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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

Latest posts by Rick Wright (see all)

  • I’d be pretty surprised if the AOU Committee accepts a new (old?) species without a holotype. Is there a precedent for that? I’m not saying that the Painted Vulture never existed, but without a specimen, it’s hard to imagine it being officially accepted.

  • That’s exactly what it will come down to, Nick. I can imagine members of the committee saying yes, we’re convinced, but we need a skin, or at least a fossil femur. In a way, the issue was anticipated by the proposal discussed here: , which did not, if I remember right, pass.

    Of course, there are lots of birds that were originally and authoritatively described from paintings, but I can’t offhand think of one whose entire “specimen” record remained on canvas.

  • Madeline

    The link to Narca’s painting points to the mapress article, not her painting 🙁

  • Sorry — see link below.

  • Madeline

    Thanks Rick … and thanks Narca … really nice painting and awesome bird!

  • Dear Mr. Wright: “Sarcoramphus sacer (and not McAtee’s sacra, as the genus name is grammatically masculine).” Yes, but.
    The ending part of this genus name is Ramphus a Greek noun meaning beak and it is to be treated as a noun in apposition. In that case the two nouns (genus and species) do not have to agree in gender. The King Vulture is named Sarcoramphus papa and the two words do not agree in gender.

    Secondly as to proposal 2011 A-1 which started life out as proposal 2010-15-C, it did not pass. By its own terms only applied to extant birds and so would not have applied to this situation. I believe the committee did the right thing in not passing 2011-A-1 for the many reasons discussed on Bird Forum.

  • Ron Pittaway

    Perhaps the Painted Vulture could be renamed the Painted Condor which would create a greater interest in it. The name vulture conveys a negative image with many people because they consider vultures to be ugly. Furthermore, since the New World vultures and condors (family Cathartidae) are not closely related to the Old World true vultures in the family Accipitridae, I would like to see New World vultures renamed condors because they are more closely related to the California Condor. Ralph Palmer (1988) in volume 4 of the Handbook of North American Birds wrote “At least all the dark species of Vultures might better be called Condors”. Imagine if Turkey Vultures were renamed Turkey Condors, they would be regarded with much more importance and prestige by birders and the general public, who would take a new interest in these magnificent birds. The count yesterday at the Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch in Ontario was 112 Turkey Condors.

  • OK well never mind S. sacer may be right. The papa in S. papa is bishop a noun in apposition. (even though it is referring to the colorful Bishop’s vestments?)Originally Vultur papa from Linneas and so its gender does not change with the new genus because it is a noun in apposition. The sacra in S. sacra means sacred or holy and that is an adjective and species names that are adjectival do have to agree with the gender of the genus??? I need to reread the David and Gosselin articles!

  • Great idea, Ron! I’m adopting your suggestion effective immediately.

  • No problem. Always good to review one’s Latin.

  • Kevin Metcalf

    Nice to see Bartram’s record getting some serious attention again. I have read Bartram’s chronicles and I have always found the suggestion that he made up the sighting, or mistook a caracara as absurd. It would be quite a coincidence that he made up a description of a bird that almost perfectly matches the head colors and plumage of a King Vulture (aside from the tail detail) without ever having seen one. Nice article Rick. Thank You.

    Kevin Metcalf
    Huntersville, NC

  • The Snyder and Fry paper is really persuasive, isn't it? For some reason, it's got very little "play" out there, but I hope it eventually changes lots of minds. 

  • steve siegel

    Isn’t it curious that a spike in reports of “last of their kind” creatures seems to have occurred during the late 18th and early 19th century in America, but that the phenomenon has not persisted to the present, even with the huge increase in collecting during the late 19th century, and the exponential increase in observers and documentation of the present day? Why would so many birds, plants, etc. have been caught in the act of going extinct just then, before human pressures really became important in their environments. It’s easy to call them all misidentifications, or immatures or hybrids, but the current specimen, Audubon’s carefully measured and figured Bird of Washington, and especially the flowering tree, Franklinia, give one pause. I wonder if the taxonomic literature from other newly discovered biological communities around the world demonstrated similar numbers of “last of their kinds” as explorers began to pierce the wilderness. Rick, can you enlighten us?

    • Jared Gorrell

      I wonder if this is due to viruses or other diseases introduced by Europeans that were as devastating to some of these animals as they were to Native Americans. Those could have gone ahead of European documentation, leaving no reports. Also, Native Americans might even have played a part, over-harvesting certain uncommon birds for their feathers with their newly-acquired guns. It would be easy to do. ( “Painted Vultures” could be a perfect example.) Look how fast the Passenger Pigeon declined- we have records and specimens, in numbers, only because it was an incredibly common species. Bartram’s Painted Vulture was a large scavenging bird of prey, large enough to be uncommon. Perhaps it was already being outcompeted by other species of vultures, and European arrival only escalated that decline. Probably no one will ever know.

  • Alex Walker

    Where can I access the full article?

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