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In Search of the Maximum Duck

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It happens two or three times a day most days. Someone ‘posts’ or sends me a photo of a mystery waterfowl, and I respond, almost without the need to think, in one of three ways:

This is a domestic mallard.

This is a domestic muscovy duck.

This is an apparent hybrid between the mallard and the muscovy duck.

Ninety years ago today, on November 1, 1924, Joseph P. Bell shot two unknown birds in Wallen County, Texas. He showed one of them to Robert B. Lawrence of Houston, who

identified it as the so called “Violet Duck, Anas maxima” of Gosse, supposed to be a cross between the Mallard and Muscovy.

The bird Lawrence examined weighed almost eight pounds — three times the size of a normal wild mallard drake.

Photo: Spectrum Ranch.

Photo: Spectrum Ranch.

This hybrid combination is a frequent one, thanks to the abundance of both species in captivity and to their unbounded concupiscence. The snazzy bird in the center of the photograph above is of known parentage, and he shows all the classic signs of a hybrid: the mallard-like head and neck pattern, the glossy green back and rump, the long tail of his muscovy forebear.

And he’s enormous.

If ever I knew it, I’d entirely forgot that this mix had been assigned a scientific name — and more than once, at that. Three quarters of a century before Bell took to the field with dog and gun, Philip Henry Gosse described a “magnificent Duck” taken near Savanna le Mar, Jamaica. No less a leading light than George Robert Gray had already affirmed that he thought the bird a hybrid, but Gosse was unconvinced: the local gunners were familiar with ducks of this sort, and had been for nearly a hundred years, suggesting that this was no mere incidental crossbreed but a new species, the green-backed mallard, Anas maxima.

Gosse described his maxima in 1847, in disregard not only of Gray’s opinion but of Charles Lucian Bonaparte’s observations, made years before in the Iconografia della fauna italicathat the muscovy duck

freely breeds with mallards, wild or domestic, producing the claimed species purpureo-viridis of Schinz,

an earlier name for this same hybrid. Edmond de Selys-Longchamps echoed Bonaparte’s suspicions in his 1842 Faune belge: Schinz’s purpureo-viridis comprises

quite likely hybrids of those two species, but I maintain some doubt in this matter, since I believe that the hybrids of these ducks produced in captivity have a small bare area between the eye and the bill which is not present in Schinz’s bird.

De Sely never saw such a bird himself, but Bonaparte certainly did. In his 1849 review of Degland’s Ornithologie européenne, the princely critic wrote, his tone decidedly one of exasperation, that

nearly twenty years ago I made the journey to Lausanne expressly to examine Schinz’s Anas purpureo-viridis, and not satisfied with just rejecting the name, as applying to a h y b r i d of the muscovy and the mallard, I continued to search out this bird everywhere and in all its forms, from Lake Trasimeno, where it was observed virtually on my doorstep, all the way to Asia and America….

without finding any reason to believe that the bird was anything but a hybrid.

Ornis caucasica, hybrid mallard x muscovy

In 1896, half a century after Gosse’s claimed discovery, André Suchetet laid out all the evidence to do with the existence and status of Anas maxima. His review of specimens sent from all over Europe, along with colored engravings of the bird, convinced him that

we are dealing here with birds escaped from captivity, but when they were killed in fact living in a feral state in a wide range of countries, some on the lakes of Switzerland and Lombardy, others along the rivers of Silesia, Russia and France, and, finally, one from a pond in Belgium.

The earliest specimen of which Suchetet was aware was one taken on Lake Geneva in April 1815; there were also American skins, including two males held in the collections of the Smithsonian. His investigation led him to affirm that the hybrid origin of all these mysterious ducks from such far-flung places was at the very least “probable.”

That hasn’t stopped us from being confused every once in a while anyway. But not as confused as these miscegenating ducks, fortunately.

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Tischbein the Birder

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On October 29, 1786, Goethe arrived in Rome, where he was met by the painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. The rest, as they say, is history: the two traveled Italy together, and their long friendship would be commemorated in Tischbein’s most famous painting, the most famous image of Goethe ever produced.

Tischbein, Goethe in der Campagna

A century and a half later, Roger Tory Peterson posed for a portrait of his own — striking a pose that I have always suspected was modeled on Goethe’s.

Whether that connection is real or — just barely possibly conceivably — imagined, there is another, more easily demonstrated. For Tischbein, the creator of so many famous portraits and classicizing history paintings, was a lapsed birder.

