whiskered tern and gull-billed tern

The find of the fall — so far — at Cape May has been the continental US’s third whiskered tern, discovered a couple of days ago and still showing nicely, I hear. I’ve got fingers, toes, and eyes crossed that it linger until next Monday, when my group will be there with hopeful bells on.

In all the excitement, there’s inevitably been some shooting from the hip about this bird’s name, Chlidonias hybridaand we’ve been reminded more than once now over these past days that the species owes that funny epithet to the quaint belief that these birds actually were hybrids.

But that’s not true. Though there are plenty of cases in which “good” species were originally mistaken for the products of miscegenation, this isn’t one of them.

Peter Simon Pallas observed this “extremely rare bird” a few times in the course of his expedition to central and eastern Russia, and almost 40 years later, he gave it its first formal scientific description in the Zoographia Rosso-asiatica. He named it Sterna hybrida, not because he or anyone else had thought it was a hybrid, but because its appearance combined features of the “white” and of the “black” terns.

You might say that it was born of the black and the common tern.

You might say — “diceres” — but no one did.

Of course, Pallas was not the first to see this widespread tern. He himself indicates that it had perhaps already been described and depicted — in neither case very well — in Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s pre-Linnaean Danubius pannonico-mysicus, where the bird is said to differ from the black tern in its reddish bill and feet.

Marsigli, whiskered [or black?] tern

The account of the plumage here more closely recalls, if anything, a molting black or white-winged tern; indeed, Brisson would later use Marsigli’s description as the basis for his own “patchy tern,” Sterna naevia, which, if memory serves, Bonaparte eventually identified as a black tern.

The sorting out of the marsh terns and their names took some time; as late as Coues’s “Review of the Terns of North America,” there still obtained “a state of great confusion,” and even more than a dozen years later, Taczanowski could mix up the names of the whiskered and the white-winged terns. We were well into the twentieth century before any sort of stability could be declared.

But never did we really believe that any of them were hybrids.

whiskered tern, France

And why is it hybrida? We’re told that this is a noun “in apposition” and not an adjective. Hmph.

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Sep
13

Pigeons and Geopolitics

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It was on this date, mid-way through the Seven Years’ War, that Generals Wolfe and Montcalm both fell, fatally wounded, on the Plains of Abraham. Even those readers not so fortunate as to be married to a Canadian will have their memories jogged by this famous work from the brush of a 32-year-old Benjamin West:

For all its familiarity in elementary school textbooks, this is still a moving bit of history painting. There’s something missing, though, in that clearing sky: the pigeons.

In June 1770, Ashton Blackburne, the traveling brother of a much more famous sister, wrote from New York to Thomas Pennant, reporting that the Passenger Pigeon was

as remarkable a bird as any in America. They are in vast numbers in all parts, and have been of great service at particular times to our garrisons, in supplying them with fresh meat, especially at the out-posts. A friend told me, that in the year in which Quebec was taken, the whole army was supplied with them, if they chose it.

The British soldiers were forbidden to waste their ammunition on the birds, so

every man took his club … each person could kill as many as he wanted.

Blackburne himself had

been at Niagara when the centinel has given the word that the Pigeons were flying; and the whole garrison were ready to run over one another, so eager were they to get fresh meat.

Surely to bold General Wolfe and his men goes the credit for the victory at Québec. But the Passenger Pigeon, too, played an important role. If not for some well-timed flights of that species, they might still be speaking French in eastern Canada.

Oh, wait….

 

 

 

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Sep
09

The More Things Change?

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Coues, signature

It’s Elliott Coues‘s birthday today, an event celebrated by precisely no one. Nil nisi bonum, of course, and there is a great deal indeed of good to be said of the man and his work — but his daemon (to use a good Couesian word) was an irascible one, and it all too often got the better of him in print.

I’ve been rereading the editorial columns Coues published during his stint at The Osprey, Theodore Gill‘s journal of ornithology and natural history. As his most recent biographers remind us, Coues was fatally ill while he served as editor in chief; while that fact may help to explain the “arrogance and animosity” of Coues’s editorials, it does not make them any less shocking.

Take, for example, Coues’s out-of-the-blue scratching of a 25-year-old old scab in the April 1897 number of the magazine. Without any apparent motivation, Coues goes back a full quarter of a century to rehearse an unseemly squabble between Charles Bendire and the Smithsonian Institution in the person of Spencer Baird.

