Brooks’s Blackbird

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Allan Brooks

Today marks the 146th birthday of Allan Brooks, the Anglo-Canadian painter and ornithologist. One of the most widely traveled collectors of his (or any other) day, Brooks shot and sketched birds from Ottawa to Auckland and most places in between.

In March 1928, Brooks and J. Eugene Law were in Arizona. On the 14th, they discovered an odd icterid at a tank in southern Pinal County; Law was able to kill the bird the next day.

In the hand the bird proved to be about the size of a male Yellow-headed Blackbird…. iris dark brown… entire plumage black, slightly glossed with bluish purple, wings and tail more greenish… tail with thirteen rectrices, strongly graduated… quite flat without trace of plication….

Screenshot 2015-02-15 10.27.55

Before Law collected the bird, it had

walked about sedately, frequently posing with its head thrown back, the bill pointing straight up and the neck slightly extended.

Brooks sent the specimen east to the Smithsonian, where the skin and trunk skeleton are now USNM 313651 and 322691. After examining the bird, Charles W. Richmond was of the opinion that it was most likely “a very new species” of grackle; Alexander Wetmore agreed. “Neither,” Brooks adds, “considered it to be a hybrid.”

Today, no one really believes that Brooks and Law discovered a new blackbird on that spring day in Mammoth. Jaramillo and Burke — Canadians around every corner here! — report that an analysis of the specimen’s mitochondrial DNA identified its female parent as a grackle of one species or another; more DNA was removed from the bird’s foot in 2004, but I don’t know what the results, if any, were of that study.

The BNA account for the great-tailed grackle identifies the Arizona bird as a hybrid between that species and the red-winged blackbird, an unexpected pairing given the care female great-tails take to avoid mating with even the much more closely related, much more similar boat-tailed grackles.

Whatever it was, whatever it is, the Pinal County nondescript remains testimony to the good eye of Major Allan Brooks. And to the good aim of Gene Law, of course.


Lovebirds to the Very End

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and those little Agapornis parrots are showing up on cards and computer screens around the world.

rosy-faced Lovebird

But lovebirds aren’t the only lovebirds.

Buffon writes of The Amorous Titmouse that

we owe our knowledge of this species to the Abbot Gallois, who brought it back from the Far East and showed it to Mr. Commerson in 1769…. The epithet “amorous” given to this species indicates quite well the dominant quality of its temperament: In fact, the male and female caress each other endlessly; at least when caged, that is their sole occupation.

They give themselves over to love, we are told, to the point of exhaustion, and in this way they not only mitigate the annoyances of captivity with pleasure but curtail them; for it is obvious that such a practice means that they cannot live for very long, in accordance with the general principle that the intensity of existence diminishes its duration.

If that is their goal — if in fact they are striving only to end their captivity quickly — one must confess that in their despair they choose a very sweet way to do it.

Mr. Commerson does not tell us whether these birds perform with equal ardor the other functions required to perpetuate their species, such as the building of a nest, incubation, and parental care.

We know nothing more of this species, alas, than its affectionate habits, and it may well be extinct. But, as they say, what a way to go.

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And I thought this one would be easy.

red-bellied woodpecker

It’s obviously a composite image — if the cut-off tails of the canary and the great tit weren’t sign enough, the fact that the plate is named in English and the birds in German should tip us off. But googling didn’t get me anywhere, so it was time to start rummaging.

I recognized the ultimate source of the great tit as one of the loveliest of the national avifaunas produced in the early nineteenth century, Johann Conrad Susemihl’s Teutsche Ornithologie, published in Darmstadt in 1811.

Teutsche ornithologie image 160

After a long series of bad guesses, I got lucky with the canary, the ancestor — an ancestor — of which I stumbled across in the Abbildungen to Lorenz Oken’s Allgemeine Naturgeschichte

OKen, Abbildungen, Vögel VII

And luckier when I noticed that that figure was numbered 7, just as the bird on the calendar page. Wonder what number 1 on the plate might be….

Screenshot 2015-02-10 13.39.26

Aha. A great tit, obviously copied (at whatever remove) from Susemihl, but differing from the figure in the Teutsche Ornithologie in the same ways as the image on my calendar.

