Sep
22

The Harmless Owls of Egypt

By · Comments Comments Off on The Harmless Owls of Egypt

little owl Catalonia

Prospero Alpini writes:

Alexandria and Cairo have nearly as many owls as pigeons, and they fly around both day and night. I don’t believe that these owls hunt smaller birds as they do in Italy, as though they are quite commonly seen by day, the little birds pay them none of the startled attention that causes them to gather when they see an owl in Italy. Thus we failed more than once to capture small birds here, whereas in Italy we have often used an owl and birdlime to hunt birds with great success.

Share
Categories : Information
Comments Comments Off on The Harmless Owls of Egypt
Sep
17

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

By · Comments Comments Off on Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

Original descriptionFringilla melodia Wilson 1810

Taxonomic history at Avibase

Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list

AOU 1 (1886): Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata [fasciata]; Desert Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata fallax; Mountain Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata montana; Heermann’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata heermanni; Samuels’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata samuelis; Rusty Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata guttata; Sooty Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata rufina; Aleutian Song Sparrow, Melospiza cinerea

AOU 2 (1895): Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata [fasciata]; Desert Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata fallax; Mountain Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata montana; Heermann’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata heermanni; Samuels’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata samuelis; Rusty Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata guttata; Sooty Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata rufina; Brown’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata rivularis; Santa Barbara Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata graminea; San Clemente Song Sparrow, Melospiza fasciata clementae; Bischoff’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza insignis; Aleutian Song Sparrow, Melospiza cinerea

AOU 3 (1910): Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia melodia; Desert Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia fallax; Mountain Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia montana; Heermann’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia heermanni; Samuels’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia samuelis; Rusty Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia morphna; Sooty Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia rufina; Brown’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia rivularis; Santa Barbara Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia graminea; San Clemente Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia clementae; Dakota Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia juddi; Merrill’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia merrilli; Alameda Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia pusillula; San Diego Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia cooperi; Yakutat Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia caurina; Kenai Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia kenaiensis; Mendocino Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia cleonensis; Bischoff’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia insignis; Aleutian Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia sanaka; Suisun Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia maxillaris

AOU 4 (1931): Eastern Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia melodia; Atlantic Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia atlantica; Mississippi Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia beata; Dakota Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia juddi; Mountain Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia fallax; Modoc Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia fisherella; Merrill’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia merrilli; Kenai Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia kenaiensis; Yakutat Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia caurina; Sooty Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia rufina; Rusty Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia morphna; Mendocino Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia cleonensis; Samuels’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia samuelis; Suisun Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia maxillaris; Modesto Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia mailliardi; Alameda Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia pusillula; Heermann’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia heermanni; San Diego Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia cooperi; Santa Barbara Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia graminea; San Clemente Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia clementae; Coronados Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia coronatorum; Desert Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia saltonis; Brown’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia rivularis

AOU 5 (1957): Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia: Melospiza melodia melodia, Melospiza melodia atlantica, Melospiza melodia euphonia, Melospiza melodia juddi, Melospiza melodia montana, Melospiza melodia inexpectata, Melospiza melodia merrilli, Melospiza melodia fisherella, Melospiza melodia maxima, Melospiza melodia sanaka, Melospiza melodia amaka, Melospiza melodia insignis, Melospiza melodia kenaiensis, Melospiza melodia caurina, Melospiza melodia rufina, Melospiza melodia morphna, Melospiza melodia cleonensis, Melospiza melodia gouldii, Melospiza melodia maxillaris, Melospiza melodia samuelis, Melospiza melodia pusillula, Melospiza melodia mailliardi, Melospiza melodia heermanni, Melospiza melodia cooperi, Melospiza melodia micronyx, Melospiza melodia clementae, Melospiza melodia graminea, Melospiza melodia coronatorum, Melospiza melodia fallax, Melospiza melodia saltonis, Melospiza melodia rivularis

