Archive for Information
December 6: Book signing at Wild Birds Unlimited, Paramus.
February 11: Lecture for the Montclair Bird Club.
February 18: Lecture and book signing for the Queens County Bird Club.
February 20: Lecture and book signing for the Wyncote Audubon Society.
March 21-26: Birding Nebraska with WINGS.
April 18-25: Birding Catalonia with WINGS.
August 14: Lecture at the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.
A young Gentleman, a few days before he sailed from Jamacia to England, met with a female Humming-Bird sitting on the nest and eggs, and cutting off the twig, he brought all together on board. The bird became sufficiently tame, so as to suffer herself to be fed with honey and water during the passage, and hatched two young ones. The mother, however, did not long survive, but the young were brought to England, and continued for some time in the possession of Lady Hamond…. these little creatures readily took honey from the lips of Lady H. with their bills.
As Thomas Pennant observed in 1786, the good Comte was not at his best when it came to organizing the great work:
Unfortunately, a contempt of system, and systematic writers, has taken full possession of him….
is given pêle-mêle, without a catalogue, or a syllable indicative of the contents of the collection.
It is, indeed, almost impossible to find — or to identify — much of anything in those invaluable pictures without the aid of a concordance or two or three.
Happily, Pennant set himself the task of providing us with a set of indexes, as had Boddaert in 1783, and as would Temminck in 1838. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t dream of tackling Buffon and the Planches without those three at hand –and my indispensable friends over at google panting in the starting gate.
Hard as it is to say just which group of birds is most confusingly treated in the Histoire naturelle, I’d still rank the hummingbirds high on the list. Though Buffon’s prose species accounts are all gathered in Volume 6 of the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, the images of the birds are scattered — pêle-mêle — through the 1008 leaves of the Planches enluminées, and as often as not, the vernacular names given in the two works differ, making the attempt to match up text and image fall somewhere on the scale between frustrating and impossible.
It’s even more challenging when one is given, as occasionally happens, fragments of a picture, without any names or even the plate number.
Let’s work through an example.
I don’t immediately recognize this bird, but I’m willing to bet that that square tail, those long wings, and that implausibly gaudy plumage belong to a hummingbird. The fact that the figure is numbered and that we can see the tail and wing tip of a second bird also tell us that the plate from which this was so mercilessly cut depicted more than one individual, a mundane circumstance that will help us narrow the possibilities when we turn to the concordances.
According to Pennant, only four of the hummingbird plates in the Planches enluminées featured more than a single species. Leafing through the candidates, we quickly find that our fragment is excised from Plate 600, where it is identified as the “colibri violet de Cayenne,” a name Pennant rather unhelpfully translates as “violet hummingbird.” As an authority for the name, Pennant cites only his own General Synopsis, closing the bibliographical circle a little too soon and a little too neatly.
Boddaert is almost always more thorough in his synonymies — it’s little wonder that so many of the world’s birds still owe their scientific names to the Dutch amateur. Here, he sends us off to look at Brisson and Linnaeus, as well as back to Buffon himself. Given that Buffon did not assign his birds scientific names, and that Brisson’s name in this case appears not to be binomial, we should probably begin with Linnaeus.
But first, just to make sure we’re not missing anything, let’s look at what Temminck has to say.
(Having fun yet?)
Not overly useful. So let’s go back to the Linnaean name, Trochilus jugularis, and see if just by chance that leads us further.
The bird turns out not to show up until the twelfth, 1766 edition of the Systema, but there it is, with — encouragingly — the same citation to Brisson and a brief diagnosis that fits our bird well enough:
jugularis. Species #7. A bluish hummingbird with a curved bill, square tail, and blood-red throat.
And now to Avibase, by way of an easy google search:
We learn that Linnaeus’s Trochilus is now a Eulampis, and we confirm correctness of the romantic English name given here, purple-throated carib, with a quick check of the most recent IOC list.
All looks pretty good up to this point, but to be sure, we need to go back to Buffon to make sure that he agreed with posterity about the identification of this hummingbird.
