What Happened Here?

More than 1200 pages in to his massive completion of the Abbé Bonnaterre’s Tableau encyclopédique et méthodique, Louis Pierre Vieillot offers an account of the bird he calls the “buse cendrée,” Falco cinereus, known to English speakers today as the northern harrier. His description of the bird, occupying slightly less than a column of text, is an expanded version of the terse entry prepared fifteen years earlier for the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l’Amérique septentrionale.

Northern Harrier

The Histoire naturelle had not illustrated this species, a miss made up for in the Tableau, where, the author tells us, we can find the harrier’s portrait on Plate 203. And there it is, as promised, Figure 1 in the lower right-hand corner.

But wait. Something seems not quite right.

With its short, hooked bill menacingly agape, I suppose the bird looks suitably predatory, but no amount of squinting and good will can turn it into a harrier. Instead, this is only too clearly a nighthawk.

Vieillot knew the common nighthawk, sort of. Like most of his predecessors in the North American field, he confused it with the continent’s other goatsucker species, and even as late as 1823, when the Tableau appeared, he seems not to have known that Alexander Wilson had managed to sort them all out a decade and a half before.

None of that, however, explains how the nighthawk came to masquerade under the name of the buse cendrée. Might there be a clue in the signature on the plate?

Rather than the usual “delineavit,” “drew,” or “sculpsit,” “engraved,” here we have a notice that the plate was prepared under the supervision of the prolific engraver Robert Bénard. A suspicion begins to form, one confirmed by a comment Vieillot makes in his introduction to the effect that the figures in the Tableau are not original but rather reproduced from other sources.

Vieillot says nothing about just how the originals were collected, and by whom, and how they were copied, and by whom. But he does warn his reader that “some of the bird engravings are incorrectly placed,” a wry understatement if he was referring in part to our harrier/nighthawk.

The text is not without its own problems, either. Two of the three citations at the end of Vieillot’s account of the buse cendrée are, at best, misleading: the reference to Brisson is to the 1763 Latin edition rather than, as expected, the 1760 bilingual original; and the page number given for the account in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle is off by a whopping 133.

The reference to George Edwards, on the other hand, is right on. Page 53 in his Natural History of Birds indeed describes the ash-colored buzzard, though in terms so general as to make it impossible to tell whether his bird is a goshawk, a buteo, or a harrier.

The bird on the accompanying plate, drawn, etched, and colored by Edwards himself, is only slightly more identifiable, more closely resembling a gyrfalcon than any harrier. In any event, Edwards’s Plate 53, the explicit citation in the Tableau notwithstanding, cannot possibly have provided the exemplar for the buse cendrée.

Leaf through a few pages in Edwards, though, and we come to his Plate 63, depicting “the whip-poor-will, or lesser goat-sucker.” The description, as expected in the mid-eighteenth century, conflates at least two species of nocturnal birds, but the plate is what’s important here.

This, one of Edwards’s more appealing works, is unmistakably the source of the engraving in the Tableau. The extreme faithfulness with which it was copied–the number of visible toes, the misplaced tertial, the exact shape of the tail tip and open bill–suggests that Bénard and his artists had recourse to the camera lucida or a similar optical device when they reproduced their exemplars.

My guess is that when Bénard direxit his staff to prepare an illustration to accompany Vieillot’s buse cendrée, he gave them the wrong plate number in Edwards, namely, 63 rather than 53; or that whoever was charged with the copying made the mistake on their own. Soixante-trois, cinquante-trois: it was easy to be off by ten. And Edwards’s nighthawk, with those long wings and short, curved bill, was sufficiently hawk-like as to raise no alarms for the engraver who copied it as a harrier.

It’s a vanishingly small detail, but in combination with the garbled citations in Vieillot’s Tableau entry, a heartening reminder to the rest of us mortals that even Homer nods–and that book production has always been as difficult as it is complex.

Birders are a scrappy lot, and I’ve seen plenty of confrontations in the field that verged on the violent. But I can’t remember a time that the disagreement brought the parties before a judge.

European blackbird

Feelings ran deeper in the eighteenth century, it seems, and back in the days when every middle-class household had a pet bird or two, the financial stakes could be high.

