Dialogue in the Drawers

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If you’re not already crazy, thinking hard about Passerculus sparrows will drive you there fast.

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The only consolation: greater spirits than ours have been confused by these streaky devils.

Robert Ridgway corrected the labels of the co-types of the San Benito sparrow to read “P. guttatus Lawr.!”

I assume it was the explanation point that rankled. In any event, not long thereafter, Elliott Coues corrected his corrector, adding beneath Ridgway’s notation the words “Scarcely! stet sanctorum–C.”

I don’t know whether the two actually ever sat down to talk about those skins. But each had made his point, loud and clear.

 

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Crescent Swallows

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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Boreal Bells?

Seton, boreal owls

I’ve still never seen a boreal owl. For that very reason, I’ve spent an awful lot of time listening hard to recordings of the song. I even, for a while, and to the occasional consternation of my field companions, used that slow liquid tremolo as the notifier on my mobile cellular telephone.

Such things are called “ring tones,” a linguistic relic from the way-back days when phones jangled. But I can assure you, the song of the boreal owl sounds nothing like a bell. Not like a jingle bell or a sleigh bell or a church bell or a desk bell or a school bell.

Or does it?

I ran across this when I was — naturally — looking for something else.

Linnaeus assigned it the scientific name Aegolius funereus for its mournful cry, like the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.” Actually the call of the Boreal Owl is a sharp and chipper “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO!” in the same rhythm and pace as a winnowing snipe — Linnaeus may have been influenced more by folklore than careful observation.

I’m gratified to find the author agreeing with my assessment of the bird’s unbell-like song: while I might have used different adjectives, the transliteration works for my ear and mind. But what about all that stuff surrounding it? Is big bad Linnaeus really to blame for this, too?

Nope.

A good first clue is how un-Linnaean that phrase “the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bill” is — not to mention the fact that it is in English. It’s easy enough, too, to figure out that the great Swede named the species not for its voice but for its somber plumage; the diagnosis in the Systema naturae — which, by the way, does not use the name Aegolius at all, as Kaup would not erect that genus for another 70 years — is limited entirely to the bird’s appearance:

Linnaeus 1758 boreal owl

Neither in the Systema nor in the Fauna svecica does the taxonomer adduce any sort of “folklore” about this species: instead, the latter work informs us, the description relies on a painting — one assumes that it was a silent painting — made by his teacher Rudbeck.

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My friend google takes you to some very unusual places if you try to find out who is really responsible for the notion that boreal owls sound like bells. Eventually, though, we arrive — with a forehead-slapping “of course!” — at Ernest Thompson Seton. In 1910, Seton wrote about “a new and wonderful sound” he had heard on a trip to the “arctic prairies” along the Athabasca River:

Like the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell it came.  Ting, ting ting, ting, and on rising and falling with the breeze, but still keeping on about two “tings” to the second, and on, dulling as with distance, but rising again and again…. Ting, ting, ting, ting, it went on and on, this soft belling of his love, this amorous music of our northern bell-bird.

Seton’s traveling companion, Edward Preble, identified the sound as “the love-song” of the boreal owl.

More likely, misidentified: that description is pretty clearly of the tooting song of a northern pygmy-owl, not of the dripping-water trill of a boreal.  Whether the identification was correct or not, though, Seton’s description of the song, down to the very “ting, ting, ting” of it, has remained influential in the ornithological and, shall we say, other literature.

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And sometimes, as in this excerpt from The Book of North American Owls, some people have put two and two together to leave the rest of us at fives and sixes.

Aegolius funereus owes its species epithet to its dark color. But look what happens when, as above, someone combines Seton’s owl’s tinging with an apparent bewilderment about the name. The “bell-like” song is analyzed as a “tolling,” the term for the slow striking of a deep-voiced bell on occasions of great solemnity. Thus, logically, the bird must be funereus because, well, its voice is funereal.