AOU 6 (1983): Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

AOU 7 (1998): Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern

Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works

Adult, subspecies melodia: Brown to faintly reddish brown tail feathers, the central pair with a dark shaft streak and, occasionally faint narrow bars; outer web of outermost rectrices paler brownish gray but never white. Rump and upper tail coverts gray-brown with blackish or brown streaking. Mantle and scapular feathers brown with black centers, lining up into streaks. Primaries and secondaries dull gray brown with paler edges, tertials black with broad brown edges and grayish tips. Greater coverts brown with large blackish teardrops and inconspicuously paler tips. Median coverts brown with dark brown centers and inconspicuous dull gray tips. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape brown-gray with variable brown streaking. Underparts white to off-white; faint buffy or gray wash on flanks. The wide jaw stripe and throat are dull buffy white, separated by a strikingly broad wedge-shaped or even triangular black lateral throat stripe; the throat is flecked dark. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with wide black streaks, the feathers edged in fresh plumage with rust. Under tail coverts and vent buff-white with brown streaks. Brown crown with narrow black streaks and black-streaked gray median crown stripe. Long, broad supercilium pale tan-gray, paler on the lore. Olive-gray ear coverts surrounded by narrow brown eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler pinkish brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies melodia: Buffier and less neatly marked above, the crown less regularly streaked than in adults. Creamy white to buffy underparts with narrower, messier streaking.

Length 146-150 mm (5.7-5.9 in)

Wing chord 65-67 mm (2.6 in)

Tail 64-67 mm (2.5-2.6 in)

W:T 1.04

Adult, subspecies rufina: Tail feathers dusky brown, the central pair with obscurely darker shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts dark dull rusty brown. Mantle and scapular feathers dark ashy brown with sooty streaks and very indistinct dark shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries dull dark brown, outer webs of tertials brighter rust. Greater coverts chestnut with large blackish teardrops. Median coverts dusky brown with dark brown centers. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape dark brown-gray with dusky streaking. Underparts dull gray; faint olive cast to flanks. The wide jaw stripe and throat are dull grayish white, separated by a broad wedge-shaped or even triangular sooty brown lateral throat stripe; throat flecked dark. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with molasses brown streaks, the feathers usually without darker shaft streaks. Under tail coverts and vent grayish white with brown streaks. Sooty brown crown with narrow black streaks and only a poorly defined median crown stripe. Brown-gray ear coverts surrounded by narrow dark brown eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies rufina: Less neatly marked above, the crown less regularly streaked than in adults. Buffier underparts with slightly narrower, messier streaking.

Length 145-160 mm (5.7-6.3 in)

Wing chord 67-72 mm (2.6-2.8 in)

Tail 64-70 mm (2.5-2.8 in)

W:T 1.03

Adult, subspecies cinerea: 

Length 181-188 mm (7.1-7.4 in)

Wing chord 81-85 mm (31.-3.3 in)

Tail 78-83 mm (3.0-3.3 in)

W:T 1.02

Adult, subspecies morphna: Tail feathers dark ruddy brown, the central pair with darker shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts deep rusty brown. Mantle and scapular feathers rusty olive with rusty streaks and indistinct black shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries dark brown, outer webs of tertials rusty. Greater coverts dark rust with large blackish teardrops. Median coverts dark rust with dark brown centers. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape dark rusty with dusky streaking. Underparts olive-gray. The wide jaw stripe and throat are yellowish gray, separated by a broad brown lateral throat stripe. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with chestnut streaks, the feathers usually without darker shaft streaks. Under tail coverts and vent dull gray-white with brown streaks. Dark rusty crown with narrow black streaks and variably conspicuous gray median crown stripe. Rust-brown ear coverts surrounded by narrow dark chestnut eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies morphna: Less deep rusty and less neatly marked above, with blackish mantle streaking. Slightly whiter, buff-washed underparts with less well-organized and less vividly brown streaking.

