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Jul
01

The Fifty-Eighth Supplement to the AOU Check-list

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Northern Shrike

It’s Christmas in July for most birders with the appearance of the now-annual Supplement to the AOU Check-list. This year, as always, Santa Claus giveth and Santa Claus taketh away. On balance, those who care about numbers will find their lists increasing. For the rest of us — for most of us — the yearly update is a chance to look into the workings of taxonomists and ornithologists as they toil to decipher the relationships among our birds.

thayer's gull 6

The greatest loss for listers is certainly that handsome gull “kind” known over the past 45 years as the Thayer gull. Jon Dunn and Van Remsen argued cogently, even devastatingly, that the research supporting full species status for the bird was thoroughly flawed, and that the “burden of proof” should be on those asserting its distinctness from the Iceland gull. To my memory, Dunn and Remsen’s is the only taxonomic proposal ever considered by the AOS committee to use the phrases “scientific misconduct.” The authors encourage further research into the taxonomy of the large herring-like gulls, but meanwhile, thayeri is reduced to a mere synonym. 

Eastern Willet

Some birders will probably be disappointed, too, by the committee’s having declined to accept a number of proposed splits and re-splits, some involving some of the most familiar birds on the continent. The willet remains a single species, as does the yellow-rumped warbler.

Myrtle Warbler


The eastern and western populations of the brown creeper, the Nashville warbler, and the Bell vireo were also sentenced to continued cohabitation.

But there are splits aplenty, too.

Baird's junco

The gorgeous little Baird junco gets its own box on the ticklist again, and the Talamanca hummingbird of Costa Rica and Panama is once again treated as distinct from the northerly Rivoli hummingbird.

magnificent hummingbird

To my surprise, we also have a new crossbill species in North America. The Cassia crossbill (the English name commemorates the type locality, and is far better than the cutesy scientific name sinesciuris) breeds in the South Hills and Albion Mountains of Idaho. It is apparently sedentary, making identification perhaps a bit easier; the bird is said to be larger than other sympatric crossbills, and to have different calls and songs.

My surprise has nothing to do with the quality of the research establishing this as a distinct species: all this genetics stuff is way beyond me. But I did not expect any real movement in crossbill classification to be inspired by one taxon; I’d thought the committee might wait for a universal solution to these difficult problems. In any case, Burley had better be ready for an ornitho-influx.

great gray shrike

We also get a split in the “gray” shrike complex. The North American northern shrike is now considered specifically distinct from its Old World counterparts; its species epithet is once again borealis, the name given it by Vieillot in 1808.

Northern Harrier

Our northern harrier is also split from the hen harrier of Europe, under the Linnaean name Circus hudsonius. The name honors the employer of James Isham, who sent the first specimens to George Edwards in the 1740s.

Common Redpoll darkish

The number of birders dreading the lump of the redpolls was almost as great as that of those devoutly wishing its consummation. The resolution (for now) leaves us with three species in the United States and Canada, the hoary, common, and lesser redpolls, that last listed as accidental. The Acanthis debate is certain to outlive us all.

 Familiar at least as a target bird to observers in Middle America, the old Prevost ground sparrow is no more. In its place, we have the white-faced ground sparrow and the Cabanis ground sparrow, the former occupying a range from southern Mexico to Honduras and the latter restricted to Costa Rica’s Central and Turrialba Valleys. The two species differ conspicuously in head and breast pattern — conspicuously, that is, if you’re fortunate enough to get a good look at these often sneaky sparrows.

And speaking, inevitably, of sparrows, the American birds going under that slippery English label are now assigned to a family of their own, PasserellidaeIn this, the AOS follows the recent practice of nearly all ornithologists over the past five years. It seems likely that the name will be replaced in the near future by Arremonidae, which if valid has nomenclatural priority.

Yellow-breasted Chat

The nine-primaried oscines — the “songbirds” at the back of the bird books — have also been rearranged, giving us all a new sequence to memorize. (I understand that the new sequence will be used in the seventh edition of the National Geographic guide, coming in a few weeks.) The most notable taxonomic change here is certainly the elevation of the yellow-breasted chat to its own family, Icteriidae, occupying a position in the linear sequence just before the orioles and blackbirds, Icteridae. This is just the latest stage on a classificatory journey sure to continue for a long, long time.

There will be more to say, no doubt, when the complete text of the supplement is readily available on line. Meanwhile, much to ponder.

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Jun
14

Sore Loser

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Screenshot 2017-06-14 14.16.55

The great Welsh litterateur and naturalist Thomas Pennant was born 291 years ago on this date. Friend and correspondent of Gilbert White, colleague and competitor of John Latham, Pennant, though not nearly as famous today as those contemporaries, is still remembered by some in Britain. But here in North America, he is almost entirely forgotten.

There’s a reason.

