The 2018 ABA Bird of the Year Stinks

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Merrem Iiwi

The stunningly scarlet and black iiwi was the first endemic Hawaiian landbird known to European science: it was the first to be drawn by a European — in 1778, by John Webber aboard Captain Cook’s Resolution — and the first to be formally described — two years later, by Georg Forster.

Forster, who had accompanied his father on Cook’s second voyage, was professor of natural history at Kassel when the German sailor Barthold Lohmann brought him the type specimen — now lost — of what Forster named the “carmine treecreeper.” A testimony to the considerable excitement with which discoveries from the South Seas were welcomed, Forster’s description appeared in print a scant three months after Cook’s ships arrived, without the late Cook himself, in London.

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Most of the bird skins from the voyage remained in Britain, but as early as December 1780, Forster had seen no fewer than three specimens of his Certhia coccinea, well justifying his claim that the bird was “decidedly common” in its native range. Indeed, the expedition’s surgeon, William Anderson, recorded “great numbers of skins” of this species offered up for sale by the Hawaiian natives,

often tied up in bunches of 20 or more, or [with] a small wooden skewer run through their nostrils.

Forster’s type was apparently one of those that had been tied rather than skewered, as he describes in detail the characteristic operculum covering the nostrils.

The Hawaiians, it turns out, had not collected all those iiwis just to please their European guests.

Blumenbach Iiwi

In Forster’s words, the natives of Hawaii

make ornaments and various articles of clothing using the feathers of this bird, which must be extraordinarily abundant there given that such items are not at all rare. Mostly, capes are thoroughly covered with feathers, but the young women also wear necklaces, as thick as a thumb, made entirely of such feathers. For ceremonial dances, they weave as many of seven of these bands around their heads…. Barthold Lohmann … has donated one of these necklaces to the royal museum here [in Kassel].

But what exactly were, in the systematic sense, these birds that gave their brightly colored feathers and their lives to the lush beauty of Hawaiian featherwork? Forster in his original description

had no hesitation in assigning this new species [Gattung] of bird to a place among the treecreepers….

He considered and rejected the possibility of affiliating his new bird to a more exotic group:

Only its bill shape suggests any connection to the birds of paradise, in that it is bent like a scimitar, but shows not a sharp culmen, as in the other treecreepers, but a convex culmen. Incidentally, in the collections of the Landgrave of Hessen’s natural history museum, I have had the opportunity to discover that there are both curve-billed and straight-billed species [Gattungen] in the family [Geschlecht] of birds of paradise…. Already on my trip around the world I noted similar variation among other species [Gattungen], without feeling myself justified in increasing the number of families [Geschlechter]. A treecreeper from Tongatapu has fleshy wattles or beards… and two further species from New Zealand… are distinctive for their stronger, longer feet, just like the one [namely, the iiwi] lying before me.

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John Latham was of the same opinion, retaining the species in the genus Certhia in his 1790 account; inexplicably, Latham took it upon himself to replace Forster’s perfectly good epithet coccinea with vestiaria (“of clothing”), an invalid alteration that would nevertheless give rise to a widely used genus name for the iiwi. Even as late as 1820, Louis-Pierre Vieillot agreed that the “eee-eve” (another example of the great French ornithologist’s struggles with written English) was simply the representative of “a different tribe” of treecreepers found in the South Pacific.

There were competing taxonomic assessments, though. Blasius Merrem reported finding a specimen in the museum at Göttingen (kept there with a fine example of featherwork) labeled with the name “Red Humming-Bird.” Merrem moved the erstwhile treecreeper into the genus Mellisuga, erected in 1760 by Mathurin Brisson for the vervain hummingbird; in 1783, Joseph Märter shifted it into another Brissonian hummingbird genus, Polytmus. 

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The most influential early recognition that the iiwi was not a close Certhia relative (and indeed not a hummingbird, either) came in 1820, when Coenraad Jacob Temminck described the genus Drepanis on the basis of the now extinct Hawaii mamo; his new genus also included the iiwi.

