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 Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga caespitosa) which was purported to be there.They did not find it but they did find the Brook Saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis), a new site for a species that was also quite rare [see CORRECTION below]
  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

CORRECTION: Thanks to Peter Lack—David Lack’s son, who was 16 at the time of that hike with his mother, father and 3 siblings—for these interesting details. I had previously reported here (and in Birkhead et al. 2014) that they were looking for and found the Brook Saxifrage.

Joe Grinnell’s Notes

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 13 August 2018 (posted 21 Aug 2018)

For at least 400 years, ornithologists—and presumably naturalists of every stripe—have kept notebooks recording each day’s observations from the field. In 17th century England, these were called ‘Commonplace Books’, rather large bound volumes that were used by scholars to record ideas, notes about what they read, experiences and observations. This was the Renaissance, and the beginning of the scientific revolution, where scholars were questioning everything, and basing conclusions on direct observations rather than hearsay, ancient texts, and idle speculation.

Linnaeus
Detail from a page in Linnaeus’s commonplace book

John Ray and Francis Willughby [1] each had their own Commonplace Book, as required by their tutors at Cambridge.  In the late 1600s, the great English philosopher John Locke considered Commonplace Books to be so important to the progress of science that he published a scheme for properly indexing a commonplace book in an addendum to his influential An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [2]. And in the 18th century, Linnaeus used his Commonplace Book to record and develop his ideas about his binomial system of nomenclature, resulting in his Systema Naturae [3].

Commonplace books seemed to be de rigueur for scientists and scholars through the 1800s eventually evolving into the specialized (rather than all-encompassing) small notebooks (e.g. Moleskins) and field notebooks (e.g. Rite in the Rain) used by writers and naturalists, respectively, throughout the 20th century.

GrinnellFieldNotes
A page from Grinnell’s Field Journal from the Mojave 1914

In the early 1900s, the American ornithologist Joseph Grinnell thought that field notebooks were so important that he developed a systematic method of note-keeping that he taught all of his students and colleagues. His method, sometimes called the Grinnell System, involves at least two different books—the Field Notebook, carried everywhere to record observations immediately, and the Field Journal, to daily record experiences and observations as in a diary, using the Field Notebook. Each diary-like entry in the Field Journal is written in the evening, using the Field Notebook for details. The Field Journals, or separate notebooks, also include Species Accounts compiled during the course of a field trip, and a Catalog, recording the details of all specimens collected. The method seems simple enough but requires some discipline to maintain during busy field work. Grinnell even went so far as to recommend the sort of paper and ink needed to make the method historically valuable: The India ink and paper of permanent quality will mean that our notes will be accessible 200 years from now….we are in the newest part of the new world where the population will be immense in fifty years at most. [4]

 

I am an academic descendant of Grinnell [5] and while I am not a very disciplined diarist, I treasure the 57 notebooks that I have used to chronicle my field activities over the years. These books contain some data but they are mostly a summary of where I went, what I did, what the weather was like, who my companions were, what I found interesting each day in the field, and ideas for further work. My field data sheets and recordings occupy another 5 metres of book shelf and a few terabytes of hard drive space.

In 1908, Grinnell was appointed as the first director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, where he set out to build a collection of birds and mammals from California. To do that he embarked on a series of expeditions to the Colorado Desert (1908), The Colorado River (1910), Mount Whitney (1911), the San Jacinto Mountains (1913), the Sierra Nevada (191–1920), and Lassen Peak (1924-1929).

Grinnell kept such careful field notes that the MVZ scientists decided to survey some of those same areas beginning in 2002, to see what, if anything, had changed over the past century. They called this the Grinnell Resurvey Project. Grinnell did not actually conduct censuses using repeatable, modern-day methods, but he did provide enough information that reasonable comparisons could be made.