Length 150-153 mm (5.9-6.0 in)

Wing chord 65-68 mm (2.6-2.7 in)

Tail 63-66 mm (2.5-2.6 in)

W:T 1.03

Adult, subspecies fallax: Tail feathers pale rusty brown, the central pair with darker shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts pale rusty brown. Mantle and scapular feathers pale brown-gray with reddish-brown streaks and no or very inconspicuous black shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries brown, outer webs of tertials rustier. Greater coverts pale rust with mid-sized blackish teardrops. Median coverts pale rust with darker centers. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape gray-brown with dusky streaking. Underparts white. The wide jaw stripe and throat are white, separated by a narrow, sometimes incomplete chestnut lateral throat stripe; throat flecked brown. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with fairly sparse rusty streaks, the feathers usually without darker shaft streaks. Under tail coverts and vent white with sparse rusty streaks. Pale rusty crown with narrow brown streaks and variably conspicuous whitish median crown stripe. Pale rusty ear coverts surrounded by narrow, slightly darker eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies fallax: Less rusty and less neatly marked above, with brown streaking on buffy-brown mantle. Buff-washed underparts with sparse pale-brown streaking.

Length 140-146 mm (5.5-5.7 in)

Wing chord 64-67 mm (2.5-2.6 in)

Tail 66-69 mm (2.6-2.7 in)

W:T 0.97

Adult, subspecies cleonensis: Tail feathers rusty olive, the central pair with darker shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts deep rusty olive. Mantle and scapular feathers dark olive-brown with dark chestnut and brown streaks and black shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries brown, outer webs of tertials rustier. Greater coverts brown with mid-sized blackish teardrops. Median coverts olive-brown with darker centers. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape gray-brown with dusky streaking. Underparts with strong yellow-olive wash. The wide jaw stripe and throat are olive-white, separated by a broad black lateral throat stripe. Breast, sides of breast, and flanks with heavy dark chestnut streaks, the feathers with darker shaft streaks. Under tail coverts and vent yellow-oilve with sparse streaks. Dull rusty crown with narrow black streaks and variably conspicuous gray-olive median crown stripe. Brown ear coverts surrounded by narrow, black eye line and whisker. Bill dark above, paler brown below; tarsi and toes dull brown.

Juvenile, subspecies cleonensis: Less neatly marked above, with brown streaking on buffy-olive mantle. Yellow-washed underparts with sparse  darkbrown streaking.

Length 137-138 mm (5.4 in)

Wing chord 59-62 mm (2.3-2.4 in)

Tail 58-60 mm (2.3-2.4 in)

W:T 1.03

Share
Comments Comments Off on Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
Sep
17

Striped Sparrow, Oriturus superciliosus

By · Comments Comments Off on Striped Sparrow, Oriturus superciliosus

Image result for striped sparrow biologia centrali-americana

Original descriptionAimophila superciliosa Swainson 1838

Taxonomic history at Avibase

Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list

AOU 6 (1983): Striped Sparrow, Oriturus superciliosus

AOU 7 (1998): Striped Sparrow, Oriturus superciliosus

IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern

Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works

Adult, subspecies superciliosus: Blackish tail feathers edged and faintly tipped with light brown-gray, most clearly on the outer pair. Central tail feathers more extensively olive or olive-brown, the black reduced to a broad shaft streak and coarse jagged barring. Rump and upper tail coverts blackish brown with contrasting silvery gray edges. Mantle and scapular feathers rusty with broad but well-defined black shaft streaks, pale edgings creating scaled appearance. Primaries dull gray with paler gray edges, secondaries rusty, tertials black with broad brown edges and off-white tips. Greater coverts rusty with blackish inner vane and inconspicuous dull white edges and tips, creating faint wing bar. Median coverts largely black with inconspicuous dull white tips, creating very faint wing bar. Nape pale gray with fine black streaking. Underparts dull gray-white to off-white, whitest on belly; faint buffy wash on flanks. Under tail coverts, vent, and flanks with fine dusky streaks of variable extent. Chestnut, black-streaked crown with paler black-streaked median stripe. Long, broad supercilium off-white, buffier on supraloral. Lore, long eye line, area immediately beneath the eye, and ear coverts black, the last finely streaked white; fine white crescent below eye. Large bill black, tarsi and toes pale dull pink.

