On the Eating of Birds by Spiders

Wikipedia strikes again. Or rather, Wikipedia strikes out again.

We are informed (or were informed — I trust that the article will be corrected anon) that

Linnaeus’s name avicularia is derived from the Latin avicula, meaning “little bird,” and refers to a 1705 illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian, showing a tarantula feeding on a bird.

What’s worse, though, is that this bit of garble was obviously the direct source for a recent blog entry that credulously repeats the same naive misapprehension.

It’s quite true that Merian shows a spider eating a bird, and that the pioneering entomologist identifies that bird as a “Colibritgen,” a hummingbird. There is no indication in her text, however, that the striking plate “illustrates a real event that she witnessed in Suriname.” And Linnaeus’s inspiration for the name avicularia in fact antedates Merian’s work by some decades.

A look at the original description of Linnaeus’s Aranea avicularia — rather than at Wikipedia — reveals that Merian’s work was simply one of the several illustrated natural history sources the Archiater consulted. (You can click on the pictures.)

And one of those sources, Adam Olearius’s 1674 catalogue of Duke Frederick III’s Kunstkammer Gottorf Castle in Schlewsig-Holstein, labels its big hairy spider Aranea avicularia.

This was twenty-five years before Merian undertook her groundbreaking expedition to the Guyanas, and more than three decades before she published the greatest of all early modern entomologies.

All well and good — but what about the behavior behind the spider’s grimly humorous epithet avicularia, “the birdkeeper”?

The existential battle between hummingbirds and spiders is a commonplace in nearly all of the early European literature about the little birds, from the sixteenth century on. No one before or since has depicted it as dramatically as Sybilla Merian, but to suggest that she discovered the phenomenon is wrong — especially given the modest parenthetical comment she inserts into her discussion of the hummingbird:

zoo als men my gezegt heeft,

“as they have told me.”

Aren’t her real accomplishments enough without adding fictional deeds to them?






I’m not a scientist, and I certainly wouldn’t play one on TV, but as an outsider and a layman, it seems to me that some Ontario birders are rolling over and playing dead for no reason at all.

In November of last year, a suspect oriole was discovered in the eastern part of the province. In the first, rather poor photos I saw — there are now much better ones out there — the bird was gray-bellied and dull-throated, with a clear black eye line. A perfectly reasonable consensus was reached that the bird was a Bullock’s oriole, a nice find indeed but hardly earth-shattering at the season anywhere in the east.

The story continued to unfold in the usual way: the exuberant posts from exuberant birders tallying a lifer, the inevitable accusations of harassment and bad manners on the part of photographers and those armed with audio recordings, the gradual settling down as the bird gradually settled in. And the “rescue.”

The absurdity of “rescuing” vagrant birds in the wintertime is something I’m happy to rant about any time you’re ready, but in this case, holding the bird in captivity provided an opportunity to conduct a little genetic analysis. As it turns out, material gathered from the bird’s droppings included mitochondrial DNA identifiable as that of a Baltimore oriole.

Meaning, of course, that among this bird’s female forebears was a Baltimore oriole.

Now come the retractions, the recantings, the regrets. You can almost hear the check marks being erased from birders’ lists. But why?

There is probably no Bullock’s oriole on the planet that does not have a bit of the Baltimore coursing through its veins. We know this, and we’re happy to ignore it when we identify birds in the field — just as we gladly ignore the fact that the family tree of nearly every mallard on the east coast is studded with black ducks, and that there isn’t a “black” towhee on the great plains that is not the product of repeated miscegenation. It’s biochemically messy out there.

For the past century and a half, we’ve known that there is no such thing as a species. For the past century and a quarter, birding in North America has been intentionally cast as an exercise in identification of species. If we want to keep understanding birding in that way — and many of us do — we have to both acknowledge and insist on the difference between what we do and what the scientists do. Our tools are our eyes and our minds, not blenders and litmus paper.

If I were in Ontario and cared, I’d count it. And I wouldn’t let a little thing like DNA get in my way.


Malheur and the Plumers

Snowy Egret

The print and online media, running out of things to say about this absurd “occupation,” have turned over the past few days to casting the confrontation as one between kooks and birders, an approach that may add a little bit of human interest but at the same time trivializes the matter: the struggle is one between armed insurrectionists and the principles of this country, not between one vaguely picturesque group of citizens and another. I for one will be happy to start reading essays and articles that frame the matter in those terms, rather than puff pieces worrying about Oregon birders’ year lists.

