Mr. Cairngorms

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 18 February 2019

In 2013, while compiling information for a chapter on the contributions of ornithology to evolutionary biology, I carried on a lively correspondence, by email, with Adam Watson. Watson was a renowned Scottish ecologist, naturalist and conservationist who had worked with Vero Wynne-Edwards, a staunch promoter of evolution by group selection.  We have all of Wynne-Edwards archives here at Queen’s University [1] but the man was exceptionally careful not to record (or preserve) any personal opinions in his letters or field notes. I wrote to Watson to learn more about Wynne’s interactions with David Lack, the leading evolutionary ecologist of the day, who saw no need for anything different from the sort of individual selection described by Darwin.

Wynne-Edwards and Watson had, for example, taken David Lack on a walk in the Cairngorms in 1968 at a time when the two men were having a fierce debate about group selection [2]. But, as Watson wrote to me, their meeting was extremely amicable and group selection was, as far as he could remember, never mentioned. Lack impressed everyone by spotting a rare bird and a rare plant [3], and the day turned out to be a pleasant hike in the mountains with a focus on natural history.

WatsonDog
Adam Watson banding a ptarmigan chick

Watson was on that day-hike with Lack and Wynne-Edwards, not only because he worked with Wynne, but also because he was an expert on the Cairngorms, three plateaus of wild natural beauty in the eastern highlands of Scotland, dotted with the blunted fists of mountains rising above the plateaus. Five of those mountains are among the 6 highest peaks in Scotland and snow can fall at any time of the year. I have never been to that part of Scotland but descriptions of both the landscape and the birds remind me of High Arctic Canada, with breeding Snow Buntings and Rock Ptarmigan, and even the occasional Lapland Longspur and Snowy Owl. Watson loved it there and spent much of his life exploring and studying the region. He certainly earned the local moniker of ‘Mr Cairngorms’.

I first encountered Watson’s research in the 1970s in a graduate course at UBC in ecology where we read his classic papers with Jenkins and Moss on the causes of red grouse cycles in Scotland. These Scottish biologists were clearly in the Elton/Chitty/Krebs school of ecology, wherein they attributed population fluctuations to extrinsic factors like food supply and predation.

redgrouse2
Red Grouse numbers on one study area in Scotland, 1957-1961

My second encounter with Watson’s work began in the 1980s when I started studying Rock Ptarmigan in the Canadian High Arctic. Watson had done his own PhD in 1956 on Rock Ptarmigan in Scotland. He continued to study that species at least until 1964 but then turned his attention to the more widespread and economically important Red Grouse. We were interested in behavioural ecology, specifically sexual selection with respect to combs and plumages, so it was important for us to keep the basic ecology of ptarmigan (of which the Red Grouse is one) in mind. We were also inspired by the experimental approach that Watson and colleagues took to addressing questions of interest.

  During the 1980s, Peter Hudson, Andy Dobson and their colleagues discovered a role for parasites in these population fluctuations. The result was a fierce conflict between Watson and the others about the controlling factors in population regulation. Thirty 30 years later, now that the dust has settled a bit, I expect that both camps had useful data and arguments to bring to bear on population cycles.

Most recently, when writing about the history of ornithology in Nunavut, I read Watson’s book [4] and papers from his summer on Baffin Island in 1953. In 1945, when he was only 14, Watson met Wynne-Edwards when Wynne moved to Aberdeen as Regius Professor. Wynne’s first academic position was at McGill University where he lectured from 1929 until the start of WWII. With their shared interest in natural history, Wynne and Watson often hiked in the mountains of northeastern Scotland.

Watson did his honours thesis at Aberdeen University studying ptarmigan under Wynne’s supervision, then in 1952 began his PhD continuing his ptarmigan research. At Wynne’s encouragement, Watson applied for and won a Carnegie Arctic Scholarship to attend McGill University for a year, associated with the nearby Arctic Institute of North America. It was there that the Director, Pat Baird, invited Watson to be zoologist on a 13-man expedition [5] to Baffin Island in 1953.

AWowls
Watson studying Snowy Owls (sketch by James Houston [6]
The purpose of that expedition was to study the geology, glaciers, zoology and botany of an area called the Penny Highlands on the Cumberland Peninsula on the southeast coast of Baffin. They departed Montreal on 12 May and returned 4 months later. Watson conducted probably the first reasonably accurate census of the densities of tundra-breeding birds, and did a comprehensive study of Snowy Owl breeding biology and ecology. In his studies of both the owls on Baffin and the ptarmigan in Scotland, Watson was a pioneer in the field that we now call behavioural ecology.

WatsonVCWEWatson was clearly thrilled with his experiences on that expedition: It was a very fine summer trip. Being on that expedition with my expedition colleagues and Inuit companions, and studying Arctic wildlife among the finest mountains I had ever seen, were a rare treat and a highlight of my life. Perhaps they were the highlight.[7].

One clear attraction was that that region in particular, and Baffin Island in general, had rarely been explored by scientists. Only two ornithologists had so far done any work on Baffin: Bernhard Hantzsch on an ill-fated expedition to cross the island in 1909-1911, and Dewy Soper looking for the breeding grounds of the blue goose in the 1920s. Watson thus did not really know what to expect on the Penny Highlands so he did both general surveys and focused studies.

