Happy 175th Birthday, Small Blackhead!

In January 1842, eighteen-year-old Spencer Fullerton Baird wrote to his brother William with a request:

[J.P.] Giraud here [in New York] has thought that there is a permanent distinction between the large & small Black heads and has commenced a description of the smaller kind as Fuligula Minor…. the small one has the black on the lower abdomen, about the anus finely undulate, while the large one has it in spots, & … the large ones have a white spot at the base of the under mandible on the chin which the other has not. These … two characters I want you to examine those in the Washington markets and let me know.

Before the late 1830s, it doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone that the New World might in fact have two species of scaup.

In 1835, Audubon, in the Ornithological Biography, went out of his way, as so often he did, to point out the inadequacy of some of Wilson’s earlier work on the species:

The opinion, derived from Wilson’s account of the Scaup Duck, that it is met with only along our sea coasts, in bays, or in the mouths of rivers, as far as the tide extends, is incorrect. Had Wilson resided in the Western Country, or seen our large lakes and broad rivers during late autumn, winter, or early spring, he would have had ample opportunities of observing thousands of this species, on the Ohio, the Missouri, and the Mississippi, from Pittsburg to New Orleans. I have shot a good number of Scaup Ducks on all these rivers….

Wilson gave the length of his “blue bill” as 19 inches.

Wilson Scaup

Audubon, thanks to his greater experience, was able to note “that specimens may be procured measuring from sixteen and a half to eighteen, nineteen, or twenty inches in length,” a significant range of variation in a duck — but he assures his reader nonetheless that scaup “seen in various parts presented no such differences as to indicate permanent varieties.”

Just a few years later, Giraud disagreed. In addition to the subtle marks William Baird was to confirm in the market stalls of Washington, D.C., Giraud had discovered that the size difference between the two apparently different species was consistent; he also showed Baird that

in the smaller ones the white band on the wing is distinctly of that color only on the secondaries & not extending to the primaries as on the large one…. the inside of the bill is dark in the small one & whitish in the large…. the small one is most tufted and has a purplish reflection on the head instead of a greenish one.

By 1844, Giraud had convinced himself that these differences rose to the level of a specific distinction, and his famous Birds of Long Island offers a full description of what he names the Lesser Scaup Duck, Fuligula minor.

What Giraud in those pre-internet days did not know was that another ornithologist had got there first. T.C. Eyton admitted in his 1838 Monograph on the Anatidae that he “entertained considerable doubts as to the propriety of making [it] into a species”; but the differences he discovered between this new bird and the familiar Greater Scaup were “constant”:

total length less; bill shorter and not so broad; nail much narrower, and not so much rounded at its sides; tarsi shorter.

And so, 175 years ago this year, Eyton described the “American Scaup” as new, under the weaselly name Fuligula affinis:

similar to the preceding species [the Greater Scaup] but with a shorter bill furnished with a narrower nail.

As late as 1922, Ludlow Griscom included the two scaup among the “birds which it is practically impossible to distinguish in life,” a remark — published in the Auk — that seems very curious indeed when we realize that almost a hundred years earlier both Giraud and Eyton had published precisely those characters birders routinely use today: head shape, bill shape, nail size, wing pattern.

But the real historic irony lurks in Audubon’s painting. There is only one species of scaup, he tells us — and then paints birds that are obviously Lesser Scaup avant la lettre.

The photograph at the top of this entry is of a flock of Aythya ducks at the Jersey shore yesterday. Can you identify them?

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Other People’s Bird Books: Samuel Rhoads

Of all the great names from the generation of the DVOC‘s founders, that of Samuel N. Rhoads may be heard the least.

Even in this year of the sesquicentennial of his birth, Rhoads remains for most of us a dimly remembered name, encountered once or twice, perhaps, in Witmer Stone’s Old Cape May and then forgotten. A leading light a century ago in North and Central American ornithology, Rhoads now seems to be little more than a subject for local historians and eccentric “bloggers” who really should be working on something else.

Ironically, Rhoads may be better known today in the west than here in his native mid-Atlantic. His collecting tours of Texas and Arizona in the 1890s resulted in a number of records still cited today, and his pioneering trip to Washington and British Columbia was, until recently, commemorated each year by the late-summer “Rhoads Count” conducted by the Kootenay Naturalists.

