April Calendar Puzzle


No one who has dallied in the pet section at Woolworth’s will have any difficulty identifying these two creatures: the upper bird is a black-and-white mannikin, its companion a spotted munia. Neither is a sparrow, and only the munia occurs as a wild bird in China.

The mannikin, or at least the population depicted here, nigriceps, was first described by John Cassin on the basis of specimens from the collection of the Duc de Rivoli, purchased for the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1846. The munia had been long known at that point: Linnaeus gave the species its epithet, punctulata, basing his description on that in Edward’s Natural History of Birds of 1743. Edwards’s painting of the bird, which he called the “Gowry Bird … being sold for a small Shell apiece, call’d a Gowry,” in the East Indies, places it in an unusual pose, apparently for compositional rather than behavioral reasons.

Edwards, Spotted Munia 1743

Edwards also tells us that this species was commonly kept in England in “Gentlemen’s Houses”; the one he painted was in the possession of Charles du Bois, treasurer of the East India Company.

More to the point of the monthly puzzle, Edwards reports that Eleazar Albin, too,

figur’d a Bird something like this, and makes it the hen of another Bird he has placed it with; he calls it a Chinese Sparrow….

Edwards correctly doubts that the two birds on Albin’s plate are conspecific — but that matters less to us than the fact that that image, first published in the 1730s, is clearly behind, at whatever remove, the calendar plate that started all this.

Albin, Chinese sparrows

Albin drew his birds

at Mr. Bland’s at the Tiger on Tower-Hill… they were brought from China in East-India by the Name of Chinese Sparrows.

We’re still left to wonder who pirated the plate and added all those eggs. Maybe next month.


February Calendar Puzzle: Stumped

And I thought this one would be easy.

red-bellied woodpecker

It’s obviously a composite image — if the cut-off tails of the canary and the great tit weren’t sign enough, the fact that the plate is named in English and the birds in German should tip us off. But googling didn’t get me anywhere, so it was time to start rummaging.

I recognized the ultimate source of the great tit as one of the loveliest of the national avifaunas produced in the early nineteenth century, Johann Conrad Susemihl’s Teutsche Ornithologie, published in Darmstadt in 1811.

Teutsche ornithologie image 160

After a long series of bad guesses, I got lucky with the canary, the ancestor — an ancestor — of which I stumbled across in the Abbildungen to Lorenz Oken’s Allgemeine Naturgeschichte

OKen, Abbildungen, Vögel VII

And luckier when I noticed that that figure was numbered 7, just as the bird on the calendar page. Wonder what number 1 on the plate might be….

Screenshot 2015-02-10 13.39.26

Aha. A great tit, obviously copied (at whatever remove) from Susemihl, but differing from the figure in the Teutsche Ornithologie in the same ways as the image on my calendar.

The trail just got a lot warmer, but who extracted those two birds and plopped them down among all those eggshells? And who — if not the same plagiarist — lifted the plate to use in an English-language oology?

Amazon, of all things, turns out to be selling replicas of a related image:

Screenshot 2015-02-10 13.48.50

The differences are obvious, not least among them that my calendar replaces the nest next to the canary with that next to the great tit, removing the foliage to help it fit better. Unfortunately, Amazon, that great paragon of scholarly acribie, fails to cite its source.

Dead end. But surely somebody out there knows, and somebody can help me trace my calendar page back to the Teutsche Ornithologie. Fun stuff.


Calendar Bird: January 2015

Valerie and David sent me a beautiful Italian calendar for Christmas this year, with large-format, fine-quality reproductions of colored plates from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bird books.

Not a single one of them identified.

Frustrating? Not in the least. It’s a monthly opportunity to hone our bibliographic detective skills, and learn a bit about bird identification and the history of bird identification at the same time. Absolutely up my alley.

Albin, Aratinga solstitialis

This first image is easily recognized as the work of Eleazar Albin, the Anglo-German painter whose style is as distinctive as his failure to identify his birds. “Failure” is the wrong word: working in the 1730s, often from specimens — living or dead — of uncertain provenance and marked tattiness, Albin simply came too early to take advantage of any of the nomenclatural and identification tools available to the generations that would follow him.

Thus, the label on this plate, reproduced from a painting completed on July 30, 1735, was about as good as Albin or anyone could have done:

A Parroqueet from Angola.

It was a matter of seconds to identify the plate as Number 13 in the third volume of Albin’s Natural History of the Birds — though I haven’t yet figured out which of the several editions, authorized and pirated, was reproduced for the calendar.

But what is this colorful bird?

“Angola,” of course, is a red herring. Though Albin’s model

was brought from Angola, on the Coast of Guinea, and was in the Possession of a Gentleman near the Custom-House, who was pleased to let me draw its Picture,

there is no reason for us to then assume, as Albin did, that this was an African native at all. Indeed, there is no Old World parrot that looks remotely like this one.

Instead, it pays to remember that Angola was in the possession of Portugal in the mid-eighteenth century (and for a long, long time thereafter). Albin’s acquaintance probably did bring the bird to London from Angola — but Angola was no doubt just one stage in its journey to England from, say, the Portugese holdings in South America.

Aha. It all falls into place. This may not be the most accurate of images, but once we turn our attention to the Neotropics, it is readily identifiable as the portrait of a sun parakeet.

Indeed, Albin’s plate (which Brisson would later sniff was “mal coloriée“) served Linnaeus as the “type” of the species he named Psittacus solstitialis,

a long-tailed yellow parrot with green wing coverts and a forked tail.

The Linnaean type locality came from Albin, too: “Habitat in Guinea,” a designation not definitively corrected until 1906 (!), when Hellmayr substituted “Cayenne.”

What will February bring?