Toward the end of the summer they were joined by Wynne-Edwards who had been studying seabirds at Cape Searle at the tip of the Cumberland Peninsula. In preparation for their trip back to civilization everyone got their hair cut. I expect that Watson really treasured the photo above where his PhD supervisor was cutting his hair in one of the most beautiful outdoor barbershops in the world.

Adam Watson died [8] on 23 January 2019. He was 88 years old. I never had the privilege of meeting him, but I feel honoured to have known him even just by email. Someday I will visit the Cairngorms to pay tribute to his tireless efforts to preserve that interesting part of Scotland for both the birds and hares, and for people like him that love wild places.

WatsonScotland

SOURCES

  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Hudson P, Tapper S (1979) Grouse populations—do they cycle? Annual Review of Game Conservancy 11:17–23.
  • Hudson PJ, Dobson AP,  Newborn D (1985) Cyclic and non-cyclic populations of red grouse: a role for parasitism? In: Ecology and genetics of host-parasite interactions (Ed by Rollinson D, Anderson RM). Pp 79-89. London: Academic Press. London.
  • Hudson PJ (1986) The effects of parasitic infections on the population fluctuations of red grouse in the north of England. In: Proceedings of the Third International Grouse Symposium (ed. By Hudson PJ, Lovell TWI )
  • Jenkins D, Watson A, Miller GR (1963) Population Studies on Red Grouse, Lagopus lagopus scoticus (Lath.) in North-East Scotland. Journal of Animal Ecology 32: 317-376
  • Montgomerie RD (2018) History of ornithology in Nunavut. pages 45-69 in Richards JM, Gaston AJ, editors. Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • Watson A (1953) Birds in Cumberland Peninsula, Baffin Island. Canadian Field-Naturalist 71:87–109.
  • Watson A (1956) The annual cycle of rock ptarmigan. Ph.D. thesis. Aberdeen Univ., Aberdeen, Scotland.
  • Watson A (1957) The behaviour, breeding and food-ecology of the snowy owl Nyctea scandiaca. Ibis 99:419–462.

  • Watson A (1963) Bird numbers on tundra in Baffin Island. Arctic 16:101–108.

  • Watson A (1965) A population study of ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) in Scotland. Journal of Animal Ecology 34: 135-172.
  • Watson A (2011) A Zoologist on Baffin Island 1953. Rothersthorpe, UK: Paragon Publishing.

  • Watson A, Moss R (1970) Dominance, spacing behaviour and aggression in relation to population limitation invertebrates. In A. Watson (Ed.), Animal populations in relation to their food (pp. 167-220). Blackwell Sci.
  • Watson A, Moss R (1971) Spacing as affected by territorial behaviour, habitat and nutrition in red grouse (Lagopus l. scotius). In A. H. Esser (Ed.), Behaviour and environment; the use of space by animals and men (pp. 92-111). New York and London: Plenum Press.
  • Watson A, Moss R (1977) Population ecology of red grouse. Annual Report of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology 1977 1978:18–21.
  • Watson A, Moss R (1979) Population cycles in the Tetraonidae. Ornis Fennica 56:87–109.

Footnotes

  1. archives at Queen’s University: Wynne-Edwards’s grand-daughter, Kathy Wynne-Edwards, was one of my faculty colleagues here in the Biology Department when Wynne-Edwards died, and a few of his relatives also lived in Kingston so this was a logical place for his archives to be deposited. See here for more details.
  2. Debate about group selection: see Birkhead et al. 2014 pp 369-371
  3. rare plant: the Lacks were on that hike especially to look for the rare brook saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis), which they found
  4. Watson’s book: self-published in 2011, full 58 years after he went to Baffin Island this chronicle of his summer on the Canadian tundra is remarkably detailed and full of both adventure and natural history.
  5. sketch by James Houston: Houston was a Canadian artist and novelist who lived for many  years in Cape Dorset on Baffin Island; he is credited with launching the production of Inuit prints and sculpture
  6. 13-man expedition: only 12 returned as one of the glaciologists, Ben Battle, drowned and was buried on the tundra
  7. quotation: from Watson 2011 page 5
  8. Adam Watson died: see here and here

IMAGES: all photos and the drawing by Houston courtesy Adam Watson; the photos of Watson and Wynne-Edwards was taken by Hans Röthlisberger; graph modified from Figure 4 in Jenkins et al. (1963) with the addition of Red Grouse illustration from Birds of the World Online at https://www.hbw.com

In the Shadow of Men

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 February 2019

In 1973, I was stranded for several days on a small island in Witless Bay off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. I had gone there several times already that summer, conducting seabird surveys for the Canadian Wildlife Service. Landing on Green Island was sometimes difficult and the days were short as the local cod fishermen—Bill White and Henry Yard—who took me out and back liked to do so on certain tides to make the landings less dangerous. As the season was getting on and I still had a large part of the island to census, I decided, one day in June, to stay overnight so that I could get in 3-4 times as many hours on the island than was possible on a single visit. I took a tiny pup tent, two days’ food and water, a small camp stove full of fuel, a sleeping bag and a change of clothes as I knew I’d get wet.

shadowMy best-laid plans were thwarted by a fierce, unexpected storm that came to shore that night and lashed the island for more than a week. The storm was so wild that it prevented both the fishermen and an RCMP helicopter from picking me up. Often I had to spend hours in my little tent to stay dry and to keep from being blown off the cliffs. To pass the time I slept, made plans to stretch out my meagre food supply, and organized my field notes. I also built nooses of fishing line to catch some murres in case I needed to eat a few to survive as the storm was showing no signs of letting up. When cooped up in my little tent, I read, several times, the only book I had taken with me, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, which had just come out in paperback. That book—and the experience of being stranded and rescued—had a profound effect on me.