Earlier this month, PhD student Kelly Iknayan and AOS Past President Steve Beissinger published a paper in PNAS using both Grinnell’s surveys and the recently completed replication to analyze the changes in bird fauna in the Mojave Desert of California. The nice thing about this resurvey is that most of the sites visited by Grinnell in the Mojave are on federal lands, with little or no anthropogenic influence in the intervening 100 years. The results are clear…and depressing.

Surveying 61 of the same sites studied by Grinnell, they found that the number of bird species at each site had declined, often significantly (red dots of figure below). And the number of sites where they found different birds had also declined for >125 of those 135 species. Only the Raven was found at significantly more sites a century later (blue dot, below). IknayanFIGmod

By evaluating several potential causes for these changes, Iknayan and Beissinger found that climate change was the strongest predictor, particularly with respect to increasing drought conditions. As they point out, in their paper’s abstract: Climate change has caused deserts, already defined by climatic extremes, to warm and dry more rapidly than other ecoregions in the contiguous United States over the last 50 years. Desert birds persist near the edge of their physiological limits, and climate change could cause lethal dehydration and hyperthermia, leading to decline or extirpation of some species. [6]

I expect that Iknayan and Beissinger take better field notes that I do, especially as they are both also academic descendants of Grinnell [5] and work in his shadow at Berkeley. But even the best field biologists’ note-taking abilities are rapidly becoming anachronisms, I fear, with the advent of eBird, automated recording devices, and digital database apps. I think this is sad, not because I long for the good old days—I am a quite tech savvy—but because those detailed field journals are an important historical record [7[ that show both the human side of field work and the nuances associated with collecting data.

You could argue that Grinnell’s field surveys would have been more useful today if he had digitized his records and taken more quantitative measures, and you would be right to some extent. But field naturalists a century from now will no doubt lament the passing of the commonplace book and the Grinellian field notebook when they try to understand our quantitive, digitized, data stored faithfully in online repositories if those data are not also supplemented by a little personalized narrative.

SOURCES

  • Charmantier I (2011) Carl Linnaeus and the visual representation of nature. HIST STUD NAT SCI 41:365–404.

  • Iknayan KJ, Beissinger SR (2018) Collapse of a desert bird community over the past century driven by climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 201805123.

  • Locke J (1689) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: The Buffet.

  • Linné CV (1766) Caroli a Linné. Systema naturae : per regna tria natura, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis / (t.1, pt. 1 (Regnum animale) (1766)). Holmiae :Impensis direct. Laurentii Salvii.


Footnotes

  1. Ray and Willughby: see previous posts here, here, here, and here
  2. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: see Locke (1690) available here
  3. Sytema Naturae: see von Linné (1766)
  4. Grinnell on paper and ink: cited from Wikipedia article on Grinnell, here
  5. Academic descendants: me through Peter Grant to Ian McTaggart-Cowan to Grinnell; Beissinger through Bobbi Low to Frank Blair to Lee Dice to Grinnell (see here and here for details)
  6. Quotation about climate change: from Iknayan and Beissinger 2018, abstract
  7. Important historical record: see here for example

IMAGES: Linnaeus’s notebook from Charmantier (2011); Grinnell’s notebook from the Grinnell ECOREADER;  graphs modified from Iknayan and Beissinger (2018)

Galápagos sojourn

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

26 February 2018

Mr Charles Darwin
Westminster Abbey
UK

My Dear Charles

Post_office-Floreana
Post Office Bay, Floreana

My apologies for not writing last Monday as I had suggested I might when I wrote to you on your birthday. We were still on the Santa Cruz II ‘steaming’ from Floreana to Baltra on Monday morning and there was no way yo get a message out. I thought of leaving a postcard for you in the barrel at Post Office Bay on Floreana but that might take months to get to you, or be stolen by a tourist.