Because the volume numbering and pagination in the various editions of the Histoire naturelle vary so much, google is a lot faster than trying to bumble our way through the books themselves.
Nice to see that our plate shows up in the images preview, isn’t it?
The CNRS Buffon has been “down” for several days now, so we’ll drop by oiseaux.net instead.
And there, as hoped and expected, we find Buffon referring to Plate 600 of the Planches and confirming the accuracy of the Brisson reference we’ve been running into.
A look at the Handbook of the Birds of the World contradicts nothing in our identification.
I think at this point we can be quite confident. If we aren’t, there’s another step that can be helpful.
Buffon’s Histoire naturelle was republished, supplemented, and annotated repeatedly in the nineteenth century, and it provided the basis, or at least the foil, for any number of critical encyclopedias, including the wonderful Dictionnaire des sciences naturelles, the second edition of which appeared between 1816 and 1830. The author of the hummingbird articles in that work agrees with our conclusion:
It seems that the colibri violet, trochilus violaceus, of Gmelin and Latham, and illustrated as figure 2 in Buffon’s Plate 600, is of the same species
as Linnaeus’s Trochilus jugularis.
I find bibliographic puzzles like this kind of fun. If you do, too, here are 100 more. There are some surprises to be found here, but I was able to identify with some certainty all but one of the birds in the quiz.
Now to find out whether certainty and accuracy are the same thing.
But interesting leftovers have been discovered in kitchens closer to home, too.
On November 6, 1935, a certain Mr. G.F. Dixon shot several woodcock in Geauga County, Ohio. One of the birds struck Dixon as unusually large, and news of the bird soon reached John Aldrich at the Cleveland Museum. Aldrich learned that
Mr. Dixon was still in possession of the body of this large Woodcock which had been dressed and prepared for cooking. [Aldrich] was permitted to examine the carcass and was greatly impressed by the large size and the pale color of the flesh when compared with similarly dressed bodies of other Woodcocks.
Aldrich’s suspicions grew, and
Mr. Dixon gladly consented to save the skeleton of this large Woodcock…. the head, wings, and feet having been removed and destroyed … enough bones were preserved
for the partial skeleton to be identified by Oberholser as that of a Eurasian woodcock, the first ever detected so far west.
There is no word as to whether the Dixon children pulled the wishbone.
The French entomologist G.A. Baer spent much of the first two years of the twentieth century in Peru, collecting specimens for colleagues and institutions back home.
In his spare time, Baer also kept an eye out for hummingbirds. Among the 25 species he collected for Eugène Simon and Walter Rothschild was a new species of metaltail, which Simon named Metallura theresiae in honor of Baer’s wife.
Simon found it remarkable that an unknown bird could still lurk “in a region so close to those explored by the skillful collectors E. Bartlett, Stolzmann, and O.T. Baron.” But Baer found even more remarkable something he had witnessed in Huamachuco in April of 1900.
After having paid the customary calls on the town’s authorities, who welcomed me most warmly, I visited the local curate, with whom I discussed my hunting plans.
The curate took the opportunity to complain at length about hte behavior of a little hummingbird, which had acquired the habit of coming into the church every day and interrupting mass, flying and buzzing from flower to flower of the altar bouquets, entirely untroubled by the crowd of the faithful or the burning candles.
Baer was able to identify the bird, “dressed in modest brown, as appropriate when attending mass,” as a shining sunbeam, but the only advice he could offer the priest — who was eager to be rid of the little intruder — was to stop putting flowers on the altar for a while.
But the curate didn’t dare approve any plan like that, for fear of insulting the ladies who regularly sent bouquets to the church.
And so all the monks and priests of the church assembled in council “to deliberate this grave matter.” Baer pleaded in favor of the defendant:
I explained that it was impossible to net the little bird and that of course one couldn’t dream of solving the problem with a murder.
The council was persuaded.
On mature reflection, it was resolved that the little sinner would be pardoned.
But that sunbeam had come dangerously close to being excommunicated.