Three things about Goodall’s book were important to my development and outlook as a scientist. First, and foremost, this was the first book I had read by a woman biologist/naturalist [1], and it was just as good as all the others. I think that Goodall’s book more or less marked a turning point for biology that has transformed the role of women during the past 50 years. Prior to Goodall’s book, I had read many of the recent and now classic ‘popular’ books by and about naturalists—Tinbergen, Lorenz, Lack, Robert Ardry, George Schaller, Ernest Thompson Seton, Albert Hochbaum, Fred Bodsworth, James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson, to name just a few—all by men.

At that time, I knew of excellent recent work by women ornithologists—MM Nice, Mary Willson, Mercedes Foster, Janet Kear, Susan Smith—published in the bird journals, but they were very much in the minority. I have been looking at the publications by female ornithologists in The Auk and The Condor over the last 135 years and the trend—and the exponential increase in female authorships since 1970—is shown on the graph below, reflecting a similar trend in The American Naturalist.

Graphs

My own experience as an academic reflects this welcome pattern as well. My first group of four graduate students were all men, all of whom went on to academic positions at excellent universities. My last (in both senses of the word) four graduate students were all female. It’s too early to tell what career path they will take but one of them just got a tenure-track job. This change in the composition of my research group since 1980 does not reflect any conscious attempt on my part to train women scientists—everyone that I took on as a graduate student was simply the best applicant at the time. During my first decade teaching (1980s), most undergraduate biology students were male; when I looked out on my 48-student History and Philosophy of Biology class last week I could count only 9 men.

stilt
Stilt Sandpiper, Churchill 1972

Goodall’s book also reminded me how much fun it is to study animals close up, and how much better your insights can be when you can get extremely close to animals without seeming to disturb them. I enjoyed that aspect of studying seabirds that summer in Newfoundland, but also when studying both sandpipers and collared lemmings on the tundra at Churchill, Manitoba, the previous two summers. Such close observations of behaviours seemed to be important for testing hypotheses in the nascent field of behavioural ecology, especially where social interactions were concerned. Partly for that reason, I returned to the arctic with my newly-minted research group in 1980 as I knew the birds would be tame, could be watched at close distance, and could be followed for as long as we wanted on the open tundra. That was one of the reasons that we were able to document high levels of extrapair mating in Lapland Longspurs, years before DNA fingerprinting revealed that extrapair paternity was common in passerine birds [2].

iketina
Ike and Tina just outside my tent

Finally, I was amused that Goodall had named all of the chimpanzees that she watched. I knew that Lorenz and others had named their study animals but I always thought that that would not be acceptable in a serious scientific study. Goodall reminded me that there was nothing wrong with making research fun and entertaining. Right away I started to give names to the pairs of seabirds nesting near my tent—was I going a little stir crazy? For the local pairs of puffins, black guillemots, herring gulls and common murres, I chose the names of my favourite folk and rock couples—Ian and Sylvia, Ike and Tina, (Peter) Paul and Mary, Jim and Jean, and Chuck and Joni [3]. Years later, we often gave names to our favourite pairs of Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings and Rock Ptarmigan. And, in the early 1990s, when we studied Ruffs on Gotland in the Baltic, we named each of the males on every lek and used hand-drawn mug shots to identify them individually.

ruffs
Ruffs on Gotland—copy of a page from my 1990 field notes on Gotland

Today (11 February 2019) is the UN-sponsored International Day of Women and Girls in Science, designed to celebrate and promote the roles of women in all of the sciences. While we have come a long way since Jane Goodall began working on chimpanzees, less than 30% of scientists worldwide are women, and there are still many barriers and sources of discrimination and gender bias in the sciences.

At the AOS meeting in Anchorage this year we will have some displays celebrating the roles of women in ornithology. For a long time, ornithology was largely a man’s game [4] but there have been some great, but relatively unknown, woman ornithologists in the past. I have tried to highlight some of their accomplishments on this blog [4]. In that same vein, I will devote all of March (Women’s History Month in the USA) to posts about the contributions of women to ornithology before Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees.

SOURCES

  • Bronstein JL, Bolnick, DI (2018) “Her Joyous Enthusiasm for Her Life-Work…”: Early Women Authors in The American Naturalist. American Naturalist 192:655-663.

  • Burke T, Bruford MW (1987) DNA fingerprinting in birds. Nature 327:149–152.

