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Mahogany Stifftails

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Ruddy duck

The New Jersey Meadowlands were chilly and dim this morning, but the birding was a lot of fun anyway. There were impressive numbers of waterfowl on the marshes and impoundments, among them a dozen ruddy ducks, one of the few anatid species whose numbers in the mid-Atlantic seem to be declining.

Not only is this chunky, big-headed duck one of our most attractive, it also provides the answer to any number of birding trivia questions:

Which New Jersey duck is named for a Caribbean island?

Which duck lays the largest eggs for its body size?

Which male duck has ….

Well, we’ll leave that one right there. But there’s still the matter of this captivating species’ official English name, a name commemorating only a briefly held plumage of only one of the sexes and far less evocative than almost any of the dozens of other, popular names this duck has borne.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.27.48

The canonical diagnosis of this species was published by Gmelin in 1788, who named it Anas jamaicensis:

A duck barred dusky and rusty yellow, sooty above with a dark crown, the chin and throat white spotted with black, the vent and rump barred dusky and reddish.

Obviously, Gmelin did not assign this duck the English name “ruddy,” but he does cite an earlier description, in John Latham’s General Synopsis. Gmelin, it turns out, had simply translated the English account, which Latham based on what sounds like a non-breeding male. Neither ornithologist, obviously, had any notion of the spectacular breeding plumage of the species; indeed, Latham tells us expressly that his Jamaica specimen was taken in the winter, when ruddy ducks aren’t.

And now things get interesting. If we move forward through the editions of the Systema, we find the name “ruddy duck” in Turton’s English translation of 1802 — where it’s applied to a different bird.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.48.32

This is clearly a description of the ruddy shelduck; for our bird, Turton — like Gmelin — uses Latham’s rather unimaginative “Jamaica shoveler,” a name that we might still be using today had Alexander Wilson not made what he thought was an exciting discovery in Peale’s Philadelphia museum: a

very rare Duck was shot, some years ago on the river Delaware, and appears to be an entire new species.

Wilson Ruddy duck vol 8, p 128

Wilson was “at first inclined to believe” that his new duck was identical with Latham’s Jamaica shoveler,

but a more careful examination of both satisfied me that they cannot be the same, as the present [species] differs considerably in color…. front, crown, and back part of the neck down nearly to the back [are] black; rest of the neck, whole back, scapulars, flanks and tail coverts deep reddish brown, the color of bright mahogany.

That description confirms what Wilson’s engraving already demonstrates: namely, that one of Peale’s birds was a male in his bright breeding plumage. I think we can forgive Wilson his error in deciding that the Philadelphia ducks were “non-descript,” a deficiency he remedied by naming them himself in the pages of the American Ornithology.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 17.28.40

The drake’s mahogany upperparts were so striking that Wilson memorialized them in both the English and scientific names he assigned the species. And the names themselves seemed so apt that Latham’s “Jamaica shoveler” essentially disappeared after 1814.

Anas jamaicensis, however, would survive. Unlike vernacular names, scientific names are governed by the law of priority — also known as dibs: as soon as two “species” are known to be one, the first binomial is applied. So who figured out that the Jamaican shoveler and Wilson’s Pennsylvanian duck were the same?

Stay tuned.


The Lister’s Punctilio

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Common Raven

I don’t like grocery shopping. At all. But Alison is even busier than usual this time of year, so it has been my lot of late to be dodging cars in parking lots and carts in narrow aisles. No fun at all.

This morning’s expedition was better, though. As I stepped out of the car, senses alert, a big black bird flew across low: a common raven. No longer rare, no longer unexpected, this species is always great to see, especially in the urban wilds of northern New Jersey.

But here’s my dilemma.

Brookdale Park is just two blocks from our local Shoprite (grocery store names!), and the tops of its tall old oaks and tulips dominate the view to the west. Which is where this morning’s raven came from.

Brookdale happens to be the only site for which I am keeping careful lists nowadays. And I’ve been expecting a common raven to show up.

But I can’t “count” this one for the park. Neither the bird nor I was in or over Brookdale at the time of the sighting, so the gap in the list remains.

Silly, yes. Arbitrary, yes. But it wouldn’t be a game if it didn’t have rules.


A Christmas Count Complaint

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Birders get an extra holiday every holiday season: Tomorrow begins the CBC for 2014-2015. I’m planning on three counts this year, more than I’ve done for a while now, but I was almost put off by the report submitted for the 1919 CBC by a certain Pedioecetes, writing from Colorado:

This morning I gave the plan a try out. As a result, I have before me a “list.”

Our grousy friend started out the day with three magpies. Then he spied nine more “under the cow shed,” followed by seventeen “back of the hay stack where we throw the dead animals.” Eleven more were perched on the roof of the chicken house, while their companions rummaged “about the pit, where the dead cabbages are interred.”

