The Story of O(ology)

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 15 April 2019


After a seminar last week, my colleague Jannice Friedman, a botanist, asked me if ‘oology’ was really a word, as it had appeared on one of the speaker’s slides. So, she asked, what is the ‘o’ that ‘ology’ (the study of) has been tacked on to? I explained to her that oology (or oölogy) is the study of eggs, and birds’ eggs in particular, but I had no idea why it was not something more logical like ‘ovology’ [1]. Oology is one of those words like ‘popsicle’ and ‘’castle’ that are familiar but then sound ridiculous when you think about them or repeat them too often [2].

W. C. Hewitson

The OED says that oology first appeared in print in English in 1830, in an advertisement [3] for the soon-to-be-published British Oology by William Hewitson. Hewitson published this ‘book’ as a series of fascicles, sold by subscription beginning in 1831 and completed in 1838. The second (1843-44) and third editions (1856) were called Coloured Illustrations of the Eggs of British Birds. Among the subscribers to that first edition were such notables as John James Audubon, John Gould, W. J. Hooker, Sir William Jardine, Prideaux John Selby, and William Yarrell [4]. It was clearly a popular publication on a popular topic.

Hewitson’s British Oology starts with an Introduction in which he waxes poetic about his love of Nature, and the pleasures of egg-collecting: “who does not remember those joyous times when, at the first breaking loose from school, he has hied him to the wood and the hedge-row, in search of his painted prize?”[5] In that first edition, he describes the eggs and nests of 229 species that bred in Britain, illustrated with coloured plates that he drew on lithographic stone and then hand-coloured. Those plates, curiously, show no more than four eggs per page, all life size, and thus the plates are often mostly white space (see below).

Some of the eggs shown in British Oology

Like most pre-Darwinian naturalists, Hewitson saw in the design of eggs some God-given purpose for the good of mankind: “For the same purpose for which they adorn the plumes of the Humming-bird, or the wing of the resplendent butterfly — to gladden our eyes, ‘To minister delight to man, to beautify the earth.’ And thus it is that the eggs of nearly all those birds (the Owl, Kingfisher, Bee-cater, Holler, Nuthatch, and the Woodpeckers) which conceal them in holes, are white, because in such situations colour would be displayed to no purpose.” [5].

Even in the interspecific variation in clutch size, Hewitson saw the hand of God providing for mankind: “In every instance we shall find the same beneficent influence acting for our welfare; increasing rapidly, by the number of their eggs, those species which are of the greatest use to us, and bestowing upon those intended for our more immediate benefit, a most wonderful power of ovo-production; and at the same time curtailing in their numbers those species which, in their greater increase would soon become injurious to us.” [5]

Despite all of that teleology, Hewitson was perceptive in noting that species with precocial offspring have eggs that are larger relative to female size compared to species with altricial hatchlings. He also concludes that egg colour cannot be generally useful for camouflage except in a few ground-nesting birds. With respect to the use of eggs in taxonomy, he has a mixed message but still seems to want to cling to the idea that egg traits will be useful for classification [6]. His descriptions of breeding habitats, nest construction, breeding seasons and clutch sizes provide a useful window on the state of knowledge about British birds almost two centuries ago.

I assume that the word ‘oology’ was already in general use when Hewitson published British Oology because he uses the term without definition or special mention, as if all readers would know what he was talking about. For the next century oology was a prominent topic among people interested in birds, the subject of several books, myriad papers, and even a museum of oology [7] in Santa Barbara, California. Hewitson later turned his attention to collecting and illustrating lepidoptera, but occasionally dabbled in oology, mainly updating his British Oology with papers on new discoveries in the British Isles and continental Europe.

So where did that word ‘oology’ come from? The OED says that it is a combination of ‘oo’ and ‘logy’ but that really does not make sense to me as ‘ology’— not ‘logy’—is the standard suffix meaning ‘the scientific study of’. For example, Wikipedia lists 342 ‘ologies’ all of which appear to append ‘ology’ onto a subject of study: bi-ology, ichthy-ology, ornith-ology. The OED also says that ‘oologia’ is the Latin version first used in 1691, probably derived from ‘oion’ Greek word for egg. My guess is that it’s a word that egg collectors made up to give their hobby a patina of science.

The word ‘oology’ became associated with egg-collecting in the Victorian era but largely disappeared from the ornithological literature in the 1920s, probably because egg-collecting fell out of favour (and was eventually outlawed). The study of eggs waxed and waned throughout the twentieth century with a monumental book—The Avian Egg—by AL and AJ Romanoff published in 1949 being one of the highlights. Over the past decade or so, the study of bird’s eggs has enjoyed a resurgence with new tools available for measuring colours and shapes but few ornithologists use the word oology any more.

Recent books about bird’s eggs

SOURCES

  • Anonymous (1908) Mr. W. C. Hewitson. The Ibis Jubilee Supplement 2: 182–185.
  • Birkhead T (2016) The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg. Bloomsbury USA.
  • Hewitson WC (1831-38) British oology: being illustrations of the eggs of British birds, with figures of each species, as far as practicable, drawn and coloured from nature : accompanied by descriptions of the materials and situation of their nests, number of eggs, &c. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Charles Empson [first edition available here]
  • Hewitson WC (1859) Recent discoveries in European oology. The Ibis 1: 76-80
  • Kiff L (2005) History, present status, and future prospects of avian eggshell collections in North America. The Auk 122: 994–999,

Footnotes

  1. ovology: is, according to the dictionary, one variant of oology but I have seen it in print
  2. sound ridiculous when you think about them or repeat them: this is called semantic satiation or wordnesia and can happen with any word
  3. advertisement: in Magazine of Natural History 3 (end matter)—”On the First of January, 1831, will be published, the First Number of British Oology, being illustrations of the Eggs, Nidification, &c. of British Birds
  4. subscribers to British Oology: the full list is at the beginning of the first edition.
  5. Hewitson quotations: from Hewitson 1831 pages 3, 8, and 8-9, respectively
  6. useful for classification: this idea persisted well into the 20th century despite ample evidence that it eggs were not a useful trait for taxonomy. I expect that some of this persistence was driven by a desire to justify the collecting of eggs
  7. museum of oology: the Museum of Comparative Oölogy was started by William L. Dawson in 1916, and is now part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Contemplating the Tundra

CELEBRATING
THE HISTORY OF WOMEN IN ORNITHOLOGY

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 25 March 2019


Until the 1970s, few women could have called themselves ‘professional’ ornithologists no matter how great their contribution to the study of birds. As I have documented earlier in this series of essays about the history of ornithology, women were most often (i) invisible, in the sense that we know only about their contributions but not who they were (see here), (ii) or working largely in the background for their husbands (see here), fathers [1], or employers (see here), (iii) or conducting research as at least equal partners with those men but too often given second-billing (see here), (iv) or studying birds as a hobby but even then rising to the top of their field (see here and here).

Kessel in 2005

This week I am highlighting the work of one of the few women to be employed as a professional ornithologist before 1970: Brina Kessel. As a university professor conducting research on birds she achieved international renown for her research and her books about the birds of Alaska. Dr Kessel, who died in 2016, spent her entire academic career at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and her contributions will be highlighted at the upcoming AOS meeting in June in Anchorage. Because her work is ‘contemporary’ it will be known to ornithologists who worked in the latter half of the 20th century, so I am going to highlight here some of her early influences and experiences that may be less well known.

Kessel was born in Ithaca, New York to graduate student parents who moved to Storrs, Connecticut, when she was quite young so that her father could take up faculty position—in English—at the university there. Her mother studied entomology at Cornell but both parents took ornithology classes from Arthur A. Allen. They were also naturalists who kindled Brina’s early interest in birds.

Brina first experienced alpine tundra on a family trip to the top of Mount Washington (New Hampshire) where she was bitten by the tundra bug, a chronic illness that I share with many of my friends. She once quipped that her preference for tundra habitats “must have been a mutant gene that I had” [2]. Gordon Orians thinks that we might have an evolved response to prefer certain savannah-like habitats, so Brina might have been right about her tundra-loving gene.

