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.


The Bird Is Nothing But Song

It’s that time of year, when the long-awaited blush of green in the treetops starts to drive the warbler watchers wacky.

I can’t count the number of times during this Biggest Week that I’ve heard the old complaint: Why do all these warbler-colored, warbler-sized, warbler-shaped leaves have to come out just when the birds arrive? Just a few weeks ago, we couldn’t wait for the skeletal twigs of winter to burst their buds, and now, what we wouldn’t give for a bare branch or two up there where all that tantalizing buzzing and trilling is going on. If only the blasted habitat wouldn’t get in the way!

Plus ça change….

Félix de Azara, who celebrates his 169th birthday today (how time flies!), experienced similar frustrations in the twenty years he spent wandering South America.

Sedge wren, Ridgway, Baird History

One little Paraguayan bird in particular gave Azara fits:

It keeps to cover in tall vegetation, where it hides, coming out only when you are about to step on it; then it flies away a hundred yards or so, and if you chase after it, you’re amazed to find that it has already escaped to an even greater distance…. It is a restless, shy bird.

Azara says — good Euro-colonialist that he was — that

this bird has no name of its own, and I have given it the name of “todo-vox,” because of its song.

Hardly there in the flesh, as it darts from one reedy covert to the next, the bird is “all song,” nothing but voice — like all those disembodied chips and chirps raining down on us from the trees right now.

[Azara’s sneaky brown bird was a sedge wren, Cistothorus platensis polyglottus.]


America’s First Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

There’s nothing like a flock of ducks to warm the homesick birder’s heart. Almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere, that flock is likely to include a familiar species or two, and the pleasure of recognition far outweighs the disappointment of discovering “just” a mallard or a gadwall or a scaup.

Northern Pintail

The northern pintail of Eurasia and America is now generally considered monotypic: that is to say, the populations of that species in the Old World and those in the New are said not to exhibit any consistent differences that would allow or require the naming of any subspecies. They are all simply Anas acuta, the “sharp-tailed duck.” It hasn’t always been so, however. At various times, various authors have split the Nearctic and the Palearctic birds into two races, the nominate form of Eurasia and the subspecies tzitzihoa of America.

Northern pintail, AOU IV

As the entry in the Fourth Edition of the AOU Check-list notes, that name was formally published for the first time by Vieillot, who described Anas tzitzihoa as a full species distinct from the European pintail with which it had been identified by RayBuffon and Latham.

Vieillot’s knowledge of his new species derived entirely from Francisco Hernández’s sixteenth-century account, published in the Thesaurus of 1651 — the first full description of a northern pintail ever from North America.

Hernandez, Thesaurus, northern pintail

On the male tzitzihoa. Chapter 104.

This is a type of wild duck, of the size of the domestic bird, with a blue bill of even length and moderate thickness, and with gray legs and webs; the head is fulvous and flecked with peacock green, but the necklace, breast, and the greater part of the body beneath are whitish, while the rest of the bird is of the color typically shown by goshawks, and whitish on each side next to the tail, which is white on the edges and black beneath, mottled with white, black, and fuscous above. The tail has two noticeably longer blackish feathers. The wings are silver-colored on the edges beneath and ashy in the center; they are also ashy above towards the shoulder, shimmering reddish, bright white, and peacock green. The hind wings are partly ashy, partly light green, and iridescent. The female is no different.

The tzitzihoa didn’t last long in systematic ornithology: first demoted to a subspecies, then synonymized out of existence when the northern pintail was finally deemed monotypic. But every once in a while, when a drake swims past with its goshawkly barring and the peacockish highlights glinting in its chocolate head, I like to whisper a single word.


northern pintail male feburary


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