Audubon at the New-York Historical Society: Part III

Almost five weeks left to see the final installment of the three-year Audubon show at the New-York Historical Society. If you haven’t gone, go; if you’ve gone, go again.

Unless you’re very, very young or of very, very long-lived stock, this is one of those rare opportunities that can be truly described as once in a lifetime. Starting in 2013, continuing last spring, and ending now on May 10, all (all!) of the original watercolors Audubon painted for The Birds of America have been on display — not the famous plates reproduced for sale to the subscribers, but the paintings themselves, from Audubon’s own brush. They’re an eye-opener, for would-be sophisticates who have long dismissed Audubon as kitsch and for birders hoping to discover more about Audubon, his times, and his birds.

I visited again last week, and was once again bowled over by the technical skill, the compositional imagination, and, yes, even the beauty of many of the paintings; I was not alone in standing rapt before the American bittern last week. But there’s a lot more to do at this exhibition than just ooh and aah.


One of the first decisions the curator, Roberta Olson, had to make when planning her exhibition was the sequence in which to present the more than 435 (!) objects to be displayed. In a canny move indeed, she settled on an order created by Audubon himself: the paintings have been shown not in taxonomic order, not in the order in which they were prepared, but in the order in which they were copied by the engraver and shipped to the subscriber.

Notwithstanding a nonsensical comment in the exhibition text — Audubon “believ[ed] that this order resembled that of nature” — that sequence was, and is, purely arbitrary, motivated simply by Audubon’s and his publisher’s eagerness to keep their subscribers’ interest by alternating big birds and small. For the modern viewer, this arrangement has the disadvantage of separating the images of similar birds — even in some cases images of a single species — and rendering direct comparison impossible; but there was no better solution, and this one has at least the advantage of giving the viewer an experience like unto that of the original subscribers opening their tin boxes of plates.

In this third and final installment, the sequence also makes abundantly plain what the exhibition texts (repeatedly) call Audubon’s “rushing toward the finish line on the project.” We see the paintings becoming more crowded, with more birds and, in many cases, more species to the sheet, and much more clearly than before, we see Audubon painting for the engraver, producing images intended from the start to be parted out and recombined into “composite” plates.

Unfortunately, that crowding is reproduced this time around in the physical space devoted to the exhibition. Where the earlier installations spilled pleasingly into the hallways and a second, smaller gallery, the paintings this time are all hung in a single large room. Not only is the wall space separating livraisons confusingly little, but many of the paintings are placed so high that they can hardly be enjoyed, much less studied. Binoculars, or a stepladder?

Screenshot 2015-04-07 14.58.28

This one, for example, was far out of my visual reach, and I would have relished the chance to see it at eye level — especially given that the bird, which was not engraved for the Birds of America (the plant was), is identified as a Bachman’s warbler. In life and in the image above, it is obviously a mourning warbler, ironically enough a species Audubon probably saw less often than the Bachman’s.

This is not the only mislabeling in this installment. Two different tropical siskins in two different paintings are misidentified as lesser goldfinches; one (in the watercolor that would become Plate 433) is the yellow-faced siskin of Brazil, the other (400) is the widespread black-headed siskin. (Audubon himself corrected the first error in the Synopsis.) The shorebird hanging beside two black-bellied plover paintings is certainly not a dowitcher, as the exhibition label suggests, but rather a poorly remembered red knot or, perhaps, another black-bellied plover. And I suspect that with its big orange throat pouch and conspicuously fleshy lore, Audubon’s “Townsend’s cormorant” is not a Brandt’s at all but a double-crested.

Screenshot 2015-04-07 15.43.28

Yes, looking close turns up these lapsus, but looking close also offers some spectacular insights into the Audubonian process. Especially revealing are the penciled traces of dialogues between the painter, his agents, his engraver, and even the eventual recipient of the plates. Next to the Forster’s tern, for example, Audubon writes several lines about an undescribed species he had seen by the “thousands” in New Orleans in the winter of 1820-21; but without a specimen,

[I] dare not publish it, I have notwithstanding named it “Black-billed Tern” Sterna Ludoviciana J.J.A.

