Happy Birthday, Fontenelle Forest

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It’s one of my favorite places on earth. I learned to bird there, and I go back every spring — and whenever else I can — to catch up with the birds and the trees and the people I have been so fond of so long.

Rick at Fontenelle Forest

Fontenelle Forest was officially dedicated one hundred years ago this afternoon, when three thousand people gathered to celebrate this precious chunk of woodland just south of the largest city on the northern Great Plains.

The program began — perhaps inevitably — with a performance of Grieg’s “Morgenstimmung.” A certain Miss Hazel Silver then offered a piece less familiar to us (or at least to me) now, “The Hermit Thrush,” by F.S. Converse and Arvia MacKaye.

It seemed to be a voice of love/ That always had loved me… / My wandering love, lost yet forever heard.

Then came the afternoon’s prime attraction, a performance of Percy MacKaye’s “Sanctuary” with an epilogue specially composed for the occasion. MacKaye’s masque may have been short on dramatic tension, but its conservation message could not have been clearer — or more appropriate to the day.

 A compact, then… that when we go/ Forth from these gracious trees/ Into the world, we go as witnesses/ Before the men who make our country’s laws,/ And by our witness show/ In burning words/ The meaning of these sylvan mysteries:/ Freedom and sanctuary for the birds!

Those words still burn, and Fontenelle Forest, if it remains in hands wise enough to privilege conservation of a scarce resource over entertainment and spectacle, will keep its sylvan mysteries for another century to come.

Fontenelle forest

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The Laughing Tern

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Gull-billed Tern

On May 16, 1818, Wilhelm Schilling encountered a small flock of this handsome tern for the first time on German soil. He collected one, and did not see the species again until June 1819, this time three pairs on the island Lips; this time he collected all six. A few returned to Lips the next year, only to wind up themselves on their backs in Schilling’s specimen drawers. The next year, 1821, the species “was entirely absent from these localities,” which led Schilling and his colleague Ludwig Brehm to conclude that

this is a nomadic bird on the islands of the Baltic Sea, which breeds there only occasionally and in warm, dry years.

On examining Schilling’s specimens, Brehm recognized the bird as Montagu’s Sterna anglica and Wilson’s Sterna aranea — but he liked neither of those names, and so he gave it a new one, Sterna risoria.

Gull-billed Tern

Brehm explains the new species epithet as a translation of the name by which the bird was known on the island of Rügen, “kleine Lachmöwe,” the little laughing gull.

It has a loud call, similar to human laughter, sounding like hähä or hä, which in its many variations expresses the bird’s different moods. Schilling heard this call from those that he saw in May 1818. When he shot at one and missed, it climbed high into the air and seemed to want to mock the unhappy marksman with its laughter.

However suitable the name risoria, Brehm couldn’t, of course, just go around changing things to tease his friends. In fact, this species had already accumulated a considerable stock of synonyms by the time Brehm’s name was published in 1822; the earliest had been given it sixty years earlier by Linnaeus himself, Sterna nilotica, the Nile tern. 

But Brehm was not defeated. In 1830, he determined that the catch-all genus Sterna could profitably be split up, with the Gull-billed Terns occupying one of their own.He named the new genus Gelochelidon, the “laughing swallow.” 

Audubon g-b tern, octave ed.

Even today, not everyone understands Brehm’s genus name. I often hear it spoken, and even see it written, as if it were “Geochelidon,” a hypercorrection first made in print by the great German and Cuban ornithologist Juan Gundlach. Gundlach doesn’t explain himself, but I suspect that he, like some of our own contemporaries, thought of this elegant bird as a “ground tern” of sorts — after all, it doesn’t dive, and even by tern standards, this species spends a great deal of its time loafing on mud and gravel bars.

It doesn’t much matter. But getting the name wrong comes at a cost: the cost of the mental image of that lucky tern flying high over Schilling’s head, filling the skies above Rügen with the sound of triumphant laughter.  

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Gee, Officer!

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On June 3, 1903, Jonathan Dwight and Louis Bishop discovered a dozen red phalaropes near Monterey, California. They promptly started shooting.

Those secured before a maternal government interfered were assuming nuptial dress.

I would like to have been there that day.


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Three Centuries of Merinos

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Montbard, Daubenton

Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton was born three hundred years ago today in Montbard, where his statue looks down over the city from the park named for his cousin and colleague Buffon.

Daubenton’s accomplishments in natural history were considerable, his bibliography vast. Co-author of the first volumes of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, he was also the first director of the new National Museum, and Cuvier himself gratefully acknowledged Daubenton’s work in laying the foundations of comparative anatomy.

But today, more than two centuries after his death in 1799, Daubenton is best remembered for one thing: his connection to the merino sheep.

Montbard, Daubenton

Alongside his other duties, Daubenton spent the better part of three decades breeding merino rams with French ewes, hoping to produce a cross as hardy as the latter but with the fine, soft wool of the former. This was not a purely academic exercise. As Lacépède put it in Year X of the first Republic, with a nervous glance at England,

success would result in lifting the heavy yoke of foreign competition under which our own industries labor.

Similar political, scientific, and commercial interests led to the sheep crazes of the early nineteenth century. For a brief time in the United States, merino rams were fetching more than a thousand dollars at auction, and there was widespread fear that the country’s entire wool manufactory would collapse under the strain.

By then, though, Daubenton was at rest in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, leaving to future generations of scientists and natural historians a shining example of those qualities we all could use more of:

concentration, reflection, perseverance, the wise use of our time, and the unstinting application of our energies.


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“Whitestart”? Just Say No

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Painted redstart, Arizona, August

It matters no more to me than it does to the birds themselves what we call the warblers of the genus Myioborus. Names, after all, don’t signify in the same way as other words. Call these tropical flitters redstarts or whitestarts or falsestarts: each of those names is just as “good” and just as “bad” as the others.

Thus, the AOU check-list committee’s judgment on Proposal 2016-A-2 can go with equal appropriateness either way, retaining the traditional name “redstart” or adopting the neologism “whitestart.” It’s hard to get terribly exercised about onomastic housekeeping like this.

Common Redstart

But what does have my dander just the slightest bit up is the argument presented in the Proposal to make the change. It seems to go like this: the outer rectrices in Myioborus are white, not red; and

“start” of course is the modern English reflex of Middle English stert, Old English steort, tail of an animal.

Ergo, the vernacular name applied to Myioborus, with their flashy white tails, is a “misappropriation” that would “perpetuate ignorance.”

That’s not true at all (“of course”). “Start” hasn’t meant “tail” in English for more than six hundred years; if you don’t believe me, ask any other native speaker. The bird name “redstart” has been etymologically opaque for just as long. In other words, “redstart” doesn’t mean “red-tail” to any English-speaker; it refers, depending on which continent you spend most of your time on, to either a chunky chat or an active wood warbler. 

The Myioborus warblers are nothing if not active (whether they are wood warblers or not is a question for another day). Only naive pedantry can claim that their white tails disqualify them from redstartness. 





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