  • Klopfer PH (1962) Behavioral aspects of ecology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

  • Goodall JvL (1971) In the shadow of man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Footnotes

  1. first book I had read by a woman biologist/naturalist: it’s only when writing this post today that I realized this. It certainly did not surprise me at the time.
  2. Chuck and Joni: my friends and I went to hear folk concert by the Mitchells at a coffee shop (either Penny Farthing or Riverboat) in Toronto’s Yorkville Village one night in 1967 or so. But the couple had broken up the day before and so a very nervous Joni did the gig on her own. She never looked back.
  3. extrapair paternity was common in passerine birds: see Burke and Buford (1987) for an early example
  4. largely a man’s game: see previous posts here, here, here, here, and here

IMAGES: all photos, the Ruff drawings, and the Auk/Condor graph by the author; American Naturalist graph modified from Figure 1 in Bronstein and Bolnick (2018)

CORRECTIONS: in the original post I forgot to add the Bronstein and Bolnick reference, the image sources, and the drawings of Ruffs. All added on 13 Feb 2019

Ortolan of the Snows

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 26 November 2018

[This is a greatly expanded and edited version of an article I wrote for the 7th Annual Newsletter of the Canadian Snow Bunting Network (online here), sent out a couple of weeks ago]

In 1981, during my first high arctic field season, my incomparable group of graduate students and field assistants [1] saw some great opportunities for studying the breeding biology of birds at close range [2]. With the ability to follow birds continuously on the open tundra, they realized the potential for answering some interesting questions about sexual selection and parental care that had proven difficult to study with the more skittish temperate and tropical birds that we were all familiar with. Bruce Lyon, now at UC Santa Cruz, focussed on Snow Buntings so we began by trapping birds, using both potter traps and noose carpets. I already had a little experience trapping Snow Buntings in Ontario in winter with David Hussell, so we were quite successful in catching the mated pairs on our study area at Sarcpa Lake, Nunavut. Little did we know at the time that the Snow Bunting had been trapped for food long before scientists began catching it for research.

SNBUprint3

My wife’s mother grew up during the 1930s in Sept-Îles on the north shore of the St Lawrence River in far eastern Québec. When I first met her in the mid-1990s, and told her about my high arctic research, she rather sheepishly admitted that her family used to catch Snow Buntings with noose carpets in the winter, to provide a little fresh protein and fat for their limited diet. Even in the 20th century, the fur trappers of Labrador were said to have: lived on a healthy diet of spruce partridge, caribou steaks, ptarmigan stew, snow buntings, salt pork, and flat bread made of flour, salt and water cooked in an open pan over the fire. [3]

This little bird has in fact been an important food source  for people throughout its winter range, shot—and trapped with noose carpets, box-and-stick, grain sieves, and drag ropes—wherever they were abundant [4]. In 1903, for example, a State game warden found nearly 80,000 snow bunting carcasses in a cold storage warehouse in a ‘large eastern’ city of North America, ready to ship to local markets and restaurants [5].

traps
Various snow bunting traps: noose carpet (L), grain sieve (M), and box-and-stick (R)

In the late 1700s, the great English explorer and naturalist Samuel Hearne wrote extensively about the birds and mammals he encountered on his expeditions through northern Manitoba and Nunavut. Many of his observations were unique and perceptive, demonstrating an appreciation of ecology and behaviour well ahead of his time [6]. But he also described how to hunt or catch each species and its suitability as food, thereby providing a guide to other explorers who would have to live off the land—an 18th century version of TripAdvisor or Yelp. Here is what he said about the Snow Bunting:

These birds make their appearance at the Northern settlements in the Bay about the latter end of May, or beginning of April, when they are very fat, and not inferior in flavour to an ortolan…At that time they are easily caught in great numbers under a net baited with groats or oatmeal; but as the Summer advances, they feed much on worms, and are then not so much esteemed [as food]. They sometimes fly in such large flocks, that I have killed upwards of twenty at one shot, and have known others who have killed double that number…In Autumn they return to the South in large flocks, and are frequently shot in considerable numbers merely as a delicacy; at that season, however, they are by no means so good as when they first make their appearance in Spring. [7]

ortolanGOULD
Ortolan by Gould

The ‘ortolan‘ that Hearne refers to here is the Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana) that breeds throughout eastern Europe and west-central Asia to western Mongolia.  Since the 1930s their numbers have declined markedly in western and northern Europe, largely due to increasing intensity of agriculture but also because they have been trapped for food. Even though trapping and killing endangered birds is illegal in the European Union, poachers in France are alleged to be taking tens to hundreds of thousand of them per year for the restaurant trade and home consumption [8]. This species is not at all endangered but its numbers in western Europe and Scandinavia have been decimated in recent decades.

The ortolan has long been considered a culinary delicacy in Europe, particularly in France where they are still available illegally to people of wealth and power. Knowing that he had only a few days to live, French President François Mitterand [9] famously ordered (and received) two ortolans for his final, gluttonous meal. It is said that he died a happy man.

So, in retrospect, Samuel Hearne’s comparison of the Snow Bunting to the ortolan is incredible praise indeed. Almost a century before Hearne came to Canada to work for the Hudson Bay Company, Father Chrestian Le Clercq, a Franciscan missionary, called the Snow Bunting ‘ortolan’ in his book on Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula [10]. We don’t know, however, if LeClercq used that name because of the bird’s flavour or its appearance. Linnaeus noted that the Snow Bunting was called ortolan de neige in France, and that may well have been why the name was familiar to LeClercq.