Adult, subspecies palliatus: Paler overall, with more reddish upperparts. Central tail feathers gray, the black reduced to a broad shaft streak and coarse jagged barring.

Juvenile: Underparts buffier; lower throat, upper breast, and sides of breast narrowly streaked dusky.

Length 155-162 mm (6.1-6.4 in)

Wing chord 76-79 mm (3.0-3.1 in)

Tail 67-70 mm (2.6-2.8 in)

W:T 1.13

Mass 37-41 g

Share
Comments Comments Off on Striped Sparrow, Oriturus superciliosus
Sep
04

A Longspur Postscript

By · Comments Comments Off on A Longspur Postscript

The would-be type of Audubon’s Smith bunting provides a troubling example of how specimen data can be corrupted in the chain of publication.

We know from Audubon himself that he saw this species alive only once, in 1820, when he failed to secure a specimen. Not until 1843 did he handle specimens in the United States, when birds collected in southern Illinois were brought to him in St. Louis; the specimens had been secured by John G. Bell and Edward Harris, not by Audubon, who stayed in the city during his companions’ two-week excursion.

Nevertheless, with two of those skins on the table before him, Spencer Baird credited one to Audubon as collector — no doubt less a case of flattery (Audubon had been dead six years when Baird et al. published their Birds) than a poor solution to the difficulty of fitting all of the provenance information into the specimen chart.

More puzzlingly still, that skin, the single Bell/Harris example of the species apparently remaining at the Smithsonian, is now listed in the NMNH database as collected by Baird and received from Audubon — and deprived of its true date (April 1843), its true locality (Illinois, Madison County, near Edwardsville), and its true age (most certainly not a juvenile).

Innocent errors all, and no doubt easily resolved with another look at the specimen labels, but still a bizarre and instructive case of téléphone arabe in the history of ornithology.

Share
Comments Comments Off on A Longspur Postscript
Sep
03

Smith’s Painted Buntling

By · Comments Comments Off on Smith’s Painted Buntling

There are but few things I miss from those long-ago years in Urbana, and this clown-faced calcariid is one of them.

Like clockwork, end of March every year we would get out and walk the foxtail-choked stubble of last year’s corn, and there they were — the first northbound Smith longspurs of the spring.

There was an extra piquancy to finding these birds in our neighborhood, as the first individuals ever met with by western scientists in the US had been found not all that far away, in southern Illinois, in April 1843, as Audubon’s last expedition was preparing to leave St. Louis for the upper Missouri.

Edward Harris and John G. Bell, Audubon’s New Jersey patron and his hired preparator, respectively, had left the old man in the city and set off for the prairies to the northeast, where they busied themselves for two weeks exploring and collecting. Bell reported that they had found an unfamiliar bird “very abundant,”

generally in large flocks, and when on the ground began at once to scatter and divide themselves, rendering it difficult for us to shoot more than two at one shot; they run very nimbly….

Harris and Bell were up to the challenge, though, and eventually secured “several specimens,” two of which made their way into the Smithsonian collections (first, it seems, as personal gifts from Audubon to Spencer Baird) and one of which apparently remains there (it is impossible to reconcile the locality and age information provided in the electronic specimen record with what Baird says of the skin).

Audubon did not recognize the little dead finches, either, and he published them as representing a new species, the Smith lark-bunting, Plectrophanes Smithii. The name honored his “good friend Gideon B. Smith, Esq., M.D.,” the entrepreneurial entomologist whom Audubon had visited in Baltimore at the start of his 1843 voyage.

