.

The author’s daughter, Arvia MacKaye, “fell into reverie” as the prelude was sung — a prelude credited in later publications to her own precocious pen.

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Joseph Lindon Smyth and Percy MacKaye himself played the leading roles of the Faun and the Poet.

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Bit parts were assigned to family members and friends. Little Arvia changed her costume to play Hummingbird, and Cardinal was the sculptor Herbert Adams.

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Witter Bynner, a prolific and largely forgotten poet, was suitably fierce as the plumer Stark; happily, the masque ends with his conversion to the preservationist cause.

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There was another, more important conversion, too. Eleanor and Margaret Wilson’s father was named Woodrow, and the president and his wife were in the audience that September day in New Hampshire. Perhaps he recalled the play’s adjurations when he signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act a few years later.

All of the photos by Arnold Genthe of that first, 1913 performance of “Sanctuary” are on line at the Library of Congress

 

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Jun
15

The Laughing Tern

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Gull-billed Tern

On May 16, 1818, Wilhelm Schilling encountered a small flock of this handsome tern for the first time on German soil. He collected one, and did not see the species again until June 1819, this time three pairs on the island Lips; this time he collected all six. A few returned to Lips the next year, only to wind up themselves on their backs in Schilling’s specimen drawers. The next year, 1821, the species “was entirely absent from these localities,” which led Schilling and his colleague Ludwig Brehm to conclude that

this is a nomadic bird on the islands of the Baltic Sea, which breeds there only occasionally and in warm, dry years.

On examining Schilling’s specimens, Brehm recognized the bird as Montagu’s Sterna anglica and Wilson’s Sterna aranea — but he liked neither of those names, and so he gave it a new one, Sterna risoria.

Gull-billed Tern

Brehm explains the new species epithet as a translation of the name by which the bird was known on the island of Rügen, “kleine Lachmöwe,” the little laughing gull.

It has a loud call, similar to human laughter, sounding like hähä or hä, which in its many variations expresses the bird’s different moods. Schilling heard this call from those that he saw in May 1818. When he shot at one and missed, it climbed high into the air and seemed to want to mock the unhappy marksman with its laughter.

However suitable the name risoria, Brehm couldn’t, of course, just go around changing things to tease his friends. In fact, this species had already accumulated a considerable stock of synonyms by the time Brehm’s name was published in 1822; the earliest had been given it sixty years earlier by Linnaeus himself, Sterna nilotica, the Nile tern. 

But Brehm was not defeated. In 1830, he determined that the catch-all genus Sterna could profitably be split up, with the Gull-billed Terns occupying one of their own.He named the new genus Gelochelidon, the “laughing swallow.” 

Audubon g-b tern, octave ed.

Even today, not everyone understands Brehm’s genus name. I often hear it spoken, and even see it written, as if it were “Geochelidon,” a hypercorrection first made in print by the great German and Cuban ornithologist Juan Gundlach. Gundlach doesn’t explain himself, but I suspect that he, like some of our own contemporaries, thought of this elegant bird as a “ground tern” of sorts — after all, it doesn’t dive, and even by tern standards, this species spends a great deal of its time loafing on mud and gravel bars.

It doesn’t much matter. But getting the name wrong comes at a cost: the cost of the mental image of that lucky tern flying high over Schilling’s head, filling the skies above Rügen with the sound of triumphant laughter.  

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Jun
03

Gee, Officer!

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On June 3, 1903, Jonathan Dwight and Louis Bishop discovered a dozen red phalaropes near Monterey, California. They promptly started shooting.

Those secured before a maternal government interfered were assuming nuptial dress.

I would like to have been there that day.

n414_w1150

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May
28

Three Centuries of Merinos

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Montbard, Daubenton

Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton was born three hundred years ago today in Montbard, where his statue looks down over the city from the park named for his cousin and colleague Buffon.

Daubenton’s accomplishments in natural history were considerable, his bibliography vast. Co-author of the first volumes of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, he was also the first director of the new National Museum, and Cuvier himself gratefully acknowledged Daubenton’s work in laying the foundations of comparative anatomy.

But today, more than two centuries after his death in 1799, Daubenton is best remembered for one thing: his connection to the merino sheep.

Montbard, Daubenton

Alongside his other duties, Daubenton spent the better part of three decades breeding merino rams with French ewes, hoping to produce a cross as hardy as the latter but with the fine, soft wool of the former. This was not a purely academic exercise. As Lacépède put it in Year X of the first Republic, with a nervous glance at England,

success would result in lifting the heavy yoke of foreign competition under which our own industries labor.

Similar political, scientific, and commercial interests led to the sheep crazes of the early nineteenth century. For a brief time in the United States, merino rams were fetching more than a thousand dollars at auction, and there was widespread fear that the country’s entire wool manufactory would collapse under the strain.

By then, though, Daubenton was at rest in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, leaving to future generations of scientists and natural historians a shining example of those qualities we all could use more of:

concentration, reflection, perseverance, the wise use of our time, and the unstinting application of our energies.

 

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May
27

“Whitestart”? Just Say No

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Painted redstart, Arizona, August

It matters no more to me than it does to the birds themselves what we call the warblers of the genus Myioborus. Names, after all, don’t signify in the same way as other words. Call these tropical flitters redstarts or whitestarts or falsestarts: each of those names is just as “good” and just as “bad” as the others.

Thus, the AOU check-list committee’s judgment on Proposal 2016-A-2 can go with equal appropriateness either way, retaining the traditional name “redstart” or adopting the neologism “whitestart.” It’s hard to get terribly exercised about onomastic housekeeping like this.

Common Redstart

But what does have my dander just the slightest bit up is the argument presented in the Proposal to make the change. It seems to go like this: the outer rectrices in Myioborus are white, not red; and

“start” of course is the modern English reflex of Middle English stert, Old English steort, tail of an animal.

Ergo, the vernacular name applied to Myioborus, with their flashy white tails, is a “misappropriation” that would “perpetuate ignorance.”

That’s not true at all (“of course”). “Start” hasn’t meant “tail” in English for more than six hundred years; if you don’t believe me, ask any other native speaker. The bird name “redstart” has been etymologically opaque for just as long. In other words, “redstart” doesn’t mean “red-tail” to any English-speaker; it refers, depending on which continent you spend most of your time on, to either a chunky chat or an active wood warbler. 

The Myioborus warblers are nothing if not active (whether they are wood warblers or not is a question for another day). Only naive pedantry can claim that their white tails disqualify them from redstartness. 

 

 

 

 

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