A not entirely lucky guess leads us to the culprit who first misleadingly put Seton’s song description together with the Linnaean name. Experience teaches that unattributed etymologies are almost always dependent on Choate, who writes of the boreal owl — quoting but not crediting Seton:

 L. funereus, “mournful,” as its call has been likened to the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.”

It turns out that this Linnaeus-Seton mashup has an equally incorrect competitor in the American tradition. Both Terres in the Audubon Encyclopedia and Gruson in his Words for Birds claim that the species epithet refers to the bird’s voice, not, however, because of its tolling peal but to an otherwise unattested scream,

as if wailing the dead.

I was disappointed to find Terres attributing this etymology to Coues, who certainly knew better. Happily, a look at the sources absolves Coues: he does indeed write that the adjective in question is

applicable to an owl, either regarded as a bird of ill omen, or with reference to its dismal cry, as if wailing the dead;

but he is talking here about a different species entirely, not the boreal owl at all.

In both cases — the owl as funeral bell, the owl as keening mourner — a little careful reading would have gone a long ways. Sometimes that appears to be too much to ask, though.

Especially when the modest truth threatens to get in the way of a good story.

Naumann

 

 

 

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Cuvier’s Kinglet, Again

With the recent apparent rediscovery in Ontario of the Townsend’s bunting, John James Audubon’s “nonce species” are back in the news. When pressed, most birders can name the bunting, the small-headed flycatcher, and the two warblers; but the fifth –and the most visually appealing — of the Audubonian mysteries for some reason gets no respect.

Cuvier's kinglet

Audubon collected a male of “this pretty and rare species” in Pennsylvania in the early summer of 1812. Nineteen years later, when he published the first volume of the Ornithological Biography, he had never seen another, and was unable

to learn that this species has been observed by any other individual.

In fact, however, Cuvier’s kinglet (named, over Charles Bonaparte’s recommendation, for “one at present unrivalled in the knowledge of general Zoology”) did enjoy — unlike Audubon’s other unica —  a modest afterlife in the nineteenth century.

In both editions of the Manual, for example, Thomas Nuttall proclaimed himself thoroughly convinced of the legitimacy of “this … interesting addition to the North American Fauna,” than which

no species can be better marked or more strikingly distinguished.

Audubon himself seems never to have given up hope. In 1840, he corresponded with Spencer Fullerton Baird about a “singular variety” of the ruby-crowned kinglet the seventeen-year-old Baird had shot that spring:

Have you compared the Regulus with the description of Regulus Cuvieri? Could you not send me your bird to look at?

So far as I know, Baird never replied, but the Nestor of American ornithology was still more or less in the camp of the believers nearly twenty years later (and seven years after Audubon’s death), when he included the Cuvier’s golden crest in his 1858 report on the birds of the railroad surveys:

I have introduced the diagnosis of this species from Audubon for the sake of calling attention to it and of completing the account of the genus.

There was still no second record of the species (or, as the author rather pointedly recalls, “of several other species not found in the United States by any one else” but Audubon), and Baird’s uncertainty would be noticeably greater in the History of 1874:

This species continues to be unknown, except from the description of Mr. Audubon….

Elliott Coues did not even number the species in his 1872 Key, observing in a note only that the bird was “not now known.” The final edition of the Key has nothing to add: R. cuvieri

continues unknown.

Not unknown to everyone, though.

Writing the year before publication of Coues’s first Key, the Canadian physician, birder, and all-around kook Alexander Milton Ross offered no indication that the “Cuvier’s golden-crested wren” was in any way remarkable. In Canada, he says,

this wren usually accompanies the two preceeding species [namely, the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets], in their spring and fall migrations.

Ross’s were the last “sightings” of this distinctive bird, one that the American Ornithologists’ Union has from the very start relegated to the Check-list‘s appendix of “hypothetical” species. Today, Audubon’s mystery kinglet is thought to be most likely “an aberrant plumage” of the golden-crowned kinglet, but who knows? Maybe the lost specimen from Fatland Ford really was something, and the rest of us — pace Alexander Milton Ross — just haven’t been looking hard enough.

Let me know the next time you run into a kinglet with a black forehead. It just might be history in the re-making.

 

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