Archive for Rants

May
15

The Scarlet Tanager, Orange Variant

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It seems like every spring is marked by a new fad in the world of digital birding.

Screenshot 2014-05-15 13.11.37

This year, it’s the “orange variant” of the Scarlet Tanager that has the internet abuzz. I can’t turn the machine on any more without reading about this “form,” and there is an abundance of photographic material out there purporting to show such individuals. Just google it.

There is no doubt that some males of this species in definitive alternate plumage are less scarlet than others; have a look at Larry Sansone’s photograph of a decidedly ochre-toned individual in Beadle and Rising’s Photographic Guide, for example. Rising comments that this bird falls notably towards the orange end of “the scale”; the implication is, correctly and appropriately, that there is a more or less continuous range of color to be observed, from the dull orange of some males to the classic blazing red of others.

Yes, they vary: They vary “considerably,” in the authoritative words of Robert Ridgway, “being sometimes of a flame-scarlet or almost orange hue.” But that doesn’t mean there is any definable “variant” among them, any more than there is an identifiable “yellow variant” of the American Robin or the Summer Tanager — two other species in which the reddish parts of males’ plumage can differ in brightness and saturation.

When most of us see a dull adult male Scarlet Tanager, we’re delighted and intrigued, and tend to say something like “Why, look, there’s a dull adult male Scarlet Tanager!” without elevating that individual bird to the status of “variant.”

Most of the photos being posted to the internet now, though, are not of adult tanagers at all. Image after image of these “orange variants” shows a first-alternate male Scarlet Tanager, readily aged by the molt limits in the wing. And many of those birds are indeed duller orange-red than the name “scarlet” might suggest.

Entirely as expected.

BNA tells us that first-alternate males are “orange-red to scarlet.” Dwight describes them as “sometimes pale or mixed with orange.” It’s simply normal — for lack of a better word — for some ten-month-old male Scarlet Tanagers to be orangish.

Where did the need to assign these birds to a class of “variants” come from? The obvious answer is provided by a painting in the first edition of the Sibley guide, a dull tanager captioned “variant adult male breeding.”

In a process of productive misreading, Sibley’s perfectly unexceptionable adjective “variant” — meaning “different” — has apparently come to be re-analyzed as the tendentious noun “variant,” a definable kind departing from the normal, a “morph.” But what the guide is describing, and what birders are observing, is simply individual variation, with some birds more orange, some birds more scarlet, some birds more yellow.

I’m not suggesting that we stop looking close at male Scarlet Tanagers, and I’m not suggesting that anyone stop “posting” photos of particularly bright or particularly dull or otherwise remarkable birds. But when we encounter a bird that strikes us as oddly colored, maybe we should remember that variation doesn’t always make a variant.

SCarlet Tanager

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Feb
02

The Pictures in the Birdie Books

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It’s here, at long last, the second edition of David Sibley’s Birds. Over at Birding, we plan to publish an evaluation next month by one of the best bird illustrators on the continent — but I have a suspicion already that The New Sibley is going to do just fine, thank you, even independent of all the laudatory reviews to come.

I’m too busy enjoying the book to review it myself, but I will note that several of the shortcomings of the first edition are remedied here: most of the images are larger, there is much more information about habits and habitat, and a hundred new species — rarities and local specialties — have been added. The design of the page has been loosened up, with fewer boxes and horizontal lines, and while the ingenious and instructive four-column layout has been retained, it is visually more open, inviting the eye to move more smoothly across the “spread.”

It’s been pointed out already that just as the first edition’s browns sometimes tended to orange, this edition’s blacks and reds are often very deep. I can see that, most strikingly in the jarringly purple Scarlet Tanager in my copy.

But that doesn’t bother me.

It doesn’t bother me because I don’t look for realism and “accuracy” in field guide illustrations, whether paintings or (much less) photographs. I don’t expect “beauty,” either, though Lars Jonsson spoiled us for a while twenty years ago.

The paintings in the Sibley Guide, in either edition, are to my eye neither realistic nor beautiful. I would not, in other words, offer them to a visiting alien seeking to discover exactly what a Blue Jay looks like, and I would not hang them on my wall just for the sheer visual pleasure. But those same paintings, in both editions, are the most informative, the most instructive, the most useful images of North American birds ever put between two covers.

When I open a field guide, I’m looking not for the mimetic but for the diegetic; I want the images to contribute to an educational moment guided by the artist’s or author’s or narrator’s participation.

This is David Sibley’s genius (a word I rarely use). His paintings, “cartoon-like” in the best sense, not bound by any standards of mere representation, are perfectly suited to illustrate, even to exemplify, the identification techniques the guide propounds.

Even a successful nod in the direction of realism would add nothing, and could even compromise the book’s larger purpose — as it certainly does in Arthur Singer’s paintings for the Golden guide, in many of the paintings in earlier editions of the National Geographic guide, and in almost everything Roger Tory Peterson published after 1947.

