The Samuels Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia samuelis—painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

The appearance of the newly updated eBird taxonomy reminds me today that the venerable song sparrow name samuelis, dating to 1858, has been appearing recently in an emended form, samuelsis. I believe that the first such “correction” was made by Dickinson and Christidis in their fourth edition of the Howard and Moore Checklist, where they write that their change is “based on ‘Mr. Samuels’ mentioned in the original” description, by Spencer F. Baird. Denis Lepage’s “Avibase” followed suit a year later, and the emendation is adopted, too, in the HBW/Birdlife Checklist and in the most recent IOC list, which cites Howard and Moore explicitly in the matter of “internal information” in Baird’s account.

Dickinson and Christidis are, as usual, absolutely right on the facts. The co-types, both taken on May 9, 1856, in Petaluma, were shot by the visiting Massachusetts collector Emanuel Samuels, and it was his name that Baird assigned to them.

To my imperfect knowledge, Herbert G. Deignan was the first to take umbrage at Baird’s barbarous samuelis, which Deignan snorts was “probably used by Baird as euphonically preferable to the more proper samuelsi; unfortunately, as it stands it is not obviously dedicated to Emanuel Samuels at all, but apparently to some imaginary Samuel.” Deignan’s objection is grammatical: Samuelis is the genitive of “Samuel,” while “Samuels” would yield samuelsi—if it happened to be a Latin noun.

In a sense, Deignan was right, though it is easy to argue that the English family name “Samuels” has its historical origins in an English genitive meaning “of Samuel,” which would translate into Latin as precisely the Bairdian samuelis. And it is equally easy to argue that Baird considered “Samuels” a noun of the third declension, which would drop that final -s, like lux/luc-, rex/reg-, and so on, and form its genitive in -is.

If we accept either of those as possibilities, it is by no means certain that Baird’s samuelis was an error. Instead, the name can be squeezed into the provisions of ICZN 31.1.1 as a name formed from a modern personal name that has been latinized. Poorly latinized, to be sure, but ICZN 32.5.1 lets Baird off the hook even for that: “Incorrect transliteration or latinization, or use of an inappropriate connecting vowel, are not to be considered inadvertent errors” that must be corrected.

Unfortunately for Baird and for the original spelling (whatever its origin, in error or innovation), we cannot simply dismiss samuelsis even if we class it (as I think we ought) as an incorrect subsequent spelling of samuelis. For the ICZN magically makes “an incorrect subsequent spelling … in prevailing usage and … attributed to the publication of the original spelling … a correct original spelling.” With prevalence defined by the Code as “that usage of the name which is adopted by at least a substantial majority of the most recent authors concerned with the relevant taxon,” it’s clear that we’re stuck with samuelsis, adopted as it now is by all the major world checklists.

Why, though, did our pii correctores contrive samuelsis rather than simply adopt Deignan’s suggestion of samuelsi? I cannot see how the neologism satisfies the requirement of the ICZN that a species name formed from a personal name must be formed either in accordance with the rules of Latin grammar—yielding samuelsii, if we fussily latinize the name to “Samuelsius”—or by the simple addition of a terminal -i—yielding Deignan’s preferred samuelsi. The currently prevailing form samuelsis seems to be pulled out of thin air; it is at least utterly unpredictable on the rules of zoological nomenclature.

Stay tuned. I’ll find out what happened.


Natterer Returns

A hundred eight-five years ago today, Johann Natterer arrived in Vienna after some eighteen years in the Brazilian wilderness. He had left Austria in the early spring of 1817, part of the retinue accompanying Princess Leopoldine to her wedding with the future Dom Pedro I. While most of the naturalists assigned to the party were back in Vienna within two or three years, Natterer hung on, ignoring the repeated summons from the Austrian court; only the start of the Cabanagem uprising chased him, his wife, and their little daughter back to Europe.

Over the years, Natterer had shipped more than 12,000 bird specimens back to the Brazilian Museum in Vienna, alongside thousands of other naturalia and almost two thousand ethnographic objects documenting the life of South America’s indigenous inhabitants.

In the course of his collecting, Natterer explored

“all the most remote corners of Brazil, from two degrees North latitude to twenty-five South, across thirteen of the country’s largest rivers, and virtually the entire east coast, over some 1200 to 1500 German miles.”

Sadly, most of Natterer’s notes and other documents were destroyed in the Vienna Uprising of 1848. Many of the specimens he collected, though, survived, among them many of the almost 175 types of new species he sent from Brazil.

Gould Toucans 1st Ed, Pl. 25, Natterer's Aracari

Systematic ornithology still honors Natterer in the names of many species and subspecies. Few, though, are as striking as the lovely little tawny-tufted toucanet. Natterer secured three specimens in Brazil, and it was on the basis of those birds that Gould described and named Pteroglossus nattereri, the Natterer’s araçari.

Natterer was still in Brazil when Gould published the new toucan, and he probably liked it that way:

“My longing for oft-visited lands has never been great. . . . But to travel through the remotest corners of Brazil, where no naturalist had gone before me, has always been my resolve.”

Natterer did just that.


