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In Praise of Levaillant

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It’s François Levaillant’s 262nd birthday, occasion once again to wonder why there is no modern biography of an explorer and ornithologist whose works, now forgotten by all but the bibliophile, were tremendously influential in the nineteenth century.

Part of the reason is no doubt Levaillant’s tendency to exaggeration — a tendency that, to my mind, makes him an even more fascinating subject. The obvious errors in some of his ornithological studies have also rendered him persona less grata in scientific circles, but again, those slips simply serve to point out how busy he was and how far-flung his interests.

Levaillant hasn’t always been under-appreciated. Three years after the explorer’s death in 1824, Johann Georg Wagler, that most critical of critics, had this to say about the Frenchman’s publications:

After making two journeys through the interior portions of southern Africa, Levaillant published a report of what he had seen and observed; one cannot overstate how much his observations have enriched our knowledge of ornithology.

The high expectations that all experts in the field had for the untiring effort of this man’s natural history investigations were not just met but thoroughly exceeded by the vast store of outstanding observations he provided on not a few southern African birds that had eluded all investigators before him.

Wagler was not a great stylist, but you get the point. Levaillant’s eventual biographer — you know you’re out there — could do worse than to start with the words of his contemporaries and immediate successors.

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Reading Like a Positivist

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Ever stop to think about just how you read your bird books?

Lately I’ve been reading all the published works of Louis Pierre Vieillot.


That’s exactly the point of my plowing through the old books: to bestow on Vieillot the fame history has cheated him of.

At this early stage in the project, it’s a very different sort of reading I’m engaged in. I’m not learning much about birds, but I am learning, bit by painfully excavated bit, something about Vieillot’s life.

That’s a misuse, an abuse, even, of a text, the unpardonable sin of biographism. But it’s worth it, isn’t it, to learn, for example, that Vieillot was afloat on the North Atlantic at the latitude of Nova Scotia one August — August of a year I have yet to determine. And to discover that his may be the earliest record of cave swallows from northeastern North America, when

several of these birds landed in the rigging of the ship I was on.

Maybe the whole story of Vieillot’s life is still waiting for me in an archive in Rouen or Paris. But if not, I’ll keep reading like a positivist.

Petrochelidon fulva 1894.jpg
Petrochelidon fulva 1894” by Richard Bowdler SharpeA monograph of the Hirundinidae. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Swan Song

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Mute Swan

Are mute swans really silent?

No, of course not, as anyone who’s ever been hissed and grunted at in a city park can tell you. But they’re much less talkative than the other wild swans of Europe, and it is this silence, surprisingly, that seems to be behind the old idea of the swan’s dying song.

At least that’s how Antoine Mongez explained it in a lecture delivered to the Académie des Inscriptions 232 years ago today, on July 29, 1783.

Mongez’s first concern was to confirm that there were two white swan species living in Europe, not just one. In best Lumière style, the lecture began with a summary of ancient opinions on the matter, proceeded to the reports of dissections, and ended with Mongez’s own experience with living captives. The two species, he concludes, are the “tame” swan — our mute — and the “wild” swan — probably our whooper swan.

Only the latter, Mongez reports, can sing, and he has recently heard it with his own ears:

On July 13, I went to the zoo of Chantilly, where I watched the captive swans for a long time, with one of the keepers, M. l’Ecailler…. The keepers used a cleverly thought-out trick to let me hear the birds. They brought in a domestic goose and put it over the netting that surrounded the pond. Hardly had that bird touched the ground when the swans came up, proudly, one after another in single file, the male in the lead, to do battle with this new enemy. They approached the goose slowly, puffing out their necks, which gave them a sinuous motion like that of reptiles, and uttering strangled sounds. The scene was about to become bloody when the keepers grabbed the goose by the wings and removed it from the enclosure. Then the two adult swans faced each other and rose up on their legs, spread their wings, lifted their heads, and began to sing their victory over and over.

Yes, there are two species of swan, and one of them can sing. But whence this strange notion that it sings only at the moment of its death? Mongez tells us: for the authors of antiquity,

the wild swan, the singing swan, was quite rare in their countries, and so they had not seen it often. Desiring to reconcile the old tradition of the song of the swan with the silence of the mute swans that lived on their canals — individuals of the wild swan species being encountered only accidentally and very poorly studied even then — they assured us that they sang only at the moment of their death, and only in remote places, where their death was witnessed not even by other birds.

It’s a good story, not least, as Mongez points out, because it was so hard to disprove.

One would have attempted in vain to follow a dying swan into the clefts of rocks or across endless desert…. Plus, the swan lives for such a long time, they claimed, that it is very rare to actually see one die.

And why, if they were so silent for so long, should they decide to sing only in the hour of their death?