Brina returned to Ithaca to be an undergraduate at Cornell where she took part-time jobs on the Poultry Department and became acquainted with Arthur A. Allen and Paul Kellogg, occasionally helping them with their frog and bird song recordings. Many of the undergraduate men were away from school contributing to the war effort so Brina was not held back by the sort of misogyny that might have limited her opportunities for research as an undergrad.

She loved that work and decided to seek an advanced degree with Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin in 1947. Leopold founded the study of wildlife management and was a leading American ecologist so she set her sites high. Brina had chosen wisely as she was very interested in the growing interest in conservation, biodiversity, and wilderness protection. Unfortunately, Leopold died from a heart attack while fighting a brush fire on his neighbour’s property a few months after Brina began her studies. As if that was not enough, the University of Wisconsin, in those days, would not allow women into their wildlife management program so Brina was unable to pursue a PhD there.

Kessel (far right) looking at a Belted Kingfisher held by A.A. Allen

Frustrated on those two fronts, Brina returned to Cornell for her PhD, studying the behaviour and ecology of Starlings under Allen’s supervision. About 90 Starlings had been released in Central Park in New York and by 1950 the species had spread across the United Sates to the Rocky Mountains. They may already have numbered as many as 100 million but their breeding biology had never been studied in North America. Based on 7 years field study from 1945 to 1951 she completed her PhD in two years and immediately moved to Alaska.

Her first job at the University of Fairbanks was as lecturer but she quickly gained a faculty position and by 1967 was head of that department. Over the years she explored much of the state, particularly the arctic and alpine tundra regions that she loved so much

Soon after her faculty appointment, she put in a proposal to travel by boat down the Colville River studying the birds of that region with her grad school friend, Tom Cade. That river, however, flowed into the US Naval Petroleum Reserve on the north slope, and she was told that “You can not come up on to the Reserve because the Navy will not allow any woman on the Petfore Reserve unless they are married, and with their husband” [2]. Brina was sorely disappointed but was able to send a U of A freshman—George Schaller—in her stead. She liked Schaller’s interest in natural history and enthusiasm but had little inkling of his eventual success as conservationist and writer. Schaller later went with Kessel and the Muries on an expedition down the Sheenjek valley in 1956.

1956 expedition to the Sheenjek valley. L-R: Robert Krear, Olaus Murie, Noel Wien, Mercedes and Justice William O. Douglas, Mardy Murie, and George Schaller. Wien was the pilot and the Douglases were just visiting.

While she led many field expeditions herself, Brina also sent many others off into the Alaskan wilderness to survey the birds. She did, however, analyze the data and take a major role in writing up those studies for publication. Throughout her career she also did not hesitate to take on leadership roles, including a two-year stint as the 45th president of the American Ornithologists’ Union from 1992-94, only the second woman to serve in that capacity [3]. Despite, or perhaps because of, her frequent administrative roles, Brina realized that her field trips were “...where I’ve been most content and happy in my life. Out there just contemplating the tundra” [3].

Kessel showing Steve MacDonald (L) and Dan Gibson (R) how to skin a bird

SOURCES

  • Albin E (1731-38) A natural history of birds. Illustrated with a hundred and one copper plates… Published by the Author, Eleazar Albin, and carefully colour’d by his Daughter and Self, from the Originals, drawn form the live Birds. London.
  • Kessel B (1989) Birds of the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Their Biogeography, Seasonality, and Natural History. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press. 
  • Kessel B (1998) Habitat Characteristics of Some Passerine Birds in Western North American Taiga. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.
  • Kessel B, Cade TJ (1958) Birds of the Colville River, northern Alaska. Biological Papers of the University of Alaska no. 2.
  • Kessel B, Schaller GB (1960) Birds of the Upper Sheenjek Valley, northeastern Alaska. Biological Papers of the University of Alaska no. 4.
  • Orians G, Heerwagen JH (1992) Evolved responses to landscapes. In: Barlow JH, Cosmides L, Tooby J (Eds), The Adapted Mind, Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Footnotes

  1. working for their…fathers: Eleazar Albin‘s daughter Elizabeth did many of the hand-coloured etchings in his 1731-38 book
  2. Kessel quotations: from interview with Roger Kaye, 22 January 2003, available here
  3. second woman AOU president: the first was Fran James from 1984-86

IMAGES: Kessel (top) from University of Alaska Friends of Ornithology Newsletter, May 2007; book covers from the internet; Kessel and Allen and Kessel (bottom) from University of Alaska Museum website (here); 1956 expedition from USFWS website (here).

Dirty Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 4 February 2019

As a teenager, in the 1960s, I spent much of my spare time during the school year hanging out at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), not far from my family’s home in Toronto.  The denizens of the bird/mammal prep room in the basement of the museum—Don Baldwin, Hisham Badran, Jim Borack and Rolph Davis—took me under their wing and taught me how to prepare bird skins and skeletons for the collections. That experience led directly to my Dream Jobs #3 and #4 in 1967/68 when I stopped going to the University of Toronto in search of a more satisfying (and financially rewarding) way to spend my days.

Dream Job #3 had me working as a preparator for the Mammalogy Department, mainly preparing bat skulls sent in by a collector from what we still called British Guiana as it had only been renamed Guyana a year before. My Dream Job #4 was a Park Naturalist position at Algonquin Park where my first duties were to put their museum’s specimen collection in order. The contrast between breathing formaldehyde all day in the museum lab and inhaling the intoxicating scent of piney woods reminded me that I was really a naturalist at heart.

The Ornithology Department at the ROM was thrown into a bit of a tizzy in 1965 when they hired Jon Barlow [1], with his newly-minted PhD, to be curator. Jon brought new ideas and new methodologies with him and those changes—not surprisingly—upset the old guard and intrigued the young. Jon introduced us all to quantification (statistics!), cladistics, and phenetics [2] for the purpose of classification; to the value of skeletal and tissue material for museum collections (and, of course, systematics); to the need for rigour in field notes and detailed specimen labels [3]; and to the notion that examining intraspecific variation was useful—essential even—for understanding evolutionary change and speciation.

For those of us in the prep room, the biggest changes were that we focussed more on skeletal and tissue collections, and that skins should be washed in detergent to remove blood and dirt, then dried before making them into a study specimen. Barlow also taught me the “John Williams method” [4] of skinning birds by making an incision on the side rather than the belly, stuffing the skin with a cone of cotton, and finishing up without stitching up that initial incision. I used that method for a while but never perfected it and to this day use the traditional method of preparing study skins as outlined in Rudolph Anderson’s classic book on preserving vertebrate animals.

bichicken
dirty Sacred Ibis in Australia

Barlow wanted us to wash bird skins not for aesthetic reasons, as you might expect, but because he was interested in measuring plumage colours accurately. Such colours would, of course, be obscured by dirt from dust-bathing or simply by the bird living in dirty environments, by foraging in evergreens where they would get resin on their feathers, or by blood and guts on their plumage while they were eating. He was interested in geographic variation in House Sparrows, to see how their colours may have varied (evolved) as they spread across the continent since their introduction in New York in 1851/52. He had studied with Richard Johnston at the University of Kansas and wanted to contribute to Johnston’s evolutionary analyses of that species. At first, we measured plumage colours by simple comparison to colour swatches in the Villalobos Atlas de los colores [5]. But Barlow was interested in exact quantification so we soon tried to modify a cumbersome desktop transmission spectrophotometer to measure plumage reflectance.

A recent paper by Shane DuBay and Carl Fuldner, at the University of Chicago, now suggests that by washing those bird skins we were flushing down the sink an important record of atmospheric pollution. On noticing that some bird specimens at the Field Museum of Natural History were quite dirty looking, they decided to investigate the source of that dirt. It turned out to be largely black carbon, which they verified by examining feather under a scanning electron microscope. They then developed a method using digital photographs of birds with white breasts to quantify the degree of light reflectance (less reflectance = more carbon deposited).