In addition to his attainments as a naturalist, Rhoads was a devoted historian of his field. Writes William Evans Bacon in the Cassinia obituary illustrated by the photograph above

Except for his labors, numerous records of great interest, particularly those pertaining to pioneer days, would have been irretrievably lost …. Rhoads amassed his information by extensive search through the literature, by the examination of museum specimens, … and by personal interviews with naturalists, trappers, trappers, old pioneers, and frontiersmen.

That historical interest was accompanied, inevitably, by the usual bibliophily, and in the first two decades of the last century, Rhoads owned a small Philadelphia bookshop and publishing house, its most notable productions facsimiles and reprints of such regionally important titles as the botanist William Young’s Catalogue and Ord’s American Zoology. In 1903, Rhoads printed his own most important work, The Mammals of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Given these predilections and pre-occupations, it’s no surprise to find that Rhoads’s own library was carefully assembled and, more remarkably, apparently curated with an eye to posterity. I don’t know where the collection ended up after his death, but one of the most interesting volumes, his copy of Witmer Stone’s Birds of Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is now in Firestone Library.

Rhoads was a member of the DVOC committee charged with overseeing the production of this work, and, as he wrote on the second flyleaf in September 1924, he saw his copy as a repository of documents bearing on the history of the Club and its most ambitious publication to date:

Samuel N. Rhoads: / His private copy, / with insertions appropriate / to the history and make-up / of the book. / Bound up Sept. 1924.

Among the documents inserted into Rhoads’s scrapbook are appeals for phenological information about the birds of the region, directed to the general public

and, no doubt more profitably, to “gunners and sportsmen” who might be able to furnish unusual records.

There are also more personal bits of history, including Rhoads’s collecting permit — “license to kill or take said song or wild birds and game mammals” —

and a delightful letter in pale purple ink from his step-cousin George Morris, full of news of egg collecting and boating mishaps:

The general history of the DVOC is represented by a fine photo of this January 1898 meeting — taken exactly 85 years before the first women were admitted to membership:

Rhoads is number 23, his cousin Morris number 24; Stone, number 28, is seated at the table with the open book. In his handwritten key, Rhoads tells us that this self-same photo was used as “proof” for his 1902 Bird-Lore article and afterwards returned to him by Frank Chapman.

There are postcards and field lists, too, but the most wondrous of the ephemera preserved here is an invitation to a party for Witmer Stone on the occasion of his having “committed Matrimony”:

Two years after Rhoads had his little archive bound, there was an explosion and fire in his Haddonfield house. The books, obviously, survived, but Rhoads’s spirit did not: “conflicting currents of emotion” overwhelmed him, in Evans’s discreet phrase, and he spent the last quarter century of his life in seclusion, sometimes in confinement, until he died, sixty years ago today, leaving us this unique record of the early days of a venerable institution.

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The Louisiana Egret: More Than Anyone Could Possibly Want to Know, and a Lament

This pretty little Tricolored Heron juvenile has been one of the stars of the show at Dekorte Park recently. Still common enough twenty years ago in New Jersey’s southern marshes, the species is declining rapidly in the state; Bill Boyle’s fine new S&D book reports barely three dozen birds in five colonies in 2009, while just ten years earlier Walsh et al. could still call it “fairly common” and “increasing” after its arrival as a breeding bird in 1948. In spite of this elegant bird’s propensity to show up, and even to nest, far north and inland of its usual breeding range, it’s never been anything but rare away from the coast in New Jersey, and this one has no doubt enriched many a Bergen County list since it arrived ten days ago.

The taxonomy of the herons, tiger-herons, bitterns, boat-bills, and night-herons seems to have settled down in the past couple of decades; it’s a good thing, too, given that, as Frederick Sheldon has noted,

