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A Rare Sparrow in Chicago

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Ninety-five years ago today, a promising young birder notice several “different” birds in a flock of White-throated Sparrows in Jackson Park on Chicago’s lakefront. Closer inspection revealed that at least two of the outlanders were Harris’s Sparrows, a species considered rare then, and still scarce today, anywhere in Illinois.

Harris's sparrow, Arizona

Harris’s sparrow, Arizona

A nice find indeed for the seventeen-year-old birder. But he is better known nowadays for his connection to the Kirtland’s warbler, the Wilson’s phalarope, and one of the most notoriously vicious crimes in American history.

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Fresno Mountain High

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Eighty-five years ago today, on September 16, 1931, the Dillwoods observed for the last time a long-staying snowy egret in the forests along Deer Creek, at an elevation of 7,060 feet in Fresno County, California.

Invoking the “life zone” principle linking altitude and latitude, Roland Case Ross noted that this unusual occurrence was equivalent to the bird’s

wandering into Nova Scotia and British Columbia, which places the Snowy Egret in Canadian Life Zone faunas a thousand miles northward.

Ross doesn’t come out and say it, but he had his suspicions about the cause of the bird’s abrupt vanishing:

It is significant to note the disappearance of the bird on the day “deer hunting” began.

Eloquent quotation marks if ever there were.

Snowy Egret

A snowy egret at a more expected location and elevation.

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Franklin’s Pipixcan

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It seems that the Terror has been found in the icy waters off King William Island, and poor John Franklin is in the news yet again.

This time, the discovery coincides with the peak southward movement of one of the birds named for Franklin, the graceful, squeaky-voiced gull still widely known in my youth as the prairie pigeon.


John Richardson named the species for Franklin in February 1832. In his detailed description, he directs the reader to the account of the same bird in Joseph Sabine’s “Zoological Appendix,” published two years earlier, in which Sabine unfortunately treated the bird Franklin had sent home to England as identical to Alexander Wilson’s (and Linnaeus’s) laughing gull — with the notable exception that Wilson’s “figure represents the primaries as entirely black.”

Richardson, of course, was right to distinguish the two, but he was wrong, alas, to believe that he was the first to describe the species as new. Less than a year earlier, in May 1831, Johann Georg Wagler had unpacked a box of specimens sent from Mexico by the Bavarian collector Keerl, and in it recognized a gull first described in the late sixteenth century by Francisco Hernandez de Toledo, who wrote from Mexico that

 this bird of the genus of gulls or diving birds is not at all unlike the gray species depicted by a recent author, in both size and color; but it has both crown and bill black, the latter rather curved and reddish at the very tip. The legs are black tending to deep red, the tail gray above, and the outer portions of the wing are in part white and in part black, with small bright white spots at intervals. It dwells around lakes and rivers, and eats small fish and insects. It is not a resident bird here and does not raise its young in Mexican waters. It is edible, but not well suited as food. It is aquatic and noisy, and gnaws on bones and eats whatever it encounters.

Wagler’s unflattering scientific epithet for the bird comes from Hernandez, who recorded that the Aztecs called it “pipixcan,” or “the thieving bird.”

It took close to a hundred years for Wagler’s priority to be recognized by English-speaking ornithology, and by the time pipixcan was officially restored as the gull’s scientific name, the vernacular name commemorating Franklin had been long and firmly established.

For observers lucky enough to be watching the great flocks move south these coming weeks, the name Franklin’s gull is a reminder of an explorer whose final fate is still imperfectly known — but whose spirit floats over every autumn on its way from one hemisphere to the next.

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A Berlin Birder

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Gottfried Schiermann

Gottfried Schiermann, a pioneer in the study of bird populations, died 70 years ago today in the ruins of Berlin.

His much younger friend Ernst Mayr would later describe him not only as “a superb field ornithologist”but as “among the highest of all human beings I have ever been fortunate enough to meet.” In the photograph above, Schiermann is admiring the nest of a Savi’s warbler, which he and Mayr discovered in the Kremmener Luch.

common crane

I did not know Schiermann, and I do not know anyone who knew Schiermann. But in a couple of weeks we’ll be watching common cranes at the Luch, and thinking of those whose early work in field and museum preserved that and the other precious wild spaces that make our birding possible.


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Not So Happily, Not So Ever After

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Screenshot 2016-08-31 12.53.56

Shufeldt and Audubon’s granddaughter were married on September 4, 1895.

We all know how that one ended up.

Florence Audubon, long after the divorce from Robert Shufeldt

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