We had a great visit to the Galápagos Islands, stopping on Baltra, Santa Cruz (Cerro Dragon and Puerto Ayora), Isabela (Punta Vincente Roca), Fernandina (Punta Espinoza), and Floreana (Punta Cormoran and Post Office Bay) to hike, snorkel and/or simply watch and photograph wildlife. I see from your Voyage of The Beagle that you, too, stopped on Charles Island (now called Floreana) and Albermarle (now Isabela), but you also went to Chatham Island (now San Cristobal) and James Island (now Santiago). Certainly, things have changed since you were in the islands in Sept-Oct 1835.

200902-charles-darwin-beagle-map

First, and maybe most strikingly, there are now a lot of people on the Galápagos Islands. There are now settlements on Santa Cruz, Baltra, San Cristobal, Floreana and Isabela, by far the largest being Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz with maybe 25,000 inhabitants (though ‘officially’ 15,000). On top of that a staggering 225,000 people visited the islands in 2015, by boat or plane. The islands are now almost entirely a national park, so travel is restricted to 54 sites on land and 62 for diving in the surrounding ocean. Visitors are limited to about 4 hours per site and must be accompanied by a trained guide.

Fortunately, the places we visited (except Puerto Ayora and vicinity) seemed to be in a relatively pristine state with well-marked trails, no trash, and abundant wildlife close at hand. The birds and reptiles are still exceptionally tame and the waters clear and teeming with life.

DSCF4538
G. fortis with foot pox, on Baltra

The (your) finches were also common to abundant just about everywhere we went. They certainly have not been scared off by human developments as we saw them even inside the airport buildings on Baltra and throughout the town of Puerto Ayora. Even we seasoned ornithologists and birders found the species hard to distinguish on any given island so you are to be forgiven for not initially noticing the proliferation of finch species there. The downside of increased human traffic to the islands is that we saw a high incidence of foot pox in the finches on Baltra, and a parasitic nest fly (Philornis downsi) is now posing a serious threat to some finch populations [1]. The finches are so closely associated with humans in some places that there now signs posted to tell people not to feed the birds.

You will recall that John Gould identified 12 species of ‘Galápagos’ finches from your collections. There continues to be debate about how many finch species are actually on the islands, especially as we are now using new molecular tools to help distinguish evolutionarily stable populations that might be worth designating as distinct species. During the 20th century biologists often defined species as reproductively isolated populations (the ‘Biological Species Concept’) but that has proven to be difficult to test empirically and not always useful, in my opinion. At my count there are now at least a half dozen ways to define species and the debate continues in a lively (and I think very productive) fashion.

The Handbook of Birds of the World Online now lists 14 species of Geospiza, plus the Vegetarian Finch (Platyspiza crassirostris), the Grey Warbler-finch (Certhidea fusca), and the Green Warbler-finch (Certhidea olivacea) for a total of 17 species of Darwin’s Finches. I expect that DNA analysis will add to this total in the coming years.

Peter and Rosemary Grant also discovered an instance of speciation through hybridization of an immigrant male Geospiza conirostris from Española Island with a female resident Geospiza fortis on Daphne Major in 1981 [2]. The descendants of this pairing (the Big Bird Lineage, see below) have only mated with each other over the last 37 years. These birds are reproductively isolated from the resident population of G. fortis by their distinctive song. Odds are that this tiny population of the hybrid species will go extinct, but the documentation of this event has given us an insight into a form of speciation that you may not have anticipated, though it is likely to be quite rare.

2017_Princeton_Grants_Finch_BigBird_Familytree

Sadly, some of the tortoises that you recognized as being distinct species are now extinct due to hunting by sailors, collecting by museums, predation by introduced rats and cats, and habitat destruction by goats. It is estimated, for example, that 200,000 tortoises were taken from the islands before 1900. The tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni) from Abingdon Island (now Pinta) went extinct only 6 years ago when the last male (“Lonesome George”) died in captivity at the (relatively young) age of just over 100 years. George was preserved as a taxidermic mount and is now on display at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora. Also now extinct is C. nigra from Floreana, which you saw and collected, was extinct by 1846 having been hunted mercilessly by sailors and the penal colony on that island; and C. phantastica from Narborough Island (now Fernandina) which is known only from a single specimen collected by Rollo Beck for the California Academy of Sciences in 1906. All of the other tortoise species are considered to be endangered or at least vulnerable with populations <10,000 each and some only in the 100s. There is hope, however, in restoring some of them by captive breeding and the eradication of predators.

