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Ruby-throats in Paris

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The French ornithologists of the nineteenth century were always complaining about one thing or another in what was by then the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.

Lesson ruby-throated hummingbird pl 48

I suspect that much of their carping was little more than vaguely oedipal resentment of Buffon, who had so greatly dominated the institution back when it was still the Jardin des plantes; but when it came to the presentation of certain of the specimens, they seem to have had some legitimate grievances.

When René Primevère Lesson came to write the account of the ruby-throated hummingbird for his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches, he found — a surprise to me — that

skins of this species are very rare in European collections. Our description will be based on three specimens in very fresh plumage in the possession of the Duke of Rivoli,

him of multifarious hummingbird fame.

And why did Lesson not simply use the specimens in the Museum?

The one specimen in the Museum galleries appears to have undergone a change as a result of sulfurous fumigation, as the ruby of the throat has transformed into a clear yellowish topaz.

Forty years earlier, Buffon had described what was presumably the same individual in very different terms:

The throat has the brilliance and fire of a ruby, mixed with a golden color when seen from the side, and a dark garnet color when seen from below.

It is unlikely that the structural colors of a hummingbird’s gorget would be destroyed by even the most intense fumigation.

Maybe the bird was dusty.

Or more likely, Lesson is complaining, as so many others of his contemporaries complained, about the rigidity with which keepers and curators in the Museum refused to allow scientists and scholars to open the cases for a closer look at the specimens. Forced to look at the bird through glass, at an inflexible angle, Lesson found the ruby, the gold, and the garnet of this species reduced — figuratively, at least — to topaz.

Lesson, rubis jeune age



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Pigeons and Geopolitics

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It was on this date, mid-way through the Seven Years’ War, that Generals Wolfe and Montcalm both fell, fatally wounded, on the Plains of Abraham. Even those readers not so fortunate as to be married to a Canadian will have their memories jogged by this famous work from the brush of a 32-year-old Benjamin West:

For all its familiarity in elementary school textbooks, this is still a moving bit of history painting. There’s something missing, though, in that clearing sky: the pigeons.

In June 1770, Ashton Blackburne, the traveling brother of a much more famous sister, wrote from New York to Thomas Pennant, reporting that the Passenger Pigeon was

as remarkable a bird as any in America. They are in vast numbers in all parts, and have been of great service at particular times to our garrisons, in supplying them with fresh meat, especially at the out-posts. A friend told me, that in the year in which Quebec was taken, the whole army was supplied with them, if they chose it.

The British soldiers were forbidden to waste their ammunition on the birds, so

every man took his club … each person could kill as many as he wanted.

Blackburne himself had

been at Niagara when the centinel has given the word that the Pigeons were flying; and the whole garrison were ready to run over one another, so eager were they to get fresh meat.

Surely to bold General Wolfe and his men goes the credit for the victory at Québec. But the Passenger Pigeon, too, played an important role. If not for some well-timed flights of that species, they might still be speaking French in eastern Canada.

Oh, wait….




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The More Things Change?

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Coues, signature

It’s Elliott Coues‘s birthday today, an event celebrated by precisely no one. Nil nisi bonum, of course, and there is a great deal indeed of good to be said of the man and his work — but his daemon (to use a good Couesian word) was an irascible one, and it all too often got the better of him in print.

I’ve been rereading the editorial columns Coues published during his stint at The Osprey, Theodore Gill‘s journal of ornithology and natural history. As his most recent biographers remind us, Coues was fatally ill while he served as editor in chief; while that fact may help to explain the “arrogance and animosity” of Coues’s editorials, it does not make them any less shocking.

Take, for example, Coues’s out-of-the-blue scratching of a 25-year-old old scab in the April 1897 number of the magazine. Without any apparent motivation, Coues goes back a full quarter of a century to rehearse an unseemly squabble between Charles Bendire and the Smithsonian Institution in the person of Spencer Baird.

Coues takes the opportunity to label Bendire — dead just two months — a “bumptious and captious German” who discovered insult and offense at every corner, and to remind his reader, entirely gratuitously, that Thomas Brewer, the co-author of Baird’s History of North American Birds, was a “narrow-minded, prejudiced, and tactless person.”  

Happily for science, Baird and Bendire reconciled. And whose “friendly intervention” do we have to thank for that? Coues modestly informs us:

I was the one who turned Bendire over to Baird, shortly after my original discovery of him, and … this intermediation led directly to the consummation with which all are now familiar,

namely, the incorporation of Bendire’s collections into the “unrivaled oological cabinet in the National Museum.”

Given that Bendire, Baird, and Brewer were all safely dead, Coues should have been able to get away with his story. But there were still among the living those who protested.

In just weeks, the incomparably named Manly Hardy wrote from Maine “as an old friend of Major Bendire.” Hardy adduces a letter in which Bendire describes Brewer as “one of the best friends I had” and goes on to regret that Coues, for whom Bendire “on several occasions expressed … his intense dislike,”

has never forgiven me for the strong friendship I always showed for Dr. Brewer. He is not satisfied even now [February 1883, three years after Brewer's death] to let him rest in his grave and loses no opportunity to belittle him whenever he can.