From Rome, the artist wrote to Johann Heinrich Merck

I was once a great amateur of birds and knew almost all the species, especially the native ones. In Holland I saw some very fine ones. I like birds very much; it seems to me that they occupy the same place in living nature as flowers in a nature morte. The bright, beautiful colors and the feathers in themselves are a beautiful thing. I’ve seen some here I didn’t know before: a green bird that resembles a kingfisher but is a type of thrush; a blue thrush; and another little birdlet like a wren.

Tischbein, who had etched some of the early plates for the Nozeman – Sepp Nederlandsche vogelen, even considered producing an illustrated guide to the birds of Rome:

If I could be certain that these birds were not already known, I would have them drawn and their life histories added.

It didn’t happen. And maybe that’s just as well.



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Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

November 8: Birding Sandy Hook with the Linnaean Society of New York.

November 20-29: Private Birds and Art tour: Venice to Florence.

January 31: Birding New Jersey with the Brooklyn Bird Club.

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 11-15: Lecture and field trip for Biggest Week in American Birding.


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All the Bird News Fit to Print

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Surely, I thought, on opening the Sunday paper a couple of weeks ago — surely, this must be the first time that a Lewis’s woodpecker has been pictured in the pages of the Times.

Screenshot 2014-09-20 15.42.29


Sixty years ago today, on October 27, 1954, Mr. and Mrs. Gerard Swope, Jr., discovered an unfamiliar dark bird at their feeders outside Ossining, New York. It turned out to be the state’s first Lewis’s woodpecker, and even beyond the week and a half of its stay, the rare westerner saved more than one slow news day.

On November 7, the Times published its first article about the bird, recounting John Kieran‘s visit to pay his respects. “This is really something,” the famously witty Kieran is reported to have said.

The sighting had apparently been suppressed up to that point, Kieran warning the homeowners that otherwise “there’ll be hundreds of bird watchers tramping all over their place.”

But now the secret was out, and on the day the article was published, the Times wrote that twenty-five or thirty

bird fanciers … gathered in excited little groups beside Mr. Swope’s private lake … [having] a glorious and rewarding time peering through their binoculars at the ornithological phenomenon.

Alas, November 7 proved to be the woodpecker’s last day in Westchester. “Apparently tired of flapping about before astounded bird lovers,” the Swopes’s distinguished visitor was gone the next day, leaving

enthusiastic bird lovers great disappointment. They stood around with binoculars hanging uselessly about their necks hoping for a change of fortune that did not come.

And no, the Times, in a grave lapse of taste, couldn’t resist the headline:

NY Times November 8, 1954

That first article had been illustrated with a detail from an Allan Brooks painting, the first time the species was ever depicted in the Times. A month later, the paper published a photograph of the “tourist from the West Coast.”

NY Times December 12, 1954

I had hoped that this might be the Swopes’s actual Lewis’s, but it’s pretty clearly a stock photo.

Still, it’s better than the way the very first Lewis’s woodpecker mentioned (but not illustrated) in the Times was memorialized.

In August 1900, Leander S. Keyser visited Colorado “bent on feathered rarities.” Keyser especially enjoyed watching the nest of a pair of Lewis’s woodpeckers — so much so, in fact, that

on returning to Colorado Springs, I bought a mounted specimen from a local taxidermist.

Nice that those days are behind us now.

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Bonaparte's Gull

The Bonaparte’s gull has a lot going for it. It’s elegant in plumage, graceful in flight, and common enough over most of North America that at the right season, even new birders can count on getting good looks at this lovely little bird.

And as if all that weren’t enough, it has an interesting name, with a long and complicated story behind it to fill those odd bird-free moments afield.

Charles Bonaparte was still in short pants in Italy when George Ord named this “nondescript” in 1815.


I suppose it’s possible that Ord had heard of the 11-year-old prince, though I can’t imagine why, and maybe he was even able to keep the tangled web of Napoleon’s relations straight, though I can’t imagine how. But there is no way that he could have anticipated young Charlie’s future prominence in ornithology.

Not only did Ord not name this bird for Bonaparte, but he did not even recognize his specimen as a gull. In a slip understandable to anyone who has glimpsed one of these small, buoyant, thin-billed, white-primaried birds at a distance, Ord believed that it was a tern lying on the table in front of him, and he described it as a new species of Sterna, the banded-tail tern, S. Philadelphia.