DSCF4232
Chelonoidis porteri in the ‘wild’ on Santa Cruz Island

As you might expect, your name is intimately associated with the Galápagos with an island (formerly Culpepper Island) now named after you, as well as a research station and a hostel in Puerto Ayora, a tortoise (C. darwini), and, of course, those finches.

Yr obd srvt

Bob

SOURCES

  • Darwin C (1840) The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., during the years 1832 to 1836. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Grant BR, Grant PR (2008) Fission and fusion of Darwin’s finches populations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363:2821–2829.
  • Kleindorfer S, Dudaniec RY (2006) Increasing prevalence of avian poxvirus in Darwin’s finches and its effect on male pairing success. Journal of Avian Biology 37:69–76.
  • Koop JAH, Kim PS, Knutie SA, Adler F, Clayton DH (2016) An introduced parasitic fly may lead to local extinction of Darwin’s finch populations. Journal of Applied Ecology 53: 511–518.

Footnotes

1. parasitic nest fly and foot pox: see Koop et al. 2016 on the fly and Kleindorfer and Dudaniek on the pox

2. speciation through hybridization: see Grant and Grant (2008)

IMAGES: Big Bird lineage from https://www.princeton.edu/news/2017/11/27/study-darwins-finches-reveals-new-species-can-develop-little-two-generations; Galapagos map from http://www.prairiefirenewspaper.com/2009/02/reflections-on-charles-darwin; Post Office Bay photo from Wikimedia Commons; all other photos by the author

Four Calling Birds

BY BOB MONTGOMERIE Queen’s University | 25 December 2017

As this will be posted on Christmas day, I thought a post about my favourite Christmas song—and my second favourite song about birds [1]—would be in order. I particularly like The Twelve Days of Christmas because the words are secular, it originated in an 18th century memory game, the period celebrated is (or was) all about drunkenness and merrymaking sandwiched between two religious feasts, and the gifts were mainly birds. In mediaeval England, those 12 days were presided over by the Lord of Misrule and in Scotland by the Abbott of Unreason, both titles that I would be proud to bear.

539CB97A-5718-4636-9089-6B55DC48E5DFThe words to this Christmas song were first published in English in the late 1700s as a rhyme in a book called Mirth without Mischief, likely derived from a much older French song of similar sturcture and content, Les Douze Mois. The now familiar tune was not written until 1905 by the English composer Frederic Austin who adapted it from a traditional English folk melody.

As you will recall—for by now it’s an ear worm that you can’t stop humming—the 12 days begin on Christams Day with the partridge. On 5 or 6 of the following days, the gifts are birds, interrupted musically, thematically and enigmatically by those 5 golden rings. I have no idea why the first 7 gifts are birds, but I expect there are traditional and psychological reasons that have been claimed for this. There have also been many Christian interpretations of this song but really no evidence to support any of them. I find the secular interpretations to be far more interesting and valid.

In the 237 years since the rhyme was first published in English, there have been at least 20 different versions of the words, especially with respect to the birds. Some of these variants are undoubtedly Mondegreens [2], but they were often probably just attempts to make the words more relevant to a contemporary audience.