over the last 100 years, the number of recognized species in  the Ardeidae has varied  from  60 to 93 and the number of  genera from  15 to 35.
That’s a lot of varying, even for an ornithological classification, and those of us who have been birding for more than even a couple of years have had to adjust more than once. “Green-backed Heron,” anyone? No North American heron has undergone as much taxonomic change as the Tricolored Heron, though, which has had two English names and two scientific names just in my lifetime–and more before that. (By the way, go ahead and click on that link; it will take you to a pretty cool resource.) Just about the only combination we haven’t suffered through is the one in the title of this post. But we’ll get there someday, I’m sure.
The onomastic history of this bird starts with a posthumous publication. On January 5, 1776, the professor of (among a wide range of other subjects) natural history at Erlangen, the imposingly named Philipp Ludwig Statius (Statius!) Müller, died, suddenly and “in the best of his years.” Fortunately, Müller had just delivered to his publisher the manuscript of the index and supplement to his German translation and commentary of the twelfth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema, and that volume appeared in Nuremberg not long after the author’s untimely death.
Drawing on recent updates published by Linnaeus and on discoveries reported by the other famous naturalists of the day, Müller’s Supplement offered the first published descriptions of a number of animals, including a heron he calls “der dreyfärbige Reiher. Ardea tricolor.” He describes it briefly:
The bird is blackish-blue, white underneath, and has blue tail coverts. Its range is in America. – Buffon.
Terse as it is, Müller’s description answers one question I’ve heard over and over at Dekorte: what are the heron’s three colors? For years I’d assumed that they were red, white, and blue, the signature palette of the attractive juveniles, but not so: this description is of an adult.
Today, Müller is credited as the “author” of the current scientific name of the heron, Egretta tricolor (Müller). What that means in practice is that he was the first to publish for the species a Latinized binomial formally acceptable under the criteria of the ICZN–but what about that citation at the end of Müller’s description?
Wikimedia Commons

Müller’s description is an abbreviation of this account of “La Demi-Aigrette” in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux:

We have given this name, Demi-Aigrette, to a bluish, white-bellied heron from Cayenne, shown in our Plates; the name designates a characteristic that seems to be intermediate between egrets and herons: unlike the egrets, this species does not have long, airy plumes on the back, but rather only a cluster of sparse strands that extend beyond the tail and represent a smaller version of the tufts of an egret. These strands, which other herons do not have, are reddish in color. This bird is less than two feet in length. The front of the body, the neck, and the head are dusky bluish, and the underparts are white.
Buffon, a sworn enemy of the great Swedish taxonomist, does not assign his heron a Linnaean name. But he does publish a painting of it, and it is this image that provided the type “specimen” for Müller:
The caption in these Planches enluminées gives our bird yet another name: the “bluish heron with a white belly from Cayenne.” The painting itself leaves a lot to be desired as either an aesthetic or a scientific document, but it matches neatly with Buffon’s description, right down to the rusty bustle. Müller’s copy of the plate must have been poorly colored for him to concentrate on the blue tail coverts instead.
Alexander Wilson, the Scots father of American ornithology, was aware of Buffon’s description and of John Latham’s somewhat more thorough account of the Demi Egret when he collected and painted a specimen that would later end up in Peale’s Philadelphia Museum.
Like all of Wilson’s birds, the heron and its platemates are awkwardly drawn to the point of ridiculousness; but this is the oldest painting showing a bird readily identifiable as a Tricolored Heron. Wilson can be forgiven, I think, for not recognizing that his bird and the Cayenne bird of the older descriptions were in fact conspecific: he says that the “Demi Egret … seems to approach near to the present” “rare and delicate” species, which he named, in honor of the place he first found it below New Orleans, the Louisiana Heron, Ardea ludoviciana.
Twenty-five years after Wilson’s publication, his colleague and champion Charles Bonaparte moved the Louisiana Heron into Forster’s genus Egretta. In 1858, Spencer Baird shifted this species, the Reddish Egret, and Peale’s Egret (now known to be the white morph of the Reddish Egret) to Demiegretta, a genus said by Baird to have been coined by Blyth, in obvious reliance on Buffon and Latham, to include the Western Reef-Heron. But Baird is skeptical: he has
a strong suspicion that the American birds, with Ardea ludoviciana as type, are entitled to a new generic appellation, for which Hydranassa would be exceedingly appropriate.
Baird leaves it at that, without bothering to explain why his suggested name would be so fitting. It would remain for Elliott Coues–who else–to unravel the “ornithophilologicality” of Baird’s proposal. Coues points out that the name is not to be analyzed as the bland “hydra” + “nassa” = “water duck,” but rather as the much more poetic “hydra” + “anassa” = “water queen.” And then, in one of those casual displays of memory and erudition to which the great man was given, he identifies Baird’s source in Audubon’s Ornithological Biography:
Delicate in form, beautiful in plumage, and graceful in its movements, I never see this interesting Heron, without calling it the Lady of the Waters.
Audubon’s painting (much of it done by his gifted assistant George Lehman) does the nickname justice, depicting a bird that seems almost to wear the elegant feathers it is so carefully arranging.
Coues’s own 1873 list of North American birds, the immediate forebear of the AOU Check-list, provides one of the clearest examples of the muddiness of this species’ taxonomic history. The Buffonian-Müllerian name is nowhere to be found, but neither is Wilson’s or Baird’s. Instead, Coues calls the lady of the waters “Ardea leucogastra Gm., var. leucoprymna (Licht.) Cs.”
Hypercorrecting for gender (as if “leucogaster” were an adjective rather than a noun in apposition), Coues adopts the name given the species in the Systema naturae of Gmelin’s 1788 edition, Ardea leucogaster. Lichtenstein, professor of zoology in Berlin, had assigned the epithet leucoprymna (with no further published description) to a specimen in his care, a nomen nudum that Coues (the “Cs.” of the full name citation above) re-purposed to designate the subspecies (“variety,” as we called them back before the trinomial controversy was settled the first time) that occurs in the southern United States.
Coues was the head of the committee constituted by the AOU in 1883 to prepare an official checklist of North American birds. When the first edition appeared in 1886, it eschewed Coues’s name for the heron and demoted Baird’s Hydranassa (which Ridgway had flirted with nearly ten years earlier) to a subgenus; for the first time, the Check-list joined Wilson’s English name Louisiana Heron with Müller’s scientific moniker Ardea tricolor. In keeping with the committee’s determination to “amplif[y], increas[e] the effective force of, and len[d] a new precision” to ornithological naming, the Louisiana Herons of the northern part of the species’s range are further defined by the addition of a subspecific epithet, ruficollis, originally the specific name given by Gosse in 1847 when he described a juvenile Tricolored Heron as a new species, the Red-necked Gaulin, Egretta ruficollis.
The name Ardea tricolor stood until 1905, when the Twelfth Supplement to the AOU Check-list elevated almost all of the heron subgenera to genus status. Baird’s suspicion was validated, and Hydranassa lasted for three quarters of a century, until the next revision of the herons was adopted in the thirty-fourth supplement, published in 1982. The Little Blue Heron, the Reddish Egret, and the species under discussion here were all moved (back) into Egretta, a reconstituted genus they shared (and share today) with another ten or so small, slender herons.
That same supplement changed the English name of the old Louisiana Heron to Tricolored Heron, a nod to the range of the bird, which extends far beyond the lower Mississippi, and to its new and old specific epithet. If I’d been asked (I don’t remember getting a call), I would probably have gone all the way and called it the Tricolored Egret (along with Little Blue Egret and so on). But Tricolored Heron it is, and likely long will be.
An egret by any other name–

