Archive for Information
I assure thee, Lucy, that coffee in France is certainly better than anywhere else.
- John James Audubon: September 4, 1828
I did not write the words “spot fowl.”
The Count de Buffon died 226 years ago today, making this as good a day as any to see what he had to say about what was over his long lifetime the most abundant bird in North America, the Passenger Pigeon.
In the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, Buffon dedicates an entire chapter to “Exotic Birds Related to the Pigeon.” The natural historian wastes no time in proclaiming his theory:
There are few species as widespread as the pigeon; as it has strong wings and the capacity for sustained flight, it can easily make long voyages: and most of the races, wild or domestic, are found in all climates; from Egypt to Norway, people raise pigeons in aviaries, and while they do thrive better in hot climates, they do not fail to prosper in colder regions, too, depending on the care given them, all of which proves that this species in general fears neither heat nor cold, and the Rock Pigeon is found in almost all the countries on both continents [Europe and America].
As usual, it is not at first clear just what Buffon means in speaking of “species” and “races,” but he removes all doubt in the accounts that follow. Doves from Mexico, Guyana, and the Far East are here identified as “belonging to the espèce of our European Rock Pigeon.” Unable to resist the poke at his contemporary and competitor, Buffon dismisses Mathurin Brisson’s Violet Pigeon of Martinique as “a very slight variation on our common pigeon.”
And the same, he writes, obtains in the case of
the pigeon of America given by Catesby under the name Passenger Pigeon and by Frisch under the name Columba Americana, which differs from our feral pigeons only in its colors and in the longer feathers of the tail, which makes it seem to resemble our Turtle Dove. But those differences do not seem to us sufficient to make of this bird a distinct species separate from that of our pigeons.
Nowadays, if most people know anything about Buffon, it is his bizarre insistence that “foreign” organisms were the “degenerate” derivatives of European species — which were after, all, the real species. In this year of sad commemoration, it surprises me that no one has pointed out the good Count’s disparagement of the Passenger Pigeon — and the hint, d’outre-tombe, that we could recover that long-lost bird simply by selectively breeding feral pigeons for long tails and subtle colors.
A warm spring morning — at long last — in Brookdale Park, and Helen, Mollie, Gary, and I ran into a couple of arrivals during our leisurely walk around the edges of the park.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers whined and buzzed here and there, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, even tinier, was the first of what should soon be the regulid onslaught.
The arrival of the kinglets usually coincides with the earliest warblers. Though I did have a couple of Myrtle Warblers early on, I was beginning to worry that that would be it for the morning. But no: a creeping sprite in the dead wood below the tennis courts turned into a glorious male Black-and-white Warbler, my first this spring in our area.
We were just as excited to see the local Red-tailed Hawks still in residence and acting decidedly broody. One bird slunk around quietly in a tall pine, as if hoping to get onto a nest without being seen, while the other soared overhead with a rat in its feet. I was impressed once again by what good hunters these birds are: I could look for rats all day and not find one. (Not complaining about that, of course.)
Winter isn’t that far behind us, though. White-throated Sparrows were just as abundant and as conspicuous as Chipping Sparrows, and a lone Slate-colored Junco was still lurking around the stream, perhaps taking her last bath before heading into the Adirondacks to breed.
Best of all, perhaps, was a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers quietly feeding together on large snags on the west side of the park. Fingers crossed that these birds stick around and breed: a little bit of wilderness in Bloomfield.
Join the Brookdale Conservancy and me for May bird walks in the park: schedule is here under “Upcoming Events.”
The sad result of having left a Canada Goose in the dryer too long:
British Columbia, October.