Bonaparte's Gull

Ord’s English name refers, obviously, to the immature gull’s tail pattern. He offers no explanation of the scientific name, though it has always been assumed that his banded-tail tern was collected, like the “toothed-bill gull” he describes a few lines later, on the Delaware near Philadelphia.

Ord description of two gulls

Oddly enough for a bird we nowadays think of as so familiar, Ord’s ternish gull went unreported for some years after its original description. And when it was encountered again, it was treated as a discovery to be described anew– several times, in fact.

When in 1821 or early 1822 Samuel Rafinesque ran across a small gull he did not recognize near Harrodsburg, Kentucky, he shot it and described the bird in the Kentucky Gazette as a new species, Larus marginatus. In 1830, Coenraad Temminck published the adult of our gull under the name Larus melanorhinchus, the black-billed gull. (Never mind that the Leiden specimen was somehow labeled as collected in Chile.) Even as late as 1856, some of these birds were being assigned, if tentatively, to a certain Larus subulirostris, the awl-billed gull, a name coined in 1854 by (ready for this?) Charles Bonaparte.

Temminck, NouvRec 5:504

Meanwhile, other scientists were finding these birds and misidentifying them not as a new species but an “old” one, the even littler little gull. Joseph Sabine (of gull fame), Thomas Nuttall, and — irony upon irony — the grown-up Charles Bonaparte himself were using specimens of today’s Bonaparte’s gull as proof that the little gull (the different ages still thought of as different species, Pallas’s Larus minutus and Temminck’s Larus capistratus) occurred in North America. Bonaparte, in fact, informed New York’s Lyceum of Natural History in 1828 that capistratus – again, Temminck’s name for one plumage of the little gull — was

not very rare during autumn on the Delaware, and especially the Chesapeake; found as far inland as Trenton.

Fauna bor-am ii, Bonaparte's Gull

The most significant of these repeated discoveries and misidentifications was published in 1831. This time, John Richardson described a “new” gull taken at Great Slave Lake in May of 1826 and

 common in all parts of the fur countries, where it associates with the Terns, and is distinguished by its peculiar shrill and plaintive cry.

The Cree, he tells us, call the bird Akesey-keask, no doubt echoic of that same cry; but Richardson named it Larus bonapartii, the Bonapartian gull.

Fauna boreali-am vol 2

Both names caught on, the vernacular and the scientific alike, and Larus bonapartii – or bonapartei, bonaparti, buonopartii, depending on who was doing the misspelling — would appear in the scientific literature through most of the nineteenth century, up to at least 1891, when Heinrich Gätke published his record of one “in winter plumage, with beautiful red feet,” on Helgoland.

Gätke, Vogelw. Helgoland

Today, of course, as we approach the two-hundredth anniversary of what was truly the first discovery and description of the species, while the English name “Bonaparte’s” persists, in scientifiquese we’ve gone back to Ord’s original species epithet philadelphia. For that application of priority we can thank George Newbold Lawrence, who in 1858 wrote that

 the specific name of “bonapartei,” under which this species has been so long known, in my opinion, must give place to that of Ord [philadelphia]; he also designates it as the “Banded-tail Tern.” To determine what species was described under the above name (if it was not distinct) has long been considered a problem which it was very desirable to solve; it agrees in every particular with specimens of the young of bonapartei, now under examination.

Lawrence also noted that it was most likely just “the slender and tern-like form of the bill [that] induced Mr. Ord to put it in Sterna.”

Four years later, Elliott Coues agreed with Spencer Baird‘s view that the birds originally named as little gulls by Sabine and the others had likely been misidentified:

a poorly preserved or immature specimen [of the Bonaparte's gull] might easily be referred to Larus minutus by one ignorant of the existence of two species.

Coues tells us, too, that Charles Bonaparte’s identifications of these birds as capistratus was “very erroneous,” and that that species was “quite another thing.” And one more piece in the old confusion fell when, as Coues reports, Hermann Schlegel, Temminck’s successor in Leiden, determined in 1863 that the older ornithologist’s melanorhynchus was likewise based on the Bonaparte’s gull.

It was a simple matter, then, to institute philadelphia as the correct scientific name for the bird. It’s nice all the same that Charles Bonaparte is still commemorated in its English name — and important, I think, to remember that George Ord had nothing to do with it.

Bonaparte's Gulls

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