Thursday, 12 July 2012

History of a confusion (3)

Read part 2

An European species?

Johann Andreas Naumann (1744-1826), the namegiver of some birds like lesser kestrel, Falco naumanni, was a farmer and amateur ornithologist who started an important collection of birds which is still preserved. He was also father of Johann Friederich (1780-1857) and Carl Andreas (1786-1854) who continued and enlarged the family collection. The elder is considered the father of European ornithology and is the author of Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, one important work on the birds of Central Europe. 
In this work, Otto Kleinschmidt illustrated a pair of Northern Bald Ibis with an alpine landscape in the ground.
By this time, the species was extinct in Europe. Two years before the publication, in 1899, of Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas a trio of naturalist had published one important paper.
The threesome was formed by Lionel Walter Rothschild, Ernst Hartert and Otto Kleinschmidt. Rothschild was a member of the Rothschild financial dynasty, one of the wealthiest families in the world. He wanted to run a zoological museum since his childhood, and he amassed the largest zoological collection ever owned by a private person, with millions of insects and hundred of thousands of vertebrate specimens. Hartert was a German zoologist who held the ornithological curator position during almost 40 years at Rothschild museum and was also responsible of the museum's quaterly publication Novitates Zoologicae. Kleinschmidt was a German pastor, theologist and ornithologist who was precursor of the idea of Formenkreise or superspecies.
The paper was entitled Comatibis eremita (Linn.), a European bird. Why should be this a surprise? We have seen that Northern bald ibis was a species well known in Europe. Besides the different works that described the species since 16th century, illustrations, legal documents and popular names prove that the species existed.
Since the first descriptions by Gesner or Belon, many authors have quoted previous ones while the species was probably declining. Most of them never saw the species and just compiled information previously published.


Decline and fall into oblivion 

As we already show, most of 17th century authors just used images already published (see parts 1 and 2 of this series).

Eleazar Weiss was a German professional painter who settled in England in 1707, where he married and raised a family, changing his name to Albin. He earned his living by making watercolours of the collections of wealthy patrons. The Natural History of Birds was done late in his life and was the first large English work on ornithology. The copper plates were hand-coloured by himself and his daughter Elizabeth and published initially in London from 1731-1738. Eleazar Albin was probably one of the last to describe an European northern bald ibis from a stuffed specimen, from the collection of Sir Thomas Lowther, a landowner from Yorkshire
He doesn't mention any of the confusing previous works, gives new information about the bird and writes in present tense, suggesting that most of the information was, to his knowledge, recent. Albin writes they build for the moſt part in high Walls of demoliſhed or ruinous Towers which are common in Switzerland and later The young ones are commended for good Meat and county a Dainty; their Fleſh is ſweet and their Bones tender and, again, ... deſert places; where they build in Rocks and old forſaken Towers.
Even if Thoſe that take them out of the Neſts, are wont to leave one in each, that they may the more willingly return the following Year this wasn't enough to reduce the decline of the species. 

In 1760,  Mathurin-Jacques Brisson in his Ornithologie introduces again new information about Coracia cristata, specially about the feathers and their greenish gloss under the sun, having probably a direct knowledge of the bird. He still includes our species among crows. 
In 1776, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffondescribes still the Coracias huppé or Sonneur (Bell ringer, due to the call made by this bird who some persons find similar to the sound of cowbells). He stills have no doubt about the presence of the bird in Switzerland and he even talks about a dissection of its stomach to find mole-crickets inside.

John Latham (1740 – 1837) in his work A general synopsis of birds published in 1781, describes our species among corvids, following the tradition, but showing the similarity with ibis. It seems that the author uses indirect references.
There's no illustration of the species, but the work was translated into German by Johann Matthäus Bechstein (1757-1822) who called it Allgemeine Übersicht der Vögel (1791–1812). This author includes a plate with a Waldrapp. The illustration could be inspired by Albin's, but it's much more simple and added some water besides the bird, maybe influenced by other descriptions that considered it as an aquatic bird. On the same page we can see a cuckoo's rufous phase adult female.

In 1789, a series of letters from William Coxe to William Melmoth compilled into Travels in Switzerland, and in the country of the Grisons, says that This bird is entirely unknown to M. Sprungli, though said to be a native of the Swiss mountains. He took great pains to discover it, but in vain; and suspects, after all, that if it does really exist, it is only a variety of the preceding (talks about Corvus Graculus, Red-legged Crow, currently Pyrrhocorax graculus, Alpine chough). 
It seems that, between the realistic descriptions of the bird done by Albin or Buffon and the letters from Cox, the bird became extinct or extremely rare. 

A French dictionnary on Natural Sciences published in 1818 doubts the existence of the species and describes how the names where used for other species. Some authors started thinking that it was a legendary creature, an animal that never existed.

Read part 4

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