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Today, following a suggestion first offered by R.C.L. Perkins in 1893, the iiwi and its finch-like Hawaiian relatives are recognized as a close assemblage within the “winter finch” subfamily Carduelinae. Support for grouping them together is provided by a range of shared features, including similarities in plumage, musculature, tongue structure, nostril structure, and vocalizations.

And smell. Odor. Scent. Aroma. Fragrance. Stench.

Shaw and NOdder Iiwi 1791

Perkins was the first western scientist

to notice the scent emitted by so many and so different species of Hawaiian birds. I cannot liken this scent to any other that I know; but I should certainly call it disagreeable.

It was in fact “the peculiar odour” like that of mildewed canvas that first led Perkins to conclude that the thin-billed and the thick-billed Hawaiian honeycreepers belonged to one and the same family. The smell, apparently produced by the uropygial gland, is said to be so strong that it contaminates the feathers of birds placed in the same museum drawer with honeycreepers, and traces of the odor can be transferred from specimen to specimen by the hands of researchers.

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Which raises a question, I think. Heinrich Zimmermann, Cook’s coxswain on the third voyage, noted that one only rarely saw the red feathered cloaks and capes worn, which led him to believe that their use must be largely restricted to religious ritual. I wonder, though, if perhaps, for all their visual splendor, they weren’t just too smelly.

The iiwi is the 2018 Bird of the Year of the American Birding Association


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Down the Shore

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New Jersey December

Not much danger of that these frigid days in New Jersey.

Barnegat Light December

This week found us visiting Sally and Shelby on Long Beach Island, an early New Years celebration and a chance to do a little bit of truly coastal birding: there’s nothing east of that barrier beach than lots of ocean and Portugal.

It’s been cold here recently, and yesterday afternoon’s winds were ferocious as we walked out the beach to see the ducks at Barnegat Light.

Barnegat Light December

The sand was in constant restless motion, creating miniature dunescapes behind every shell and little rise and intent, it seemed, on erasing everything out there, living or dead.

Barnegat Light December

This ill-fated red-breasted merganser was still on top of the sand when we walked past it on our way out to the water. Not quite as much, though, on our return.

Barnegat Light December

Believe it or not, this was the first (reasonably) fresh merganser I’d ever seen in (more or less) the flesh, and it was fascinating to get an in-hand look at a bird familiar but often stand-offish.

Barnegat Light December

Most wondrous of all was the tongue, big and fleshy and lined with recurved barbs nearly as stout as the sawteeth on the bill.

Barnegat Light December

We finally committed the bird back to its sandy grave and turned to search for live ducks. The small common eider flock — a feature of Barnegat Light for, what, nearly twenty winters now — held three bright peach-breasted, green-headed drakes, and closer to the jetty, five or so harlequins fed with long-tailed ducks and Atlantic brant while common and red-throated loons fished the inlet. The best bird of the day by far, though, was a lovely little Ipswich sparrow playing around in the rocks, a find that almost — just barely almost — made us forget the howling, grit-laden wind scouring our faces as we returned to the car.

Barnegat Light December

Today dawned just as cold, but the wind was down to a breeze, and when the sun burned away the early clouds, it was a beautiful winter’s morning. We devoted it to the southern tip of the island, nearly deserted in the cold but for birds.


Photo by Sally

Sanderlings played on the water’s edge, and vast rafts of greater scaup and smaller numbers of black and surf scoters gathered just offshore. Passerines were scant, though they included half a dozen myrtle warblers and, hurray, two Ipswich sparrows perched up in the bayberry.

And there were owls.

New Jersey December

We walked the edge of the dunes rather less than a mile south from the parking area, seeing three different snowy owls up on the sandy expanse.

New Jersey December

At least two more were farther down towards the inlet, according to the few other brave birders we ran into. But even if it was warmer than yesterday, it was still not exactly warm, and after drinking our fill of the great white birds, we turned back to lunch, leaving the owls to look over the frozen bay and dream, no doubt, of their own.


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Fun With Falcons

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American kestrel

Winter is falcon season here in northern New Jersey, when our resident peregrines are joined by migrants of that same species, merlins, and American kestrels. For the most part, these fierce little bird-eaters manage to stay out of each other’s way. But not always.

