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North America’s Oldest New Bird?

A review of Snyder and Fry, Validity of Bartram’s Painted Vulture (Aves: Cathartidae). Zootaxa 3613(1):61-82. 

I bet it’s been a while since you’ve seen a Small-headed Flycatcher, or a Townsend’s Bunting, or a Carbonated Warbler. But I’m equally sure that most of us have heard of those birds, “nonce species” collected or claimed once or twice a couple of hundred years ago and never reliably encountered since.

And I’m almost as confident that there are birders who have never run across the Painted Vulture.

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In 1774, William Bartram, the great Pennsylvania botanist and naturalist, was in Florida. There he found two vulture species “not mentioned in history,” one of them “a beautiful bird,”

the painted vulture. The bill is long and strait almost to the point, when it is hooked or bent suddenly down and sharp; the head and neck bare of feathers nearly down to the stomach, when the feathers begin to cover the skin, and soon become long and of a soft texture, forming a ruff or tippet, in which the bird by contracting his neck can hide that as well as his head; the bare skin on the neck appears loose and wrinkled, which is of a deep bright yellow colour, intermixed with coral red; the hinder part of the neck is nearly covered with short, stiff hair; and the skin of this part of the neck is of a dun-purple colour, gradually becoming red as it approaches the yellow of the sides and forepart. The crown of the head is red; there are lobed lappets of a redish orange colour, which lay on the base of the upper mandible…. The plumage of the bird is generally white or cream colour, except the quill-feathers of the wings and two or three rows of the coverts, which are of a beautiful dark brown; the tail which is large and white is tipped with this dark brown or black; the legs and feet of a clear white; the eye is encircled with a gold coloured iris; the pupil black. (Bartram, Travels 150-151)

American ornithology has been skeptical: While a few authors (including, if memory serves, Roger Tory Peterson in the 1980 Field Guide) have been willing to believe that Bartram had seen and then incompetently described a King Vulture, most simply assume that his Florida bird is concocted of poor memory, rich imagination, and ignorance.

Now come Noel Snyder and Joel Fry with a compelling re-assessment of the evidence—some of it familiar, much of it new—for the historic validity of Bartram’s Painted Vulture. Their argument is as simple as it is cogent: There is at least one earlier eighteenth-century description and painting, evidently unknown to Bartram, of birds resembling his (and differing in similar ways from the King Vulture); and none of the modern arguments against the credibility of Bartram’s description bears up under closer examination. They conclude:

Together, these and other factors make a strong case for acceptance of Bartram’s Painted Vulture as a historic resident of northern Florida and likely adjacent regions…. extinct by the early 19th century.

Forty years before Bartram’s Florida discovery, Eleazar Albin described and painted a living vulture kept in captivity in London; the authors note that both Albin’s text and his illustration (above) are a “close match” for the Painted Vulture. Particularly notable is the tail pattern, described (and, in the case of Albin, painted) as white with a black tip: the tail of the King Vulture, in contrast, is black, a difference mentioned expressly by none other than John Cassin in what Snyder and Fry call his “endorsement” of Bartram’s vulture as “a species [otherwise] entirely unknown.”

Albin’s painting and description are the strongest eighteenth-century evidence for the existence of the Painted Vulture, but the authors are also able to adduce other support, painstakingly gathered from a range of sources and evaluated with admirable care. A 1758 Histoire de la Louisiane describes a “white eagle” closely reminiscent of Bartram’s vulture. Bartram himself depicted a fan possibly made of such vulture feathers in a portrait he drew of the Creek warrior-king Mico Chlucco. More tenuous, but still suggestive, is the evidence provided by the bird-shaped handle of a prehistoric bowl from Alabama, showing “a clearly vulturine or raptorial beak shape together with a projection on the forehead that could be a representation of the fleshy lappets of a King or Painted Vulture.” Both the fan and the bowl, along with Albin’s painting, are reproduced in the present paper’s figures.

In the second part of their paper, Snyder and Fry convincingly refute the arguments against Bartram’s reliability in describing his new vulture. They defend the Quaker explorer against the charge that he was writing from memory (his field notes are no longer extant, but they are referred to in his other writings), and point out that the sixty years between Bartram’s visit to Florida and the next ornithological expedition to explore the area was, sadly, plenty of time for an already scarce species to approach extinction.

A number of ornithologists, starting with the influential Joel Asaph Allen, have suggested that Bartram’s vulture was in fact a misidentified Northern Caracara. The authors rightly dismiss this far-fetched possibility:

That any beginning bird student might construct a description resembling Bartram’s painted Vulture based on viewing a Caracara seems extremely doubtful. That Bartram might have done so seems beyond all credibility….

There is no reason, the authors conclude, not to accord Bartram’s description the same serious consideration granted other naturalists from the same period, and every reason to believe that that description refers to a hitherto unrecognized vulture from the southeastern United States, whether a pale-tailed form of the more widespread King Vulture or, in Snyder and Fry’s view more likely, a distinct species Sarcoramphus sacer (and not McAtee’s sacra, as the genus name is grammatically masculine).

What happens next? The AOU Committee on Classification and Nomenclature acts on proposals submitted to the committee’s Chair, publishing its determinations each July. None of us will ever witness a scene like that in Narca Moore-Craig’s stunning painting of hunting Painted Vultures, but if two thirds of the AOU Committee is convinced by Snyder and Fry’s arguments—and I believe they should be—we will see in our lifetime the true “de-extinction” of a wrongly dismissed species.

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

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