They were winter Forster’s terns, of course, but even this short note gives us a glimpse into Audubon’s concern for the accuracy of his work — and a certain anxiety about its reception.

The most complex of the conversations on display this time is certainly that inscribed on the painting of the rufous hummingbird. Audubon here issues detailed instructions to both Havell and his son Victor, while his crossing out of one name — “Nootka Sound Humming Bird” — and replacing it with another –“Ruffed Humming Bird” — engages both the past and the future, as Audubon does justice to his nomenclatural predecessors and simultaneously places himself in the taxonomic vanguard.

One of Audubon’s notes, on his painting of the pine grosbeak, shows the intensity with which at this point the artist was thinking of the relationship between the images in the Birds of America and the texts of the Ornithological Biography. Beneath the crimson bird, he writes

Pay attention to Note diseased legs!

Indeed, the left foot of the male grosbeak in the painting is grotesquely thickened — a feature Havell omits from the engraved plate. In the Ornithological Biography, however, Audubon explains what he meant to have illustrated. He quotes his Nova Scotia correspondent Thomas M’Culloch:

These birds are subject to a curious disease, which I have never seen in any other. Irregularly shaped whitish masses are formed upon the legs and feet. To the eye these lumps appear not unlike pieces of lime; but when broken, the interior presents a congeries of minute cells, as regularly and beautifully formed as those of a honey-comb. Sometimes, though rarely, I have seen the whole of the legs and feet covered with this substance, and when the crust has broken, the bone was bare, and the sinews seemed almost altogether to have lost the power of moving the feet.

This is not the only example where the instructions on the watercolor were ultimately rethought and revised. Had Audubon’s original plan been followed, his plate 390 would have been completed with two dickcissels; instead, a lark sparrow came to occupy the space left at the top of the sheet. Here and elsewhere among the paintings preparatory to the composite plates we find the poses of individual birds obviously planned to ease their insertion into new contexts, the logical conclusion of the “collage” technique Audubon experimented with throughout his career.

One of the most tantalizing annotations belongs to one of the most fascinating paintings (this one hung right at eye level), that of the Townsend’s bunting. Unfortunately, the extensive inscription, which covers several long lines next to the figure of the bird, was erased at some point, though enough dim traces remain that it would likely be recoverable, at least in part, from the right angle under the right light: trivial though the content might prove to be, it could still double the nearly first-hand information we have about the bird — and perhaps even cast a little much-needed light on the recent second record of this mysterious animal.

Close looks at others of the paintings on exhibition here could contribute to other open questions, too. The apparently increasing incidence of pink-tinged plumage across several species of gull has puzzled observers for a decade or so now; but so far as I know, no one has pointed out that Audubon’s 1829 laughing gull painting shows the adult’s underparts nearly covered by a saturated dull rose. Havell’s plate does not.

Other elements of the original watercolors may be less potentially significant, but are delightful all the same. Behind Audubon’s exquisite least sandpipers is a roughly sketched landscape; one wonders what Audubon had in mind when he penciled in two donkeys, one standing and the other in repose, and why the charming scene was taken over neither by Havell nor in the octavo edition of the plates.

It has been a joy these past three years to come to know Audubon as a painter of shorebirds — and to recognize in him one of the very best of that rarefied lot. Even Homer dozes, though. As I lingered over the two (and a half? — see above) black-bellied plover watercolors on display, it suddenly struck me that there was something missing in one of the birds otherwise so well painted.

Two somethings, in fact: the basic-plumaged plover’s hind toes.

Screenshot 2015-04-07 17.48.37

Neither this nor the inaccurate wing pattern of the female northern shoveler was corrected in the engraving. By no stretch of the imagination earthshaking, but still worth noticing.

And noticing is what birders do best, isn’t it?


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.



Who Made That Bird a Warbler, Anyhow?

The end draws nigh.

The end of the warblers as most of us know them.

It’s likely to still take a year or six, but it seems as if that long-familiar assemblage known as the American wood warblers is finally going to be … disassembled. And when that happens, the yellow-breasted chat will be leading the flight from a monolithic Parulidae into new, and in some cases perhaps uncertain, taxonomic seats.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes, yellow-breasted chat

Beginning with the first edition of the Check-list, published in 1886, the AOU simply embedded this big, noisy, thick-billed creature among the other wood warblers without comment. It took almost a hundred years and five more versions of the list for the Committee to issue the express warning that, in the words of the sixth edition, the

allocation of the genus is in doubt; it may not be paruline.

