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.


Sixtieth Supplement to the AOS’s Check-list

Yellow-thighed Brush Finch Chiriqui Panama

Atlapetes tibialis, Yellow-thighed Brush Finch

This is the first time in several years that I haven’t prepared a précis of the July Supplement to the Check-list — which doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few observations on some of the decisions reached there.

For whatever that’s worth.

Pink-footed Goose

Anser brachyrhynchus, Pink-footed Goose

It’s a big supplement this time, with lots of changes, and non-changes, to ponder. For listers — not that long ago a dying breed, but one revived by eBird — there is a handful of “splits” and, if a quick glance proves true, just a single “lump”; newly accepted records add five species to the United States list, a nice haul indeed.

The split most likely to draw the most attention is that of the old, polytypic white-winged scoter into three species, bringing the AOS list in line with most other taxonomic authorities. It’s a shame, though, that the English names weren’t rationalized, an easy enough task: instead of the velvet, Stejneger, and Degland Scoters, with “white-winged” remaining available for use as Sammelbegriff, we have the Velvet, the Stejneger, and the white-winged scoters, that last –long attached to Melanitta fusca — now the English name of M. deglandi. If the AOS Committee insists on dealing with English names at all, it really should start to abide by its own principle of avoiding the re-use of a broader name for a more narrowly defined taxon.

White-winged Scoter Degland Scoter

Melanitta delgandi, White-winged Scoter

The other big waterfowl news is the admission, even longer overdue, of the pink-footed goose to the US list. Birds seen in New England and the mid-Atlantic states are deemed wild, while reports from Colorado, Washington, and British Columbia “may also pertain to wild birds.” There is no mention here, however, of the individual photographed in south-central Nebraska in 2006, a bird considered to be of wild origin.

Sparrow people (aren’t we all?) will be interested to learn that Pselliophorus is no more and that the old yellow-thighed and yellow-green finches are now placed in Atlapetes and their English names changed to “brush finch” (or, in the AOS’s teutonicizing orthography, “brushfinch”).

The passerellids are also the beneficiary of a new linear sequence, beginning with the chlorospinguses and ending with the Atlapetes brush finches. (Oddly, the new list reproduced in the Supplement omits the yellow-thighed and yellow-olive brush finches, but it’s easy enough for the reader to just drop them in at the end.) Translating phylogenetic trees into vertical lists is a tricky business indeed, and I abandoned the effort about ten minutes in, preferring to just run down the right-hand edge of the tree generated by Klicka and colleagues five years ago. We should all be grateful that somebody else took the trouble.

Panama May 2007 116

Arremon brunneinucha, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch

The change that pleases me most, I suppose, is the restoration of an English name for the Brewer duck.

Brewer duck

Anas platyrhynchos Mareca strepera, Brewer Duck

This relatively frequent hybrid combination was described more than 180 years ago, but has languished in an appendix of the Check-list simply as Anas breweri. Giving this bird its English name back contributes to the standardization of the appendix entries, but more than that, it will return this duck to more birders’ mental horizons. Mark my word, we are about to see an explosion of sightings and reports of Brewer ducks around the country.

Things don’t really exist until we have a name for them.

As always, the updates the Committee has declined to undertake are at least as interesting as those it has carried through. The Harlan hawk remains a red-tailed hawk.

Harlan's hawk

The Melozone towhees and the Aimophila sparrows (whatever those happen to comprise this week) remain segregated.

Abert's Towhee

The vermiculated screech owl is still embedded within the Middle American screech owl (contra IOC), and the Cabanis violetear is still keeping company with the lesser violetear rather than the Mexican.

Middle American screech-owl vermiculated owl

A large number of proposed changes to English names not based on taxonomic reassessment have also gone unadopted. The proposal to rename the saltmarsh sparrow was correctly found to be utterly unmotivated.

saltmarsh sparrow

More surprisingly, and to my mind inappropriately, the proposal to change the English name of the McCown longspur to something less historically fraught also failed.

McCown's longspur

Several alternative names have been available for many decades, any one of which would have suited. This was a low-stakes matter for the committee–no code governs the assignment of English names–and the demurral disappoints, especially if, as I suspect, the rejection was grounded in some kind of slippery-slope fear. Others are likely to take this up now with greater vigor.

Harris Sparrow

And now the one everyone was waiting for. I understand that the vote was decidedly split, which perhaps bodes well for the near future.

For now, though, the beauty in the photograph above is “a Harris’s sparrow,” however barbarous the construction. I’ll bet you a shiny new Lincoln’s penny, maybe even a Kennedy’s half dollar, that we will soon be looking back on this decision as the beginning of the AOS’s appropriate and understandable deferral in the matter of English names to the people who actually use them, leaving the committee members to focus on what is after all their expertise and their purpose, evaluating the relationships and evolutionary history of birds.