Into the Hills

Sylvan Lake

We arose this morning to temperatures a full 55 degrees lower than those we’d basked in in Denver. And fog. And mist, and a little rain, too.

All that changed, suddenly, miraculously, within moments of our arriving at our first stop for the day, Sylvan Lake, more than 6000 feet up in the Black Hills. First the clouds lightened, then lifted, and soon enough the sky was actually blue — a rare enough sight at this location, and one that we enjoyed to its fullest.

Sylvan Lake

We saw several good birds up there, including an adult broad-winged hawk, two squabbling sharp-shinned hawks, a Clark’s nutcracker, and a gray jay. As usual, though, it wasn’t the rarities and scarcities that truly made the morning, but rather one of the commonest birds of the area, and perhaps its most charming: the white-winged junco.

white-winged junco

I love seeing this species (!) at this locality because it calls to mind the story of Elliott Coues, Principal Danby of Custer High, and their new junco from Sylvan Lake.

Coues had been stationed at Fort Randall in the early 1870s, but he paid his first visit to the Black Hills in 1895. On September 16 of that year he wrote from “picturesque and romantic” Sylvan Lake, where he had installed himself for a month of “much-needed respite from work and worry.” Coues may have escaped worry, but his work was with him always, especially in a place as birdy as Sylvan Lake.

Two birds in particular caught Coues’s attention: the pinyon jay, “one of the commonest birds,” and the breeding junco, which the visiting ornithologist tentatively described as a new taxon to be named Danby’s junco, Junco hyemalis danbyi. The proposed subspecific epithet was chosen in honor of Durward E. Danby, principal of the high school in Custer, the faculty and students of which Coues happens to have addressed earlier in the day on that September 16.

Coues noted that the differences between the nominate slate-colored junco and the Black Hills bird were obvious even “at gunshot range”:

The impression is that of a large gray rather than blackish bird, with the dark color ofthe breast fading gradually into the white of the belly [and] the gray of the back overcast with a brownish wash; and some of them show an approach to the characters of aikeni [the white-winged junco] in having an imperfect wingbar formed by the white tips of the … secondary coverts.

Two years later, in the pages of the Auk, Coues recanted. The Danby’s junco, he affirmed, was “simply the young of” the white-winged. Even so, Coues found a silver lining in his having described the Sylvan Lake birds as new even provisionally:

The naming of the supposed new form will prove to have been not entirely in vain if it serves to emphasize the fact that [the white-winged junco] is so thoroughly distinct from [the slate-colored] that it can be recognized at any age,

even in individuals that lack the eponymous wing bars.

The bird could not be mistaken for hyemalis at any age; the ‘aspect’ in life, even at gunshot range, is distinctive; for one receives the impression of a large gray bird.

We confirmed that impression over and over this morning as we watched our white-wingeds, the descendants or at least near relatives of the very birds described from Sylvan Lake exactly 122 years ago today.

Sylvan Lake


Parkhurst’s Junco: The Career of a Quotation

Fuertes slat-colored junco

It’s one of the infallible signs of the season. Sitting inside on a chilly day, a cup of hot chocolate warming the hands and busy feeders cheering the heart, every year about this time you can watch it creep across the internet: the description of the slate-colored junco as “leaden skies above and snow beneath.”

I’d love to know who’s behind the e-revival of that particular bit of kitsch. Or do you suppose that everybody is quoting the phrase directly from its source, Howard Elmore Parkhurst’s The Birds’ Calendar?

Parkhurst, slate-colored juncos

Parkhurst’s “informal diary” is now virtually unknown — apart, of course, from that throwaway line about the juncos. But it marks the birth of a very special sub-genre in the literature of American birding, namely, the Central Park memoir.

The observations here recorded, with slight exceptions, were all made in that small section known as “The Ramble,” covering only about one-sixteenth of a square mile…. Within this little retreat I have, during the year [1893], found represented nineteen of the twenty-one families of song birds in the United States; some of them quite abundantly in genera and species; with a sprinkling of species from several other classes of land and water birds.

Among the birds Parkhurst encountered in January was

the snow-bird, a trim and sprightly creature about six inches long, dark slate above and on the breast, which passes very abruptly into white beneath, as if it were reflecting the leaden skies above and the snow below…. Their sleek and natty appearance and genial temper commend them at once to the observer.

Parkhurst, Birds' Calendar

And Parkhurst’s “attractive” prose commended itself equally to the contemporary reader. His felicitous description of the junco appears to have been quoted abundantly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, almost (only almost!) always with an attribution to the author. It seems likely that Neltje Blanchan was the earliest vector of dissemination for the phrase, which passed from her Bird Neighbors into leaflets for schoolchildren, who no doubt were as taken by “Mr. Parkhurst’s suggestive description of this rather timid little neighbor” as were his adult readers.

In the years that followed, however, the quotation was loosed from its authorial origins, most often to be cited anonymously. In his 1968 entry for the Bent Life HistoriesEaton followed that “modern” practice in noting only that the junco had been “aptly described as ‘leaden skies above, snow below'” — not bothering to tell us by whom. Parkhurst’s words still appeared in quotation marks, but they had plainly become part of a shared store of birderly lore, no more requiring attribution than the observation that the white outer rectrices are “prominent in flight.”

Ernest Thompson Seton, slate-colored juncos

This has always been the path of a catchy phrase: invented by a single mind, admired by others, then finally taken over into a broader culture eager to forget that it ever had an origin. But the internet has introduced another, more sinister step.

Parkhurst’s words still circulate — especially this time of year — without his name attached. In a classic internet move, though, a google search now, once again, turns up the quotation with an attribution.

A new attribution.

Thoreau described [juncos] as “leaden skies above, snow below.”

I don’t know all of Thoreau. I don’t remember those words in what I have read of the oeuvre, though, and it seems suspect to me that the earliest printed assertion of his authorship (thanks, google) should be from no more than four years before the Mother Jones quotation above. Surely in the 101 years between Parkhurst’s Calendar and 1994 someone would have pointed out the theft. I’m left wondering whether the credit to Thoreau isn’t — gasp — made up, as are so many (it sometimes seems like most) of the attributions on the internet.

It’s one of the unhappy elements of this e-world that it’s awfully easy for us to just say things, whether they’re true or not. But, in an encouraging paradox, the same casual convenience lets us go ad fontes in search of the truth: it takes hardly more time to look up “leaden skies and snow” than it does to decide to type the name “Thoreau.”

So here, a couple of weeks early, is my 2015 resolution: To give Howard E. Parkhurst credit for everything he said or wrote, and to resist the easy temptation to throw attributions around at random.

Who’s with me?

Horsfall slate-colored juncos