The world turned upside down! Happily for those clutching their field guides in existential dread, the seventh edition made everything right again, assuring us that

although placement of this genus in the Parulidae has been questioned frequently [with citations to here and here]… molecular data support its traditional placement

among the wood warblers.

What a relief. “Molecular data” are, after all, so authoritative. So definitive. So soothing.

What has always caught my eye, though, once I’ve finished wiping the tears of joy from it, is that other phrase in the Check-list‘s reassurance: “traditional placement.” My family has traditions; yours does. too. And so, most likely, do warbler families (worms at Thanksgiving, worms at Christmas, worms at Easter, worms on birthdays and anniversaries!).

Taxonomic traditions are of a different nature, though, and we’re well within our rights to ask whether there really is such a tradition, who started it, and why. And were other, competing traditions suppressed with the stroke of a pen a century and a quarter ago, when that first Committee located the chat between the yellowthroats and the old Wilsonia warblers?

Catesby, Yellow-breasted Chat

As is the case for so many of our common eastern birds, it was Mark Catesby who gave us the first detailed account of the bird we know as the yellow-breasted chat.

Exploring the American southeast 300 years ago, Catesby found this species wild and retiring, entirely absent from “the inhabited Parts” of the country; instead, he writes, they

frequent the Banks of great Rivers; and their loud chattering Noise reverberates from the hollow Rocks and deep Cane-Swamps.

The traveling naturalist anticipated the laments of many birders even today when he complained that these “very shy Birds … hide themselves so obscurely.” In fact, after many hours’ effort on his own, Catesby had to hire an especially skilled native to secure the specimen he would so delightfully paint in its song flight.

Catesby was equally prescient in his uncertainty as to just what this bird is.

“Chat,” of course, is about as polysemic as a bird name gets, and Catesby’s Latin name, “oenanthe americana pectore luteo,” isn’t much clearer. Now restricted to a single well-defined genus of, well, chats, the name “oenanthe” — dating to Aristotle and beyond — was applied in those pre-binomial days to wheatears, whinchats, stonechats, linnets, whitethroats, and others. Catesby’s French translator, that anonymous

very ingenious Gentleman, a Doctor of Physick, and a French-man born,

decided — most likely without consulting the author — that this “chat” was an example of the first of those “oenanthes,” a “cul-blanc,” a wheatear.

Linnaeus wasn’t buying it. In 1758, he assigned this bird — which he never saw in life or in skin — the final place in his genus Turdus, which he characterized as possessing

a sharp bill, round in cross section, with the upper mandible decurved at the tip. The nostrils are bare, half covered by a thin membrane. The tongue is bifurcated.

He distinguished the species Turdus virens — which he based expressly on Catesby’s painting — from the other “thrushes” by its dusky green color, yellow underparts, and white supercilia.

In a rare show of international peace and understanding, Johann Michael SeligmannJacob Theodor Klein, and both of the authoritative French ornithologists of the time, Brisson and Buffon, followed Linnaeus in considering our bird a thrush.

That unanimity — that “traditional placement” — did not last, however.

Screenshot 2014-07-09 12.59.58

Somehow, somewhere, the Swedish collector and diplomat Gustavus Carlson appears to have acquired a skin of Catesby’s chat — to my knowledge, the first in any European cabinet. Oddly enough, though, when it came to cataloguing Carlson’s collection, Anders Erikson Sparrman, who had studied under Linnaeus in Uppsala, failed to recognize the bird as his Master’s Turdus virens; in his Museum carlsonianumSparrman names the perilously posed specimen instead Ampelis luteus, placing it in a genus that then comprised the waxwings and half a dozen cotingas.

English ornithologists in the late eighteenth century took a different approach. John Latham moved Catesby’s wheatear-chat, which at the hands of the continentals had become a thrush, to a place among the tyrant flycatchers.