Birders’ minds and birders’ eyes are nothing if not flexible, and over time, as we grow more familiar with our references, the pictures somehow come to look more and more like the birds. A good field guide makes that process faster — and this is a great one.

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Jan
17

Yummy Snipe

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Wilson's Snipe

One more, and then I need to quit shooting fishiness in a barrel.

That same otherwise exemplary work notes that the specific epithet of the Wilson’s Snipe is delicata, which it translates as

paramour or favorite; unclear why the name was applied to this species.

This one’s easy. Alexander Wilson himself, the eponym of our common North American snipe, tells us that these birds

when in good order are accounted excellent eating.

Audubon records, approvingly,

that richness of flavour and juicy tenderness, for which it is so deservedly renowned.

We could go backward and forward, in the ornithological tradition and in the hunting literature, piling up testimonies to the tastiness of the snipe. But perhaps the easiest thing to do is simply to turn to the dictionaries.

The late Latin “delicatus” mean “exquisite.” It means “fine.” It means “delicious.”

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Jan
16

No, He Didn’t

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I really shouldn’t have to stand up — again– for the Father of American Ornithology, but Alexander Wilson had the ill grace to die 201 years ago, so somebody’s got to step in and defend his probity from these vicious attacks.

wilson, wilson's warbler

Here is that grossest of calumnies, again, in an otherwise fine book published this past year: the Wilson’s Warbler was, I read,

first collected and named (for himself) by Alexander Wilson.

No. No no no.

It is true that Wilson was the discoverer of this warbler, a “neat and active little species … never met with in the works of any European naturalist.” But he did not, not ever, name this or any other bird “for himself.”

Wilson called his bird, deposited in Peale’s Museum under the catalogue number 7785, the “Green Black-capt Flycatcher,” and assigned it the latinizing binomial Muscicapa pusilla, in recognition of its small size.

Muscicapa, of course, was one of the catch-all categories of those days, like Motacilla and Falco. When Charles Bonaparte set out to revise the genera of North America’s birds in 1828 — fifteen years after Wilson had shuffled off his mortal coil — the princely ornithologist reassigned the little “flycatcher” to the warbler genus Sylvia, and changed its species epithet to wilsonii, in honor of his great predecessor.

A decade later, Bonaparte further subdivided the warblers, erecting the new genus Wilsonia and restoring (as was only proper) Wilson’s original species name pusilla to the small black-capped bird.

And so it was Charles Bonaparte who named the warbler for Wilson, first by using the (invalid) epithet wilsonii and then by creating the genus name Wilsonia. In his Ornithological Biography, Audubon was still calling the bird the Green Black-capped Flycatcher in English, but by the time he compiled his own Synopsis in 1839 — a much-needed index to the plates of the Birds of America — he had come ’round to refer to it as Wilson’s Flycatching Warbler, the English name it still bears, with a slight simplification, today.

Audubon, wilson's warbler

So why, oh why do people otherwise of normal intelligence insist on accusing Wilson of the supremest of ornithological vanities?

It’s because they’ve never learned to read a scientific name.

Until recently, the name of the bird we call in English the Wilson’s Warbler was this:

Screenshot 2014-01-14 20.39.37

The name in parentheses is the original author of the scientific name — but those parentheses, crucially, are the conventional indication that the genus name has been changed since the species was first described (and in this case, changed several times).

A sloppy or lazy or ignorant reader of might, just might, sloppily or lazily or ignorantly come to believe that our poor parenthetical friend was responsible for every nomenclatural element there, where in reality only that meek little pusilla remains from Wilson’s original name.

A plea to follow my rant: Next time you decide to repeat a twice-told tale, especially one with a faint whiff of the libelous about it, think. Just think.

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Jun
16

Wildlife Rehabilitation

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To have a seagull take flight from your hands or watch a squirrel scamper up a tree or see a seal making its way through the surf to return back to its natural habitat after spending days, weeks or months caring for it is indescribable. If you were to ask me I would have to argue that yes it is all worthwhile. And more importantly, it is the right thing to do, no matter what the cost. – Michael P. Belanger

I’m all in favor of sentiment, and I believe firmly that live animals are better than dead ones.

And I believe that “wildlife rehabilitation” is profoundly wrong.

There’s a lot amiss in our world. Birds die all the time. More and more of them die as the direct result of some human action.

But what makes more sense: putting in days and nights to nurse a baby Blue Jay back to health, or taking the same time to talk to your city council about eradicating feral cats? Paying a vet to set the broken wing of a cardinal, or donating that money to saving habitat? Weeping over a crippled raccoon, or dedicating that good will and great effort to actual conservation?

The question is rhetorical, the answer obvious. Obvious, that is, to sensible people concerned about their environment. I wish it were as obvious to the “rehabilitators” who spend their time and their money healing European Starlings, House Sparrows, and feral pigeons for release into the American wild.

For some years now, I’ve carefully confirmed that any organization I donate to has no involvement with this sort of thing. I’m glad that it gives people like our Mr. Belanger an “indescribable” feeling, but it’s not the right thing to do.

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