The Prognosticating “Seahawk”

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We didn’t watch or listen to or — heaven help us — attend any football games yesterday. No surprise there, but it seems that we did miss out on one of the most inspired bird misidentifications of the year.

I’m told that the mascot of one of the teams involved is the “Seahawk,” a bird I’d always assumed was the Osprey. But apparently the television graphics showed not that familiar fish-eating kite but an entirely different bird, an Augur Buzzard from Africa.

And that got me thinking. Somewhere in the back of my mind lingered the notion that this species had its name from some association, real or fancied, with the Roman practice of augury. But as so often, a moment’s reflection puts paid to that easy connection: why would the ancient auspices have looked so far afield?

They didn’t.

In his original description of the species he named Falco (Buteo) Augur, Eduard Rüppell explains:

The principal food of this hawk is small birds and mice; it pursues the latter especially when the animals are chased out of their hiding places by the burning of dry grass or the noise of a large troop of people passing by, such that these birds often sail ahead of armies or merchant caravans. That may well be the reason that the Abyssinians credit this bird with a special gift for prognostication….

Years earlier, Henry Salt — not an ornithologist — appears to have witnessed the same behavior, but he told a slightly more complicated story of the locals’ “singular superstition respecting this bird”:

When they set out on a journey and meet with one of them, they watch it very carefully, and draw good or bad omens from its motions. If it sit still, with its breast towards them until they have passed, it is a peculiarly good sign, and every thing is expected to go on well during the course of the journey. If its back be turned towards them, it is considered an unpropitious sign, but not sufficiently so, as to create alarm. But if it should fly away hastily on their approach, some of the most superstitious among them will immediately return back to their homes.

I don’t know who won yesterday. But if I’d had the sense to watch the seahawk before the game, I bet I could have told you before it even started.


No, He Didn’t

I really shouldn’t have to stand up — again– for the Father of American Ornithology, but Alexander Wilson had the ill grace to die 201 years ago, so somebody’s got to step in and defend his probity from these vicious attacks.

wilson, wilson's warbler

Here is that grossest of calumnies, again, in an otherwise fine book published this past year: the Wilson’s Warbler was, I read,

first collected and named (for himself) by Alexander Wilson.

No. No no no.

It is true that Wilson was the discoverer of this warbler, a “neat and active little species … never met with in the works of any European naturalist.” But he did not, not ever, name this or any other bird “for himself.”

Wilson called his bird, deposited in Peale’s Museum under the catalogue number 7785, the “Green Black-capt Flycatcher,” and assigned it the latinizing binomial Muscicapa pusilla, in recognition of its small size.

Muscicapa, of course, was one of the catch-all categories of those days, like Motacilla and Falco. When Charles Bonaparte set out to revise the genera of North America’s birds in 1828 — fifteen years after Wilson had shuffled off his mortal coil — the princely ornithologist reassigned the little “flycatcher” to the warbler genus Sylvia, and changed its species epithet to wilsonii, in honor of his great predecessor.

A decade later, Bonaparte further subdivided the warblers, erecting the new genus Wilsonia and restoring (as was only proper) Wilson’s original species name pusilla to the small black-capped bird.

And so it was Charles Bonaparte who named the warbler for Wilson, first by using the (invalid) epithet wilsonii and then by creating the genus name Wilsonia. In his Ornithological Biography, Audubon was still calling the bird the Green Black-capped Flycatcher in English, but by the time he compiled his own Synopsis in 1839 — a much-needed index to the plates of the Birds of America — he had come ’round to refer to it as Wilson’s Flycatching Warbler, the English name it still bears, with a slight simplification, today.

Audubon, wilson's warbler

So why, oh why do people otherwise of normal intelligence insist on accusing Wilson of the supremest of ornithological vanities?

It’s because they’ve never learned to read a scientific name.

Until recently, the name of the bird we call in English the Wilson’s Warbler was this:

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The name in parentheses is the original author of the scientific name — but those parentheses, crucially, are the conventional indication that the genus name has been changed since the species was first described (and in this case, changed several times).

A sloppy or lazy or ignorant reader of might, just might, sloppily or lazily or ignorantly come to believe that our poor parenthetical friend was responsible for every nomenclatural element there, where in reality only that meek little pusilla remains from Wilson’s original name.

A plea to follow my rant: Next time you decide to repeat a twice-told tale, especially one with a faint whiff of the libelous about it, think. Just think.