We can be grateful that the conservation of birds became a cause early in the 20th century because, even as that century began, it was clear to some that the Snow Bunting could not stand the sort of hunting pressure they were subjected to in eastern North America. Here is Henry Dutcher in his 1903 report: It is to be hoped that they will not become in demand to supply the market, else, from the readiness with which they can be captured, we should look for the early extinction of the most agreeable feathered companion which the northern residents possess during their long, tedious winters. [11]

SOURCES

  • Anonymous (1876) The Snow Bunting. American Agriculturalist 35:253.
  • Cockerill AW (2004) The trappers of Labrador. Material Culture Review / Revue de la culture matérielle 60: (available here)
  • Dutcher W (1903) Report of the AOU committee on the protection of North American birds. The Auk 20:101–159.
  • Ganong WT (1910) The identity of the animals and plants mentioned by the early voyagers to Eastern Canada and Newfoundland. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 3: 197-242.
  • Hearne S (1795) A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. London: Strahan and Cadell.
  • Montgomerie R. 2018. The history of ornithology in Nunavut. pp 49-69 IN Richards JM, Gaston AJ. The Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • Svanberg I (2001) The snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) as food in the northern circumpolar region. Fróđskaparrit (Annales Societatis Scientiarum Faroensis) 48:29–40.

Footnotes

  1. my first arctic field crew: Of the 6 graduate students and field assistants that came north with me in 1981, four went on to successful academic careers as university professors (Lyon at UC Santa Cruz, Mary Reid and Ralph Cartar at Univ Calgary, and Rob McLaughlin at Univ Guelph), and one became a medical doctor (Linda Hamilton). It amazes me how lucky I was to start my own academic career with such a fun and engaged crew.
  2. observing at close range: because there was really nowhere for the birds to hide we sometimes followed individuals around the clock in an attempt to document rare behaviours (like extrapair copulations) that are so hard to see in passerines that breed in forests and grasslands
  3. quotation about trappers: from Cockerill (2004)
  4. snow bunting traps: see Svanberg (2001) for more details and a summary of the snow bunting as food particularly in Scandinavia, Iceland and the Faroe Islands
  5. 80,000 snow bunting carcasses: information from Dutcher (1903)
  6. Hearne’s observations ahead of his time: see my chapter in Birds of Nunavut (Montgomerie 2018)
  7. Hearne quotation: page 419 in Hearne (1795)
  8. poachers in France take 10 thousand or more ortolan per year: see, for example, articles in 2013 in the Guardian here, and in a 2014 blog post here
  9. François Mitterand: was president of France from 1981-1995. During his second term he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, to which he succumbed 8 days after that final meal, a meal that included, in addition to the roasted ortolans, capons, foie gras, and a platter of Marennes oysters.
  10. ortolan on the Gaspé: see page 228 in Ganong (1910)
  11. quotation about conservation: from Dutcher (1903)

    IMAGES: original print of snow buntings in winter from the author’s collection; traps from Svanberg (2001); Gould’s Ortolan from his Birds of Europe; Audubon’s Snow Bunting from his Birds of North America

A great store of fowle

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 6 August 2018

Four hundred and eight years ago this month—in August 1610—Henry Hudson and his crew of 21 on the tiny ship DISCOVERY entered Hudson’s namesake bay in search of a northwest passage to the orient. As far as we know, Hudson’s 1610-1611 expedition was the first time that Europeans had recorded the sighting of an identifiable arctic bird on its breeding grounds in North America. Martin Frobisher, for example, had previously visited Baffin Island three times in a vain attempt to mine for gold [1] but he made virtually no note of the birds [2].

HudsonMAP
A map made in 1612 from Hudson’s surveys on his final expedition

Hudson’s crew famously mutineed in June 1611 after a dreadful winter spent on their ship trapped in the ice of James Bay. The 12 mutineers set Hudson, his son, and 7 loyal  seamen adrift in rowboat and their fate is still unknown [3]. What we do know about Hudson’s final expedition comes from the writings of one of the mutineers, Abacuk Prickett, who wrote about it after returning to England [4]. Prickett was one of the four mutineers who was tried (and acquitted) for the mutiny, and there has always been some suspicion that his narrative was biased in a way that was designed to save him from the gallows. Nonetheless, there is no reason to expect that his account of the birds is not as accurate as could be expected for a document being written, we presume, largely from memory.

Prickett records that their first landfall in the Canadian arctic was in July 1610 on the ‘Iles of Gods Mercie’, probably the islands off the south coast of Baffin Island [5] near the present-day settlement of Kimmirut (formerly Lake Harbour) in Nunavut. There, they “sprung a covey of partridges which were young: at the which Thomas Woodhouse shot, but killed only the old one” [6]. Given the current breeding ranges of the two arctic ptarmigans, these were almost certainly Rock Ptarmigan, which makes it the first bird species recorded in Arctic North America and, fittingly, the official bird of Nunavut.