At that point, Pedioecetes quit. Not only had somebody left a pasture gate open, so that “the whole back yard was full of wind,” but he worried that the editor of the Oologist might not even print his tally:

If you are going to establish this Christmas Day Bird List Column, give me advance notice next year and I will get into a region where I can compile a “list” that will not be so streaked with black and white, or strain your pica type to the limit for publication.


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Fuertes slat-colored junco

It’s one of the infallible signs of the season. Sitting inside on a chilly day, a cup of hot chocolate warming the hands and busy feeders cheering the heart, every year about this time you can watch it creep across the internet: the description of the slate-colored junco as “leaden skies above and snow beneath.”

I’d love to know who’s behind the e-revival of that particular bit of kitsch. Or do you suppose that everybody is quoting the phrase directly from its source, Howard Elmore Parkhurst’s The Birds’ Calendar?

Parkhurst, slate-colored juncos

Parkhurst’s “informal diary” is now virtually unknown — apart, of course, from that throwaway line about the juncos. But it marks the birth of a very special sub-genre in the literature of American birding, namely, the Central Park memoir.

The observations here recorded, with slight exceptions, were all made in that small section known as “The Ramble,” covering only about one-sixteenth of a square mile…. Within this little retreat I have, during the year [1893], found represented nineteen of the twenty-one families of song birds in the United States; some of them quite abundantly in genera and species; with a sprinkling of species from several other classes of land and water birds.

Among the birds Parkhurst encountered in January was

the snow-bird, a trim and sprightly creature about six inches long, dark slate above and on the breast, which passes very abruptly into white beneath, as if it were reflecting the leaden skies above and the snow below…. Their sleek and natty appearance and genial temper commend them at once to the observer.

Parkhurst, Birds' Calendar

And Parkhurst’s “attractive” prose commended itself equally to the contemporary reader. His felicitous description of the junco appears to have been quoted abundantly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, almost (only almost!) always with an attribution to the author. It seems likely that Neltje Blanchan was the earliest vector of dissemination for the phrase, which passed from her Bird Neighbors into leaflets for schoolchildren, who no doubt were as taken by “Mr. Parkhurst’s suggestive description of this rather timid little neighbor” as were his adult readers.

In the years that followed, however, the quotation was loosed from its authorial origins, most often to be cited anonymously. In his 1968 entry for the Bent Life HistoriesEaton followed that “modern” practice in noting only that the junco had been “aptly described as ‘leaden skies above, snow below'” — not bothering to tell us by whom. Parkhurst’s words still appeared in quotation marks, but they had plainly become part of a shared store of birderly lore, no more requiring attribution than the observation that the white outer rectrices are “prominent in flight.”

Ernest Thompson Seton, slate-colored juncos

This has always been the path of a catchy phrase: invented by a single mind, admired by others, then finally taken over into a broader culture eager to forget that it ever had an origin. But the internet has introduced another, more sinister step.

Parkhurst’s words still circulate — especially this time of year — without his name attached. In a classic internet move, though, a google search now, once again, turns up the quotation with an attribution.

A new attribution.

Thoreau described [juncos] as “leaden skies above, snow below.”

I don’t know all of Thoreau. I don’t remember those words in what I have read of the oeuvre, though, and it seems suspect to me that the earliest printed assertion of his authorship (thanks, google) should be from no more than four years before the Mother Jones quotation above. Surely in the 101 years between Parkhurst’s Calendar and 1994 someone would have pointed out the theft. I’m left wondering whether the credit to Thoreau isn’t — gasp — made up, as are so many (it sometimes seems like most) of the attributions on the internet.

It’s one of the unhappy elements of this e-world that it’s awfully easy for us to just say things, whether they’re true or not. But, in an encouraging paradox, the same casual convenience lets us go ad fontes in search of the truth: it takes hardly more time to look up “leaden skies and snow” than it does to decide to type the name “Thoreau.”

So here, a couple of weeks early, is my 2015 resolution: To give Howard E. Parkhurst credit for everything he said or wrote, and to resist the easy temptation to throw attributions around at random.

Who’s with me?

Horsfall slate-colored juncos

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Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

February 11: Lecture for the Montclair Bird Club.

February 18: Lecture and book signing for the Queens County Bird Club.

February 19: Lecture and book signing for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

February 20: Lecture and book signing for the Wyncote Audubon Society.

March 13-18: Birding southeast Arizona with the Linnaean Society of New York.

March 21-26: Birding Nebraska with WINGS.

March 31: Lecture for the New York City Audubon Society.

April 18-25: Birding Catalonia with WINGS.

May 11: Lecture for Biggest Week in American Birding.

August 14: Lecture at the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.


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