The ruins of the Etruscan city of Vulci are one of my favorite sites on our Birds and Art tours of Tuscany. We wander among the temples and tombs, the palaces and the privies, while hoopoes, crested larks, and cheerful little Italian sparrows go about their own feathered business on the fields and forest edges.


We aren’t the first to have noticed that a visit to Vulci combines art, archaeology, and nature in an especially exciting way. The signs directing drivers to the visitor center feature one of the site’s most “desirable” birds, the golden oriole.

Or maybe not. Maybe not quite.


“A” for effort indeed, but we smile each time, and wonder what the ornithologist son of Vulci’s nineteenth-century owner Lucien Bonaparte might have thought.

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Jean Miélot

If there’s one indisputable thing to be said about the authors of the Middle Ages, it is that they were all liars.

Not — most of them, at least — in the important things. But scan through any medieval florilegium, any scholarly compilation or commentary, any commonplace book, and you’ll see:

Often as not, the quotes are misattributed.

Can’t remember quite who first made the point you want to repeat? Well, let’s just say it was, oh, Augustine. Need a weighty authority for an aphorism that you overhead at supper last week? Take Aristotle, he’s easy. Especially happy with a formulation that came to you out of the blue? It’s more likely to be remembered and recited if you credit it to Abelard, Ambrose, or Aquinas.

Parchment is patient.

With all those centuries of sloppy citation behind us, you’d think it wouldn’t bother me to see the same thing on the internet, again and again and again. But it does. Because it’s so easy now not to make the same mistakes, again and again and again, I find myself throwing up my e-hands in disbelief more than ever.

Wikimedia commons

The one that has been driving me crazy lately is the absurd assertion that we owe the name of the demoiselle crane to — get this — Marie Antoinette.

Alas, this “fun fact” is neither fun nor factual. It’s a lie. And it requires neither erudition nor much bibliographic expertise to figure that out.

The one who would be queen was born November 2, 1755, in Vienna. A quick look at the dictionary, though, tells us that the English name “demoiselle” is at least 68 years older, first appearing in print in the translated account of the dissection of six of the birds at Paris.

Screenshot 2015-11-09 10.31.50The original French-language report had been published in 1676. That text, printed three years before the birth of Marie’s paternal grandfather the Duke of Lorraine, calls the birds “demoiselles,” and even explains the unusual name’s origin:

This bird is so called for certain behaviors that seem to mimic the gestures of a woman who affects a certain gracefulness in her gait, her compliments, and her dancing. This resemblance must be said to have some rational basis: for more than two thousand years now, the authors who have described this bird have given it names that reflect this peculiar habit of imitating the gestures and attitudes of humans.

The Linnaean binomial, coined when the princess was less than three years old, translates the French “demoiselle” into the Latin virgo. The “type” for Linnaeus’s description was provided by the famous painting by George Edwards.

Screenshot 2015-11-09 11.35.06

Edwards had drawn the bird from a living specimen in June 1748, noting carefully at the bottom of the sheet that

the Numidian Crane [is] called in French Demoiselle….

Marie Antoinette would be born seven and a half years later.

This demoithelle (that’s French for “little myth”) was an easy one to bust. It will be more difficult, I suspect, to find out who first put the words in a French queen’s mouth. But it won’t be impossible.

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The famous Strasbourg naturalist and collector Jean Hermann was also a dedicated bibliophile. His personal library — eventually the foundation of the library of the Strasbourg Museum of Natural History and now in large part held in the university library of the city — was notable for its completeness and for the care with which he annotated the books, many of them in great and obsessive detail.

Hermann’s copy of the Pomeranian ornithologist Jacob Theodor Klein’s Prodromus is disappointingly clean. A Latin note on the flyleaf, though, reveals his bibliographic sophistication:

the images are missing in the German edition of Reyger, though that is the more authoritative text of the two, so much so that it is worth acquiring both editions.

Among those engravings are some of the most uncanny images in the history of ornithological illustration. This one in particular, depicting the early steps in the dissection of a Bohemian waxwing, strikes me as the inspiration for a fine costume for Halloween.

Screenshot 2015-10-27 11.18.13


A Frightening Bird

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Getting into the Halloween spirit over at the VENT blog today.

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Plus ça change

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On October 23, 1896, Frank L. Burns “secured” the first Henslow’s sparrow he had ever encountered in his home state of Pennsylvania.

henslow's sparrow, Fuertes

Burns didn’t shoot it. He didn’t net it or trap it. He didn’t even pick it up from under a plate glass window.

A large black and white cat was seen along the fence of a pasture field, with something in her mouth…. It proved to be an [adult Henslow’s sparrow] in excellent plumage, with the exception of the primaries and secondaries, which were scarcely three-fourths grown. This, together with its extreme fatness, rendered it an easy victim to tabby.

We know that Burns skinned the bird. The fate of the cat is less certain.


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