2ETOLIGY5A5YXESY2PALA36WVA
Horned Larks when atmospheric carbon was high (left) and today (right

To examine variation in these carbon deposits on birds in the industrial heartland [6] of America, the researchers photographed and analyzed the white breasts of 1097 specimens of five species [7] collected over the past 135 years. They used the excellent collections at the Field Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Michigan Museum of Zoology. Because these species all moult in the fall, and every fall, they took specimens only from the winter months, and could thus date stamp the deposition of carbon on the plumage to within a few months. The remarkable results are shown on the graph below. The black line shows their estimate of average carbon accumulation on the specimens from 1888-2015; the orange line shows the quantity of coal burned in the USA during that period; and the purple line shows the results of a comprehensive model to predict the black carbon emissions in those states.

Using the birds as an index of black carbon in the atmosphere, it looks like the amount of carbon was highest from 1880 until the beginning of the Great Depression (red arrow), when it declined steeply as carbon emissions dropped. Emissions rose again as the depression ended and WWII began (blue arrow), then declined slowly to its present level after the Air Pollution Control Act (green arrow) and other regulations were imposed to reduce emissions even though consumption was on the rise (orange line).

CARBONgraph
graph modified from DuBay and Fuldner (2017)

Why are these results important? For one thing they suggest that the previous model of atmospheric carbon made an estimate that was too low from 1880-1910. This is an valuable bit of knowledge for climate change models. The results also match the estimate of peak atmospheric carbon in 1906-1910 as estimated from a Greenland Ice core. That core presumably measured what was in the atmosphere over Greenland, but this new study corroborates that finding. It would be interesting now to compare the sootiness of birds from this study to birds collected outside those industrial states, and even in other parts of the world.

Museums worldwide have suffered from shortages of funds and staff since at least the 1970s. Just like blue-skies research, the essential role of museums for science and society is hard to quantify. The historical value of museums is obvious and they are clearly invaluable for systematics research. But we can only guess what new discoveries will emerge from museum collections and they deserve our support. I would never have imagined that they might help us to understand climate change.

SOURCES

  • Anderson RM (1932) Methods of collecting and preserving vertebrate animals. Ottawa: King’s Printer.
  • DuBay SG, Fuldner CC (2017) Bird specimens track 135 years of atmospheric black carbon and environmental policy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 43: 11321-11328
  • Johnston RF (1973) Evolution in the House Sparrow, IV. Replicate studies in phenetic covariation. Systematic Zoology 22: 219-226.
  • Johnston RF,  Selander RK (1971). Evolution in the House Sparrow, II. Adaptive differentiation in North American populations. Evolution 25:1-28.
  • Ridgway RA (1912) Color standards and color nomenclature. Washington, DC.

  • Villalobos-Dominguez C, Villalobos J (1947) Atlas de los colores. Buenos Aires: Libreria El Ateneo Editorial.

Footnotes

  1. Jon Barlow: (1935-2009) was the first person with a PhD in ornithology to be Curator of Ornithology at the ROM. He was curator there for 35 years.
  2. (statistics!), cladistics, and phenetics: Barlow did his PhD at the University of Kansas where he learned about all of these topics from Robert R. Sokal who wrote classic books on both biostatistics and numerical taxonomy
  3. detailed specimen labels: Barlow wanted so much info on the labels (life size drawings of gonads and skull ossification, preparation methods, details of moult, tissue and skeleton specimens) that we often had to use 2-3 labels to contain it all.
  4. John Williams method: Williams (1913-1997) was well-known as an expert on African birds and was said to be able to prepare >30 high quality bird skins a day using his method. My record was more like 15 on my very best day.
  5. Villalobos Atlas de los colores: there were other colour atlases more widely used by ornithologists (see here), like Ridgway (1912) but Jim Baillie (see here), the acting curator before Barlow arrived, had noticed a stack of the Villalobos atlases remaindered in a local bookstore and snapped them up at $5 each. The Villalobos had lots of colour swatches finely grading into one another, and clever little holes in each swatch so you could more easily match them to the object of interest.
  6. industrial heartland: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin
  7. five species: Field and Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Towhee, Horned Lark, and Red-headed Woodpecker

007

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 7 January 2019

A couple of years ago, my family and I had an early morning stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, en route to our spring bolthole in the French Pyrenees.  As we stumbled bleary-eyed to the end of the passport and customs lines, a tall, burly passport control agent took us aside and rather gruffly asked me “Are you with Her Majesty’s Secret Service?” My eloquent response was “Huh?”, to which he even more loudly repeated what he had just said. Passport control agents make me nervous at the best of times, so I blurted out the only response I could think of: “No, sir, I work for Queen’s University, not the Queen. There must be some mix-up.” He scowled, then broke into a broad smile and said, “No, I am just kidding, you are in seat 007.” Who knew that border agents had a sense of humour?

james-bond-ornitho_1403072c
Bond, James Bond

I was reminded of that incident when I read, last week, that the real James Bond—the ornithologist, James Bond—was born on 4 January 1900. The story of Ian Fleming adopting the name ‘James Bond’ for his fictional hero is well-known (see the Wikipedia link, above) so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, at least from an ornithological perspective, the real James Bond is more interesting.

In the obituary that he wrote for The Auk, Kenneth Parkes said that Bond “was a bridge between the centuries in his ornithology as in his lifespan” [1]. I interpret this as meaning his approach to ornithological collections bridged the 19th (Victorian) and 20th century approaches. I consider there to be at least 4 distinct periods of ‘museum’ work in ornithology which I would call: (1) the Curiosity period where individual natural historians maintained small cabinets of curiosity and the focus was on identification and discovery, (2) the Victorian period where large collections were most often amassed by wealthy men who were largely self-taught, and the focus was on classification based on subjective comparison of specimens, (3) the Qualitative period where those private collections moved to museums and the focus was on distributions and zoogeography,  obtaining series of specimens to study the extent of within and between species variation, and (4) the present Quantitative period where museum collections are used to obtain data information about colours, shapes, sizes, and genetics of birds to test hypotheses about evolutionary change and anthropogenic influences. In many ways Bond bridged the Victorian and Qualitative periods.

rmds
de Schauensee

Bond grew up in Philadelphia but spent 8 years in England before graduating from Cambridge in 1922. Although he was always interested in natural history, his first job was in the foreign exchange department of a bank in Philadelphia. He quit that job in 1925 to pursue his interest in birds by joining the staff at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Almost right away he was to accompany Rudolphe Meyer de Schauensee on a bird collecting expedition to the lower Amazon of Brazil, from 10 Feb – 26 May 1926. de Schauensee was exactly one year younger than Bond, but was already a curator of birds at The Academy. On that expedition, they collected 500 birds and a few mammal specimens, and obtained valuable information [2] on species distributions and abundances . Even though they were outside the main part of the breeding season, they found and described the nests of several species, a topic (nidification) that became one of Bond’s life-long interests.

Many aspects of that expedition and Bond’s early career typify what I have called Victorian ornithology in that the major goals were to build up collections in museums, to learn about distributions of species, and to gather information relevant to systematic relationships among species. Bond, in particular, thought that the study of nesting habits might provide useful clues to systematic relationships. Also, like most Victorian ornithologists both Bond and de Schauensee had no formal training in science beyond an undergraduate education and worked at the museum without salary as both had independent wealth.

Bond is certainly best known for his work on the zoogeography of Caribbean birds, which soon became his main life-long interest. The second (1947) edition of his Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies [3] was illustrated with line drawings by Earl Poole and the third (1963) with spectacular plates by Don Eckleberry. That guide was, of course, how the novelist and birdwatcher, Ian Fleming, came across his name while on holiday at his estate on Jamaica. Bond revised the 6th edition of his field guide just before he died and it is still—30 years later, and more than 70 years after the 1947 edition—in print and available on Amazon.

covers
Covers of editions 1-6, left to right (1936, 1947, 1974, 1980, 1985, 1993)

Bond’s research on Caribbean birds was more typical of the Qualitative period of museum ornithology in that he used his specimens to develop ideas about the zoogeography of Caribbean birds. David Lack once suggested to him that the avifaunal boundary that he had described between the birds of Tobago and those of the Lesser Antilles should be called Bond’s Line. Good idea!

bonds-line
the West Indies faunal region showing how it does not include Tobago (from Bond 1993)

Bond remained on the staff at The Academy for the rest of his career, publishing more than 30 papers on birds of the Caribbean islands. By the mid-1960s, he was well known as the inspiration for the name of Ian Fleming’s hero. On one of his trips to Jamaica he met Ian Fleming who gave him a copy of his novel You Only Live Twice, inscribed, “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity”. [4]

baby white pelican
a ‘fleming’ White Pelican

Before they visited Bond on Jamaica, Ian Fleming replied to a letter from Bond’s wife Mary concerning his use of her husband’s name for his swashbuckling, womanizing hero: ”It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born. In return, I can only offer you or James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purposes you may think fit. Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.” [5] It’s probably too late to expect the discovery of new and suitably horrible species of bird, but maybe we should call particularly ugly bird chicks ‘flemings’. Those of White Pelican would get my vote [6].