Coues takes the opportunity to label Bendire — dead just two months — a “bumptious and captious German” who discovered insult and offense at every corner, and to remind his reader, entirely gratuitously, that Thomas Brewer, the co-author of Baird’s History of North American Birds, was a “narrow-minded, prejudiced, and tactless person.”  

Happily for science, Baird and Bendire reconciled. And whose “friendly intervention” do we have to thank for that? Coues modestly informs us:

I was the one who turned Bendire over to Baird, shortly after my original discovery of him, and … this intermediation led directly to the consummation with which all are now familiar,

namely, the incorporation of Bendire’s collections into the “unrivaled oological cabinet in the National Museum.”

Given that Bendire, Baird, and Brewer were all safely dead, Coues should have been able to get away with his story. But there were still among the living those who protested.

In just weeks, the incomparably named Manly Hardy wrote from Maine “as an old friend of Major Bendire.” Hardy adduces a letter in which Bendire describes Brewer as “one of the best friends I had” and goes on to regret that Coues, for whom Bendire “on several occasions expressed … his intense dislike,”

has never forgiven me for the strong friendship I always showed for Dr. Brewer. He is not satisfied even now [February 1883, three years after Brewer's death] to let him rest in his grave and loses no opportunity to belittle him whenever he can.

Beyond that, Hardy notes that as late as 1883 Bendire was still of two minds about donating his eggs to the Smithsonian. And as to Coues’s

claim of “discovering” Major Bendire, the Major’s friends always have supposed that he discovered himself…. Dr. Coues had about as much to do with discovering Major Bendire as the dog did in discovering the moon — the moon shone too brightly for his peace of mind, and he barked at it.

Ouch.

Coues was down — but not out. He responded with a long series of excerpts from his own correspondence with Bendire and with Baird (he admitted, on reviewing the record, that “there was more Baird and less Brewer in it than I intimated”), which demonstrated to his satisfaction that he had been “exactly right.” As to Hardy’s “silly” and “gratuitous” objections,

Who this person may be I have no idea, except that I lately edited for him a paper on some Maine birds which was published … after I had taken the trouble to make it presentable by fixing up its bad spelling and worse grammar.

And Coues remained resolute in his criticism of Bendire’s prickly punctilio and Brewer’s “foolishness”:

Everybody knows that Dr. Brewer made a fool of himself about the [House] Sparrows for years, and the fact that he then died does not alter the other fact of what he did when he was alive…. I do not find that Maj. Bendire’s recent demise alters one iota the merits of his quarrel of 1872-73…. Dying makes a great difference to the person chiefly concerned, but has no retroactive effect upon the events of his life, and only sentimentalists allow it to influence their estimate of personal character.

On that principle, then, Happy Birthday. I guess.

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In November 1764, Rousseau wrote of the natural historian:

I believe that Buffon is the equal of any of his contemporaries as a thinker and a philosophe; but as a writer, he has no peer. He wields the most beautiful pen of the age.

Buffon, born September 7, 1707

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Categories : Famous Birders
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Sep
07

Photo Quiz: An Answer

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quiz photo

(Click the image for the full picture.)

Two hummingbirds, photographed north of Mexico. What are they?

With hummingbirds as with all birds, start, when you can, at the rear, with the length and shape of the tail and the wingtip. The lefthand bird — the one with its head pattern so conveniently blotted out — shows a long tail that extends beyond the wingtip, which is itself long and noticeably pointed. The bunched secondaries are more or less uniformly wide.

All of that rules out many possibilities. If we look closely at the pattern of that long tail, we see a definite rufous edge to the outermost rectrix; the upper tail coverts and rump are the same emerald green as the back. Put it together, and we can identify this bird easily as a broad-tailed hummingbird.

The second bird, most of it invisible behind its saccharine lunch, seems to be larger, an impression created mostly, I think, by its relatively upright posture: the bigger the hummingbird, the more vertical its perch on a feeder. The dirty white underparts with coarse, dingy gray-green spangles should lead us to the correct identification: this one’s an Anna’s hummingbird.

Fun stuff. And a timely reminder to those of us in the east to start checking feeders for “other” hummingbirds, even as ruby-throated numbers remain high for the next month.

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