Beyond that, Hardy notes that as late as 1883 Bendire was still of two minds about donating his eggs to the Smithsonian. And as to Coues’s

claim of “discovering” Major Bendire, the Major’s friends always have supposed that he discovered himself…. Dr. Coues had about as much to do with discovering Major Bendire as the dog did in discovering the moon — the moon shone too brightly for his peace of mind, and he barked at it.


Coues was down — but not out. He responded with a long series of excerpts from his own correspondence with Bendire and with Baird (he admitted, on reviewing the record, that “there was more Baird and less Brewer in it than I intimated”), which demonstrated to his satisfaction that he had been “exactly right.” As to Hardy’s “silly” and “gratuitous” objections,

Who this person may be I have no idea, except that I lately edited for him a paper on some Maine birds which was published … after I had taken the trouble to make it presentable by fixing up its bad spelling and worse grammar.

And Coues remained resolute in his criticism of Bendire’s prickly punctilio and Brewer’s “foolishness”:

Everybody knows that Dr. Brewer made a fool of himself about the [House] Sparrows for years, and the fact that he then died does not alter the other fact of what he did when he was alive…. I do not find that Maj. Bendire’s recent demise alters one iota the merits of his quarrel of 1872-73…. Dying makes a great difference to the person chiefly concerned, but has no retroactive effect upon the events of his life, and only sentimentalists allow it to influence their estimate of personal character.

On that principle, then, Happy Birthday. I guess.

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The calendar and the weather agree: It’s still late summer in northern New Jersey. A month from now, things will be different, but for the moment, only the most foolishly impatient prodder of the seasons is thinking of winter birds.

Except, of course, on this date. It’s September 6. And every year on this day, we pause — don’t we? — to remember the only Oregon junco named for a New Jersey birder.

Dwight 1918 thurberi junco

Eugene Carleton Thurber died in California on September 6, 1896, at the shockingly tender age of 31. Born in Poughkeepsie in 1865, Thurber moved to Morristown in 1881; a “promising young ornithologist, a careful collector, and a good observer,” he published his magnum (and perhaps solum) opus in November 1887, the List of Birds of Morris County, notable especially for its early records of the Lawrence’s and Brewster’s warblers.

Fragile health sent Thurber to California in 1889, where he

lived an out-of-door life in the field, collecting birds and mammals, as his health would permit, and preserving to the end his love for his favorite study.

On May 24, 1890, Thurber collected two juncos on Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains. That summer, he showed the skins to Alfred Webster Anthony, another New York native exploring the Golden State; Anthony was “considerably surprised” to learn of juncos’

nesting in abundance within twenty-five miles of Los Angeles,

and as none of the other local collections seemed to include any similar specimens, he organized an expedition in late August to “obtain, if possible, a series of birds.” On August 27 and 28, Anthony found juncos “very abundant” between 5200 and 5800 feet elevation. He shot what seems to have been a total of eight adults, two juveniles, and one bird of unknown age and sex; all of those new adult specimens, however, were — as one might have predicted, without climbing the mountain in the first place — “in ragged moulting plumage,” inadequate for diagnosis.

So Anthony, apparently forgetting about Google Images, sent his little series, which by now included both of Thurber’s skins, to Washington, whence Robert Ridgway replied with some “rather unexpected” information: Anthony’s — Thurber’s — California juncos represented a “strongly marked” but still unnamed subspecies.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 16.31.38

A deficiency, naturally enough, that Anthony promptly made up in the October 31, 1890, issue of Zoe:

I take pleasure in naming this handsome Junco for the discoverer, Mr. E.C. Thurber of Alhambra, Cal.

A few months later, having run through the juncos in a collection of birds purchased from Thurber in 1889, Frank Chapman was mildly skeptical: he pointed out that Anthony had failed to demonstrate that his new thurberi could be distinguished from the very widespread shufeldti.

The AOU, however, recognized the new race in 1892, and continued to list it as valid in the last Check-list to tally subspecies. BNA and Pyle, too, list thurberi among the Oregon junco subspecies. I’m glad we have a name for this population, whose recent colonization of the nearby California lowlands has provided some surprising insights into the rapidity of junco evolution.    

Thurber’s early death kept him from leaving much of a biographical trail: We know a great deal more about the junco than the man. All the more reason to remember him once a year, I think, even if our juncos are still a month away.


The Originals: Reading the First Descriptions of North American Birds

Thanks to the magic of the internet, the original descriptions of most of the world’s birds — long buried in the stacks of far-flung libraries — are now at our fingertips. Some are just as dusty and dry as you might expect, but many provide answers to questions we might not even have thought to ask. Join me for a tour of the fascinating, often surprising stories hidden in the first descriptions of some of our most familiar birds.

Screenshot 2014-08-26 08.47.50

And yes, I considered an entire evening of just Linnaean footnotes.This one is among my all-time favorites:

The genus Strix differs from the genus Falco in the same way a moth differs from a butterfly: the one is diurnal, the other nocturnal.

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