SOURCES

  • Anonymous (1989) James Bond, Ornithologist, 89; Fleming Adopted Name for 007. New York Times, 17 Feb 1989, page D19
  • Bond J (1947) A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. New York: MacMillan.
  • Bond J (1993) Birds of the West Indies. Fifth edition (Peterson Field Guides). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Parkes K  (1989). In Memoriam: James Bond. The Auk 106: 718–720.
  • Ripley SD (1986) In Memoriam: Rudolph Meyer de Schauensee. The Auk 103: 204-206
  • Stone W (1928) On a collection of birds from the Para Region, eastern Brazil. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 80: 149-176
  • Salvador RB, Tomotani BM (2015) The birds of James Bond. Journal of Geek Studies 2: 1-9 [accessed online 5 Jan 2019 here]

Footnotes

  1. quotation: from Parkes 1989 page 718
  2. obtained valuable information: their observations and findings were published by Witmer Stone (1928) who was, at the time, the senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Director 1925-1928 and Curator of Vertebrates 1918-1936
  3. Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies: the first edition was published in 1936 as Birds of the West Indies and Bond reverted to that title in for editions 3-6. The first two editions had no colour plates so were not in the same genre as modern field guides.
  4. inscription by Ian Fleming: reported in The Telegraph (UK) for 2 Dec 2008 [see here] when the book was sold at auction for £50,000
  5. Ian Fleming quotation: from Bond’s obituary in the New York Times (anonymous 1989)
  6. white pelican chicks: This suggestion was inspired by a brilliant graduate course term paper written almost 40 years ago by Bruce Lyon (now a prof at UC Santa Cruz) entitled ‘Why are baby pelicans so ugly?’

IMAGES: Bond from The Paris Review 26 Nov 2012; de Schauensee from Ripley (1986); covers from various bookseller sites; Bond Line from Bond (1993); pelican photo courtesy Bruce Lyon

Ladies, Parakeets, and the Biogeography of an Extinct Bird

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 25 June 2018

In 1850, an anonymous author published a superb diary of natural history observations called ‘Rural Hours by a Lady’ based on two years of exploring the woods and fields near Cooperstown, New York. The book was wildly popular, and it was not long before the author was revealed to be Susan Fenimore Cooper [1]. On page 146 she says:

Parakeet2It is well known that we have in the southern parts of the country a member of the Parrot tribe, the Carolina Parakeet. It is a handsome bird, and interesting from being the only one of its family met with in a temperate climate of the Northern Hemisphere. They are found in great numbers as far north as Virginia, on the Atlantic coast; beyond the Alleghanies, they spread themselves much farther to the northward, being frequent on the banks of the Ohio, and in the neighborhood of St. Louis. They are even found along the Illinois, nearly as far north as the shores of Lake Michigan. They fly in flocks, noisy and restless, like all their brethren…In the Southern States their flesh is eaten…Birds are frequently carried about against their will by gales of wind; the Stormy Petrels, for instance, thoroughly aquatic as they are, have been found, occasionally, far inland. And in the same way we must account for the visit of the Parakeets to the worthy Knickerbockers about Albany.  [2]

Here, she correctly describes the bird as being most common in the southeastern states, though seen regularly as far north as the Great Lakes west of the Allegheny Mountains. What she did not know, of course, was that these were two subspecies, with different morphologies, ecologies and migratory strategies, as described below.

Live_captive_Carolina_parakeet
Shufeldt’s photo

The Carolina Parakeet was still abundant throughout its range in 1850 but, like the Passenger Pigeon, was soon to be extirpated. The second-last individual was a female called ‘Lady Jane’ who died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1917; the last of its kind being Lady Jane’s mate, a male named ‘Incas’ who died there in 1918, one hundred years ago. Coincidentally, Incas died in the same cage where Martha, the last passenger pigeon, had died in 1914 [3]. There were reports of sightings in the wild for another 40 years or so, in Florida and Georgia, but none of those records were authenticated. Among the North American birds that have become extinct since the arrival of Europeans, the biology of the breeding biology Carolina Parakeet may be the poorest known [4]. And there is, surprisingly, only one photo of the bird in a natural-looking setting [5], taken by the irrepressible Robert Shufeldt in about 1900.

 

A recent pair of papers by Kevin Burgio and colleagues uses all of the known specimens and sightings of this bird to reveal some interesting insights into its distribution, ecology, and taxonomy. There were 401 of those sightings recorded between 1564 and 1944, and nearly 800 specimens in museums and private collections worldwide [6], almost all collected in the 1800s. As shown on the graphs below, the number of records climbed exponentially from 1500 to 1900, reflecting the increases in exploring the new continent, in writing about natural history, and in preserving ornithological data and specimens. There was an uptick in collecting, or at least preserving specimens, from 1870-1900 when it became clear that the bird was disappearing [6].

graphs
Records and specimens with known dates—note the log scale on upper two graphs.

Analyzing records only from states where the parakeet was known to breed, Burgio and colleagues, georeferenced all the data and used 147 unique localities to create the species breeding distribution models shown on the map to the right below. The map on the left was produced in 1889 by Edwin Hasbrouck with the known range in his day (black shading) nicely matching the newly reconstructed ranges of the two subspecies.

Burgio and colleagues’ research also suggested (i) that the breeding range of this species was much smaller than previously thought, (ii) that the two subspecies, previously only vaguely defined by size and colour, actually had disjunct ranges and occupied somewhat different climatic niches, and (iii) that the western subspecies was almost certainly migratory where the eastern one was not.

The authors also hoped their analysis would help to inform current conservation practices in an effort to save the 8% of bird species currently threatened to disappear as a result of climate change. Parrots, in particular, are in bad shape, with 42% of species listed as threatened or endangered.

MAPS
LEFT from Hasbrouck (1889) estimating the limits of the parakeet’s historical range (black line) with shading showing the range in the 1880s. RIGHT from Burgio et al. (2017) estimating the ancestral breeding ranges of the two subspecies (Hasbrouck’s range limit shown as a red line)

 

pipe
Clay pipe ca. 1650

As much as I like those recent papers, I think it’s unfortunate that many biogeographers draw their maps as if animals obeyed political boundaries, as on the right-hand but not the left-hand maps above. The right-hand graph implies, for example, that the bird could never have crossed the US-Canada border as there was nowhere to go. Despite that, there is some evidence that it did occasionally occur in southwestern Ontario, possibly blown off course as Susan Cooper suggested above. At an archaeological dig at Grimsby, Ontario, for example, Walter Kenyon found a clay pipe that looks distinctly like a parrot, made by native peoples in the mid-1600s. And Rosemary Prevec found 3 Carolina Parakeet bones at a native site near London, Ontario, dated at around 1100 CE. Both of these findings are no more than suggestive and could have been obtained in trade with natives living further south.

Possibly more convincing are some observations that Samuel de Champlain recorded in his notes in 1615, in the woods near where I live in Kingston. He says that he  “…penetrated so far into the woods in pursuit of a certain bird which seemed to be peculiar, with a beak almost like that of a parrot, as big as a hen, yellow all over, except for its red head and blue wings, which made successive flights like a partridge.” [8] There are definitely no other birds even remotely resembling that description in eastern Ontario today.

fancyfeathers
Catalog page, New York Millinery and Supply Company, Inc., New York

None of this nationalism is really important to our understanding of the bird’s ecology and demise, except to note that at one time the species was clearly widespread and mobile. What is important is an attempt to understand why they went extinct, as even by the middle of the 1800s it appeared to be declining in numbers [6].