Meanwhile, the constant repetition of the same story of the refuge’s founding has started me wondering: was Malheur really created to protect the white herons of the desert marshes?

Kind of. Even in the late 1890s, plumers were shooting snowy egrets on Lake Malheur in horrific numbers; some claimed to have earned $500 a day from the feathers they stripped from the bird’s backs — and that in the long-ago time when a dollar was a dollar.

By 1908, though, when Roosevelt established the first wildlife reservations at Malheur, no one was shooting egrets, for their plumage or for any other reason: the birds were gone, nearly or entirely extinct in southeast Oregon. George Sizemore and Charles Fitzgerald, the first wardens appointed, were concerned instead with the water birds that persisted in the area: ducks and swans, shot “merely for the feathers, which are sold at so much per pound.”

And grebes.

Clark's grebe

It’s been virtually obliterated from birderly memory, but the plumers of the west probably wrought more havoc on western and Clark’s grebes than on any heron species. The first indictments filed against feather poachers in Burns, Oregon, cited the killing of hundreds of grebes, with one hunter responsible for a full thousand birds; one shipment, seized at the post office, contained eight hundred skins, destined for New York City to be turned into fancy capes, collars, and muffs.

Those days are over. But I can’t help thinking it’s even worse now: a hundred-odd years ago, they were stealing the resources of the land. Today, it’s the land itself.



An Old Man’s Parrot

This saddens me.

Screenshot 2015-03-30 11.45.51

Apparently some people think this little psittacid was named for some elderly anonymous.

Screenshot 2015-03-30 11.52.53

Let’s try to remember in the future to give Louis-Pierre Vieillot his bird and his capital V.



The Scarlet Tanager, Orange Variant

It seems like every spring is marked by a new fad in the world of digital birding.

Screenshot 2014-05-15 13.11.37

This year, it’s the “orange variant” of the Scarlet Tanager that has the internet abuzz. I can’t turn the machine on any more without reading about this “form,” and there is an abundance of photographic material out there purporting to show such individuals. Just google it.

There is no doubt that some males of this species in definitive alternate plumage are less scarlet than others; have a look at Larry Sansone’s photograph of a decidedly ochre-toned individual in Beadle and Rising’s Photographic Guide, for example. Rising comments that this bird falls notably towards the orange end of “the scale”; the implication is, correctly and appropriately, that there is a more or less continuous range of color to be observed, from the dull orange of some males to the classic blazing red of others.

Yes, they vary: They vary “considerably,” in the authoritative words of Robert Ridgway, “being sometimes of a flame-scarlet or almost orange hue.” But that doesn’t mean there is any definable “variant” among them, any more than there is an identifiable “yellow variant” of the American Robin or the Summer Tanager — two other species in which the reddish parts of males’ plumage can differ in brightness and saturation.

When most of us see a dull adult male Scarlet Tanager, we’re delighted and intrigued, and tend to say something like “Why, look, there’s a dull adult male Scarlet Tanager!” without elevating that individual bird to the status of “variant.”

Most of the photos being posted to the internet now, though, are not of adult tanagers at all. Image after image of these “orange variants” shows a first-alternate male Scarlet Tanager, readily aged by the molt limits in the wing. And many of those birds are indeed duller orange-red than the name “scarlet” might suggest.

Entirely as expected.

BNA tells us that first-alternate males are “orange-red to scarlet.” Dwight describes them as “sometimes pale or mixed with orange.” It’s simply normal — for lack of a better word — for some ten-month-old male Scarlet Tanagers to be orangish.

Where did the need to assign these birds to a class of “variants” come from? The obvious answer is provided by a painting in the first edition of the Sibley guide, a dull tanager captioned “variant adult male breeding.”

In a process of productive misreading, Sibley’s perfectly unexceptionable adjective “variant” — meaning “different” — has apparently come to be re-analyzed as the tendentious noun “variant,” a definable kind departing from the normal, a “morph.” But what the guide is describing, and what birders are observing, is simply individual variation, with some birds more orange, some birds more scarlet, some birds more yellow.

I’m not suggesting that we stop looking close at male Scarlet Tanagers, and I’m not suggesting that anyone stop “posting” photos of particularly bright or particularly dull or otherwise remarkable birds. But when we encounter a bird that strikes us as oddly colored, maybe we should remember that variation doesn’t always make a variant.

SCarlet Tanager