Pennant, Arctic Zoology, yellow-breasted chat

Two years later, Thomas Pennant in his Arctic Zoology situated the bird he knew as the “chattering tyrant” between the fork-tailed flycatcher and the great crested flycatcher.

Neither Latham nor Pennant gave this noisy flycatcher a scientific name. Thus, in 1788, when Johann Friedrich Gmelin published his new edition of the Systema, he was forced to rely instead on the hints provided in the English names “flycatcher” and “tyrant,” names that persuaded him to move the chat-like bug-catching thrush into the very large genus Muscicapa, which at the time united all sorts of vaguely flycatchery birds in a decidedly miscellaneous lot– among them a number of only distantly related species, from the Old World and the New, known today as “warblers.”

Vieillot, Prêtre, yellow-breasted chat

Twenty years later, Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot — still, all efforts to the contrary notwithstanding, the least-appreciated of early American ornithologists — stepped in to clear matters up. And he did so in no uncertain terms. After acknowledging the accounts of the chat provided by Brisson, Buffon, Linnaeus, Latham, and Gmelin (he seems to have overlooked Sparrman), Vieillot observes that

all those authors seem to me to have done nothing but describe the bird in reliance on Catesby…. No other ornithologist claims to have seen the bird in nature, such that it must seem that the taxonomic assignments have been made solely on the basis of the figure published by Catesby.

And, he continues, “that figure being inaccurate” like so many of Catesby’s paintings, it inevitably proved to be the occasion for such a wide and conflicting variety of taxonomic views.

Vieillot sweeps all of that confusion away by assigning the bird to an entirely new genus, Icteria, and coins the novel vernacular name “ictérie dumicole,” the thicket-dwelling icteria.

Vieillot, NatHistSept, Plate I, yellow-breasted chat bill

Vieillot was moved to iconoclasm above all by the bill of the bird,

thick, sharp-pointed, and without any notch,

more closely resembling, he says, the bill of the troupials than of any other bird. He admits that the chat’s bill differs from those of the typical blackbirds and orioles in its arched culmen and the presence of bristles at the base, but it is even more thoroughly unlike those of the thrushes and flycatchers.

I have thus found myself obliged to correct the false naming, and as I find no other genus that combines the characteristics possessed by this bird, I make of it the type species of a new genus,

namely, Icteria, an appellation usually said to refer to the yellow underparts of the bird but, as a reading of Vieillot makes clear, more likely meant by its author to indicate that similarity to birds of the genus Icterus.

Refreshingly, Vieillot has a lot to say not just about the structure and appearance of his new icteria but its behavior, as well. He obviously watched these birds closely –and collected a good series of both sexes — during his stay in the United States as a refugee in the 1790s, and his notes are of sufficient value and interest to merit a long excerpt:

This icteria eats insects and berries…. Shy and distrustful by nature, it keeps to the thickest parts of the brush, and when it does come out to feed, it again seeks refuge in the thicket once it is disturbed…. This species arrives in Pennsylvania and New York in May, and leaves those regions in autumn. Catesby says that in southern Carolina it is encountered only at a distance of three hundred miles from the sea; in contrast, in the northern states it commonly frequents areas no more than a mile from the coast. It seeks its food in open areas, often on the ground, but always close to its favored retreat, whence the male emerges by mounting perpendicularly to a height of thirty or forty feet, where it turns a pirouette while descending with its feet hanging down, soon plunging into the fastness of the brambles. I have observed that he he flies this way only when singing and only during the breeding season.

Vieillot never succeeded in finding the nest of this species, but he assumes that the clutch is of four eggs,

since that is the number of young that I have often seen accompanying their parents when they were still in need of the adult birds’ care.

Vieillot places the account of his dumicolous icteria between those of the vireos and those of the todies. It is not obvious here whether mere position indicates relationship; even though he has told us, loud and clear, that this is not a flycatcher or a thrush or even an icterid, we’re still left wondering just where to file the renamed species.

Oudart, Gal ois, Vieillot

Not until 1834 would Vieillot explicitly place his ictérie in the third “division” of his family of “weavers,” immediately following the orioles and the Old World weaver finches of the genus Ploceus.