Wednesday dawned dim and dull, and that was pretty much how I felt that morning while I sat in the Trader Joe’s parking lot waiting for something to be bought that should have been bought the day before. Things brightened considerably, though, when I saw a merlin powering in from the south; the bird paused briefly, then knocked a small passerine — a house finch or a house sparrow — out of the sky. Suddenly a peregrine appeared, probably a local bird from the Highway 3 bridge. Distracted, the merlin chased the bigger bird, which wheeled to defend itself. Wisely, and uncharacteristically, the merlin opted for the better part of falconid valor and sped off, while the peregrine turned a leisurely victory circle before sailing back towards the east. That little bit of feathered breakfast is probably still lying, uneaten, on the roof of the Ticktock Diner.

This morning’s show, though less dramatic, was far more puzzling. The monk parakeet nest at Mill Creek Marsh had a bird perched atop it when I arrived — not a parrot, though, but a little male American kestrel. As I watched, the kestrel fluttered down twice to briefly perch at what I assume were two separate entrances to the mass of sticks; apparently finding no one at home, or at least no one in reach of those tiny talons, he swooped back to the marsh and started to harry the much bigger female kestrel that may or may not wind up sharing the winter territory with him. When I checked again half an hour later, two parakeets were perched next to the nest — but not on it — and it wasn’t hard to imagine the green birds worrying just a little bit that there might be a feathered fury waiting for them inside.

Was the kestrel really hoping to snag a parakeet? (Hats off to his ambition if so.) Or was he simply exploring, perhaps having caught a mouse-like rustling from inside? Or did the chance of finding some warmth in that bushel of tightly packed twigs and branches exercise another appeal on a chilly fall morning?


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A Ross Goose in Oregon!

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Seventy-two years ago today, northeast Oregon’s first record of the sweet little Ross goose was obtained when I.S. Surber shot a juvenile in Wallowa County. Reporting on the remarkable find, Stanley Jewel noted that

recent known occurrences of the Ross Goose outside of its regular winter range have been few and far between and should be placed on record.

Fast forward three quarters of a century: How many counties in the United States have not recorded the species?

How things change — and sometimes for the better, at least from the point of view of certain tiny white geese.

Ross's Goose

(The photo is from central New Jersey — ho hum, almost.)

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Martin Luther, Bird Conservationist

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On the five hundredth birthday of what one has come to think of as the start of the Reformation, a letter from the birds of Wittenberg to Martin Luther:

We, the Thrushes, Blackbirds, Finches, Linnets, Goldfinches, and all other righteous and honorable Birds wishing to migrate over Wittenberg this autumn beg to inform you that as we have ourselves been credibly informed, a certain Wolfgang Seyberger, your servant,  has undertaken to purchase several old worn-out nets at considerable expense, in his great hatred and anger at us, in order to create a finch trap, to deprive not only our dear friends the Finches but all of us of our God-given freedom to fly through the air and to collect seeds from the ground, and that he is plotting against our lives, though we have caused him no harm and done nothing to merit such severe and ill-considered actions on his part.

Because all of that is, as you yourself can imagine, poses a great and dangerous burden to us poor free Birds, who have neither houses nor barns and no possessions, our humble and amiable plea to you is that you will discourage your servant from such presumptuous actions, and if that is not possible, then urge him to spread grain on the ground for us in the evening and then to stay away from the trap before eight in the morning, so that we can elude him.

If he refuses, then we shall pray to our Lord God that his traps capture nothing but flies, midges, and slugs, and that at night he is so plagued by mice, fleas, lice, and bedbugs that he forgets us entirely and does not deprive us of freedom and flight.

Why does he not direct his wrath and efforts against Sparrows, Swallows, Magpies, Jackdaws, Crows, Mice, and Rats, which do harm you by stealing and robbing wheat, oats, barley, and so on from the buildings? We do not do this, but merely seek tiny crumbs and single dropped seeds. We submit our case to all righteousness and reason to determine whether it is not unjust that we are so severely persecuted by him. We hope to God that as so many of our brothers and friends have escaped him this fall that we too can fly through his lax and rotting nets that we saw yesterday.

Given this day at our sky seat in the trees and under our common seal of feathers.

Suppose Luther showed this letter to Seyberger?

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