I for one am sorry to have lost another “Louisiana” bird. I know the arguments against honorific patronyms and geographic designations, and they sometimes seem fairly persuasive, but when I see the bird and call it, as I am still likely to do when I’m feeling tired or perverse, a Louisiana Heron, I think of Wilson and Audubon and Lehman, of the swamps of Charleston and the big woods of the Mississippi Valley. The “new” name, even though it is also an old name, conjures up no visions, no affections or remembrances; it’s logical and sensible, but hardly evocative. And names should evoke, shouldn’t they?

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The Wrong Collared Dove

“Turn around. Now. I want to look at that dove.”

This Streptopelia pigeon was the source of a few moments’ excitement this morning in Somerset County. Eurasian Collared-Dove is still a rarity in New Jersey, and I don’t think it has been recorded yet so far north and inland.

Unfortunately, this bird’s small size, pinkish tinge, and plain wing, without the contrasting dark primaries of Eurasian, identified it quickly and handily as an African Collared-Dove, the beloved prop of stage magicians and the often ill-caged pet of careless door shutters.

Ah well. It won’t be long before the “right” collared-dove gets here too.

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Divers; Or Why I Don’t Get Invited to More Cocktail Parties

Hooded Merganser and Red-breasted Merganser

The scientific names of the saw-billed ducks lead in all sorts of interesting directions. Take the Hooded Merganser, possibly the loveliest of a very lovely group of birds; its current genus name, Lophodytes, is as pleasant to say as it is meaningful.

“Lophos” is from the Greek word for crest, and “dytes” means “digger, diver.” So our cute little hoodie is a crested diver, a point only reinforced by the specific epithet cucullatus, meaning, well, hooded, or cowled.