Burgio and colleagues point to habitat destruction and hunting as the likely causes. Not surprisingly, the parakeet’s feathers were prized for the millinery trade, with some reports suggesting that ladies hats were sometimes adorned with skins of the whole bird. The 1901 ad to the right, for example, shows a whole parrot (skin) in the lower right corner, for the bargain price of 25¢ a bird or $2.95 a dozen (about $7.50 and $88 in today’s currency). While the documentation is sketchy, it is also likely that this species was a popular cage bird in Germany as well as in North America. The only other known photo, besides Shufeltdt’s, is also one of a pet called  ‘Doodles‘, kept by Smithsonian malacologist Paul Bartsch. In 1900, ‘doodle‘ meant ‘fool‘ and not the ‘absentminded scribble‘, Google commemorative, or online scheduler that it is today. And I wonder if Bratsch gave it that name to reminder him what fools we are when let any species go extinct.

SOURCES

  • Anonymous [Cooper, SF] (1850) Rural Hours by a Lady. New York: G. Putnam.
  • Burgio KR, Carlson CJ, Tingley MW (2017) Lazarus ecology: Recovering the distribution and migratory patterns of the extinct Carolina parakeet. Ecology and Evolution 7:5467–5475.
  • Burgio K, Carlson C, Bond A (2018) Georeferenced sighting and specimen occurrence data of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) from 1564-1944. Biodiversity Data Journal 6:e25280.
  • Cokinos C (2000) Hope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. New York: Penguin.
  • Fuller E (2013) Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record. London: Bloomsbury.

  • Greene WT, Dutton FGFG, Fawcett B, Lydon AF (1883) Parrots in Captivity, v. 2. London: George Bell and Sons.

  • Hahn P (1963) Where is that Vanished Bird? Toronto: University of Toronto Press. [see this previous post for more on this book[
  • Kennedy CC (1984) Did Champlain stalk a Carolina Parakeet in southern Ontario in 1615? Arch Notes 84:55–62.

  • McKinley, D. (1960) The Carolina parakeet in pioneer Missouri. The Wilson Bulletin 72:274–287.
  • McKinley D (1977) Climatic relations, seasonal mobility, and hibernation in the Carolina Parakeet. Jack-Pine Warbler 55:107–124.
  • Prevec R (1984) The Carolina Parakeet—its first appearance in southern Ontario. Arch Notes 84:51-54.
  • Snyder NFR (2004) The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Footnotes

  1. Susan Fenimore Cooper: was a superb naturalist, author, and artist whose work was overshadowed in more ways than one by that of her father, James. She deserves recognition and a separate essay on her own work, Stay tuned.
  2. Cooper quotation: from Anonymous 1850 page 146
  3. ‘Incas’ the parakeet: Like Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Incas was frozen and sent to the Smithsonian, but he was lost in transit (Fuller 2013)
  4. breeding biology poorly known: see Snyder (2004)
  5. Shufeldt’s photo: is one of a pair of pet birds that Shufeldt borrowed from his friend Edward Schmidt, and it took him hours to get it to sit still enough on a cocklebur to make a decent photo (Cokinos 2001). Both of Schmidt’s birds later died from chewing on the bars of their cage, possibly from lead paint poisoning (Fuller 2013)
  6. declining numbers by mid 1800s: see Hasbrouck (1889)
  7. records and specimens: see Hahn (1963), McKinley (1960, 1977) and Snyder (2004) for background
  8. Champlain quotation: from Kennedy 1984 page 55

IMAGES:  first parakeet is by Robert Ridgway from Baird et al. (1905); graphs by the author based on data in Burgio et al. (2017, supplement)—parakeet is an engraving by Benjamin Fawcett in Greene et al. (1883); maps from the original papers; clay pipe from Kennedy (1984); millinery ad from the Smithsonian collection

Red Eggs

GUEST POST

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 30 April 2018

IMG_5279
Common guillemot eggs on Skomer, Wales showing some of the variety

The cover or frontispiece of almost every book about birds’ eggs is adorned with a picture of a common guillemot (Common Murre [1]) egg. Why? There are several reasons—the common guillemot’s egg is an extraordinary shape, it’s brightly coloured, and the variation in the colour and maculation seems almost infinite.

Egg collectors, or oölogists as they called themselves, accumulated collections of eggs mainly for aesthetic reasons, and there are few eggs more aesthetic of those of the guillemot. Collectors also liked to display the range of variation in egg colour. With the exception of one or two species like the tawny-flanked prinia Prinia subflava [2], there is more variation in the colours and patterns of guillemot eggs than any other species.

That variation is apparent if you open a museum draw of guillemot eggs. But it is a fraction of the variation apparent in freshly laid eggs on the ledges where these birds breed. Eggs in museum collections often fade unless protected from the light, and I have seen many an old collection where almost all the eggs have converged to a pale, muddy, bluish-green background colour. The markings, which are always darker, seem not to fade, so much of the variation in guillemot one sees in museums is in those maculations. Oölogists described those maculation as ‘salt and pepper’, ‘black cap’, ‘lose cap’, ‘shorthand’, and ‘scrawl’. Ornithologists have been more pragmatic and less poetic.

The majority of common guillemot eggs have a blue, green or white ground colour over which lie the various forms of maculation. In their competitive quest for eggs, oölogists sought—and sometimes fought over—the rarest types. This was especially true at Bempton Cliffs on the Flamborough Headland on England’s northeastern coast, where egging was an industry in the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. Tens of thousands of guillemot eggs were collected at Bempton each year, mainly for food, but also for the oölogists’ cabinets. Providing you were a wealthy enough oölogist, these were easy pickings. Farm labourers, known locally as ‘climmers’ (climbers) did all the work and took all the risks, scaling the 400-foot vertical cliffs to get the eggs. The collectors merely patrolled the cliff tops waiting to see what the climmers brought up.

IMG_1195
Some Bempton ‘climmers’ in 1911 with some of the eggs they collected. William Wilkinson is in the middle.

It was a market: the climmers knew what the collectors wanted, and negotiated hard for a decent price. Farm labourers’ salaries were low and selling eggs was an important source of additional income for the climmers.  At a time when £3 was a decent weekly wage (for anyone, let alone a farm worker), an unusually coloured egg that sold for £1 was real bonus. The commoner egg shapes and colours went for a few pennies. The rarest guillemot eggs of all were those of a port-wine or blood red colour. The esteem with which such eggs were held was celebrated by the nick-name ‘Bempton Belle’ given to one egg from Bempton. Strictly speaking, the name should have referred to the female that laid this red egg since female guillemots always produce the same type and colour of egg.

When Bob Montgomerie and I visited the fabulous egg collection at the Delaware Museum of Natural History (DMNH) [3]  we found the following typewritten poem tucked into the bottom of one of the small egg boxes in a drawer full of guillemot eggs:

THE BEMPTON BELLE

Listen Boys until I tell,
Of the famous egg — the Bempton Belle.
Seventeen days in June had gone;
When Jack the Climber came upon,
And brought from off the cliffs the Red;
The best ever seen by the veteran Ned.
William the Jumper struck with awe;
Said that a better egg he never saw.
Even silent Edwin Colley speaks,
Of the shape, and beautiful streaks.
The Boys all wondered at the shell,
Of the famous Red, the Bempton Belle.
Collectors who came from far and near,
Said they had never seen its peer.
Every man was fair to own,
The Bempton Belle the best egg known.
Jack the Here of the find;
Saved the egg for friendship kind.
Remember Boys the lesson taught;
True friendship can not be bought. [4]

This particular egg was part of Jeremiah Goodall’s egg collection (now in the DMNH) that he accumulated in the early 1900s. We don’t know whether it was Goodall who wrote the poem, but someone has added in pen that ‘Jack’ was Jack Hodgson, ‘Ned’ was Ned Hodgson and ‘William the Jumper’ was William Wilkinson, all climmers.

BBeggs
The Bempton Belle (left) now quite faded, and a 3D-printed replica (right) painted to represent how the Bempton Belle might have looked when it was fresh [5].
The colour of all birds’ eggs is determined by just two pigments, biliverdin and protoporphyrin IX. Our analyses show that red guillemot eggs contain only the latter pigment, as one might expect. Some other birds, and especially corvids—which typically lay greenish or blueish eggs—occasionally lay entire clutches of red eggs, referred to as ‘erythristic’, and these too were popular with egg collectors. Red guillemot eggs are essentially erythristic, albeit with heavy maculation.