Their next landfall was at Digges Island [7] on 3 August. A small crew went ashore, including Prickett who said “In this place a great store of fowle breed…” [8], almost certainly referring to the huge colony of Thick-billed Murres nesting on the cliffs there, today numbering some 300,000 breeding pairs.

clet
Clets on St Kilda

On Digges, Prickett also noted that “Passing along wee saw some round hills of stone, like to grasse cockes, which at the first I tooke to be the worke of some Christian. Wee passed by them, till we came to the south side of the hill we went unto them and there found more; and being nigh them I turned off the uppermost stone, and found them hollow within and full of fowles hanged by their neckes.” [8]. What he is referring to here are small domed stone huts, about 2 m in diameter, built by the local Inuit to hang, dry and protect their game from predators.

Remarkably, my colleague Tony Gaston, who studied the murres on Digges in the 1980s, found at least four of the same drying huts described by Prickett. As Gaston noted, these are very similar to a structure called a ‘clett’ (also ‘clet’) that the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides use to dry and cure fish and birds (see photo).

From Digges, the explorers headed south, ecstatic that they might have found the passage to China, as winter approached. By the time they reached James Bay, they knew that there nowhere near the orient. But on  10 November DISCOVERY was trapped in the sea ice so the crew prepared for the winter. During that harsh winter, they often went ashore to hunt, taking as many as 1200 ptarmigan, enough for each man to have one to eat every day or two for three months: “for the space of three moneths wee had such store of fowle of one kinde (which were partridges as white as milke) that wee killed above an hundred dozen, besides others of sundry sorts…The spring coming this fowle left us, yet they were with us all the extreame cold. Then in their places came divers sort of other fowle, as swanne, geese, duck, and teale, but hard to come by.” [9]

Tuck52Digges
Digges Island 1952 photo by Les Tuck

With the ship freed from the ice, the mutineers set Hudson and the others adrift at the top of James Bay in June 1611, and headed back to Digges to stock up on murres and their eggs for the trip home. There, they encountered a band of the local Inuit collecting eggs and catching adult murres with a noose, much the same way that today’s researchers catch murres for banding: “Our boat went to the place where the fowle bred, and were desirous to know how the savages killed their fowle: he shewed them the manner how, which was thus: they take a long pole with a snare at the end, which they put about the fowles necke, and so plucke them downe. When our men knew that they had a better way of their owne, they shewed him the use of our peeces, which at one shot would kill seven or eight.” [10]

The natives became frightened and suspicious of the mutineers, attacking an unarmed party that had gone ashore one day to shoot some murres. Three of that party were killed but the others escaped. The remaining mutineers went to another part of the colony where they shot enough birds to (barely) get them home.

None of these vague observations of birds by Prickett really made any useful contribution to ornithology, and I tell this story mainly as an introduction to the history of ornithology in the North American Arctic. By the late 18th century, explorers and naturalists were making regular forays into what is now Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska. Those later expeditions did make many useful contributions to ornithology, finding the breeding grounds and documenting the breeding biology of many Arctic birds for the first time.

coversSome of this early Arctic ornithology is described in a forthcoming 2-volume book on the Birds of Nunavut that will be launched at the upcoming IOC meeting in Vancouver. I wrote the history chapter for that book, but the limitations of space meant that many stories, images, and details had to be left out. As for much of the history of ornithology, this blog provides a unique opportunity to expand on the details of scholarly books and papers, as I have done here with the story of Abacuk Prickett.

SOURCES

    • Collinson R, editor (1867). The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, in Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West, A.D. 1576-8. London: Hakluyt Society. [available here]
    • Gaston AJ, Cairns DK, Elliot RD, Noble DG (1985) A natural history of Digges Sound. Canadian Wildlife Service Report Series 46:1–63.
    • Mancall PR (2009) Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson. New York: Basic Books.
    • Prickett A (1860). A larger discourse of the same voyage, and the successe thereof. In G. M. Asher (Ed.), Henry Hudson the Navigator: the original documents in which his career is recorded (pp. 98-36). London: Hakluyt Society. [available here]
    • Richards JM, Gaston AJ, editors (2018) Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press.

    Footnotes

    1. Frobisher mining for gold: on his third expedition in 1578, for example, he took back to England 1350 tonnes of ore from the vicinity of Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) only to discover when he got back to England that the ‘gold’ was iron pyrite. No doubt he felt like a fool.
    2. Frobisher’s birds: Collinson (1867) has only three mentions of birds (fowle) in Frobisher’s writings and these were all with reference to birds and eggs being caught by the natives for food. It is impossible to know what birds he was talking about.
    3. Hudson’s fate unknown: there is speculation, however, that the men made their way south where were taken captive by the natives, then transported to the vicinity of Ottawa, Ontario (see here for details)
    4. Prickett’s account of the expedition: see Prickett (1860), in a volume by the Hakluyt Society, established in 1846 to publish original accounts of voyages of discovery. Prickett’s account was actually first published in 1825. Prickett is often spelled ‘Pricket’ but I am using the spelling on his account in the 1860 volume.
    5. Iles of God’s Mercie: these are shown on Hudson’s map (above), offshore where he labels ‘Goods Merces’
    6. Quotation about partridges: from Prickett 1860 page 103
    7. Digges Island: Hudson named this Deepes Cape, thinking initially that it was part of the mainland
    8. Quotations about ‘fowles’: from Prickett 1860, page 107
    9. Quotation about hunting birds in winter and spring: from Prickett 1860, page 113
    10. Quotation about Inuit method of catching murres: from Prickett 1860, page 128

IMAGES: Hudson map from the frontispiece of Asher (1860) where Prickett’s account was published; Clets on St Kilda from Wikimedia Commons; Digges Island photo by Leslie M. Tuck in the author’s collection; book cover from UBC Press.