In February 1785, Pennant described the genesis of his recently published two volumes on the animal life of North America:

This Work was begun a great number of years past, when the empire of Great Britain was entire, and possessed the northern part of the New World with envied splendor…. I thought I had a right to the attempt, at a time I had the honor of calling myself a fellow-subject with that respectable part of our former great empire; but when the fatal and humiliating hour arrived, which deprived Britain of power, strength, and glory, I felt the mortification which must strike every feeling individual at losing his littler share in the boast of ruling over half of the New World.

Even in his pique at the loss of the American colonies, Pennant decided not to discard his Zoology of North America. He did, however, change the title.

Screenshot 2017-06-14 14.24.06

Simultaneously, he expanded the geographic scope of the work to include much of the Old World Arctic, too, simultaneously making the book more valuable to naturalists worldwide and re-asserting the unity — scientific, if no longer political — of the cooler reaches of the Northern Hemisphere.

And with only slightly grudging generosity, he wished his erstwhile “fellow subjects” well and assured them that someday the New World, too, would see “the powers of literature arise” in a native naturalist. Meanwhile, though, Pennant reminded his American readers of what they had lost in giving up their share of imperial glory, namely,

the peculiar spirit of the English nation, which has, in its voyages to the most remote and most opposite parts of the globe, payed attention to every branch of science.

We did catch up, eventually, and then we made Pennant’s birthday into Flag Day.

Thanks to David for correcting my math! 

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Jun
10

The Root of Many a Minor Evil

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I’ve read two new books about raptors today, and have been annoyed both times that

a) they include sections headed “Etymology” (cui bono??), and

b) that both are guilty of many of the same mistakes and imprecisions.

Elementary philology teaches that unmotivated error shared is the sign of common ancestry. I settled on the weird notion, repeated in each, that the Greek word for “tail” is “ours.” It isn’t, of course; the word is ????, “oura,” and unless we’re willing to believe that both sets of authors made the same typo independently as they transcribed the Greek sources, it looks very much as if each had borrowed the error from a single authority.

Unsurprisingly, this is it — one of the great works on avian onomastics, no less great for its many flaws, and perhaps the most-plagiarized title in American birding.

One of the blemishes is Choate’s etymology of brachyurus in the name of the short-tailed hawk, where he transliterates the Greek behind the second part of the epithet as “ours” rather than “oura.” And yes, it is exactly the accounts for that same species where the lapse shows up in the other two books.

One of those books actually cites to Choate. The other, though, doesn’t even list him in its bibliography.

Red-handed, I’d say.

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Apr
22

Crossbill Tales

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red crossbill

In North America, crossbills are “birder’s birds,” entirely unknown to the unbinoculared among us.

Things are different in the Old World, where over the centuries the birds with the sanguine plumage and twisted beaks have accumulated a heavy burden of legend and lore. Thanks to etiological myth, the crossbill of Europe is still a bird of good luck and good health, owing the bright plumage and bizarre bill shape to its intervention in Christ’s Passion.

Held in captivity, a crossbill was believed to cure disease, avert lightning, and forecast a household’s financial future — superstitions that apparently held on well into the twentieth century in rural regions of the continent.

What I did not know (maybe you did) is that these magical properties once made the crossbill a hot commodity. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Erlangen physician, ornithologist, and Volksforscher Josef Gengler reported having seen “a great number” of these birds “piled up” in the house of a Thuringian birdcatcher, awaiting shipment to dealers in the city.

In 1893, not far from the Silesian city now known as G?ucho?azy, Paul Robert Kollibay discovered that the local weavers supplemented their income with an “extensive” campaign to capture and sell crossbills:

In the middle of the village, in front of every house, a caged decoy called out to the masses of wild crossbills in the nearby forest; limed wands were attached to long poles, and the birds striking them as they flew in were taken effortlessly by the birdcatchers sitting there at their work.

Prominent among the purchasers of these unlucky luck birds were the nursing staff of German hospitals, where the birds were used as therapy for patients with gout and other illnesses. It was very important, though, to select not just any crossbill: those whose upper mandibles cross to the right cure the ills of men, those whose bills cross to the left are more effective for female complaints.

Not sure why, but I just have this feeling that that might not be invariably the case. True or not, though, this and other stories make seeing these nifty little birds even more exciting — think about them when you hear a kip kip from the pines above your head, or maybe the next time your gout starts to act up.

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Apr
15

Edme, Edme!

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Screenshot 2017-04-15 19.39.18

In the first volume of his natural history of the birds, Buffon tells a funny story:

While I was sleeping one night in one of the old towers of the chateau of Montbard, a little before daybreak, at three in the morning, a little owl landed on the windowsill of my room, and woke me up with its call “heme, edme.” As I listened to this voice, which struck me as the more interesting given that it was so near, I heard one of my servants, who was sleeping in the room below mine, open the window, and deceived by the owl’s clearly articulated “edme,” he answered the bird: Who is down there, my name isn’t Edme, my name is Pierre! This servant actually believed that it was a person calling out, so similar is the voice of the owl to the voice of the human, and so distinctly does it say the word.

Montbard

One more reason — as if one were needed — to look forward to our next Birds and Art tour of Burgundy.

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