Venezuelan Independence and the Soldier Heron

jabiru at karanambu Guyana 2007 575

The great collector of neotropical birds George K. Cherrie reports that during the war for Venezuelan independence, “a small company of Venezuelan soldiers were entrapped by Spanish troops. . . . At daybreak, [the Spaniards] made ready to attack, but suddenly wheeled about and rode precipitately in the opposite direction. . . . The Venezuelans were overjoyed to see in the dim light of dawn a long line of soldiers in white coats with red collar bands and shiny black caps marching at a double quick straight towards the Spanish camp. The Spaniards, believing that enemy reinforcements had arrived, mounted their horses and fled.”

The “soldiers” that delivered the Venezuelans from certain annihilation were actually jabirus, “marching in solemn procession towards their feeding ground near the Spanish camp.”

Venezuela declared its independence 210 years ago today—and won the battle to keep it thanks in part to the “soldier heron,” the biggest and most imposing stork in the New World.


Carnivorous Crossbills

red crossbill

Forgive the alliteration—it’s the lowest of poetic figures—but there really isn’t any other way to say it.

The rhythms of bird migration are so regular, so reassuring, that any deviation is bound to inspire uncertainty in the human observer. In no case is this more striking than in the so-called winter invaders, birds whose winter wanderings take them far out of their “normal” range on an unpredictable schedule and sometimes in unsettlingly large numbers. A classic example: the Bohemian waxwing, whose infrequent incursions into western Europe were long believed to presage war, starvation, and plague.

Bohemian Waxwing

Crossbills, too, with their even more erratic habits, were suspected of serving as harbingers of evil. In 1603, Caspar Schwenckfeld, the Silesian physician, naturalist, and antiquarian, noted that the crossbill invasion of 1596/97, in which “huge” flocks were seen even in towns and villages, had been quickly followed by famine and pandemic.

red crossbill

Even more disturbing is the notion that these birds put their bizarre bills to use not just in cracking pine cones and scarfing up sunflower seeds—no, crossbills, some say, also dine on carrion. I do not know who introduced this idea into the scientific record, but it goes back to at least Gesner, half a century before Schwenckfeld, and it was still being reported by Jan Jonston nearly half a century after.

All of the references I have found to this belief are expressly second-hand: Gesner writes “I have heard that,” Aldrovandi “they say that,” Jonston “as some report,” crossbills eat flesh. None of those authors will vouch for that assertion on his own experience, none of them is able to name his sources. I am fairly sure that I have now read every word published about crossbills before the 1555 publication of Gesner’s ornithology, and I cannot locate a single claimed observation of crossbill carnivory.

red crossbill

Moving the other direction, though, with a look to the scientific literature published after—long after—Jonston, one runs across some hints at a possible origin for the story of scavenging crossbills. In the 1880s, William Hubbell Fisher saw crossbills “gather[ed] in flocks to eat the refuse salt thrown out of the salt-pork barrels”; surely, as Fisher points out, those birds were in the first instance after the salt, but it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t also consume a fair bit of grease and fat while they were at it.

Even more richly suggestive are Robert B. Payne’s observations in Death Valley in March 1970. “The melting of snow had uncovered several old feces . . . perhaps of a coyote . . . and I saw a female crossbill picking at one. She extracted several bone fragments from it.” Payne posits that the bones provided the female with extra calcium while she was forming eggshells.

The great failing of euhemerism lies in its disregard of the creative force of human anxieties. Perhaps the story of the flesh-eating crossbill was simply a further uneasy embellishment of the bird’s perceived alliance with the supernatural, another way to deal with the dread of a bird that seemed so uncannily powerful. If not, though, and if the tale is in fact somehow grounded in anonymous observation, then its inspiration may well have been the sight of birds lurking around a place where meat was being trimmed or bones discarded. We’ll never know.


Basket Shakers: More on Those Naughty Kestrels

Familiar wild birds. v.1. London ; New York :Cassell,1883.

What the German bird books now know as the Turmfalke has enjoyed a huge range of names over the centuries, among them Wannenweher.


A Wanne is a winnowing basket, among many other things. Since antiquity, the regular back-and-forth of winnowing has inspired what J.N. Adams delicately styles “a rustic metaphor” for other rhythmic motions, and in German, the successors of the lexicographic brothers Grimm remind us that Wanne, the instrument subjected to those motions, has been expressly glossed as denoting the feminine pelvis and associated structures. (I do not know whether the French criblette, also attested as a kestrel name, occurs with the same meaning.)


The second part of the compound, wehen, in the context of winnowing or thrashing also refers to a swaying or shaking movement. Thus, Wannenweher occupies precisely the same risqué semantic field as our English name.

This observation raises a question about the apparently innocent alternative name Rüttelfalke. The verb rütteln, meaning to sway or shake
violently, has also been used since at least the mid-nineteenth century to
refer to the hovering flight of kestrels, kites, and ospreys. That word, too,
however—and no surprise here—has been used with coarse physical signification.


The DWB declines to take a stand, noting only that “perhaps” such
raptor names as Rüttelweihe and Rüttelgeier were formed with
the more innocuous meaning of the verb in mind.