875E971D-23AD-4B05-8E77-6EAB0CC62162

  • The PARTRIDGE—on the first day of Christmas— was always a partridge, except in Scott’s 1892 version where it was a “very pretty peacock.”  Some authors claim that the 00C5A274-B6A5-4084-833D-F9F36C0381D0partridge was the Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) a very popular game bird that had just been successfully introduced to England from France in about 1770, and much more likely to perch in trees than the native and abundant Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). But what about that pear tree, which again has been often claimed to have religious connotations. The French poem that may have been the basis for the English rhyme has a partridge representing the first month “Un’ Perdix Sole’, and says that the bird flies in the woods (‘qui vol dans les bois’). The Perdix is the Grey Partridge, which in Old French was spelt ‘perdrix’ or ‘pertriz’, pronounced something very close to ‘pear tree’. I wonder if the English rhyme was originally ‘partridge and a perdrix’, though that would be two birds for day one. Nonetheless it seems to me quite likely that the pear tree was actually the perdrix, and had nothing at all to do with pears or trees.

On day 2 the TURTLE DOVES were French hens in one 1877 version, and the FRENCH HENS on day 3 were once ‘fat hens’ in 1864, and turtle doves in 1877. There’s a theme here as the first 3 birds were highly prized for the table, an excellent start to a period of feasting.

The CALLING BIRDS of day 4 are the most intersting to me as the original said ‘colly birds’ and subsequent variants said the birds were ‘canary’, ‘collie’, ‘colley’, ‘colour’d’, ‘curley’, ‘coloured’, ‘corley’, and finally ‘calling’ by Austin in 1909 published with his new tune. I am surprised no one ever suggested ‘collared’. The original ‘colly bird’ was the European Blackbird (Turdus merula) as ‘colly’ meant ‘black’ as in ‘coaly’, and is why border collies bear that name. The subsequent versions are undoubtedly the result of mis-hearings and misinterpretations.

4DCC5D2F-5748-47F6-9849-9FF94DE1ED78.jpegThe gift for day 5 in the original and modern version is ‘golden rings’ but several sources claim—correctly I think—that these are birds too, probably European Goldfinches, which were called goldspinks in the 1700s. Others have argued that these were Ring-necked Pheasants which have been claimed to have golden rings around their neck (but they don’t). The pheasant interpretation matches the culinary theme of the other 6 birds in the song, but the goldfinch was a popular cage bird in the 18th century. The melodic break in the song suggests a change of theme but the melody was added more than a century after the words.

The birds of days 6 and 7—the geese and the swans—round out the culinary theme before the song turns to dance providing some exercise after all that feasting, and chores that may have been neglected,

I am spending the holidays in the north woods just west of Algonquin Park where the colly birds (and the only birds really calling) are Ravens, and the only ‘partridge’ is the Spruce Grouse, as all the geese, swans, doves, and goldfinches have departed for much warmer winter quarters. Counting the 5 golden rings there are 28 birds in The Twelve Days of Christmas but I will be lucky to see even 28 individual birds on a day out in the winter woods here. That will not stop the 75 or more people who gather here for the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 30 December where they will probably record fewer than 28 species in a hard day’s work on foot, skis and snowshoes. This will be the 44th consecutive CBC for Algonquin Park and the 118th CBC since Frank Chapman started the count in 1900.

During the 19th century the Christmas Side Hunt was a popular competition to gather game for the table during the 12 days of Christmas. Chapman, however, was a conservationist who saw great value in watching rather than hunting birds. That first CBC Involved only 27 birdwatchers at 25 sites from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California, laying the foundations for what we now call citizen science.


Footnotes

1. While not actually about birds, my favourite song that refers to birds is The Edge of Seventeen originally performed by Fleetwood Mac but here in a fairly stunning and recent performance by Stevie Nicks accompanied by Waddy Wachtel. It’s also hard to beat Lori Anderson’s Excellent Birds

2.  Jimi Hendrix created a classic ‘Mondegreen’ when he sang (at least to my ears) “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in his song ‘Purple Haze’, first released as a single in 1967. Rock lyrics are a rich source of Mondegreens—words or phrases that are misheard—as Sylvia Wright, who coined the term, did when she heard a Scottish ballad say “Lady Mondegreen” when it actually said  “laid him on the green”.

