The Pictures in the Birdie Books

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.


Yummy Snipe

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.”


No, He Didn’t

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.


Why I Still Say “Re-introduction”

Yesterday morning, as I was writing about the return of the Wild Turkey to New Jersey (and our feeders), I recalled Stacia Novy’s recent rant in Winging It. I smiled when I first read it, but it’s started to rankle, this odd notion that “re-introduction”

literally means “to introduce something again.” The Peregrine Falcon [for example, or the Wild Turkey] was never introduced to North America at any time in history, nor was the species foreign or alien. Therefore, by definition, the species cannot be reintroduced to that region….


Stacia relies for her etymological argument — always dangerous — on the mistaken idea that the prefix “re-” means only “again” or “again and again,” citing an actual dictionary — always dangerous — in support of her case.

Every elementary school teacher and every elementary school pupil knows better. The prefix is polysemic, as reading a little farther on in the dictionary would tell us. “Respond” doesn’t mean “to answer again and again”; it means to answer back. “Rescind” doesn’t mean to “take again and again”; it means to take back. “Reverse” doesn’t mean to “turn again and again”; it means to turn back.

And “re-introduce” doesn’t mean “to introduce again”; it means to introduce back, which is precisely what we have done with condors and falcons and turkeys and otters and elk and on and on. We have “led” them “back” “in” to their original range, if we want to be pedantic and etymological (and right) about it.

Stacia’s recommended alternative, “repatriation,” is silly enough that there’s no danger of its ever catching on. But I still find the arch pedantry of her argument (“It’s hard to expect the general public to use proper terminology on such topics when the experts fail to do so”) troubling, and there is a small risk, I suppose, that less confident souls could be led to worry that they’re not using the term “re-introduction” properly — even though all of us members of “the general public” really are.

I’ve taken a firm resolve to use the word “re-introduction,” in its current and correct meaning, at least once a day for the next week. Says the OED:

To return (a species of animal or plant) to a locality where it was formerly native, with the intention of re-establishing it in the wild.

My dictionary’s better than hers.

And what about that hyphen? Well, I once sat next to someone on a plane who was reading a book titled “Reengineering,” and it took me most of the flight to figure out that it wasn’t Dutch.


Plagues, Birds, and Plague Birds

Have a look at the alerts posted by Dutch Birding, and there among the scattered reports of Red-breasted Geese and Rosy Starlings you’ll find a solid daily mass of Pestvogels.

British Columbia, February 2010

This species — known to English-speaking birders as the Bohemian Waxwing — is having a good winter in western Europe, and so are the Dutch pestvogelspotters, “to the great dismay of local residents,” who find themselves overcome, “terrorized,” by the masses of birders who have descended like a plague onto their neighborhoods:

I’m a big animal lover myself, perhaps even more than that. I understand your interest in the waxwing and that you want to document these numbers with all your gigantic telephoto lenses. But you aren’t entirely seeing the other side. Meanwhile an average of about twenty people are standing here in front of my door from sunrise to sunset. You’re going up and down past all our new cars, with scratches as a result, you’re taking up parking spaces, parking bikes right up against the cars, and so on. All in all you’re creating a big nuisance for the neighbors…. You’ve had a whole week to document the birds and I sincerely hope that both the waxwings and the neighborhood will get some peace now.  [my translation]

And you can imagine how the discussion continues: it’s photographers, not birders; it’s just a few bad apples; it’s a public right of way; your car isn’t all that new, and it isn’t scratched, and it was already scratched when I got there. And on and on in tones familiar from every e-brouhaha to have ever erupted in any birding community.

The situation is even more resonant, though, given the Dutch name of these beautiful birds. “Pestvogel” means “plague bird,” and the association of these winter nomads with the equally unpredictable visitations of pestilence seems to have been historically widespread in western Europe. Suolahti writes of the species’ former German name:

Furthermore, the unexpected occurrence of certain birds in the vicinity of houses or their sudden appearance in a given region inspires uncanny notions. In particular, the occurrence of northern species that travel in great flocks, such as waxwings, bramblings, and redwings, is considered a bad omen, and so they are called “death birds,” “plague birds,” or “war birds.” [my translation]

Suolahti finds the German name “Pestvogel” — plague bird — attested from Austria, Swabia, Switzerland, and Westfalia; he quotes Aitinger‘s 1631 tract on bird catching to the effect that these birds are seen in some areas no oftener than every fourteen years, and that many people are of the “remarkable opinion” that when they do appear, they bring with them “war, pestilence, hunger, and inflation” (watch out, Euro Zone).

The always interesting Philippe Glardon points out that

it was not until the very end of the sixteenth century that Ulisse Aldrovandi first drew the connection between the waxwing’s appearance in unexpected localities and a biological cause for such displacement, even though the concept of certain species’ migrations during the harsher season was already beginning to be perceived, thanks largely to wintertime trips to the southern Mediterranean, on which observers recognized some of the birds present in Europe during the summer. But the mental horizon in which that discovery is rooted means that several different interpretations can still co-exist for one single fact. And for a long time the occurrences of waxwings were related to other exceptional phenomena, among them meteorological or cosmic phenomena, still interpreted as signs or warnings of divine origin. [my translation]

Myself, I would observe that for many of us l’horizon intellectuel hasn’t lifted that much: Who doesn’t shiver when suddenly the feeders are aswarm with a tightly packed, ferociously gobbling flock of Dark-eyed Juncos — or should I say snowbirds?

Many thanks to Kenn for suggesting this topic —