The Peculiar Etymologies of Ross’s Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 19 March 2018

When I was first starting to learn about birds, I was particularly intrigued (and delighted) with the peculiar names that had come from old English (dunlin, cormorant) and other languages (guillemot, eider), and those that were onomatopoeic (cuckoo, chickadeee). I also assumed that those birds named after people (Audubon’s Warbler, Temminck’s Stint, Townsend’s Warbler) were a nice touch, maybe honouring those early naturalists who had either discovered those birds or studied them in some detail.  It seems that bird names must be generally interesting to birders and ornithologists as there are more than a dozen books and papers on the origins of English (common) bird names dating back into the 1800s [1].

RGbyShortt2
Ross’s Geese (painting by Angus Shortt 1948)

Recently, while putting together some material on the history of Arctic ornithology, I discovered, somewhat to my dismay, that the naming of birds after people was not nearly as rational or commemorative as I had once thought. I had assumed, for example, that the lovely Ross’s Goose had been named after Admiral Sir John Ross, the Scotsman who explored the Canadian Arctic in the early 1800s in search of a Northwest Passage with William Parry. Or maybe even after Captain Sir James Clark Ross, John’s nephew, who also explored the Canadian Arctic, but is more famous for his Antarctic exploits. Indeed, James Ross was maybe the more likely candidate as he was something of a naturalist where John Ross was not. Many famous early explorers were also naturalists who contributed immensely to our early knowledge of Arctic birds, so it seemed to me that it was reasonable to have immortalized them in the common (and scientific) names of birds.

The Ross’s Goose was actually named, in 1861, after Bernard Rogan Ross, a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk and chief trader at various settlements (forts) owned by the company in what was called, in those pre-Canada days, The North-Western Territory and Rupert’s Land [2]. Ross was a keen naturalist who sent hundreds of specimens to the Smithsonian in Washington and the British Museum (Natural History) in London, along with excellent notes on the habitats and nesting habits of each species that he collected. He also published on mammals, birds, and ethnographic topics in 1861 and 1862 [3].

The Ross’s Goose was actually ‘discovered’ almost a century earlier, in the 1760s, and given the English name ‘Horned Wavey’ in 1795, by the great Arctic explorer and naturalist Samuel Hearne, who wrote:

HORNED WAVEY. This delicate and diminutive species of the Goose is not much larger than the Mallard Duck. Its plumage is delicately white, except the quill-feathers, which are black. The bill is not more than an inch long, and at the base is studded round with little knobs about the size of peas, but more remarkably so in the males…about two or three hundred miles to the North West of Churchill, I have seen them in as large flocks as the Common Wavey, or Snow Goose. The flesh of this bird is exceedingly delicate; but they are so small, that when I was on my journey to the North I eat two of them one night for supper. I do not find this bird described by my worthy friend Mr. Pennant in his Arctic Zoology. Probably a specimen of it was not sent home [4]

Despite the fact that Hearne had shot (and eaten!) this bird, there were no specimens, and no attempt to give it a scientific name for quite some time. In 1859, Robert Kennicott sent a head, wings, tail and head of a Ross’s Goose plus a nearly complete skin (that he had obtained from Bernard Ross) to the Smithsonian [5]. The species was then formally described in 1861 as Chen rossii by John Cassin, ornithologist at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. I don’t really have a problem with Bernard Ross being recognized in this bird’s scientific name, for he did collect the first specimen to be preserved in a museum. But it would be fitting for the common name to be Hearne’s Goose, as Hearne actually was the first to recognize it as distinctive, and he made huge contributions to Arctic ornithology.

FMIB_32851_Ross's_Gull;_Rhodostethia_rosea
Ross’s Gull (Nelson 1887)

The Ross’s Gull, on the other hand, is named after James Clark Ross, but even that troubles me a bit. Ross (or a member of his party) collected the first specimens of this beautiful gull in Foxe Basin off the east coast of Nunavut’s Melville Peninsula in June 1823. Ross really did little more than send the specimens of two odd-looking gulls back to England. William Macgillivray mentioned these specimens in a 1824 in a footnote to a paper on gulls, where he says that the name Larus roseus is: “The name given pro tempore to a new species of gull, discovered by the Arctic expedition, but which is to receive its proper designation from Dr Richardson.” [6]  The ‘Dr Richardson’ that he refers to here is the great Arctic naturalist John Richardson who identified the bird as a distinct species and described it—as the Cuneate-tailed Gull Larus Rossii—in 1824 in his appendix to Parry’s journal of his second voyage.  Richardson, rather than Ross, should really have been immortalized in this species’ common name. Richardson loses doubly on this one because the rules of zoological nomenclature require that Macgillivray be listed after the scientific name because he was the first to publish—by only a few months— that name even though he was just vaguely referring to Richardson. Moreover, Macgillivray referred to the bird as Larus roseus and not Larus Rossii that Richardson seem to prefer.

