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Other People’s Bird Books: A Nuttall Manual

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Now in the library of the University of Illinois, this copy of the second, 1840 edition of Thomas Nuttall’s Manual has passed through some very distinguished hands indeed.

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The rather ferocious bookplate on the inside of the front board identifies it as the property of Thomas B. Wilson, born on this date in 1807. Wilson and his brother Edward, among many other contributions they made to the Academy of Natural Sciences, were instrumental in bringing the collections of Prince Masséna to Philadelphia, a coup that instantly cemented the Academy’s reputation as the best place in America to study birds.

Wilson was one of the greatest benefactors of the Academy’s library, but this volume went its own uncertain ways after his death in 1865. The next station we know about was nearly sixty years later, in September 1923, when the book was presented — a fine present indeed — by Charles Reuben Keyes to Harry C. Oberholser.

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Oberholser is too well known to require biographical comment. Keyes, on the other hand, is virtually forgotten even in Iowa, where he was born in 1871 and where he died eighty years later. His professional career, spent at Cornell College, was devoted to Germanic philology (Keyes’s 1923 Harvard dissertation was on Rist’s Irenaromachia), but his real passions were ornithology and, especially, archaeology.

The two probably met in Iowa, where Oberholser briefly taught at the end of the 1910s and conducted field work in the early 1920s. I do not know exactly what the occasion was for the gift, but someone with access to the principals’ papers should be able to figure it out. In any event, the book obviously remained in Oberholser’s library until 1948, when he sold his collection to the University of Illinois.

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What is puzzling about the book, though, is not its provenance but the mysterious signs of use — or defacement, in a couple of instances — left inside by one or the other of its earlier owners.

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A number of passages, including this diagnosis of the turkey vulture, are marked for excerpting, some of them with the directions “Begin” and “Stop” in the margins.

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A couple of times our annotator directs that distant passages be combined, as here in the account of the bobolink: “stop, see p. 200,”

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is followed there by “begin” and “stop, see p. 202.”

But these passages aren’t marked just for verbatim quotation. Pius corrector deletes unnecessary words (“liquid sound” becomes simply “sound”), replaces pronouns (“he”) now missing antecedents (“the bobolink”), and even updates Nuttall’s diction (the quaint “livery” changes to “dress”). Similar editorial interventions pop up on the pages Nuttall devoted to the northern bobwhite:

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I am fairly sure, a certainty based on only very limited comparative material, that those lines and notes are Oberholser’s. I can’t find my copy of his Texas (where do all my books get to when I’m on vacation?), and my dear friend google isn’t turning anything up, at best sending me back to Nuttall’s unamended text when I search for the edited versions.

I’ll keep looking in the hopes that I can discover just how Oberholser was using these edited passages. It’s possible, though, that we’ll never know: that he excerpted them for a lecture or for an essay never finished, or that they lurk somewhere in the more than two million (!) unpublished words of the untrimmed Texas manuscript.

Or maybe you know.

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Baja California Sur: Las Viudas

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Las Viudas

I never did find out exactly why this little beach near San Lucas should bear such an ominous name, though one look at those jagged rocks suggested at least one explanation.

Rick at Las Viudas

Not traveling by boat, we were undeterred, and visited a couple of times to see what might be hanging out in this blessedly quiet corner of the Sea of Cortez.

Rocks, of course, mean tide pools, and there were some neat objects to see here.

sea urchin

I didn’t pick this up, but think it was an echinoderm.

This stunning little shell I also left unidentified:


But it’s now here on a shelf if any conchologer wants to see another photo.

We were on surer ground with the birds.

Brandt's cormorant

Brandt’s cormorants were the most abundant representative of their genus during our entire stay; they’ve pretty clearly been using this loafing spot for a while.

(Am I the only one who is always a bit bored by this species? There are so many stunning phalacrocoracids, and these poor creatures — “Bland’s cormorants” — just don’t have much too ’em.)

I’d expected to see some rocky shorebirds, too, maybe a dunlin or ruddy turnstone, but on our first outing all we could find were spotted sandpipers crawling busily around the crevices. Our second visit was more productive.

wandering tattler

Heard before it was seen, appropriately enough, this wandering tattler braved the dashing waves to clamber big-footed around the rocks, crouching to explore the barnacle shells

wandering tattler

then leaping high into the air as the water crashed around it.

We finally left the tattler — a life bird for Alison, and certainly the best and most prolonged views of the species I’ve ever had — to explore the desert behind the dunes. There wasn’t much to see beyond the usual ash-throated flycatchers, verdins, and cactus wrens, but I finally saw a lesser goldfinch, a bird we should have been running into every day. And the first time, I think, I’d seen that species and a tattler within five minutes of each other.

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Paul Leverkühn

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One hundred fifty years ago today in Hannover, Paul Georg Heinrich Martin Reinhold Leverkühn first saw the light of day. Leverkühn studied in Kiel, Strasbourg, and Munich, and practiced medicine in that last city before accepting an appointment as privy secretary to Ferdinand I of Bulgaria in 1892. Ferdinand was an enthusiastic botanist and entomologist, and just a month after Leverkühn’s arrival in Sofia, his job description was altered to make him director of the prince’s extensive natural historical collections.

Leverkühn’s own interests were ornithological. Ferdinand funded collecting expeditions across western and central Europe and to Russia and Turkey, the fruits of which filled the drawers and cases of the new museum built under Leverkühn’s direction.

Like most birders then and now, Leverkühn found as much satisfaction in the library as in the field. By 1905,

in the blossom of his best manly years, at the center of a rich circle of influence, and amid the pleasures of scholarly creativity,

he was about to embark on what would have been one of the greatest bibliographic works in the ornithological tradition. It was not to be, though. In December of that year, at the age of 38, Leverkühn died in Sofia, the victim of typhoid fever.

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A New Year’s Horizon

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Lynds Jones, the most influential figure in American birding you’ve never heard of, was out and at it 114 years ago today.


And how are you starting your own birding year 2017?

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A New Year’s Eve Surprise

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Curve-billed Thrasher September 2006 by Rick

Even a century ago, it was a red-letter day when a bird was added to the California list. Just such a day was New Year’s Eve 1916, when Laurence M. Huey went out to set some mammal traps in his yard, a few miles north of Bard.

I noticed a thrasher scratching on the shady side of a neighbor’s wood pile. On collecting the bird, I was surprised to find it to be a Palmer Thrasher.

The bird Huey shot was the first record of the species ever in California, where it is still a rarity.

A fine way to end the year — less so, perhaps, for that adult female thrasher, now reposing in the San Diego Natural History Museum.

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