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Bonaparte's Gull

The Bonaparte’s gull has a lot going for it. It’s elegant in plumage, graceful in flight, and common enough over most of North America that at the right season, even new birders can count on getting good looks at this lovely little bird.

And as if all that weren’t enough, it has an interesting name, with a long and complicated story behind it to fill those odd bird-free moments afield.

Charles Bonaparte was still in short pants in Italy when George Ord named this “nondescript” in 1815.


I suppose it’s possible that Ord had heard of the 11-year-old prince, though I can’t imagine why, and maybe he was even able to keep the tangled web of Napoleon’s relations straight, though I can’t imagine how. But there is no way that he could have anticipated young Charlie’s future prominence in ornithology.

Not only did Ord not name this bird for Bonaparte, but he did not even recognize his specimen as a gull. In a slip understandable to anyone who has glimpsed one of these small, buoyant, thin-billed, white-primaried birds at a distance, Ord believed that it was a tern lying on the table in front of him, and he described it as a new species of Sterna, the banded-tail tern, S. Philadelphia.

Bonaparte's Gull

Ord’s English name refers, obviously, to the immature gull’s tail pattern. He offers no explanation of the scientific name, though it has always been assumed that his banded-tail tern was collected, like the “toothed-bill gull” he describes a few lines later, on the Delaware near Philadelphia.

Ord description of two gulls

Oddly enough for a bird we nowadays think of as so familiar, Ord’s ternish gull went unreported for some years after its original description. And when it was encountered again, it was treated as a discovery to be described anew– several times, in fact.

When in 1821 or early 1822 Samuel Rafinesque ran across a small gull he did not recognize near Harrodsburg, Kentucky, he shot it and described the bird in the Kentucky Gazette as a new species, Larus marginatus. In 1830, Coenraad Temminck published the adult of our gull under the name Larus melanorhinchus, the black-billed gull. (Never mind that the Leiden specimen was somehow labeled as collected in Chile.) Even as late as 1856, some of these birds were being assigned, if tentatively, to a certain Larus subulirostris, the awl-billed gull, a name coined in 1854 by (ready for this?) Charles Bonaparte.

Temminck, NouvRec 5:504

Meanwhile, other scientists were finding these birds and misidentifying them not as a new species but an “old” one, the even littler little gull. Joseph Sabine (of gull fame), Thomas Nuttall, and — irony upon irony — the grown-up Charles Bonaparte himself were using specimens of today’s Bonaparte’s gull as proof that the little gull (the different ages still thought of as different species, Pallas’s Larus minutus and Temminck’s Larus capistratus) occurred in North America. Bonaparte, in fact, informed New York’s Lyceum of Natural History in 1828 that capistratus – again, Temminck’s name for one plumage of the little gull — was

not very rare during autumn on the Delaware, and especially the Chesapeake; found as far inland as Trenton.

Fauna bor-am ii, Bonaparte's Gull

The most significant of these repeated discoveries and misidentifications was published in 1831. This time, John Richardson described a “new” gull taken at Great Slave Lake in May of 1826 and

 common in all parts of the fur countries, where it associates with the Terns, and is distinguished by its peculiar shrill and plaintive cry.

The Cree, he tells us, call the bird Akesey-keask, no doubt echoic of that same cry; but Richardson named it Larus bonapartii, the Bonapartian gull.

Fauna boreali-am vol 2

Both names caught on, the vernacular and the scientific alike, and Larus bonapartii – or bonapartei, bonaparti, buonopartii, depending on who was doing the misspelling — would appear in the scientific literature through most of the nineteenth century, up to at least 1891, when Heinrich Gätke published his record of one “in winter plumage, with beautiful red feet,” on Helgoland.

