Thomas Henderson of Press, Wilson 1825

Thanks to the great generosity of our friend Judy, we are the trustees of eight volumes of Alexander Wilson‘s American Ornithology.

Wilson 1825


The first volume is dated 1808, but thanks to the bibliographic scholarship of Walter Faxon, we know that the this set in fact represents the “Ord reprint” 1824, plus the Supplement (Volume Nine) of 1825, which contains the first complete biography of the Father of American Ornithology.

All of the volumes are adorned with the bookplate of one Thomas Henderson of Press Castle. Thomas came from an Edinburgh banking family, and held the position of land tax commissioner in the 1830s; he seems to have devoted much of his attention to matters horticultural, and at one point supported a scheme for the “speedy increase” of beekeeping in Scotland.

Henderson married Elizabeth Mack on September 14, 1830. (And was obviously very forgiving of her severely malformed arms and hands.)

Screenshot 2015-06-17 18.02.23

Their son, Alexander Henderson (1831-1913), emigrated to eastern Canada in 1855, where he became a professional photographer. His equipment spent the forty years after Alexander’s death in a basement, until in the early 1950s

his grandson Thomas Greenshields Henderson, the only surviving descendant, spent a day carrying the boxes of negatives to the alley for the garbage collectors.

Happily for us, Wilson’s volumes did not share the same fate.

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Green Heron 1

It enlivens our summertime marshes with its dark beauty and its comical calls, but the green heron — the 2015 ABA Bird of the Year — has also been put to more practical use.

According to John Brickell, writing in his 1737 Natural History of North Carolina,

The Skin and Feathers calcin’d, stop Bleeding. The Grease eases pain of the Gout, helps Deafness, clears the sight, and is excellent bait to catch Fish with.

Economic ornithology at its finest.

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Get A Load o’This!

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Magee Marsh boardwalk

One of the biggest things about the Biggest Week is getting to run into old friends and new at every turn. Among many others, it was fun to get to see our Nebraska friend Phil, with whom I’d last birded in Arizona last summer.

Not much of a coincidence, of course, running into a birder at a birding site like Magee Marsh — but get this.

A few days ago, as we drove across Minnesota, I saw a red-winged blackbird perched on the back of a white-tailed deer. That struck me then, and strikes me now, as an unusual sight, and I asked whether anyone else had witnessed such a thing.

In response, an e-mail from Phil.

I saw your blog about a RWBB on the back of a [deer]…. Anyway, I have never seen this………until this year at Magee Marsh. When walking the boardwalk by the Maumee Bay Hotel, I saw a RWBB on the back of a deer. Got a photo of it just as it was taking off. Interesting that all the combined years that we have been birding that we would both have this first time experience at the same time. I assume that this might be somewhat regular behavior.

PHOTO BY PHIL SWANSON magee marsh, may 2015

Photograph: Phil Swanson

Astonishing. Thanks, Phil!

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Meanwhile, Audubon

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Audubon, cliff swallow

The history of the discovery and naming of the cliff swallow is as full of twists and turns as, well, a swallow’s flight.

And inevitably, John James Audubon had to get mixed up in it.

In 1824 — rather late in a game already won by Say and Rafinesque and Vieillot — Audubon submitted to the Lyceum of Natural History of New York a paper in which he, fairly unsubtly, claimed his own priority.

In the spring of 1815, I saw a few of these birds for the first time at Henderson, 120 miles below the falls of the Ohio, on the banks of that river. It was an excessively cold morning in the month of March, and nearly all were killed by the severity of the weather. I drew up at the time a description under the name of H[irundo] Republicana, Republican swallow, in allusion to their mode of association for the purposes of building and rearing their young.

Sadly enough, though,

the specimens, through the carelessness of my assistant [who?], were lost, and I despaired for years of meeting with them again,

and so Audubon’s name, which would otherwise have enjoyed priority, went unpublished.

Now things get interesting.

In the spring of 1819, Robert Best, the curator of the Western Cincinnati Museum, told Audubon about “a strange species of bird … building nests in clusters affixed to walls.”

In consequence of this information, I immediately crossed the Ohio, to Newport in Kentucky, where [Best] had seen those nests the preceding season [that is to say, 1818], and no sooner were we landed, than the chirrups of my long-lost little strangers saluted my ear.

Without so much as mentioning him, Audubon here pulls the rug out completely from under poor Rafinesque, who had described his Hirundo albifrons in February of 1822 — from specimens in the Museum of Cincinnati, taken “near Newport in Kentucky” or Madison, Ohio.

What Audubon’s account boils down to is the claim that he, Audubon, had been there first — in Henderson in 1815, in Newport and Cincinnati in 1819 — and most significantly, well before the famous meeting with Rafinesque in 1820. Audubon does not come out and exactly say that he introduced Rafinesque to the bird, but the implication is clear.

Bonaparte, America, cliff swallow

Audubon saved his explicit vitriol for another European colleague, Charles Bonaparte. In the addendum to his account of the species in the Ornithological Biography, he writes

Although the Prince of Musignano [Bonaparte] saw my original drawing, and read the account of the habits of this species in my Journal, as written on the spot, both at Henderson in Kentucky, in the spring of 1815, and again in the same state opposite Cincinnati, in the spring of 1819, and concocted his article on this bird from these sources, he has refrained from making any mention of these circumstances.