We have attempted to assess just how rare such eggs were, and after looking at our own data and those of other guillemot researchers, we estimate that fewer than one in 1000, or possibly 10,000 female guillemots produce such extraordinary eggs [6].

SOURCES

  • Birkhead TR, Montgomerie R (2018) Rare red eggs of the Common Guillemot: birds, biology and people at Bempton, Yorkshire, in the early 1900s. Archives of Natural History 45: 69-79.
  • Boehm EF (1950) Abnormal erythrism in birds’ eggs. Emu 50:139.
  • Caves EM, Stevens M, Iversen E, Spottiswoode CN (2015) Hosts of brood parasites have evolved egg signatures with elevated information content. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 282: 20150598.
  • Gill F, Donsker D, Eds (2018) IOC World Bird List (v8.1). doi: 14344/IOC.ML.8.1. Online at http://www.worldbirdnames.org
  • Gross AO (1966) Erythristic eggs. The Wilson Bulletin 78: 127–128.
  • Rarer ECS (1918) IV.‐Erythrism in bids’ eggs: an address read at the Third Oological Dinner on 26 September, 1917. Ibis 60: 68–75.

Footnotes

  1. common guillemot: The ‘official’ name of this species (Uria aalge) is Common Murre according to Gill and Donsker (2018) and HBW Alive/Bird Life International. Common guillemot is the name still used for this species in the UK.
  2. prinia egg colours: see Cave et al. (2015)
  3. Delaware Museum of Natural History: just north of Wilmington, this museum was established
  4. poem: See Birkhead and Montgomerie (2018) for a picture of the original. On that typescript someone has added some details in pen, and changed the last line and added two more: Honest Jack could not be bought/To your children the story tell/Of Jack the Climber, & the Bempton Belle.
  5. Bempton Belle photo: the actual egg now in the collection at DMNH; I painted the replica to show what the original probably have looked like, based on red guillemot eggs currently in the collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring (see Birkhead and Montgomerie 2018, Figure 1)
  6. rarity of erythristic guillemot eggs: see Birkhead and Montgomerie (2018) on the Bempton Belle and erythrism in murre eggs. See also Boehm (1950), Gross (1966), and Rarer (1918) on erythrism in birds’ eggs in general. Erythrism is either the result of addition protoporphyrin IX being added to the shell by the female, of biliverdin not being added to a shell that normally would have both pigments.

IMAGES: Bempton ‘climmers from an old postcard; Bempton Belle poem and photo © Delaware Museum of Natural History, used with permission of Dr Jean Woods, Curator of Birds; photo of guillemot eggs on Skomer and replica red egg © T R Birkhead.

Serendipity 101

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 23 April 2018

The more I read about the history of ornithology, the more it strikes me how important serendipity—blind luck—has been to that history. Ernst Mayr’s career, for example, was a long series of fortunate events. No question that Mayr was brilliant, ambitious and creative, but the goddess of fortune was definitely smiling on him.

One hundred and twelve years ago today, San Francisco lay in ruins, decimated [1] by 4 days of fires that followed the earthquake that struck in the early morning on 18 April 1906. The earthquake itself was monstrous but it was the fires—fuelled by broken gas mains and the largely timber construction of much of the city—that wreaked the most havoc for four consecutive days following the initial quake. Charles Richter was only 6 years old in 1906—and thus had not yet invented his eponymous scale—but geologists figure that the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake  would have numbered 7.9 on that scale.

San_francisco_fire_1906
The fires of April 2006, San Francisco

Oceanodroma.macrodactyla
Guadalupe Storm Petrel, painting by Keulmanns 1906

The California Academy of Sciences was destroyed by the quake and most of its specimen collections burned in those fires. Nonetheless, a particularly valuable portion of the herbarium [2] was rescued by the heroics of Alice Eastwood, the curator of botany. The museum director Leverett Loomis was able to rescue only two bird books and two bird specimens (both of the Guadalupe Storm Petrel [3]) but all of the other ornithological material was lost.

While the Cal Academy’s bird collection was lost, there was a serendipitous silver lining in that cloud of smoke. In 1904, Loomis had commissioned Rollo Beck to lead a 17-month-long collecting expedition to the Galápagos. Beck was a superb collector who lived in California making extensive collections of birds along the west coast of North America for museums and private collectors like Sir Walter

Crew-of-the-Academy-1905-expedition-sonoma.edu_
Galápagos expedition members 1905 (Beck is seated in the middle)

Rothschild, who figures prominently in Ernst Mayr’s story of success. Loomis, however, had a ton of trouble trying to find a suitable ship to either buy or lease for that expedition. So the departure date had to keep being advanced from October 1904 until the end of June 1905 when they finally were able to leave San Francisco on the rebuilt schooner Academy. If the expedition had left in 1904, as originally planned, it would have returned in March 1906 just in time to be burned by the fires of April.

Thus, in April 1906, when the Cal Academy collections burned, Beck was still in the Galápagos. He returned in November 1906 bringing with him more than 78,000 specimens—including 8688 birds (3200 of which were Galapagos Finches [4]) and 2000 birds’ eggs —that would form the nucleus of the collections in the rebuilt museum [5]. The Cal Academy restored the museum and reopened in 1916, then rebuilt the whole structure with improved earthquake and fire protection in 2008. It is a magnificent museum, aquarium and small zoo today and well worth a visit next time you are in San Francisco. It also still holds the largest collection of Darwin’s Finches in the world. Those specimens formed the basis for much of the work that Robert Bowman and David Lack did on the anatomical adaptations of those birds [6].

CalifAcadamyOfSciAug28-2008img0640
California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco 2008

Beck was later hired by the American Museum of Natural History to head the Whitney South Sea Expedition to the south Pacific islands to collect birds and anthropological material. Beck set out with his crew in 1923 but in 1929 he got very sick and had to go home. That left the expedition without an ornithologist. Sir Walter Rothschild knew

MayrNG
Ernst Mayr (right) in New Guinea 1928

about the 24-year-old Ernst Mayr then working as an assistant to the great German ornithologist Erwin Stresemann in Berlin. Rothschild had promised Mayr a collecting trip to the tropics on completion of his PhD in 1922 but no opportunities had presented themselves until 1928 when he was able to send Mayr to New Guinea. Thus Mayr was in the right place at the right time when the Whitney expedition needed a new ornithologist so Rothschild asked him if he could take over to complete the work that Beck had started. After returning to Europe in 1930, Mayr moved to New York to work on the specimens collected on the Whitney expedition and established his early career with those publications. And the rest, from those very lucky beginnings, is history.

The take home lesson from Serendipity 101 is that ‘shit happens’, but good things happen too and there is really nothing we can do about many of those devastating events like earthquakes. What we can do, as Ernst Mayr’s life so amply demonstrates, is to recognize and be prepared to take advantage of the good things, and to try not to be too discouraged when the goddess of fortune [7] takes a holiday.

SOURCES

  • Bowman RI (1961) Morphological differentiation and adaptation in the Galapagos finches. University of California Publications in Zoology 58:1–302.
  • Godman FDC (1907) Monograph of the Petrels (order Tubinares). London: Witherby & Co.

  • James MJ (2012) The Boat, the Bay, and the Museum: Significance of the 1905-1906 Galápagos expedition of the California Academy of Sciences. Pages 87-99 in Wolff M, Mark Gardener M (editors) The Role of Science for Conservation. London: Routledge
  • Lack D (1945) The Galápagos finches (Geospizinae): A study in variation. Occasional Papers of the California Academy of Sciences 21:1–159.
  • Lack D (1947) Darwin’s Finches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lowe P (1936) The finches of the Galápagos in relation to their evolution. Ibis 1936:310–321.

