Last September, pondering the abundance of the lovely little sora in autumn marshes, we wondered what it meant that so many had once been “paddled” in Virginia’s Curl’s Neck Marsh. I even managed to make contact with a couple of outfitters who specialize in rail hunting. But the response was everywhere the same: It just meant that the rails had been taken from a boat.
Everywhere the same, and everywhere unsatisfactory. Here’s the real answer, from the Richmond Dispatch at the turn of the last century:
It is a saying often heard in the country, if not in the city, that “slapped” birds are much better than “shot” ones. This is to say that market hunters, of course, do not shoot their game, but kill them with a long paddle — eighteen feet long — with which they shove their boats through the marshes…. A slight blow from the heavy paddle “settles his hash forever,” as the country boy says…. The bird is not bruised, and is much to be preferred to the shot bird….
Not a very pretty picture, but at least now we know. And we know, too, what the witty rail hunter called himself a century ago: a “soracer.”
He stands [in the boat] and slaps the poor little things until his arms are tired. Such a night as this he is apt to kill fifteen or twenty dozen.
Our reporter goes on to tell us that a dozen soras fetch 50 cents at the market, and that “the good soracer” earns 50 to 75 dollars in September and October. Do the math: That’s 24 birds to the dollar, or 1200 to 1800 rails a season for the skilled paddler.
I can only repeat what I said last year at this time: That’s a lot of soras.
… these would have been my finalists for the new duck stamp.
In 1751, George Edwards’s “generous encourager” Mrs. Clayton, of Flower in Surrey, seems to have engaged the painter and ornithologist to record the birds of her aviary. It was not an unusual request: Edwards tells us that by then he had
been for a good part of the Time employ’d by many curious Gentlemen in London to draw such rare foreign birds as they were possess’d of…. as the like Birds might perhaps never be met with again.
With the permission of his subjects’ owners, Edwards
never neglected to take Draughts of them … for [his] own Collection
as well, and it was those drawings that he published — though he was “backward in resolving to do it” — in the Natural History of Birds and in the Gleanings.
His visit to Flower turned up a number of birds new to him and to science, among them a curious passerine with
the bill white, the head and neck black: the back, wings, rump, and tail are of a blackish yellow-green, or dark olive colour: the breast, belly, thighs, and covert feathers under the tail, are of a yellow colour: the legs and feet are of a dusky colour…. Many of its feathers are curled….
Logically enough, he named it the black-and-yellow frizzled sparrow.
As complete as his description was and as precise as his engraving, though, there was one thing Edwards could not say with any confidence about Mrs. Clayton’s sparrows:
they are natives either of Angola or the Brasils, but I cannot determine which.
It’s a good four thousand miles as the bunting flies between Luanda and Sao Paulo, but such wild uncertainty was simply par for the course in the world of eighteenth-century ornithology. In a similar context, Buffon himself, who was in a better position than most to determine the provenance of his specimens, noted with a sigh
that nothing is more imperfectly known than the native country of birds that come from a great distance and pass through many hands.
When Linnaeus named Mrs. Clayton’s bird Fringilla crispa (“curly-haired finch”), he settled, apparently arbitrarily, on Angola as the terra typica. Others, though, more careful bibliographers than the great Swede, left the matter undecided: Brisson says “in the kingdom of Angola or in Brazil,” and even Gmelin, in his 1789 edition of the Systema, returns to Edwards’s original formulation, “either Angola or Brazil.”
Why those two, so far-flung localities? Buffon fills us in on the “many hands” involved here:
As this bird came from Portugal, one concludes that it was sent from one of the chief colonial possessions of that country, namely, from the kingdom of Angola or from Brazil,
an explanation repeated a few years later by John Latham in his General Synopsis:
As we know it not except through Portugal, its native place is not certain.
By 1802, these birds were being imported into France. Louis-Pierre Vieillot owned a pair, but not even he could say where the species was native: Portugal, which remained reluctant to grant other Europeans direct access to its colonies, remained the only source. Twenty years later, Vieillot still did not know where his frizzle-feathered charges had come from.