Alexander Wilson, Yellow-breasted chat

Alexander Wilson published his natural history of the chat in the same year as Vieillot’s. Though neither author’s text provides any acknowledgment of the other’s, they share, nearly verbatim, the description of the male‘s

mount[ing] up into the air, almost perpendicularly, to the height of thirty or forty feet….

I do not know which direction influence flowed here, but it seems very unlikely that these passages were composed independently. It may be worth pointing out that the so memorable first line in Wilson’s account,

This is a very singular bird,

echoes closely the beginning of his mentor William Bartram’s brief summary of the same species, which he called Garrulus australis, literally the “southern jay”:

The yellow-breasted chat … is in many instances a very singular bird.

My suspicion is that both Wilson and Vieillot had profited from an unpublished description supplied to both by the Philadelphia naturalist, making Bartram the first scientist to fully describe the song flight of the yellow-breasted chat.

Like Vieillot (and like Bartram), Wilson tut-tuts over the Europeans’ failure to identify the bird’s true taxonomic affinities. Unlike Vieillot, however, Wilson was content — “almost” — to assign the chat to an existing genus and family:

In short, tho this bird will not exactly correspond with any known genus, yet the form of its bill, its food, and many of its habits, would almost justify us in classing it with the genus Pipra (Manakins), to which family it seems most nearly related.

In honor of the chat’s “strange dialect,” Wilson headed his account with the novel binomial Pipra polyglotta. Charles Bonaparte, in a characteristically delicate formulation, found this “not a little remarkable.”

The bird he placed in [Pipra] has certainly no relation to the Mannakins, nor has any one of that genus been found within the United States.

Desmarest, Tangaras, yellow-breasted chat

Bonaparte was no happier with the treatment Vieillot gave the species in his Analyse,  where he listed the “ictérie” as a member of the family Texores, “weavers.” Just a year later, obviously influenced by Vieillot’s classification and led astray, perhaps, in part by an old misidentification in Desmarest’s TangarasGeorges Cuvier put forth another idea: the yellow-breasted chat is a transitional species between the tanagers and the African weavers. Lichtenstein, too, had identified Deppe’s Mexican specimens of the chat as representing a new tanager and named them Tangara auricollis.

The allocation of this species to the tanagers proved a dead end. In 1832, Thomas Nuttall placed his yellow-breasted icteria between the warblers and the vireos. Audubon, in the Synopsis of 1839 and in the octavo edition of the Birds of America, stubbornly followed Wilson in assigning “this singular bird” (that phrase again!) to the family of the manakins. The real trendsetter, though, was Charles Bonaparte, who listed the species as a member of his family Vireoninae in 1838.

Audubon, yellow-breasted chat, detail

There things stood, with the chat deemed a sort of aberrant vireo, for twenty years. Then, Spencer Fullerton Baird, acknowledging “much contrariety of opinion among ornithologists” about the correct classification of Icteria, nevertheless found

 no reason why it may not be assigned to the Sylvicolinae [the warblers], possessing, as it does, so many of their characteristics. The bill is stouter and more curved than the rest, but the other characters agree very well. It cannot properly be placed with the vireos and shrikes….

R Ridgway, yellow-breasted chat, 1874

Baird assigned the chat — which he, too, called “this very singular bird” — to its own almost unpronounceably vowel-rich “section” among the warblers, Icterieae. Fifteen years later, he, Ridgway, and Brewer, in the Historyelevated that section to a subfamily, Icterianae.

Uncertainty persisted, of course. Salvin and Godman wrote in 1879 that

even now [Icteria] cannot be said to have found a final resting place, as much of its internal structure has yet to be examined and compared with that of the birds with which it has been associated. For a long time it was placed with the Vireonidae, of which it was obviously a very abnormal member. Its relationship with the Tanagridae has also been suggested. in placing it here, in the midst of the Mniotiltidae [= Parulidae], we follow in a great measure Prof. Baird’s assignment….

Elliott Coues, though in the first edition of the Key he retained the Bairdian subfamily Icteriinae for the chat and its apparent “allies” in the tropics, observed that

it is perhaps questionable whether they are most naturally classed with the Warblers.