The Sparrow Question

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 2 Oct 2017

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John Gould’s House Sparrow 1873

When I visited England at the beginning of last month, the English House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) was notable for its scarcity. I spent a week in London, Sheffield and the Peak District and only once heard the familiar and once ubiquitous jib-jib (see recent post) in a small park near St Pancras International in central London. Just as well that we don’t call it the ‘English’ Sparrow anymore. Actually they have far from disappeared from the English landscape but their population size did drop by about half from the 1970s to the 1990s, having more-or-less stabilized at present-day numbers by the turn of the millennium.

The precipitous decline in House Sparrow populations in the UK has been well-documented but the causes are thought to be complex—changes in farming practices reducing food availability, competition with other birds, loss of nest sites in cities. and the usual problems with pesticides. Once considered a pest, this species is now of conservation concern in the UK and Europe. North American Breeding Bird Survey data also show a similar decline in numbers from 1966-2004 with a loss of about 2% per year continent-wide.

Because it was so common and readily breeds in nest boxes, the House Sparrow became a model bird species for studies in behaviour and ecology in the latter half of the 20th century, along with species like the Zebra Finch, Rock Pigeon, Red-winged Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, and Pied Flycatcher. Because it was introduced to North America in the 1850s and spread rapidly across the continent, the House Sparrow was/is considered to be a pest and is not protected by the Migratory Birds Convention Act. This may be one reason that large collections of this bird were possible in the 1960s and 70s for the purpose of looking for morphological evolution (adaptation and drift) across the continent, among other things. The species is still common enough to be the focus of several exciting research programs in both North America and Europe, and has been the subject of more than 5000 papers, at least two ‘recent’ science-based books, and an AOU Ornithological Monograph.

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A new paper by Matthew Holmes in the Journal of the History of Biology documents an interesting and largely forgotten period of debate about the House Sparrow in the UK in the late 1800s, one that ushered in a new research discipline called ‘Economic Ornithology’: “Economic ornithology would examine the economic impact of birds on agriculture, a topic neglected by ‘‘recognized text-books on ornithology’’ which only provided readers with ‘‘vague and agriculturally useless statements’’ (Cathcart, 1892).

The debate centred around the sparrow’s influence on agricultural with one side claiming disaster and the other that the bird was at worst harmless, at best beneficial because it consumed insect pests. Thousands of sparrows were slaughtered in the late 1800s both in a vain attempt at control and to collect data on the sparrow’s diet. The House Sparrow, like all good pests, was oblivious to these control attempts and continued to thrive despite widespread concern: “Local meetings of agricultural societies and so-called ‘‘sparrow clubs’’ uniformly condemned sparrows’ consumption of crops. Once labelled as ‘‘vermin,’’ non-productive species were freely persecuted in the fields of Victorian Britain…” A farmer, Charles Newman, encapsulated the attitudes of the day in 1861: “No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’] destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such that were found more destructive than beneficial.”

In this new paper, Holmes argues that “Nineteenth-century naturalists of all stripes were driven by an overarching sense of purpose, or participation in a grand intellectual endeavour. Acquiring and systematising knowledge gleaned from study of the natural world was associated with moral, religious and social wellbeing.” By the early 20th century this kind of ‘natural history’ had given way to economic ornithology and a general shift to evidence-based science. By the beginning of the 21st century ‘natural history’ was firmly grounded in evidence such that most field biologists are now proud to call themselves natural historians.

Sources
Anderson TR (2006) Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow: from genes to populations. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Cathcart AF (1892) ‘Agriculturally economic ornithology.’ The Times, 16 May.
Holmes M (2017) The sparrow question: social and scientific accord in Britain, 1850–1900. Journal of the History of Biology 50:645-671
Kendeigh SC, ed. (1973) A Symposium on the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and European Tree Sparrow (P. montanus) in North America. Ornithological Monograph No. 14
Summers-Smith JD (1963) The House Sparrow. Collins New Naturalist Series Monograph No.19, London