RTstampThere is one other bird named Ross—the Lady Ross’s Turaco—which has, like the other Ross’s birds, what seems to me to be an inappropriate common name. Lady Eliza Solomon Ross was the wife of Major General Sir Patrick Ross [7], the governor of St Helena from 1846-1850. St Helena is a tiny tropical island in the mid-Atlantic about 2000 km west of Namibia. It became a British Crown Colony in 1836 after being ‘owned’ by the East India Company for more than 150 years. The St Helena Rosses were not, as far as I can tell. closely related to the James, John or Bernard Ross mentioned above.

Lady Ross must have kept a small menagerie or aviary on St Helena that included a turaco brought there from the west coast of Africa [8]. On a visit to England she gave two feathers and a drawing (by a Lieutenant J. R. Stack) of her bird to John Gould, presumably wondering what species it was. Based on that material, Gould described this individual as a new species at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London in 1851 [9].

In my opinion, either John Gould—or nobody—should have been immortalized in the common name of that turaco, and certainly not Lady Ross.

The naming of birds has a long and checkered—and interesting—history that continues even today. I see, for example, that the AOS checklist committee is currently wrestling with some proposed changes to the common names of North American birds, to right some perceived wrongs (Gray Jay to Canada Jay, and Rock Pigeon to Rock Dove), harmonize names between Europe and the Americas (Common Moorhen to Eurasian Moorhen, and Common Gallinule to American Moorhen), and to indicate the correct taxonomic affinities (Red-breasted Blackbird to Red-breasted Meadowlark).

It is perhaps rather ironic that four of the ornithologists directly involved in what I consider to be the misnaming of the three Ross’s birds have all been immortalized—and rightly so—in the common names of other birds—Cassin’s Auklet, Townsend’s Warbler, Gouldian Finch, Macgillivray’s Warbler, for example. While I consider the Ross’s birds to be misnamed—or at least inappropriately named—I would not suggest changing those names as they are well established. The origins of those common names also provides an interesting window on the state of ornithology in the 1800s. As Macgillivray said in the paper where he first listed the scientific name of the Ross’s Gull: “With regard to the outcry against change of names, I have only to observe, that names, as well as descriptions, must continue to fluctuate until they be rendered of such a nature as to be harmonized with common sense and sound judgment.” [10]

SOURCES

  • Baird SF, Brewer TM, Ridgway R (1884) The Water Birds of North America. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

  • Cassin J ( 1861). Permission being given, Mr. Cassin made the following communication in reference to a new species of Goose from Arctic America. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 13: 72-72

  • Grant CHB (1915) On a collection of birds from British East Africa aid Uganda, presented to the British Museum by Capt. G. P. Cosens.-Part 111. Colii-Pici.  Ibis 57: 400-473
  • Hearne S (1795) A Journey From Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. London: Strahan and Cadell.
  • Macgillivray W (1824) Descriptions, characters, and synonyms of the different species of the genus Larus, with critical and explanatory remarks. Memoirs of the Wernerian Natural History Society 5: 247-276
  • Nelson EW (1887) Report upon Natural History Collections Made in Alaska Between the Years 1877 and 1884. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office
  • Parry WE (1824) Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; performed in the years 1821-22-23, in His Majesty’s ships Fury and Hecla, under the orders of Captain William Edward Parry. London: John Murray.

  • Pennant T (1784) Arctic Zoology, 2 vols. London: Henry Hughs.

  • Ross BR (1862) List of mammals, birds, and eggs observed on the Mackenzie River District, with notices. Canadian Naturalist 7:137-155

  • Swainson C (1885) Provincial names and folk lore of British birds. London: English Dialect Society.

  • Whitman CH (1898) The birds of Old English literature. The Journal of [English and] Germanic Philology 2:149–198.


Footnotes

  1.  old books about bird names: see, for example, Swainson (1885) and Whitman (1898)
  2. North-Western Territory and Rupert’s Land: Ross was employed from 1843-1862 at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts at Norway House and York Factory in present-day Manitoba, as well as Fort Simpson, Fort Norman, and Fort Resolution in the present-day Northwest Territories
  3. Bernard Ross publications: e.g. Ross (1862); see here for a listing
  4. quotation: from Hearne 1795, page 412; Hearne wrote that passage long after he returned to England and was presumably surprised to learn that there were no specimens in Pennant’s book, published in 1784; Hearne died in 1793 and his Journey was published posthumously
  5. Ross’s Goose specimens: Kennicott also collected “a large number of individuals of this species” (Baird et al. 1884, page 446)) at Fort Resolution in 1860, and I am surprised that Cassin did not honour him in the scientific name of this species
  6. quotation from footnote on Ross’s Gull: Macgillivray 1824, page 249
  7. Lady Eliza Solomon Ross : some sources incorrectly identify this Lady Ross as Sir James Ross’s wife.
  8. west coast of Africa: possibly Angola, see Grant 1915 page 413
  9. turaco described by Gould: presumably Lady Ross later gave the turaco to Gould because it is now a specimen in the BM(NH) “the type, which is a worn and faded caged bird” (Grant 1915, page 413)
  10. quotation on changing bird names: Macgillivray 1824, page 276