Saturday, March 05, 2011

Small-headed Flycatcher ...

... and Other Mystery Birds in J.J. Audubon’s “The Birds of America.”

There are five birds in John James Audubon’s work that are mystery birds. He named them, described them, and painted them, but to this day, no one has been able to identify the birds.
Le Petit Caporal - Merlin
White-eyed Vireo

Knowing what birds Audubon painted could be a challenge if it were not for the fact that bird study has been going on for a long time. Audubon named all of the birds he painted, but in the early nineteenth century birds names were still a work in progress. There was no American Ornithological Union to establish order amid chaos. For example, Audubon painted “Le Petit Caporal” (Pl 75). The name was probably a nod in the direction of Napoleon; the bird has been known as the Pigeon Hawk, and today is Merlin. To give a few more examples, Audubon painted the Children’s Warbler, Snow Bird, Blue Yellow-back Warbler, and Warbling Flycatcher. These birds today are known, respectively, as the Yellow Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored), Northern Parula, and Warbling Vireo.

Some of Audubon’s birds are hard to recognize. His painting of the White-eyed Vireo (Pl 63), which he called the White-eyed Flycatcher, does not look like any White-eyed Vireo I have ever seen. (“Flycatcher” was often the name given to vireos and warblers.) The same might be said for his Barred Owl and his Broad-winged Hawk, although in each of these cases the name has not changed from what Audubon put on his plates.

Last week I wrote about three of Audubon’s mystery birds: Carbonated Warbler, Cuvier’s Kinglet, and Blue Mountain Warbler. If you’ve never heard of them, don’t feel badly. No one else has either.

Townsend's Bunting
Of the remaining two, Townsend’s Bunting may be the closest to having an ID. The unique specimen which Audubon painted was collected on May 11, 1833, by Audubon's colleague John Kirk Townsend in New Garden Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. After chasing the bird through several trees in the orchard, Townsend succeeded in shooting it. When he picked up the dead bird, his first impression was confirmed, that this was a new bird. Audubon concurred when he visited Townsend. Audubon named the bird in honor of his friend, painted it, and described it in detail, though his account lacks the usual anecdotal narrative related to the birds he described. Townsend mounted the bird, gave it to a friend, and the skin eventually ended up in the Smithsonian. One brief account I found says that it has Audubon’s name on its ticket.

The Townsend’s Bunting has never been seen again since that day Townsend shot it. I have found two possibilities to explain this bird. One possibility is that the bird is a hybrid Dickcissel x Blue Grosbeak. The second possibility: “Rather than a distinct species or subspecies, it is (as certainly as this can be said in absence of direct proof) a color variant” of the Dickcissel. Albinism and other pigment aberrations are not infrequently seen in birds.

“Thus, this bird is very likely certainly the result of a simple genetic change, perhaps just a single point mutation, affecting some part of the carotinoid metabolism - essentially the same thing that happens in albinism but in a different metabolic pathway. Though the bird seemed to be healthy and had survived to maturity when it found its untimely end through Townsend's gun, no other such specimens have been documented before, nor ever since.” (Wikipedia)

The last mystery bird in Birds of America is the Small-headed Flycatcher. It is at the center of the rivalry between Audubon and Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology.  Audubon drew this bird at Louisville, Kentucky in the spring of 1808. He procured the specimen along the margins of a pond. Here is Audubon’s account:

Alexander Wison
“When Alexander Wilson visited me at Louisville, he found in my already large collection of drawings, a figure of the present species , which, being at that time unknown to him, he copies and afterwards published in his great work, but without acknowledging the privilege that had thus been granted to him. I have more than once regretted this, not by any means so much on my own account, as for the sake of one to whom we are so deeply indebted for his elucidation of our ornithology.

“I consider this Flycatcher as among the scarcest of those that visit our middle districts; for, although it seems that Wilson procured one that ‘was shot on the 24th of April, in an orchard,’ and afterwards ‘several individuals of this species in various quarters of New Jersey, particularly in swamps,’ all my endeavours to trace it in that section of the country have failed, as have those of my friend Edward Harris, Esq., who is a native of that State, resides there, and is well acquainted with all the birds found in the district. I have never seen it out of Kentucky, and even there it is a very uncommon bird. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, or farther eastward or southward, in our Atlantic districts, I never saw a single individual, not even in museums, private collections, or for sale in bird-stuffers’ shops.”

Wilson's Small-headed Flycatcher
Audubon's Small-headed Flycatcher

The Small-headed Flycatcher was probably a warbler. In the early nineteenth century it was seen by Audubon and Wilson, and no one else, and clearly Audubon doubts that Wilson really saw it. His words are the nineteenth century way of calling someone, in this case Wilson, a liar. The paintings of the bird by Audubon and Wilson seem to show the same bird in slightly different poses. Audubon’s faces right; Wilson’s faces left. To this day, no one knows what the identity of the bird is. It has never been seen since.

However ... Pete Dunne has a delightful essay in which he returns to his office to find a telephone message: “Small-headed Flycatcher. Seen yesterday. He didn’t leave his name.” (The essay is one of a collection in a volume titled with the message, 1998.) Dunne eventually traced the message to an old Quaker in Greenwich, NJ, and eventually wandered the cedar swamp near his home. No, Pete did not see the Small-headed Flycatcher, although he thinks he saw a bird that was not a lot of other things. Which means that Wilson and Audubon remain the only witnesses to the Small-headed Flycatcher. But ...

... there are mysteries still to be solved. Good birding!

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