They said that the feathers of the crown would suddenly begin to grow into the skull, and the pain caused by the damage to the brain drew these melodious sounds out of the dying birds,

a natural history factlet that Mongez uses to gloss Ovid’s lines about the plucked string’s

plaintive rhythms, as when the swan sings its song, its frost-white brow transfixed by a rigid feather,

in which the word “penna” is a synecdoche for an arrow.

Mongez’s peroration that evening is inspiring even today to a certain type of reading birder:

And so, by virtue of research that has proved as pleasant as it useful, I have relocated in the writings of the Ancients almost everything that observation has taught me about the singing swan. This song of the swans … which has become proverbial can no longer be doubted: the Ancients are avenged. May my success inspire other modern Naturalists to cast the torch light of observation onto the tales of the Greeks and the Romans! One will see with astonishment that their knowledge was solid and extensive. As to me, heartened by the favorable reception with which I have been honored today, I embrace such work with zeal and dedicate myself to it.

The publications committee of the Academy — no less a trio than Daubenton, Brisson, and Vicq d’Azyr — finding that it would be of equal interest to natural historians and literary scholars, deemed Mongez’s talk worthy of being printed in the Mémoires.

I think they were right.

Albin 3 Pl 96

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Birding in Berlin

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Over at the VENT blog today, with some words and pictures about my new tour Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg. We’ll be there at just the right time for tens of thousands of cranes and much, much more.

Linum crane counts 2014

Daily tallies from the roost at Linum. During the dates scheduled for our tour, the flock has ranged from 23,000 to a very impressive 117,000 common cranes. It’s a great show!

common crane

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M.A. Carriker, Jr. 1952

Melbourne Armstrong Carriker, often accounted the last of the old-time collectors, died 50 years ago today. I first became aware of him myself in the early 1980s, when as a callow undergraduate I was privileged to handle many of the bird skins he had deposited in the collections of the University of Nebraska, where he began his undergraduate studies in 1899. I quickly discovered that we had something else in common, too: I was born in Nebraska City, which is where Carriker spent fourteen years of his life, from age seven through his departure for the university.

Carriker in Nebraska City

I was two when Carriker died, but one day a dozen years ago, I picked up the phone to be greeted this way: “Hello, this is Mel Carriker” — Melbourne Romaine Carriker, a distinguished marine biologist and “Meb’s” oldest child. We chatted a little about the family history he had written, and concluded with the hope that we might one day meet. Sadly, it never happened.

The elder Carriker spent the vast part of his career in Central and South America and working for the big eastern museums — first the Carnegie, then the Academy in Philadelphia, finally the Smithsonian. As a young man, though, he was already a prominent figure in the nascent culture of Nebraska birding.

Screenshot 2015-06-15 14.58.56

With Lawrence Bruner and Merritt Cary, he undertook the first sustained and systematic collecting expedition into the canyons of the Pine Ridge, and Carriker was also a founding member of the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union; his “Notes on the Nesting of the Raptores of Otoe County, Nebraska,” was read at the Union’s first annual meeting, in December 1899, and published the next year in the Proceedings.

That paper is widely thought to have been Carriker’s first natural history publication, inaugurating a long series of important works on birds and, especially, their lice. In fact, more modest efforts had appeared in the Osprey as early as the beginning of 1899, and, in the spring of that year, in a magazine that must be considered Nebraska’s earliest ornithological periodical.

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Carriker contributed to this first issue of “The Hummer” an over-written look at the natural world in May, when “all bird life is making the most of a short season, free from care and full of gayety before beginning the more sober duties of raising a family.” My guess is that Carriker was paid not in cash but in advertising space:

Screenshot 2015-06-15 14.00.49

Mel Carriker reports in Vista Nieve that such solicitations were so successful that the young ornithologist’s room in Nebraska City was soon filled with specimens, most of which his relieved parents disposed of when Meb went off to the university.

Bird photography was in its tentative infancy in 1899, but Carriker had already jumped in with enthusiasm. He published a selection of nest portraits in the NOU’s Proceedings of 1902, and was apparently selling some of his work, too.

Screenshot 2015-06-15 14.17.46

Bonwell’s “Hummer” ceased publication in March 1900. Two years later, Carriker went with Bruner and Cary to Costa Rica, where he began the work on Mallophaga that would occupy him for the rest of his life. So far as I know, he returned to Nebraska thereafter only twice: in the summer of 1912, to introduce his new bride to the Nebraska City family and friends, and ten years later, to settle affairs on the death of his father.

Two years before his own death in July 1965, Carriker sent two long letters to Doris Gates, editor of the Nebraska Bird Review. The digest Gates prepared for publication suggests that he had very little to say about his time in Nebraska City — but I hope that it pleased him to know that not everyone had forgot the contributions he made to the ornithology of the state where he spent so much of his childhood.

I've wondered whether he meant for that calendar to so prominently in view in this photograph.

I’ve wondered whether Carriker, even with his “eye for the pretty woman,” meant for that calendar to be quite so prominently on view in this photograph.

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