That was bad enough. But gradually, the mystery shifted from the origin of the bird to its identity. Just what was Mrs. Clayton’s sparrow?
In hindsight, it’s obvious that the frizzled finch was a seedeater — and with that complete black hood, just as obviously a seedeater of Ridgely and Tudor’s Type II. But which one?
The identification and taxonomy of the Sporophila seedeaters is a tangle beyond compare. No synonymy agrees with any other, and certain of the specific epithets have seemed to float in space, available to anyone who cares to reach up and grab one to slap, more or less at random, onto a troublesome bird.
What we know today as the yellow-bellied seedeater has fallen victim to such haphazard naming more than once since it was first described by Vieillot in 1823. There’s no reason here to rehearse its onomastic fortunes and misfortunes, from gutturalis to olivaceoflava to nigricollis and forth and back and back and forth.
It’s enough to know that this species, widespread in the American tropics, including the former Portuguese possessions in Brazil, comes closest to Edwards’s frizzly finch.
I believe that it was Bowdler Sharpe who first sought to identify the mystery sparrow as this seedeater. In Volume 12 of the Catalogue, he adduces Edwards’s description and Linnaeus’s names first in the synonymy for Spermophila gutturalis — though in both cases with a hesitant question mark.
Far less cautious, Outram Bangs asserted outright that
Edwards’s plate agrees exactly in measurements and color with this species except that the yellow is a little too vivid.
Indeed, Bangs was so sure that Mrs. Clayton’s birds were yellow-bellied seedeaters that in 1930 he urged that Linnaeus’s name of 1766 — based on Edwards’s plate as “type” — be restored, such that the bird should henceforth be known as Sporophila crispa (Linné).
Charles Hellmayr disagreed. Vehemently. In the Catalogue of Birds of the Americas, Hellmayr does not even include Bangs’s Linnaean name in the synonymy, instead rejecting it in a snarl of a footnote:
I am, however, quite unable to recognize our bird in “The Black and Yellow Frizled Sparrow” … which formed the exclusive basis of Linné’s account. The bright yellow belly and the heavy, acutely pointed bill, which in shape, recalls that of a Siskin, render the identification more than problematical, and I hesitate to sacrifice a certainty for the benefit of an uncertainty.
And there, so far as I know, is where it stands. Debate about the frizzled sparrow fizzled seventy-five years ago with Hellmayr’s dismissal of the only plausible identification, and Mrs. Clayton’s bird is consigned to the dustheap of nonce species, forgeries, and incompetent errors.
It’s probably just a tanager anyway.
The French ornithologists of the nineteenth century were always complaining about one thing or another in what was by then the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.
I suspect that much of their carping was little more than vaguely oedipal resentment of Buffon, who had so greatly dominated the institution back when it was still the Jardin des plantes; but when it came to the presentation of certain of the specimens, they seem to have had some legitimate grievances.
When René Primevère Lesson came to write the account of the ruby-throated hummingbird for his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches, he found — a surprise to me — that
skins of this species are very rare in European collections. Our description will be based on three specimens in very fresh plumage in the possession of the Duke of Rivoli,
him of multifarious hummingbird fame.
And why did Lesson not simply use the specimens in the Museum?
The one specimen in the Museum galleries appears to have undergone a change as a result of sulfurous fumigation, as the ruby of the throat has transformed into a clear yellowish topaz.
Forty years earlier, Buffon had described what was presumably the same individual in very different terms:
The throat has the brilliance and fire of a ruby, mixed with a golden color when seen from the side, and a dark garnet color when seen from below.
It is unlikely that the structural colors of a hummingbird’s gorget would be destroyed by even the most intense fumigation.
Maybe the bird was dusty.
Or more likely, Lesson is complaining, as so many others of his contemporaries complained, about the rigidity with which keepers and curators in the Museum refused to allow scientists and scholars to open the cases for a closer look at the specimens. Forced to look at the bird through glass, at an inflexible angle, Lesson found the ruby, the gold, and the garnet of this species reduced — figuratively, at least — to topaz.