That’s not entirely fair: though Bonaparte fails to distinguish those places where he is copying Audubon verbatim from the passages based on his own observation, he does acknowledge his sources at the beginning of the account:

Mr. Dewitt Clinton has recently published a paper on the same subject, accompanied by some observations from Mr. Audubon. Combining what these gentlemen have made known with the information previously given by Vieillot and Say, we can present a tolerably complete history of the Cliff Swallow.

Justified or not, Audubon’s peevishness here is eloquent testimony to just how tangled the naming of the cliff swallow was — and how much it mattered to those involved.


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Crescent Swallows

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cliff swallow

Beautiful birds, such as these most indisputably are, deserve beautiful names, and it’s hard to imagine a label lovelier than Hirundo lunifrons, the crescent-fronted swallow.

Alas, we’re stuck nowadays with the prosaic cliff swallow and the hardly more evocative Petrochelidon pyrrhonota (“red-rumped rock swallow”). But it took us a good long time to get there.

It isn’t at all clear when this abundant and widespread swallow was first “discovered” by European science. According to Elliott Coues, this is the bird Forster published in 1772 as “Swallow No. 35,”

which answers in some particulars to the description of the Martin, Hirundo Urbica, Linn. but seems to be smaller and has no white on the rump.

Forster does report that these swallows nest under eaves and on riverside cliffs, but there is little else here to indicate that he is writing of the bird we know as the cliff swallow; you’d think he might have mentioned some of the salient plumage features of this well-marked species. As it is, I suspect, contra Coues, that the skin Forster received was that of a tree swallow. In any event, Forster goes on to note — tongue perhaps ever so slightly in cheek — that

the Indians say, they were never found torpid under water, probably because they have no large nets to fish with under the ice.

More than half a century later, in 1823, Thomas Say, working with specimens from near Canyon City, Colorado, gave the cliff swallow a detailed formal description and the Linnaean name Hirundo lunifrons, commemorating the bird’s “large white frontal lunule.”

That species name, lunifrons, “crescent-fronted,” made its way into the AOU Check-list in 1886, and persisted in that authoritative work for decades. In 1912, though, Samuel Rhoads obtained copies of two items published in the Kentucky Gazette by Samuel Rafinesque, one of them dated — fatally — February 14, 1822, a year earlier than the publication of Say’s account. Rafinesque reports that

There are two species of Swallows in Kentucky…. The second species I shall now describe and call it the Blue Bank-Swallow. I have given it the scientific name of Hirundo albifrons which means the Swallow with a white forehead. It is very remarkable by its unforked tail…. Its face or the space surrounding the bill is black, the forehead white, the top of the head blue; the cheeks, throat and upper part of the rump of a reddish chestnut colour, or rufous…. This bird is to be seen preserved with its nest in the Museum of Cincinnati.

Rhoads, obviously in fine fettle, comments:

it seems a bit humiliating for [the scientific name of the species] to be snatched from the laurel crown of Thomas Say and transferred, by the rights of priority, to a man whom he undoubtedly despised and certainly ignored. Say was one of the coterie of Philadelphia naturalists that eventually drove Rafinesque and his literary contributions from any recognition by the Academy of Natural Sciences…. That eccentric naturalist [Rafinesque] had stolen the march on all his contemporaries by a little squib in the Kentucky Gazette.

Five years after Rhoads’s discovery, the proposal was made to change the scientific name of the swallow to Petrochelidon albifrons albifrons, “since Rafinesque’s name is clearly identifiable as Hirundo (= Petrochelidon) lunifrons Say and is of earlier date.”

AOU 1931

The proposal was accepted, and the 1931 edition of the Check-list was the first to use the new old name.

And the last.

Beginning as early as the 1840s, beginning, it seems, with George Edward Gray’s Genera of BirdsEuropean ornithology had begun to use yet another name, Petrichelidon pyrrhonota. When in 1894 that name was preferred in Richard Bowdler Sharpe and Clyde E. Wyatt’s Monograph of the Hirundinidae, it was time — one might think — for the Americans to react.

Sharpe and Wyatt, Mon.Hir.

Not so fast.

In 1902, the AOU committee dismissed the name pyrrhonota, finding no “evidence to show that the change is necessary.” Not until 1944, fully fifty years after the name had been ratified by Sharpe and Wyatt, did the AOU finally accept pyrrhonota as both applying to this species and enjoying priority over lunifrons and albifrons alike.

What changed their mind was Charles Hellmayr’s footnote in the eighth volume of his Catalogue of Birds of the Americas. It was Louis Pierre Vieillot who coined the name pyrrhonota in 1817, taking his description from the Sonnini translation of Azara’s Apuntamientos. Hellmayr explains that

with the exception of the blackish lower belly [“le bas-ventre noir”] which may easily be construed as referring to the dusky under tail coverts, Azara’s description, upon which Vieillot’s name was based, is quite accurate.

Quite why it took so long to reach this conclusion is a mystery. Had no American ornithologist looked seriously at Azara and Vieillot? That seems hardly likely: we know, for example, that Robert Ridgway knew the 1817 description, and nevertheless accounted it “doubtful.” We can assume, too, that the AOU committees from 1886 to 1944 were conscientious bibliographers.

However it happened, I’m sorry in a way that we’re stuck — apparently for good this time — with the boring pyrrhonota. Say’s name lunifrons is evocative, romantic, beautiful.

Almost as much so as the bird itself.

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