The Prairie Bunting of Provence

Corn Bunting

Who could not love a face like that?

Gone from much of its northern range, the fist-sized Corn Bunting is still hearteningly common on the roadsides of Provence, where its sizzling buzz penetrates van windows and birders’ hearts alike.

This species’ English names are blander than bland. Long known as the Common Bunting (would that that were still the case in England!), the bird now bears a name reflecting its historical fondness for cropland. More than 2,000 years ago,  the Roman name miliaria was given a similar explanation:

Miliariae have their name from their food, because they grow fat on millet.

In those days, not all bird lovers were content to wait for the “millet buntings” to plump up by their own efforts. Varro writes that he has seen them fed in captivity, along with thrushes and quails, and that thus fattened for the table, they “go for a good price” in the markets. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Jean Crespon, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century in Nîmes, says nothing about eating these birds, probably because, as he notes,

it is difficult to keep them in cages; they break their heads against the bars, and if they survive, it is quite rare to hear them actually sing.

Crespon calls this species the “bruant proyer,” a venerable French name dating to at least the fourteenth century and obviously related to words like pré and prairie (and, ultimately, Latin pratum). Strangely, Buffon derives “proyer” from the bird’s song, and declares himself

surprised that this species was not named “bunting of the fields,” as it rarely leaves the meadows during the warmer time of the year.

Even Buffon dozes, I suppose. The various Provençal names for the species — “térido,” “terlin,” “teri-teri,” “chi-perdris,” “chinchourla” — probably are echoic, though none of them does justice to the hissing sibilance of the real thing, which (I will point out again) you can hear and enjoy this coming April on my Birds and Art tour. Hope to see you then.

Corn Bunting Bulgaria 2007 June 117


Lambruschini’s Republican Gull

Slender-billed Gull

It may not look like much, but blame the photographer, not the bird, which is, of course, a Slender-billed Gull, the pink-bellied, snout-faced favorite of almost everybody on my spring-time tours of Provence.

Nowadays this gull is famously a Camargue specialty, but it was first recorded there only in 1840, by Crespon in his great Ornithologie du Gard. It’s no wonder that Provençal ornithology had gone so long without recognizing this scarce bird: The species wasn’t even described to science until October 1839, when the Italian entomologist Ferdinando Arborio Gattinara di Breme presented specimen material from Sardinia to the “savans ornithologistes” assembled at that year’s Congress of Italian Scientists in Pisa. There he dedicated it to his colleague and

friend Carlo Giuseppe Géné … the learned Professor of Turin, [who] has devoted such ardor

to the study of the island’s fauna. Director of the Turin Museum of Zoology, the still-young Géné served, coincidentally or not, as the secretary of the Zoological Section at the Pisa conference.

Breme’s epithet genei stands today, thanks to a hair’s breadth of priority. Just a few months after the publication of Breme’s descriptio princeps, Coenraad Jacob Temminck included an account of the bird in the final volume of his Manuel. Temminck’s type specimen came from Sicily, and he suspected — rightly — that

this new species has always been confused with its congeners and is more common around the Mediterranean that one might assume.

Apparently unaware that Breme had described the same bird in Pisa, Temminck gave his “new” species the names tenuirostris and “mouette à bec grèle,” which still today provide the English name of the gull (the French now call it the “goéland railleur,” the “laughing gull,” a name dangerously close, it seems to me, to that of its abundant giggling congener, the “mouette rieuse“).

But that’s not the end of it. After slipping happily under the ornithological radar for all those centuries, the Slender-billed Gull was suddenly, it seems, hot property in the mid-nineteenth century. In the space of a scant year, the poor bird was described by Breme, by Temminck, by Keyserling and Blasius (“Larus gelastes,” another “laughing” name), and by Charles Lucian Bonaparte, who — no doubt with a bit of familial pride — was able to add Corsica to the species’ known range.

Bonaparte had chaired the Pisa meeting at which Breme announced his new species, but that didn’t stop him from re-naming the bird in 1840 in his Iconografia della fauna italica. Though both Géné and Temminck were subscribers to that work, Bonaparte took the opportunity to name the gull anew in honor of Raffaelo Lambruschini, in token of the

respect, friendship, gratitude, and esteem that we have long wished to express to him.

Like Bonaparte, Lambruschini — agronomist, educator, and clerical reformer — was a convinced democrat and nationalist, and given that he seems to have had no real interest in ornithology himself, I think we should understand Larus lambruschinii as one of Bonaparte’s “political” species, written up — to borrow Sclater’s words from another context — as a convenient opportunity for “promulgating his republican sympathies.”

It’s a small point, perhaps, but one that has gone unnoticed up to now. Patricia Stroud’s fine Emperor of Nature makes the argument that it is especially in the ornithological “portion of the Fauna italica that the relationship between science and politics is evident,” noting that “the real reason” for Bonaparte’s dedication of the work to the Grand Duke of Tuscany “was Leopold’s support of the” Congress of Italian Scientists (166-167). But Stroud makes no mention of Lambruschini and his gull, a story that would have made her point in the clearest possible way.

Lambruschini’s name doesn’t even appear in most of the standard ornithological onomastica. It does show up in Jobling, but he names the wrong Lambruschini: Luigi Lambruschini was actually our man’s uncle, a famous cardinal of the Catholic Church and a staunchly anti-republican royalist and papist. It’s hard to imagine a less sympathetic figure from the younger Lambruschini’s political point of view, or one less likely to be memorialized by Bonaparte.

Rare, beautiful, and sought-after, the Slender-billed Gull is more than just a tick on the eager birder’s list. As even this quick look at the history of its discovery and description shows, the bird stands at the very intersection of science and politics in mid-nineteenth-century Europe.

Interested in intersections? We are too