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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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A Friendly Gesture

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Whenever we’re invited to a wedding out of town, the second thing we check is the bridal registry.

And the first?

Do you have to ask?

Nowadays we just pull a field guide off the shelf or call up an eBird map or two—luxuries that were not available to Auguste von Leuchtenberg when, in August 1829, he left Munich to escort his younger sister Amélie to a wedding in Rio de Janeiro. The wedding was hers: the seventeen-year-old princess had been married by proxy three months earlier to Dom Pedro I and was now the empress of Brazil.

Auguste de Beauharnais

Auguste—at that time still just the duke of Leuchtenberg and prince of Eichstätt, but the future prince consort of Portugal—spent much of his time in Brazil birding. Who wouldn’t?

In April 1831, Johann Georg Wagler reported on some of the natural history specimens Auguste had brought back from his journey. Wagler was greatly impressed by the duke’s haul of insects:

The insect collection is remarkably rich, and the dazzling beauty of certain of them exceeds any splendor that the entomologist’s eye has ever beheld in the world of these wondrous little creatures. Brazil has not entrusted its gold and gemstones to the depths of the earth alone: No, it has also lavishly adorned its insects with it, and radiant with such glitter, or clad in the deepest purple or in the purest most ethereal blue, they may remind the traveler of that great menagerie described in the most ancient of all books or of the enchanted gardens of the Hesperides.

Among the many noteworthy mammals brought back to Eichstätt were two howler monkeys and a vampire bat with a wingspan approaching two feet, that last captured by the duke himself “in his bedroom, where, harpy-like, it was fluttering about him eerily.” The party even brought a few mammals back alive, including agoutis, white-lipped peccaries, and “an extremely sweet and confiding” golden marmoset, which Auguste installed in a greenhouse for the northern winter.

If Wagler’s account of the Brazilian insects is a bit florid, he waxes ecstatic about the birds of South America.

No other continent can match the feathered wildlife of Brazil in its—I might almost say—extravagantly magnificent colors…. Shall I remind you of the great throng of hummingbirds, those pygmies among birds, which incline the blazing fires of their heads and their glowing throats toward the calyces of luxuriantly blooming flowers, as if to singe with their flame any blossom that would dare compete with them for the golden apple? Shall I recall to you the toucans with their saffron-colored throats, birds of blood red, azure, and hyacinthine blue?

Wagler found much that he thought was new among the specimens Auguste had returned with. On the duke’s suggestion, he went on to name three of the hummingbirds for members of the noble family: Trochilus Amalia for the newly minted empress, Trochilus Theodolinda for August and Amélie’s sister the countess of Württemberg, Trochilus Maximiliani for their thirteen-year-old brother.

None of those names stuck, of course. Wagler would seem to have figured out—if he didn’t already know— that the skins from Brazil represented species already known and named, and he never proceeded to publish formal descriptions for any of his “new” hummingbirds, some of which may today be in the collections of the Gabrieli Gymnasium in Eichstätt. None of them can be identified with a currently recognized species, making Wagler’s well-intentioned names nomina nuda (or “nomen nudums,” as I recently heard said).

Still, it was a nice thought, and the ducal family must have been grateful.

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