The Deserving Aglaé

John Cassin was famously no friend of the practice of naming birds for people. Squabbling gently with his friend and colleague Spencer Baird over the naming of a new vireo, he wrote that

this kind of thing is bad enough at the best, but to name a bird after a person utterly unknown is worse.

There are plenty who agree with him today, and there were plenty who agreed with him in the mid-nineteenth century, when the rage for birdy patronyms was at its height. In 1839, for example, the baron de La Fresnaye expressed his own displeasure at the practice — even as he indulged in it himself. In naming a new American bird for the wife of a Bordeaux collector, La Fresnaye protested that

our sole intention in dedicating this species to Mme Brelay has been to pay tribute to the very special enthusiasm with which she herself has engaged in ornithology and collaborated with M. Brelay in forming his collection, which already includes many thousand individual birds.

But the lady ornithologist was an exception.

We by no means approve of the custom of giving new birds the names of women who are often enough entirely without any interest or expertise in ornithology; though the author of the name may be bound to them in friendship or family relations, these women can be of no interest to the larger circle of naturalists. We believe that the application of a proper name to a bird is in fact acceptable only when it commemorates that of some naturalist, author, explorer, painter, or zealous collector who has already rendered or is in the course of rendering some service to science.

La Fresnaye’s few flattering words are essentially all we know about the Brelays’ ornithological pursuits. Some of their specimens are still preserved in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the family historians are at least able to provide Mme Brelay’s dates of birth and death, but I fear that the bigger story was lost while the collections passed from the Brelays to La Fresnaye to the Verreaux brothers to the Boston Society of Natural History to, finally, Harvard.

Oh: the bird. Mme Brelay was immortalized 175 years ago in the species epithet of the rose-throated becard. Not a bad bird to lend one’s name to, not at all.


Slapping Soras

Trigger alert!


Last September, pondering the abundance of the lovely little sora in autumn marshes, we wondered what it meant that so many had once been “paddled” in Virginia’s Curl’s Neck Marsh. I even managed to make contact with a couple of outfitters who specialize in rail hunting. But the response was everywhere the same: It just meant that the rails had been taken from a boat.

Everywhere the same, and everywhere unsatisfactory. Here’s the real answer, from the Richmond Dispatch at the turn of the last century:

It is a saying often heard in the country, if not in the city, that “slapped” birds are much better than “shot” ones. This is to say that market hunters, of course, do not shoot their game, but kill them with a long paddle — eighteen feet long — with which they shove their boats through the marshes…. A slight blow from the heavy paddle “settles his hash forever,” as the country boy says…. The bird is not bruised, and is much to be preferred to the shot bird….

Not a very pretty picture, but at least now we know. And we know, too, what the witty rail hunter called himself a century ago: a “soracer.”

He stands [in the boat] and slaps the poor little things until his arms are tired. Such a night as this he is apt to kill fifteen or twenty dozen.

Our reporter goes on to tell us that a dozen soras fetch 50 cents at the market, and that “the good soracer” earns 50 to 75 dollars in September and October. Do the math: That’s 24 birds to the dollar, or 1200 to 1800 rails a season for the skilled paddler.

I can only repeat what I said last year at this time: That’s a lot of soras.


A Man, a Bridge, a Hummingbird: Panama

Eighty-six years ago today, George Washington Goethals died in New York City.


Here in our part of the world, he is best known as the eponym of the great bridge that spans the Arthur Kill to connect New Jersey and Staten Island.

A few people with longer memories recall Goethals’s heroic role as Chief Engineer for the Panama Canal, completed under his supervision a hundred years ago this year.

But very, very few of us remember Goethals’s Hummingbird.

Edward A. Goldman — the famous collector whose own name is borne by so many Central American birds — took the first specimens of this new hummingbird in March 1912, in the Darien region of eastern Panama. Goldman sent the Smithsonian three skins, a female shot on March 6, a male shot ten days later, and a second male taken in May; Edward Nelson chose to describe the species using the first male, “slightly immature,” as the type.

Nelson’s analysis determined that the new hummingbird was closely related to the Violet-capped Hummingbird, but differed from the birds of his genus Goldmania in certain characters of the wing, most notably the apparently “normal,” unmodified shape of the outermost primary. He deemed that difference sufficient for the erection of a new genus, which Nelson named Goethalsia,

in honor of Colonel George W. Goethals, head of the Panama Canal Commission, to whom the scientific workers of the Biological Canal Zone are deeply indebted for prompt and courteous assistance in prosecuting their work.

The species epithet Nelson assigned the bird, bella, is just the flattering icing on the cake.

The genus Goethalsia is still valid and still monotypic, including only Nelson’s species bella.

The English name, unfortunately, has been changed to Pirre Hummingbird, commemorating the locality where Goldman collected two of his three skins. But that shouldn’t stop us from thinking of Goethals once in a while, and the persistent connection between American science and our — shall we say — activities abroad.