There are somewhere between many and gazillions of birds with loph- in their name somewhere, and cucullatus/a/um is nearly as frequent. The “dytes” part is more interesting. Two penguin species–the consummate divers–share the genus Aptenodytes, meaning “wingless diver,” and the name “troglodytes,” familiar even to many non-birders as the genus name of the mouse-like wrens, has also been applied to species and subspecies of nightjars, swifts, waxbills, and cisticolas, each of which typically (and sometimes maddeningly) disappears from the birder’s view by diving into the darkness.

The other bird in the photo above is a drake Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator. “Serrator” is easy enough to figure out: like the English word “serrated,” it has to do with “serra” or “secra,” a toothed saw, in reference to the pointed projections on mergansers’ bills, which help them hold on their slippery prey. Oddly enough, “serrator” is rumored to also be an obsolete English name for the Ivory Gull–I don’t believe it, or even understand it, but such are the things one can run across on the internet.

Mergus, the genus to which all other mergansers but the Smew are assigned (and that’s simply Mergellus, a little teeny tiny Mergus) is a bit more mysterious. The word is obviously related to the Latin  “mergo,” “I dive,” on the same impulse as “dytes” (and the old genus name for the loons, Urinator).

But it is only recently that the noun “mergus” has been restricted in meaning to the mergansers. In Antiquity, the word referred to a number of ill-defined, perhaps unidentifiable waterbirds; Arnott notes that Pliny used “mergus” to translate Aristotle’s Aithyia, which is used nowadays (in a slightly different spelling) as the genus name for the pochards. To heap confusion onto mix-up, Arnott concludes (quite cogently) that Pliny and a few later Latin writers used “mergus” to denote the Great Cormorant, while in many other cases the name means simply “diving piscivore,” perhaps including Great Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls.

The name “merganser” (which doubles as the specific epithet of the Common Merganser or Goosander) is easily analyzed as a combination of Latin “mergus” and “anser,” meaning goose; it apparently first appeared in the neo-Latin of Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium.

Gesner’s cut is plainly of a Common Merganser, but in its earliest English usage, the word “merganser” was explicitly restricted to the Red-breasted Merganser. Sir Thomas Browne wrote in 1668 that the “gossander… is a large well colored and marked diving fowle most answering [closely corresponding to] the Merganser.” It seems to have taken nearly two centuries for the name to be applied more generally to all the saw-bills–first, apparently, by MacGillivray in his History of British Birds. Charmingly and sensibly and perhaps slyly, MacGillivray suggested that the larger species be called “merganser” and the smaller “merganas,” “diving duck.”

The species names of most of the remaining Mergus mergansers are fairly straightforward. The extinct Auckland Merganser went by the name australis, “southern,” a reference to its range. Miocene miscellus, described from a Virginia specimen, shows a mixture–a miscellany, as it were–of primitive and derived characters, while the European Mergus connectens, a Pleistocene species, “links” other species. The Chinese, or Scaly-sided Merganser is named simply squamatus, “scaly.”

The critically endangered Brazilian Merganser has the most descriptive name of all its relatives. Mergus octosetaceus was named by Vieillot in 1817; the French name he gives it, harle à huit brins, reveals the meaning of the scientific epithet: this species, writes Vieillot, has a crest comprising eight narrow vaneless feathers.

Great name, that one; but eight years later, Vieillot, having discovered that the crest in other specimens was made of more than eight feathers, changed both the vernacular and the scientific name, this time giving it the equally logical but inestimably more colorless name brasilianus.

The change created a confusion that persisted for nearly a century, with various authorities going back and forth over the years between some form (often enough mangled) of octosetaceus and brasilianus/brasiliensis. In 1850, Pucheran proposed a new, or rather an old, epithet, lophotes, which he had discovered on the label prepared by Cuvier and attached to Vieillot’s type specimen in Paris; Pucheran also took the opportunity to propose for the first time the synonymization of Latham’s Mergus fuscus. But Pucheran’s new name was pushing the idea of priority too far, and Vieillot’s (inaccurate!) octosetaceus has prevailed.

Pucheran’s–or Cuvier’s–specific name for this rare bird takes us back to the beginning: “lophotes” means simply “crested,” from the same word that gave us Lophodytes. Next time you’re standing around balancing a drink and a horse doover, try some of this stuff out on the other guests: you may never have to worry about being asked out again.

By the way, who doesn’t love the Biodiversity Heritage Library? It’s impossible not to while away an entire day following even the most whimsical thread.

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