Every single thing I know about hummingbird identification — and a measurable share of what I know about hummingbirds, period — I owe to Steve Howell’s photographic guide. A feeder, a scope or pair of binoculars, and that book open on the table in front of you for a couple of hours, and suddenly things once inscrutable begin to make sense. Frustration cedes to challenge and, yes, even to fun.
Click on the photo to see the entire wing.
One of the neatest tricks in the book is the identification of birds in the genus Archilochus using the relative widths of the primaries. On most hummingbirds, the primaries are of more or less even breadth (except, obviously, where the outermost is modified to produce sound, as in Selasphorus). In Archilochus, though, the outer four — numbered by convention 10 through 7 — are significantly and visibly wider than the inner six (6 through 1), as even my smudgy photo of a ruby-throated hummingbird reveals. In the field or at the feeder, the result is a row of “mini-feathers” along the top of the folded primaries, ending at the square secondary panel.
I remember it this way: the name “Archilochus” starts off slow and easy, ar-KIL, and then rushes to its end, ukus, just as the primaries begin nice and broad before suddenly, hastily shrinking. (Well, it works for me!)
As to distinguishing between the two species of Archilochus, I’ll admit that I don’t always find it as easy as other people apparently do. Me, I see plenty of female-plumaged individuals whose outermost primary (10) strikes my eye as neither especially broad and blobby-tipped (as in the black-chinned) nor particularly narrow and sharp-ended (as in the ruby-throated). To be honest and lazy, I don’t worry about it that much this time of year in my New Jersey backyard.
Interestingly, the distinctive wing structure of the ruby-throated was discovered very early on in the history of trochidology. Where Catesby writes only that the wing of the ruby-throated is “of a singular Shape, not unlike the Blade of a Turkish Cymiter,” Buffon was able to tell us in his memorable way that
the shape of their wings is quite notable…. The outermost four or five feathers are very long, the next much less so, and those nearest the body are exceedingly short, all of which, combined with the fact that the large outer primaries are recurved, makes the spread wings look like a stretched bow; the body of the little bird is in the center like the arrow.
Subsequent writers seemed to ignore what the great Frenchman had found “assez remarquable.” Audebert and Vieillot, and later on Lesson, ignore this feature. MacGillivray’s dissections say nothing of it. Bourcier and Mulsant, naming the black-chinned hummingbird in 1846, offer no detail beyond calling the bird’s wing “falciform.” And Reichenbach, when he created the oddly named genus eight years later, provided no diagnosis at all.
To my knowledge, memory of the unique wing structure of Archilochus was not revived in writing until 1874, when one of the authors of the History –whether it was Baird or Brewer or Ridgway — wrote that the
inner six primaries [are] abruptly and considerably smaller than the outer four,
a comment illustrated with a sketch by the youngest author.
Daniel Giraud Elliot, in his Classification and Synopsis five years later, provided an even better drawing — though this text leaves the primary widths unmentioned. The same sketch appeared in the second and subsequent editions of Coues’s Key, with the explanation that the
inner six [primaries are] abruptly smaller and more linear.
For the rest of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, this character would be stressed again and again as diagnostic for Archilochus, finding its clearest statement in Ridgway:
six innermost (proximal) primaries abruptly, and in adult males conspicuously, smaller than the rest.
This was not, however, one of the in-hand characters that passed from the museum into the field in the 1920s and 1930s. No doubt deemed too fine, too subtle, and just too downright small for the optics of the day, the wing structures of hummingbirds went unmentioned in the popular guides — and I have the impression, too, from some quick sniffing around in the more technical manuals, that primary shapes were gradually neglected even there.
One of the great projects of the past 30 years — starting with “the new approach” and continuing with such fine books as Howell’s photograph guide — has been to return to the drawers and the handbooks in search of neglected, forgotten, and misunderstood information that we can use in the field. The wing shape of Archilochus hummingbirds is just one of the best-known examples — why not go out and come up with more?
Nearly everyone got this quiz right, though to my surprise almost no one used the right words in talking about the inner primaries, which more than one respondent called “secondaries.”
A few respondents went on to identify the bird to species — and a majority decided (incorrectly) that this was a black-chinned. I repeat: Not as easy as often claimed!