The trail just got a lot warmer, but who extracted those two birds and plopped them down among all those eggshells? And who — if not the same plagiarist — lifted the plate to use in an English-language oology?

Amazon, of all things, turns out to be selling replicas of a related image:

Screenshot 2015-02-10 13.48.50

The differences are obvious, not least among them that my calendar replaces the nest next to the canary with that next to the great tit, removing the foliage to help it fit better. Unfortunately, Amazon, that great paragon of scholarly acribie, fails to cite its source.

Dead end. But surely somebody out there knows, and somebody can help me trace my calendar page back to the Teutsche Ornithologie. Fun stuff.

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New York Times, Talha Ali

New York Times, Talha Ali

There are some animals that just shouldn’t be hunted.

Among them is the MacQueen’s bustard, the Asian houbara. Internationally recognized as “vulnerable” under CITES I, this magnificent — yes, “magnificent,” there’s no other word — bird can still be killed for fun in Pakistan if you have money enough. A good essay by Declan Walsh in yesterday’s Times explains how personal and political ties have frustrated conservation efforts on behalf of this species, whose world population is thought to be less than 100,000 — about as many people as live in Pearland, Texas.

Towards the end of his article, Walsh mentions the Houbara Foundation International Pakistan (prepositions, please!) and its man on the ground, Reverend Ernest Shams.

Nomen is not always omen, and it sounds like Shams and the foundation are engaged in some good work, including habitat restoration and the rescue and release of illegally trapped bustards.

It worries, me, though, that Shams is quoted in Declan’s essay to the effect that foreign bustard hunters are “a blessing.” And it worries me more that the foundation’s partner is the Pakistan army.

I wanted to learn a little more about this organization and its activities, whether it views itself as simply stocking bustards for rich foreigners to hunt or as restoring and preserving wild habitats. My friends at google tell me, though, that the foundation’s website is “hacked,” and I’m too e-timid to click.

What do you know about these people? Are they the good guys, or a front? I’ll be interested to hear from those in the know, and what can be done from here to help the houbara.


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It’s common knowledge, I think, that red-winged blackbirds were among the species in demand for trimming hats and dresses in the late nineteenth century. What I did not know was that there was an active trade in red-wings as early as the middle of the eighteenth century — or at least in parts of them.


In the zoology of the Encyclopédie méthodique, published in 1782, Mauduyt de La Varenne presents the “commandeur,” a bird named (says Lesson) for the resemblance of its red wing patch to the scarlet emblem of the Order of Calatrava.

Following his brief description of the bird’s striking plumage, Mauduyt considers its habits. Both Catesby and Le Page du Pratz, he reminds us, report that vast flocks of these American “starlings” lay waste to croplands, and that the farmers of the southern lowlands kill as many as they can with gun and with net.

Catesby, red-winged blackbird

But Mauduyt corrects, and none too gently, du Pratz’s statement that the blackbirds are hunted only as agricultural pests. There’s more to it than that, he says: according to the late Jean-François Le Beau, royal pharmacologist in Louisiana,

the hunters bring packages of these birds to market… the people like to buy them… less for their meat, though M. Le Beau never told me that it was bad, than for the red patch that adorns their wings. Before preparing the birds for the table, the skin with the red feathers is removed, carefully stretched in such a way that the feathers will not fall out when it dries. When the kitchen staff or the poor people have gathered several dozens of these monions, or red patches, they sell them to private merchants who are known to trade in such things. They then past them by the hundreds onto sheets of paper, put those sheets between stiff card, keep everything in tightly closed boxes, and when they have a chance, send on to Europe thousands of them prepared and preserved in the way I’ve described.

And what happens to them in Europe?

Our plumassiers make frequent use of them as dress ornaments, muffs, and ornaments.

Le Beau was especially well informed in the matter, given that in preparation for his final return to France in 1774

he collected in a single winter about forty thousand such wing patches, some of which he left at La Rochelle and the rest of which he disposed of in Paris. In the former city, where these skins are traded to purchasers abroad, the price in 1775 was 18 livres the thousand; it was 12 livres in Paris, where they are used only for fashion….

Screenshot 2015-02-05 16.54.15

Who can find a picture of one of those dresses or hats or muffs from before 1782?


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