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In his Birds of the Northwest of 1874, Elliott Coues recalled that

Some years since a great flight of Pigeons occurred near Washington, where for several days, in the fall, the woods were filled with the birds…. I once killed a specimen so newly from the nest as to cause me to believe that it had been hatched in the vicinity.

Coues does not tell his reader where that specimen ended up, but I think I know.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.

Coues collected this fresh juvenile Passenger Pigeon, aged by the “white crescentic edges of the feathers, especially on back and wings,” at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington on October 14, 1859. A quarter of a century later, Coues and his old field companion Webster Prentiss would recall that autumn as “the last large flight we remember” in the area.

The skin bore the number 450 in Coues’s personal cabinet, but somehow made its way into the famously vast collections of H.B. Tristram, where it was assigned the label 17066. It is not clear when Tristram acquired the skin, as the specimen is not identifiably listed in his 1889 Catalogue.

Tristram’s collection was purchased by the Liverpool Museum in 1896, and Coues’s pigeon resides there still.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.





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The New Big Sibley

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Is there anything that hasn’t already been said about the new, second edition of the Sibley Guide

Probably not, if we consider the book in its larger geographical context — but how does it hold up in your particular region?

Here are some recent thoughts on the new big Sibley and birding in southeast Arizona: (click on the text to see the full review)


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Categories : Book Reviews
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These days find us — some of us — remembering Pierre Belon, the greatest of French Renaissance natural historians, who was murdered by Counter-Reformationist thugs in the Bois de Boulogne 450 years ago this month. Belon’s Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, published in 1555 in Paris, remains one of the most valuable compilations of classical, medieval, and early modern ornithology around, well worth consulting whenever a historical question arises.

The introductory material includes a chapter titled “The chief marks available to us as characters by which to identify birds” — one of the earliest and most complete tracts on a subject that is at the heart of our hobby today. Writes Belon,

The bill and the feet are the principle characters indicated by the ancient authors as necessary to attend to when identifying and distinguishing birds.

But identification also profits from the observation of the birds’ habits:

We must also notice the differences in the birds’ housekeeping if we are to give them their correct names…. Some live by capturing prey … others live by eating only worms … others feeding on seeds and grains or thorny plants … and others catching ants and flies.

And we shouldn’t forget how important habitat is, for birds and birders alike:

There are those who dwell in wild places, unlike the birds that are always around people. Many birds keep to the mountains, others to the forests, others to rocky places.

Belon also reminds us that many birds exhibit seasonal movements:

There are several birds that habitually change their location: because of the great cold in the mountains, they come down in the winter to live on the fields, then return in the summer both to avoid the heat and to find food. Many also leave fresh water habitats in winter to take up residence on salt water since that does not freeze.

And others are “completely migratory”:

They have a certain time in the year for leaving one place and arriving in another, as if they had set a date…. The swallows, unable to withstand the winter here in Europe because of both the cold and the lack of suitable food, depart for Africa, Egypt, and Arabia, and find the winter there essentially like the summer here, and so have all they need to live by.

The wintertime strategies of swallows were still the subject of lively debate two and a half centuries later, but Belon and his sources had it right.

Belon is also ahead of his time in pointing out the importance to the ornithologist of a thorough knowledge of status and distribution:

Just as many birds are of necessity migratory, at the same time there are those that are unable to ever move from their home. For as one sees that some countries have forests in which unique tree species grow that are not found anywhere else, in the same way there are certain birds living in those areas that could not survive elsewhere even if one were to transport them.

It’s all very modern, isn’t it?

Categories : Famous Birders
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Bright Eyes

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Yellow-eyed Junco

Set your google search to Spanish, and you’ll probably come up with something bland but straightforward for this bird, something like Junco de ojos amarillos.

That’s just fine, but it doesn’t have quite the spark of the old Echa-lumbre. Recorded by Francis Sumichrast in Veracruz in the 1860s, the name

comes from the belief that this species’ eyes are phosphorescent in the dark.

I wouldn’t put anything past a junco myself.



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The sad result of having left a Canada Goose in the dryer too long:

Cackling Goose

British Columbia, October.

Categories : Information
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