Footnotes

1. Decimated: literally reduced to 1/10th of its former size as 90% of the homes were destroyed. See here  for a summary of the effects of those fires

2. Valuable portion of the collection: these were type specimens that Eastwood had kept separate from the main collection. This was an unusual practice in those days but proved to be lucky as she was able to grab them in a few minutes. On arriving at the museum, she found that the marble staircase had collapsed so she climbed to the 6th floor herbarium on the iron railing. She then gathered up those type specimens with her friend Robert Porter. Eastwood then climbed back down the bannister to the ground floor to gather up the specimens that Porter lowered out the window, on a rope that they had put together from scraps. See here  for more details.

3. Guadalupe Storm Petrel: although this bird was still considered to be abundant on its Guadalupe Island (Mexico) breeding grounds in 1906, it was being heavily preyed upon by cats that were introduced to the island in the late 1800s. The last two specimens were collected in 1911 and the last breeding was recorded in 1912. The species was never seen again (see here for more details). Loomis must have taken these two because they were the type specimens as he could not have guessed that the species was soon to be extinct. The painting by JG Keulmans is from Godman (1907)

4. Galápagos Finches: were not normally called Darwin’s Finches until Percy Lowe (1936) used that term

5. Galápagos expedition of 1905-06: see James (2012) for details

6. Lack and Bowman studies of Darwin’s Finches: see Lack (1945, 1947) and Bowman (1961)

7. Goddess of Fortune: Tyche to the Greeks, Fortuna to the Romans

IMAGES: all from Wikipedia, in the public domain

Time Travel

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 15 January 2018

For historians, travel to museums, libraries and historic sites is a way to get in touch with times past and seems, somehow, to improve understanding. I vividly remember the days I spent at Down House poring over Darwin’s artifacts, getting a feel for his working conditions, and supposing that somehow this made me a better student of evolutionary biology. The study of history does that for me, and many scientists, for reasons that are hard to pin down—I know that an appreciation for history helps my science but I cannot exactly say why.

IMG_0960
Some of Darwin’s specimens on display in Down House (2013)

Now with the ready availability of so much digitized material online, including excellent videos of historic places, scanned copies of original volumes and documents, and—coming soon—virtual and augmented reality presentations that will give an immersive experience, much historical research and ‘time travel’ can be had without leaving your desk. My friends in the History Department just roll their eyes when I say this because, for them, there’s just nothing like holding the real thing in your hand or sitting in the same pub as Tolkien when you read his notes. They cannot really explain why this is valuable but I know what they mean about that kind of experience.

These days much of what used to take months of painstaking research and travel to examine documents and specimens can now be accomplished in minutes online. A recent study, for example, used digitized photos of eggs from a museum collection to do a comprehensive comparative study of 1400 species [1]. The authors could have done that entire study without actually holding a real egg. In last week’s blog post, Tim Birkhead decried the absence of real eggs in a museum exhibit, and I understand what he means. Historical research benefits somehow from encounters with some real artifacts from the past.

Fortunately museums and libraries often put their material on display and I can recommend the following four exhibits worthy of your attention in the coming months; one in London, one in Sheffield, one in New York, and one in Baltimore. If you plan to be in any of these cities, do not miss these exhibits. I am tempted to go to London just to see the Fashioned by Nature exhibit described below, and maybe while there to make yet another pilgrimage to Down House.

Audubon’s Birds of America

New York Historical Society Museum and Library, 170 Central Park West, New York

When John James Audubon died in 1851, he was living with his family in Manhattan at their estate on the Hudson River. In part to pay the bills, his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon sold his original watercolours to the New York Historical Society where they reside today. These are the watercolours from which the engraver, Robert Havell, made the now famous prints that comprised the elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. You can now see many of these original watercolours and the engravings made from them in a gallery at the New York Historical Society. Details here.

AudubonGoldeneye

 

This exhibition is temporarily closed until February 6th.

Fashioned from Nature

honeyeaterEarringsVictoria and Albert Museum, London—21 April 2018 – 27 January 2019

This exhibition, which opens in April, will explore how natural materials, including birds, were used as fashion accessories over the past 400 years. Particularly in the Victorian era, colourful birds—like the honeyeater heads on the earrings in the picture—fuelled an obsession for natural fashion accessories and ultimately led to the establishment of the Audubon Society and laws to protect birds from unregulated slaughter.

The Wonderful Mister Willughby’s New Natural History

West bank Library, University of Sheffield, UK; until 28 February

Tim Birkhead wrote about this exhibition here a few weeks ago. Willughby was a pioneering English ornithologist whose ‘Ornithology’ with John Ray in 1678 arguably marks the beginnings of scientific ornithology.

Beyond Flight: Birds in African Art

Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD; until 17 June 2018

This exhibit of West African Art illustrates the place of honour that birds occupy in many African cultures. Details here.


FOOTNOTES

  1. Stoddard, M. C., Young, E. H., Akkaynak, D., Sheard, C., Tobias, J. A. & Mahadevan, L. 2017. Avian egg shape: form, function and evolution. Science 356: 1249-1254.

 

“An egg is always an adventure”

Guest Post

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 8 January 2018

Birds’ eggs can bring out the worst in people. In the UK, for example,  the avaricious collecting of birds’ eggs more than 60 years ago threatened or hastened local extinctions of rare raptors and the endangered red-backed shrike Lanius collurio, whose beautifully marked eggs seemed irresistible to collectors.

Egg collecting, or öology as it was once known, became illegal in the UK in 1954, and collectors have since been excoriated to such an extent than even the sight of a clutch of eggs in a museum can trigger an indignant outburst. A colleague was given a copy of my book The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird’s Egg by his partner, but she said that she wouldn’t be reading it because the thought of eggs and egg collecting made her feel sick. Many museums that have acquired öologists’ collections are reluctant to display those eggs for fear of deterring visitors.

Collection_d'oeufs-MusOberlin

Nowhere was this attitude more prevalent than in a recent exhibition. The idea was to display birds’ eggs as ‘art’, but overlain with a sense of self-righteous condemnation of those who had collected them. The irony was that the eggs on display were replicas—and rather clumsily done at that—because the originals, confiscated from a collector, were reported to have been ‘officially’ destroyed. Exhibiting crude replicas of eggs was as much art as replacing paintings in the National Gallery with coloured photocopies would be. Having rarely had the opportunity to see the eggs of wild birds, the vast majority of exhibition visitors knew no different.

In the late 1800s, when Oscar Wilde wrote the words in the title of this essay, the eggs of wild birds were still a great adventure for both scientists and hobbyists. Eggs were first collected in earnest at the beginning of the scientific revolution when they became objects of curiosity to be added to the cabinets of wealthy virtuosi. The physician, Sir Thomas Browne, who was also a naturalist and polymath, was among the first to make such an egg collection in the 1650s.

455px-Meyers_b5_s0352aAs science gained stature, egg collecting became increasingly widespread, morphing into ‘öology’ in the optimistic belief that egg shape, colour, and size might inform the on-going quest to discover the true natural order (phylogeny) of birds. By the 1890s, as the great Victorian ornithologist Alfred Newton made clear, this was a lost cause, as indeed it was with many of the  morphological traits of the birds that taxonomists used to try to construct a phylogeny.

Despite this lack of scientific success, öology continued apace through the early 1900s, with most schoolboys (rarely girls) collecting eggs. A few continued to collect to eggs as adults, by which time—for most of them— it had become an obsession. By the 1920s, there were rumblings of discontent in some quarters as the need for bird protection was becoming more apparent.

After egg collecting became illegal in 1954 in the UK, egg collections moved from private ownership into museums. Today, as the last of the pre-1954 collectors reach the ends of their lives, private egg collections continue to be added to those in museums in the form of bequests, although there are those that would rather see such collections shattered rather than saved for posterity.

The truth is that museum egg collections have served a valuable scientific role, helping, for example, to identify and resolve environmental problems associated with the insidious effects of DDT and acid rain. Collections of eggs have also informed us about evolution, and in particular the co-evolutionary arms races between brood parasites and their hosts—exemplified by the work of Claire Spottiswoode.

Not_your_average_clutch_(3639747486)Recently, the vast egg collection of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley has provided data for a comparative study of egg shape by Cassie Stoddard and colleagues that promises to fuel new interest in this topic.. Environmental problems such as climate change will continue to challenge biologists trying to stem the worldwide decline in bird numbers. The collections of eggs in museums may well serve once again to help resolve environmental problems that we haven’t yet even begun to imagine.

