Dec
08

Changes, 1776-2014

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Washington Crossing 2014

On December 8, 1776, George Washington retreated across the Delaware into the relative safety of Pennsylvania. Yesterday, Gellert and I met up with John and Judy to watch the mid-day “re-enactment” of the much more famous Christmas crossing the other direction.

Washington Crossing 2014

The actors take their roles very seriously, and do a fine job, I think, of persuading the modern-day crowd to overlook the roar of traffic from Highway 29, the Coast Guard boats hovering beneath the bridge, and the click and whirr of all those cameras.

The one thing we couldn’t ignore was the birds. Here’s my total list from river and roadside in the state park:

Canada goose

Mallard

Hooded merganser

Turkey vulture

Black vulture

Rock pigeon

Downy woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

American crow

Song sparrow

Of those dozen species, four were probably present to witness the passage of the American soldiers back and forth across the Delaware. The horrible winter of 1776-77 almost certainly meant that there were few if any waterfowl still on the river at Christmas. Wintering turkey vultures — and black vultures at any season — are still a recent phenomenon this far north.

Black Vulture
Red-bellied woodpeckers didn’t reach central New Jersey until the twentieth century. And it seems likely, given the early deforestation of that area of the state, that the pileated woodpecker was already extirpated, not to return for another century and a half.

Rock pigeons, on the other hand, were probably almost as common then as they are now, though their distribution must have been more closely linked to barns then than it is today. And I’m sure that the brushy edges and hedgerows were full of downy woodpeckers and song sparrows, just as American crows must have hunted the fields.

Things have changed, and will continue to change. At least we didn’t see any collared-doves.

Yet.

 

 

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Few need to be reminded what this date means in American history. As a small footnote to all the other devastation wrought on that December day:

On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese air force attacked Kaneohe 
Air Station adjoining the Territorial Game Farm, the severity of the 
attack so frightened the birds in the pens that a considerable number 
of them broke through the wire and liberated themselves. As this 
attack disrupted shipping schedules and feed was very short, the board 
directed that the birds on hand be slaughtered and kept in refrigera- 
tion for the use of the public; accordingly, a total of 8,746 birds were 
killed and sold to the public. A total of $6,286.05 was realized.

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Dec
06

Owl of the Day

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In December 1903, on the banks of Persia’s Schalil River, the Ukrainian ornithologist Nikolai Sarudny collected for the first time a pale, lightly marked owl that he named Syrnium sancti-nicolai. 

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I wonder which day in December that name was meant to commemorate.

 

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Screenshot 2014-12-05 10.38.03

See you there!

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Dec
04

Wild Wigeon Wonderings

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Eleazar Albin gives three different names for the bird we know as the Eurasian wigeon: the more or less expected “Widgeon,” the lovely and onomatopoetic “Whewer,” and the puzzling Latin “Anas Fistularii.”

“Fistularis,” of course, is an ancient name for this species, going back beyond Gesner, and the source — or perhaps the reflex — of such vernacular names as “Pfeifente” and “siffleur,” all of which, like Albin’s “Whewer,” refer to the drake’s voice. Charleton says the bird

is so named for the rather sharp sound that it makes, like that of a shepherd’s pipe (fistula),

an explanation that makes perfect sense.

But Albin changes it, on his plate and in the caption to his short text. Instead of “the piping duck,” his wigeon is “the piper’s duck,” and I wonder whether there is not a meaning behind his emendation.

Ducks have been taken over live decoys, “call ducks,” since the first human noticed how tasty they were under all those feathers and down. To increase the attractiveness of their spread, fowlers — as they still do today — imitated the vocalizations of their quarry.

Might Albin be using “fistularius” here to refer to the whistling wildfowler, and might the anas be “his” in the sense that it was a frequent or a favored decoy species? We know from Albin himself that the bird was not of high culinary repute, so perhaps local hunters were more likely to use it as a decoy than a meal.

Plausible enough, isn’t it? Now all we need is an attestation of “fistularius” in that context, and some evidence that wigeons were used preferentially as lures.

Yeah, that’s all. Simple.

 

 

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