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The Dog Ate My Homework?

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At the age of 26, Adrien-Louis-Jean-François Sumichrast had wearied of studying the fauna of his native Europe, and in the autumn of 1854 set off with the young naturalist Henri de Saussure for a year’s exploration in the Caribbean and Mexico. After just four months in Mexico, Saussure wrote that he had “had [his] fill, ten times [his fill]…. Mexico is a horrible country.” He and two others of the party took the first opportunity to return to Europe, but

for all the “horrors” of Mexico, Sumichrast was so taken by the country that he chose to stay, giving the rest of his life to the scientific exploration of Mexico. He discovered vast numbers of species of mammals, birds, insects, and his favourite creatures, reptiles. (J. Joseph. 2012. Saussure. Oxford UP)

Sumichrast supported himself for the next quarter century as a commercial collector, supplying specimens to museums throughout Europe and North America. Around 1870, the Smithsonian Institution commissioned Sumichrast to undertake “an extended exploration of the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Southwestern Mexico,” and between 1872 and 1876, more than 1,700 bird skins, representing more than 300 species, arrived in Washington. George Lawrence, asked by Secretary Henry to work up the collections, registered his pleasure with Sumichrast’s work:

The specimens sent (which are of a remarkably fine character) bear testimony to Professor Sumichrast’s efficiency as an industrious and energetic collector, and the many valuable notes manifest his accuracy and intelligence as an observer.

But Lawrence was at the same time disappointed that so many of the skins had come to him unaccompanied by “biographies,” accounts of the species’ life history. Sumichrast responded to Lawrence’s query with one of the most cogent excuses in the history of ornithology:

I regret to be unable to tell you certainly which are the biographies and notes that I forwarded to the [Smithsonian] Institution. Almost all of my books and papers were carried off in 1871 during the pillage of my house in Juchitan,

in the course of Porfirio Díaz’s revolt against the regime of Benito Juárez.

I think we can all cut Sumichrast some slack.


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Passive Aggressive Much, Mr. Bonaparte?

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It was a common enough fate in the early days of American ornithology: the same species of bird formally described and named more than once, swelling the synonymies and causing confusions great and small until the polynomy was resolved.

It happened to this fine-looking passerellid, the black-chested sparrow. Jean Cabanis published the name humeralis in 1851, taking it from a specimen label in the Berlin museum; thirty-five years later, Robert Ridgway innocently described the species as new, again, naming it for Fernando Ferrari Perez Aimophila ferrariperezi. The mix-up was minimal, not least because the bird was still so very little known, and it was cleared up just a few months later when Osbert Salvin and Frederick Ducane Godman established the two nominal species’ identity — notably, basing their conclusion on photographs rather than on examination of Ridgway’s type in skin.

All very collegial, all very straightforward, all very helpful.

And all very different from Charles Bonaparte’s comments, published just a couple of years after Cabanis announced the new species. Bonaparte wrote in 1853

I had dedicated a sparrow to Mr. Dubus [curator of the museum in Brussels], who had planned to illustrate it in his beautiful ornithological plates [Dubus’s Esquisses ornithologiques]…. I now find it published by Cabanis as [Aimophila] humeralis. Here is what I wrote about it several years ago on the basis of a fine specimen collected near Mexico City and now no. 3026 in Brussels….

Bonaparte goes on to copy out the Latin diagnosis he composed but failed to publish in time.

We all get scooped now and then, and it doesn’t feel very good. But really, Prince?

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The Very First Spring Overshoot

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It’s a familiar enough phenomenon to most birders in temperate North America. Every spring, birds more typical of southern climes appear north, sometimes far north, of their usual breeding range. As if the frenzied impulse of northward movement has simply become too much to control, warblers and rails and flycatchers just keep going, joining little flocks of residents or more expected migrants to startle and delight the human observer.

We call these birds “spring overshoots.”

It’s been happening forever, of course. But what I want to know is who first noticed it and who coined the term “spring overshoot.”

In 1892, Samuel N. Rhoads defined such events with great precision, as

the annual over-stepping of faunal limits by many species belonging to a more southerly district, and their subsequent disappearance toward the end of the spring migration,

but he doesn’t use our modern term, and neither does he explicitly claim to be the first to notice it.

Some student of migration out there knows the answer. Fill us in.

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New Pages

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I’ve been throwing together some new pages here with links to digital versions of useful books and papers, from some of the earliest lists of American birds to the once-standard, now shamefully ignored handbooks.

Eventually, given world enough and time, I suppose all of my e-bookmarks will show up on a page. Meanwhile, let me know if there is a corpus you’d like to see appear: if I have the links, I can post them.

Many, many thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library for making so much of our ornithological heritage available to us.


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Other People’s Bird Books: Jean Clemens

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Mark Twain saw a lot of the outdoors over a long life that took him from the Mississippi to California to Connecticut. As I think back on what I’ve read of Twain, though, nature — Nature — doesn’t play much of a role at all. Landscape, even so dominant a feature as Huckleberry Finn’s river, never seems to be more than narrative convenience or metaphoric convention.

I was surprised, then, to find a notable selection of natural history titles among the books Twain donated to the library in Redding, Connecticut, in the last years of his life.

It turns out that most had been gifts to his daughter Jean.

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On her early death in 1909, Jean Clemens’s father wrote that

She was a loyal friend to all animals, and she loved them all, birds, beasts, and everything — even snakes — an inheritance from me. She knew all the birds; she was high up in that lore.

And she learned her bird lore the way most people did in the first years of the twentieth century: from the works of Frank Michler Chapman. Clemens owned both his Warblers, in a 1907 edition, and a 1903 printing of his Handbook.

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Clemens also owned another standard of the day, now forgotten, Oliver Davie’s popular oology:

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More cutting edge: Dugmore’s Nature and the Camera, an early introduction to photographing birds, other animals, and natural features.

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Clemens received this book as a gift from her father in 1903, six years before her death. Does anyone know whether she ever put its precepts into practice?

Herbert K. Job was another early “camera-hunter,” still far better known today than Dugmore ever was. Samuel Clemens gave a copy of Job’s Wild Wings to his daughter in November 1904.

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All I know about Jean Clemens’s books is what was written in the NYT some time ago. But that is quite enough to suggest that her interests in bird study ran deep, and it seems likely that a careful examination of the physical books themselves would turn up notes and other signs of use to offer some insight into the birding life of a young woman at the turn of the last century.

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