Identification at Bar

European Starling

Birders are a scrappy lot, and I’ve seen plenty of confrontations in the field that verged on the violent. But I can’t remember a time that the disagreement brought the parties before a judge.

European blackbird

Feelings ran deeper in the eighteenth century, it seems, and back in the days when every middle-class household had a pet bird or two, the financial stakes could be high.

In the third volume of the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, Buffon, or Montbeillard writing in the voice of Buffon, offers this curious anecdote:

The similarity between young common starlings and young common blackbirds is so great that I have actually witnessed a case, a lawsuit between two private parties. The first party was suing for the return of a starling that he claimed to have given into the other party’s care so that it might learn to speak, whistle, sing, and so on. That second party, however, having produced instead a healthy, full-grown blackbird, countersued for his fee, claiming that he had in fact been originally given only that same blackbird.

Can you imagine the excited high hopes of sending a smudgy grayish fledgling off to finishing school, and the disappointment of having it returned not as the eloquent starling of your dreams but a mere blackbird?

No word, alas, on who won or what damages were awarded.

Eurasian Blackbird
A pretty bird and glossy, but the common blackbird doesn’t hold a candle to the vocal attainments of a properly trained starling.


Other People’s Bird Books: The Author’s Own Hand

This copy of Thomas C. Eyton’s Monograph on the Anatidae, from the library of the University of Illinois and scanned for the marvelous Biodiversity Heritage Library, is autographed by the author–not an unusual thing to encounter in the world of bird books.

What is unusual, though, is the fact that after adding his John Hancock to the title page, Eyton for some reason found it necessary to explain, parenthetically, that this was the “autograph of the Author.”

I have no explanation.


The Allegorical Coot

American Coot talons

Just between you and me, coots aren’t the nicest birds in the world. Even when they’re not busy drowning each other’s chicks and dueling to the death on park ponds and puddles, they’re fractious beasts, their squawks and rattles breaking the palustrine peace wherever they’re found.

Eurasian Coot

Curious about whether these asocial behaviors have always defined cootness, I cast a quick glance at some of the older literature treating these familiar birds. “Older”? Yes, a lot older: The works listed in the zoological index to the Patrologia latina, always a convenient, if rarely a comprehensive, way to begin to answer questions like this. 

Isidore of Seville’s account of the fulica, dating to the first quarter of the seventh century, begins with an inscrutable etymology: The coot is called “fulica” because its flesh tastes of rabbit. (Migne proposes that the original reading was “fuliginem” rather than “leporinam,” thus rendering the taste “sooty” or “smoky” rather than bunnyish.) Isidore is on firmer ground (the birds aren’t) in the few natural history details he offers:

“This is a marsh bird, nesting out in the middle of the water or in the rocks around the water. It prefers deep water, but when it senses a storm coming on, it retreats into the shallows.”

In his encyclopedic De universo, composed two centuries later, Hrabanus Maurus adds a description of the bird, which is “gentle and black, smaller than a duck but with a similar body shape.” Hrabanus goes on to quote Isidore on coots’ fleeing an approaching storm for comforting waters, a behavior he likens to that of “those about to be baptized.” Adopting a variant reading of the “heron’s house” of Psalm 103, Hrabanus transforms it into a coot’s nest, the sacred font that leads all Christians into the kingdom of heaven. 


Eurasian coot

Definitely in bonam partem.

In the latter half of the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan had been just as positive, finding in the coot a model of charity. Whereas eagles sometimes cast their young from the nest, “there is a bird called fulica, which gathers the rejected eagle chick unto its own young, and joining it to its own, it raises it with the same eagerness and feeds it the same food as it does its own brood. … We humans, however, sometimes reject even our own kind with savage cruelty.”

Hugh of St. Victor, or an author using the great scholar’s name, writing in the first half of the twelfth century, is even more enthusiastic about the coot as exemplar. This “quite intelligent bird, the wisest of all,” disdains carrion, and rather than flying around all over the countryside, it remains in one place, where it finds its food and its rest. (Pseudo-)Hugh deduces a lesson:

“So too does the faithful man live according to God’s will. Neither does he flit hither and thither, wandering from place to place as heretics do. He finds no delight in earthly desires and bodily pleasures, but just like that bird that eats no flesh, he remains and finds rest in a single place, that is to say, the catholic apostolic church…. Here he has the daily bread of immortality, and his drink is the priceless blood of Christ.” Hugh’s quoting Isidore on the coot’s nesting habits at the end of his account seems a mere afterthought.

It’s not much of a sample, true, but it’s enough to convince me that the coot–in spite of its sinister plumage, its raucous voice, and its all too public boisterousness–managed to avoid darker associations in the exegetic literature. A quick glance at the bestiary tradition, which is after all based largely in those sources, finds the pattern surviving through the Middle Ages: no devils, no sinners, no heretics.

But now I wonder about the emblem books….


Other People’s Bird Books: Rogers and Vaurie

I don’t run across these once familiar slips very often anymore — they’ve become so rare that I don’t even remember what they were called.

I suspect that most of those not removed and destroyed in the process of library electronicificationalizing have been snatched by autograph collectors. This Firestone example, though, has survived to tell us a slender bit about one of New Jersey’s best-known birders.

I don’t know why Charles H. Rogers was reading and renewing Vaurie’s Birds of the Palaearctic Fauna. We do know, however, that he was reading with incredible care.

Rogers’s spidery hand appears in two laconic penciled notes on the rear pastedown of Volume I. They read

35 [almost entirely abraded or erased]






The lower note — “Sinkiang, 453, Sikang” — leads us to an apparent error in Vaurie’s description on page 453 of the geographic range of the bearded tit. Where the species account attributes the species to Sinkiang, the gazetteer and map in the volume’s appendix list Sikang. Whether this was a spelling mistake, a typographer’s goof, or a geographical misapprehension on Vaurie’s part, it is remarkable that Charles Rogers should have noticed something so relatively obscure as the mix-up of two contiguous Chinese provinces.


Rogers’s “541” takes us to the account of subspecific variation in the short-toed treecreeper. With a discreet question mark in the gutter, Rogers queries the description of intergradation between western megarhyncha and familiaris to its east. (Vaurie’s view still prevails, if HBW is a measure.)

The erased “35,” however, remains entirely inscrutable, with no discernible marks hinting at what Rogers might have found odd or objectionable in the entry for the bimaculated lark.

Apart from these notes, I have found one more instance of Rogers’s writing in the book. On page 381, he left a neat, firm check mark against the account for the bluethroat. No words, no numbers, no suggestion at all about what he meant to note or remember.

What could it have been?

It’s useful to remember that bird names in a book like Vaurie’s usually appear three times: once in the principal species account, of course, but also in the table of contents and in the index. And it is in the index that we find the error that provoked Rogers’s pencil.

There we find svecica (Luscinia, Motacilla) listed for page 382, which is in fact the second page of the species account, not the first. It’s a trivial error for a reader dealing with a printed book — just turn one page back — but I think it says a lot about Charles Rogers and his reading of Vaurie. Why he was reading so methodically, so pickily, I don’t know: I can’t find any evidence that Rogers ever reviewed Birds of the Palaearctic or that he ever cited it in any of his own publications.

But it is certain that he was reading close, whatever his motive.