The practiced eye will have noticed in that last paragraph that while Smith is still commemorated in the bird’s official English name, he goes unmentioned in the current scientific name, Calcarius pictus (“painted spur-bird“). This not uncommon circumstance — have a look at the hawk and the sparrow named for Edward Harris, to take two well-known examples — typically arises when a competing scientific name is found to have priority only after the English name has attained currency; it’s no surprise in North American ornithology that Audubon, a powerful voice and a not always careful bibliographer, is so often prominent in these stories.

In the case of the longspur, it is entirely understandable that Audubon and his companions in St. Louis overlooked the fact that the species had been published and named more than a decade earlier. William Swainson’s handsome lithograph of a single male shot on the banks of the Saskatchewan River in April 1827  (the specimen once in the collections of the Zoological Society of London, but now apparently lost) was completed in 1829; the formal description and name, Emberiza picta, were published in the volume dated 1831 of the Fauna boreali-americana.

Smith longspur 1827 specimen

Swainson’s lithograph, the first image above, shows the bird in all its springtime glory, but Bell and Harris were less fortunate. Though these longspurs can be quite bright indeed as they pass through Illinois, Audubon’s plate, the second above, shows that his companions encountered, or at least shot, only females or males still early in their pre-alternate molt. Though Audubon’s use of the name “lark-bunting” suggests that he may have recognized the novum as somehow longspurrish, there is really no reason to expect that he, Harris, and Bell should have recognized their smudgy brown birds as identical to the dapper badger-faced creature from Carlton House.

Audubon painted bunting Smith longspur plate 400

And that in spite of the fact that Audubon himself had experience, in the field and in the hand, with Swainson’s “painted buntling.” (Extra credit, by the way, if without benefit of google you can identify the tail in Audubon’s image.) To prepare his plate for the Birds of America, Audubon borrowed the original Saskatchewan skin of “this handsome species” from the Zoological Society. Examining the specimen in the 1830s, he was reminded of something he had seen himself on the wintertime prairies:

That the Painted Bunting at times retires far southward, probably accompanying the Lapland Longspur, is a fact for which I can vouch, having seen one on the shore of the Mississippi in December 1820, which however I missed on wing after having viewed it about two minutes, as it lay flat on the ground.

Though is not entirely unheard of for male Smith longspurs to appear in breeding aspect in early winter, Audubon was certainly fortunate to witness the phenomenon — and to remember it so clearly nearly two decades later.

The phantom from Illinois survived in the scientific literature for the better part of a decade, listed on Audubon’s authority as distinct from the Swainsonian picta by no less than George Robert GrayJean Cabanis and Charles Bonaparte.

Baird et al. 1858 Smith longspur

Sometime in the 1850s, it was somehow determined that Audubon’s Illinois bird — the longspur he named for Smith — was in fact simply the “immaturely marked” plumage of Swainson’s painted buntling. Whatever debate and discussion may have taken place seems to have gone on behind the published scenes, but the ever so slight broadening of the specimen record available to Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway may have helped: the two Robert Kennicott skins (neither of which I can find in an NMNH search) bracket the migration of the species through the Mississippi Valley, and I assume (dangerous thing, that) that they provided the points of triangulation to finally confirm the identity of the earlier Illinois specimens.

Smithsonian Smith longspur 1858 specimens

It was Baird and his collaborators who struck the nomenclatural compromise by recognizing the priority of Swainson’s picta/us but retaining Audubon’s vernacular tribute to Gideon Smith. We should continue to think of the good doctor whenever we see this species, but I hope that next time we run into one — on the breeding grounds or on migration through a chilly midwestern field — we try to remember, too, that it took years of effort by some of the century’s most important ornithologists to figure out that two species were in fact only one.

 

Share
Comments Comments Off on Smith’s Painted Buntling

 Subscribe in a reader

Nature Blog Network