Gätke, Vogelw. Helgoland

Today, of course, as we approach the two-hundredth anniversary of what was truly the first discovery and description of the species, while the English name “Bonaparte’s” persists, in scientifiquese we’ve gone back to Ord’s original species epithet philadelphia. For that application of priority we can thank George Newbold Lawrence, who in 1858 wrote that

 the specific name of “bonapartei,” under which this species has been so long known, in my opinion, must give place to that of Ord [philadelphia]; he also designates it as the “Banded-tail Tern.” To determine what species was described under the above name (if it was not distinct) has long been considered a problem which it was very desirable to solve; it agrees in every particular with specimens of the young of bonapartei, now under examination.

Lawrence also noted that it was most likely just “the slender and tern-like form of the bill [that] induced Mr. Ord to put it in Sterna.”

Four years later, Elliott Coues agreed with Spencer Baird‘s view that the birds originally named as little gulls by Sabine and the others had likely been misidentified:

a poorly preserved or immature specimen [of the Bonaparte's gull] might easily be referred to Larus minutus by one ignorant of the existence of two species.

Coues tells us, too, that Charles Bonaparte’s identifications of these birds as capistratus was “very erroneous,” and that that species was “quite another thing.” And one more piece in the old confusion fell when, as Coues reports, Hermann Schlegel, Temminck’s successor in Leiden, determined in 1863 that the older ornithologist’s melanorhynchus was likewise based on the Bonaparte’s gull.

It was a simple matter, then, to institute philadelphia as the correct scientific name for the bird. It’s nice all the same that Charles Bonaparte is still commemorated in its English name — and important, I think, to remember that George Ord had nothing to do with it.

Bonaparte's Gulls

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An Early Rufous Hummingbird?

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Over at the ABA blog today, pondering the European discovery of our 2014 Bird of the Year.

unidentified reddish Selasphorus hummingbird Allen's or rufous

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Wanted: A White Crow

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The Latin word cornix — the crow — has been beloved of punsters for millennia now. Medieval schoolboys learned that

cornix est alba si cor tollatur ab illa.

Giordano Bruno recorded another one in his Spaccio de la bestia trionfante, mocking the “childish sophistry” that could delight in a line like

cor est fons vitae, nix est alba, ergo: Cornix est fons vitae alba.

Silliness aside, it turns out that by 1687, we actually knew how to produce white crows — or at least one bird seller did.

In the markets of Frankfurt in that year, eight white crows were offered at a very high price; their owner shared his recipe with the Eisenach physician and scholar Christian Franz Paullini:

Rub newly laid crow’s eggs, the fresher the better, with the grease of a white cat; coat them with the brains of the same cat, then give them to a young white hen that has laid only her first egg to incubate. During the entire period of incubation, keep the hen in a place out of the sun, and lay white cloth everywhere in that place. The crows that hatch from the eggs will be white.

Paullini was skeptical, and he didn’t even bother trying it.

Western Jackdaw leucistic 1

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Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

October 25: Book signing at Cape May Autumn Weekend.

November 8: Birding Sandy Hook with the Linnaean Society of New York.

November 20-29: Private Birds and Art tour: Venice to Florence.

January 31: Birding New Jersey with the Brooklyn Bird Club.

February 11: Lecture for the Montclair Bird Club.

February 18: Lecture and book signing for the Queens County Bird Club.

February 19: Lecture and book signing for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

February 20: Lecture and book signing for the Wyncote Audubon Society.

March 13-18: Birding southeast Arizona with the Linnaean Society of New York.

March 21-26: Birding Nebraska with WINGS.

March 31: Lecture for the New York City Audubon Society.

April 18-25: Birding Catalonia with WINGS.

May 11-15: Lecture and field trip for Biggest Week in American Birding.


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Downtown Birds

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A hundred years ago today, Joseph E. Gould of Norfolk, Virginia, was in New York City. At noon, he attended a service at Trinity Church, then birded the churchyard, “overshadowed by ‘sky-scrapers’ and flanked by surface and elevated street cars.”

Among the house sparrows he found two slate-colored juncos, a white-throated sparrow, a hermit thrush, and a brown creeper,

diligently scrambling up an old scarred and weather-beaten tombstone, peering into every crack and crevice for some tender morsel.

Sounds like autumn in the city.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

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