In the third volume of the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, Buffon, or Montbeillard writing in the voice of Buffon, offers this curious anecdote:

The similarity between young common starlings and young common blackbirds is so great that I have actually witnessed a case, a lawsuit between two private parties. The first party was suing for the return of a starling that he claimed to have given into the other party’s care so that it might learn to speak, whistle, sing, and so on. That second party, however, having produced instead a healthy, full-grown blackbird, countersued for his fee, claiming that he had in fact been originally given only that same blackbird.

Can you imagine the excited high hopes of sending a smudgy grayish fledgling off to finishing school, and the disappointment of having it returned not as the eloquent starling of your dreams but a mere blackbird?

No word, alas, on who won or what damages were awarded.

Eurasian Blackbird
A pretty bird and glossy, but the common blackbird doesn’t hold a candle to the vocal attainments of a properly trained starling.


Other People’s Bird Books: The Author’s Own Hand

This copy of Thomas C. Eyton’s Monograph on the Anatidae, from the library of the University of Illinois and scanned for the marvelous Biodiversity Heritage Library, is autographed by the author–not an unusual thing to encounter in the world of bird books.

What is unusual, though, is the fact that after adding his John Hancock to the title page, Eyton for some reason found it necessary to explain, parenthetically, that this was the “autograph of the Author.”

I have no explanation.


The Allegorical Coot

American Coot talons

Just between you and me, coots aren’t the nicest birds in the world. Even when they’re not busy drowning each other’s chicks and dueling to the death on park ponds and puddles, they’re fractious beasts, their squawks and rattles breaking the palustrine peace wherever they’re found.

Eurasian Coot

Curious about whether these asocial behaviors have always defined cootness, I cast a quick glance at some of the older literature treating these familiar birds. “Older”? Yes, a lot older: The works listed in the zoological index to the Patrologia latina, always a convenient, if rarely a comprehensive, way to begin to answer questions like this. 

Isidore of Seville’s account of the fulica, dating to the first quarter of the seventh century, begins with an inscrutable etymology: The coot is called “fulica” because its flesh tastes of rabbit. (Migne proposes that the original reading was “fuliginem” rather than “leporinam,” thus rendering the taste “sooty” or “smoky” rather than bunnyish.) Isidore is on firmer ground (the birds aren’t) in the few natural history details he offers:

“This is a marsh bird, nesting out in the middle of the water or in the rocks around the water. It prefers deep water, but when it senses a storm coming on, it retreats into the shallows.”

In his encyclopedic De universo, composed two centuries later, Hrabanus Maurus adds a description of the bird, which is “gentle and black, smaller than a duck but with a similar body shape.” Hrabanus goes on to quote Isidore on coots’ fleeing an approaching storm for comforting waters, a behavior he likens to that of “those about to be baptized.” Adopting a variant reading of the “heron’s house” of Psalm 103, Hrabanus transforms it into a coot’s nest, the sacred font that leads all Christians into the kingdom of heaven. 


Eurasian coot

Definitely in bonam partem.

In the latter half of the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan had been just as positive, finding in the coot a model of charity. Whereas eagles sometimes cast their young from the nest, “there is a bird called fulica, which gathers the rejected eagle chick unto its own young, and joining it to its own, it raises it with the same eagerness and feeds it the same food as it does its own brood. … We humans, however, sometimes reject even our own kind with savage cruelty.”

Hugh of St. Victor, or an author using the great scholar’s name, writing in the first half of the twelfth century, is even more enthusiastic about the coot as exemplar. This “quite intelligent bird, the wisest of all,” disdains carrion, and rather than flying around all over the countryside, it remains in one place, where it finds its food and its rest. (Pseudo-)Hugh deduces a lesson:

“So too does the faithful man live according to God’s will. Neither does he flit hither and thither, wandering from place to place as heretics do. He finds no delight in earthly desires and bodily pleasures, but just like that bird that eats no flesh, he remains and finds rest in a single place, that is to say, the catholic apostolic church…. Here he has the daily bread of immortality, and his drink is the priceless blood of Christ.” Hugh’s quoting Isidore on the coot’s nesting habits at the end of his account seems a mere afterthought.

It’s not much of a sample, true, but it’s enough to convince me that the coot–in spite of its sinister plumage, its raucous voice, and its all too public boisterousness–managed to avoid darker associations in the exegetic literature. A quick glance at the bestiary tradition, which is after all based largely in those sources, finds the pattern surviving through the Middle Ages: no devils, no sinners, no heretics.

But now I wonder about the emblem books….