Even thirty years later, the final edition of the Key reminds us that

the position of Icteria … is open to question…. It is probable that the final critical study will result in a remapping of the whole group.

Nevertheless, Baird’s identification of the chat as a warbler became the accepted one, the conventional one, the “traditional” one — after a century and a half in which the bird drifted from the wheatears to the thrushes to the tanagers to the manakins to the weavers to the vireos and back.

No “critical study,” molecular or otherwise, will ever be “final,” but the latest review of the advanced passerines concludes that Baird’s warblerization of the yellow-breasted chat was, in fact, less perceptive — or less lucky — than Vieillot’s characterization of his new genus:

The dumicolous icteria more closely approaches the troupial than any other bird, thanks to its strong bill with a fine, sharp tip and no notches.

Indeed, Barker et al. discover that their “concatenation results” — I do not know what that means — support an arrangement in which the yellow-breasted chat is “the sister lineage to the blackbird family Icteridae.” To reflect that relationship, their proposed taxonomy removes the chat entirely from the warblers, placing it in its own family, Icteriidae.

A family whose name is ultimately based on the old “section” Icterieae, a section created and a name coined by Spencer Baird, who was responsible for the “traditional” placement of the species among the warblers, a placement we’re all going to need to work hard, one of these next years, to forget.

Yellow-breasted Chat


Blackbird Hill

It was 171 years ago today that John James Audubon, Edward Harris, Isaac Sprague, John Bell, Lewis Squires, and their crew tied their boat on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, across from the “famed bluff” known as Blackbird Hill.

Audubon’s bird list from the immediate area is more or less identical to what one might tally on a good morning’s birding today: Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, bank swallows, Blackburnian and golden-winged warblers, yellow-headed blackbirds, and Lincoln’s sparrows were all seen or shot by the party — apparently all on the east bank of the river — between Wood’s Hill and Blackbird, landmarks on the Nebraska shore in what is now Burt County.

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a teacher named Edith Newton. Mrs. Newton had gone to school with my maternal grandmother and taught my mother, and then, in the early 1970s, she was my teacher for science and “social studies.” Only now do I realize, more and more with each passing year, how richly Mrs. Newton combined (and sometimes conflated) her academic subjects — and how much of an influence her fusing of science and history had on even a seven-year-old me.

Mrs. Newton was the first birder I knew. She taught us grade schoolers our first scientific names (can you imagine that today?), and introduced us — in the classroom — to the common birds and the early scientists and explorers who had studied them, including Audubon, who spent the night of May 9, 1843, in our town.

She also told us the story of Blackbird — the romantic version, of course. And she did not leave out the macabre tale of George Catlin’s grave robbing, whereby in 1832, with “a little pains” and the help of a pocket gopher, he stole the head of the Omaha and “secreted it” with the other skulls he gathered on his travels.

I don’t know whether Blackbird’s remains — one of more than 4,000 native skulls once held by the Smithsonian — have been returned to the Omaha yet.

Looking back from nearly two centuries’ distance, it’s obvious that that struggle was essentially over by the time Audubon and his friends ascended the Missouri in May 1843. Where Lewis and Clark had raised a flag in tribute to “the deceased king,” Catlin took a shovel to his grave; where Catlin had seen great herds of buffalo on the prairies, Audubon’s boat dodged bloated cattle floating downstream from the new settlements in Dakota. The Omaha, Audubon said, “looked as destitute and as hungry as if they had not eaten for a week.” They probably hadn’t.

Blackbird died in 1800. Audubon died in 1851. Edith Newton must have been born just about exactly halfway between Audubon’s death and my own birth, now more than half a century ago (how’d that happen, anyhow?). Books and stories and anecdotes and, yes, lies passed down from age to age still make me feel a part of it all.

But I’m sad that nowadays Catlin’s scurrilous “collecting” seems to have tainted the entire history of Blackbird, his life and his burial. Elementary school students in Nebraska don’t learn about Blackbird Hill anymore, depriving them of an opportunity to talk about biological warfare and economic co-optation in the ultimately one-sided struggle for the Great Plains.  



I assure thee, Lucy, that coffee in France is certainly better than anywhere else.

– John James Audubon: September 4, 1828