SOURCES

  • Birkhead, T. R. The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird’s Egg. Bloomsbury, London.
  • Newton, A. 1896. A Dictionary of Birds. Black. London.
  • Russell, G. D., White, J., Maurer, G. & Cassey, P. 2010. Data-poor egg collections: cracking an important research resource.  J. Afrotrop. Zool. Special Issue 77-82.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. 2012 Host-parasite arms races and rapid changes in bird egg appearance. American Naturalist 179: 633-648.
  • Walters, M. 1994. Uses of egg collections: display, research, identification, the historical aspect. Journal of Biological Curation 1: 29-35.

Pigeon Coup

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 27 November 2017

When I was a young teenager I spent my Saturday mornings during the school year at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). I was there to attend the weekly meeting of the Toronto Junior Field Naturalists’ Club, but often stayed afterward to explore the public galleries. I particularly loved the dioramas of birds and mammals as they took me to distant places and bygone times that I could only dream or read about. In those days, there were virtually no nature documentaries on TV and precious few in the theatres [1].

Of all those superb dioramas, my favourite was the Passenger Pigeon, showing immense flocks (painted) descending into a forest clearing scattered with pigeons (mounted specimens) foraging on the acorns:

The scene reproduced depicts an April morning in the 1860s near Forks of Credit, Ontario…The visitor inspecting the exhibit should imagine himself standing at the edge of an old beech-maple forest overlooking the pioneer’s clearing. The scene is as we might have found it in the 1860s. The great pigeon flight is underway and will perhaps continue throughout the day. [2]

That diorama was opened to the public in 1935, the brainchild of Lester L. Snyder, the curator of birds, and constructed and painted by E. B. S. Logier who had joined the museum as illustrator in 1915. My memories of those dioramas came flooding back a couple of weeks ago when I saw the names Mark Peck and Allan Baker [3]—both from the ROM—among the authors of a new paper out of Berth Shapiro’s lab (UC Santa Cruz) on Passenger Pigeons published in Science, but more on that in a minute.

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Painted backdrop of the Passenger Pigeon diorama at the ROM (1935-1981)

Standing in front of that diorama I can remember thinking that a bird that had once been that abundant could not possibly be extinct. After all, Peterson’s Field Guide still illustrated them (in  a head and shoulders vignette on p 181 of my copy) so maybe he thought the bird might still be seen. My teen birding buddies and I spent many an afternoon naively scouring flocks of Mourning Doves just in case. After all, bison were also once extremely abundant, and hunted relentlessly, but were still round, albeit in small numbers.

I was also heartened by the fact that even if the species was really extinct, there must be thousands of specimens in museum collections that could be used for further study, since the ROM alone appeared to have so many that they could fill a diorama with mounted specimens alone. When I mentioned this to my friend and mentor Jim Baillie, assistant curator of birds at the ROM, he just laughed and told me there were only about 1500 specimens worldwide, of a species that once numbered in the billions. The reason for this wealth of specimens at the ROM, he said, was that they had been the beneficiaries of what he considered to be a major coup, when a local naturalist, musician and businessman [4], Paul Hahn, had decided—shortly after the Passenger Pigeon went extinct in 1914—to donate to the ROM as many specimens as he could locate, as a way “to ensure that future generations would know at least how handsome a bird it was.” [5]

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Paul Hahn

Hahn was born in Germany in 1875 but moved to Toronto with his family in 1898. In 1902 he saw his first Passenger Pigeon, a mounted specimen in a farmhouse north of the city and decided then to “set about gathering as many as possible of the mounted birds scattered around the country, both for the sake of future students and with the intention of preserving at least some specimens of a bird that would probably soon be extinct.” [5]. He presented his first specimen to the ROM in 1918 and had donated 70 by the time he died in 1962.

As a result of Hahn’s generosity, the ROM had 124 Passenger Pigeon skins and mounts by 1962, more than any other collection worldwide. I know this because in 1957 Mr Hahn started compiling a list of all the specimens of 7 extinct (our nearly so) bird species [6] held in museums and private collections around the world. Hahn died before his list could be published but Baillie took up the task, seeing it through to print in 1963 as a book Where is that Vanished Bird? That book lists every specimen (including skeletons) known to Hahn [7], its date and place of collection, its sex, the collector, and the current collection in which it was held.

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One of the Passenger Pigeon mounts at the Royal Ontario Museum

The first Passenger Pigeon specimen whose collection date was known was a male taken in the Carolinas in about 1810, housed with one other specimen (a female, from Georgia collected in 1821) in the Zooligische Museum in Berlin. The Naumann Museum in Köthen that Tim Birkhead wrote about last week also had a male, collected in about 1830 (locality unknown).

The recent Science paper made good use of the ROM collection of Passenger Pigeons, analyzing the DNA extracted from the toe pads of 84 specimens, 63 of which were from the ROM. Analyzing both nuclear and mitochondrial genes, the researchers confirmed that the Passenger Pigeon had surprisingly low genetic diversity. This low diversity is unexpected because large populations are predicted from theory to be genetically diverse, and you don’t get larger bird populations than those of the Passenger Pigeon. To explain this loss of diversity, the authors argued that it was driven by high rates of dispersal and adaptive evolution that removed harmful mutations. Such low diversity would have made the species particularly susceptible to disease or environmental change, two factors that might have doomed the species once populations had been decimated by hunting. This study also concluded, based on some sophisticated genomic analyses, that Passenger Pigeon populations had probably persisted at extremely high numbers for 20,00 years or more before the 1800s [8].

The Passenger Pigeon diorama at the ROM was dismantled in 1981, in part because it was showing its age, but also because the age of dioramas was over, replaced in part by the ubiquitous nature shows in TV. That saddens me but I am more than ever convinced that clubs for young field naturalists, and museums that store and preserve specimens, deserve our unending support.

SOURCES

  • Hahn P (1963) Where is that Vanished Bird? Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • Hung C-M, Shaner P-JL, Zink RM, Liu W-C, Chu T-C, Hiuang W-S et al. (2014) Drastic population fluctuations explain the rapid extinction of the passenger pigeon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Scienes USA 111:10636–10641.

  • Murray GGR, Soares AER, Novac BJ, Schaefer NK, Cahill JA, Baker AJ et al. (2017) Natural selection shaped the rise and fall of passenger pigeon genomic diversity. Science 358:951–954.


FOOTNOTES

1. The first nature documentaries on TV were a series called Fur and Feathers on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) channel in 1955-56, in black and white (of course). By 1960, Disney had produced 14 movies in its True-Life Adventures series, including the The Living Desert, The Secrets of Life, African Lion, and White Wilderness all of which enthralled my naturalist friends and I when they played at our local theatre.

2. Text from the ROM’s Passenger Pigeon diorama, courtesy Mark Peck, 22 Nov 2017.

3. Mark Peck is Ornithology Technician at the ROM, where Allan Baker (1943-2014) worked for 42 years as both a curator of birds and eventually head of their Department of Natural History.

4. Hahn was an accomplished cellist who played with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He also founded Paul Hahn Pianos in Toronto in 1913, a company that is still in business today.

5. Quotations from Hahn 1963:1.

6. As of 1962: skins and mounts of 1532 Passenger Pigeons, 365 Eskimo Curlews, 78 Great Auks, 720 Carolina Parakeets, 413 Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, 54 Labrador Ducks and 309 Whooping Cranes (Hahn 1963).

7. Beginning in 1957 he sent out questionnaires to people and museums that he thought might know or know about those specimens. He got more than 1000 response.

8. Based on DNA samples from only 3 Passenger Pigeons, Hung et al. (2014) performed a different genomic analysis and concluded that population sizes had fluctuated dramatically—only occasionally reaching numbers in the billions—thereby increasing its risk of extinction during population lows. Evaluating the conclusions of these two studies is above my pay grade but I expect that both labs will argue that their analyses are correct.

IMAGES: ROM photos by Brian Boyle, courtesy of Mark Peck (both at the ROM); Paul Hahn from the Paul Hahn & Co. website at https://paulhahn.com/about/who-we-are/