In 1823, the director of the natural history museum at Leiden, Coenraad Jacob Temminck, published the formal description of a new warbler, first collected “in the countryside near Rome.” Temminck, one of the most famous systematists of his day, graciously credited the type specimen of his new species, which he named Sylvia melanopogon, to “the efforts of the young Prince of Canino.”
In the 185 years since, Point Breeze has gone largely unbirded. Just on the other side of Crosswicks Creek, Trenton Marsh (recently renamed, first “Trenton-Hamilton Marsh” and now “Abbott Marshlands”) is a well-known urban birding locality, but the former Bonaparte estate in Bordentown is not as readily accessible.
With the kind permission of the Divine Word Missionaries, owners since 1941 of what was the heart of Joseph Bonaparte’s Point Breeze, Sue, Ivan, Alison, and I were able for the first time to do a little ornitho-exploring yesterday morning, searching for feathered connections to a historic past that is now otherwise nearly invisible.
With calm winds, high humidity, and dark skies, the morning wasn’t exactly full of migrants. A few flocks of Common Grackles passed overhead, and Chimney Swifts and Barn and Bank Swallows hunted high in the sky. Blue Jays were everywhere and noisy; too many to have been just local birds, they were obviously gathering in preparation for the next stage of their southbound flight.
We found the woods at the south end of the property very quiet, but it was here, in the Lake House, that Charles and Zénaïde lived and where he kept his collections. The house, like nearly all of the buildings dating from the Bonapartes’ time of residence, is long gone, but there are still discernible traces of the carriage road that once led to it, an evocative sight beneath what is now a forest of tall tulip trees and beeches.
On May 10, 1825, just down the Delaware in Philadelphia, Charles Bonaparte read a paper describing some of the discoveries made in the course of Titan Peale’s exploration of Florida.
Among the many bird skins Peale brought back with him, Bonaparte found “particularly worthy of immediate notice”
an undescribed Dove, that may be distinguished from the [Mourning Dove], which it closely resembles, by the following characters: … an amythestine spot under the ear; tail of twelve feathers, short, even, with a black band; three outer feathers pearl gray at tip.
Zenaida lives! A proof of this is in the sweet Zenaida dove, Columba zenaida Bonaparte. It is at all times so delightful to think that a thousand years from now this mark of my esteem and of my tenderness will live on in this lovely species. I take the occasion to make known to the world that it is in your honor that I have bestowed this name. At this moment I can only love you on paper–what truly interests me in the world is you.
It’s not likely that Charles Bonaparte spent much time in this house, but it, too, has its claim to ornithological fame.
For at least part of his time at Point Breeze, Louis Mailliard, Joseph’s secretary, confidant, and friend (and often rumored to have been his son), occupied this house. Mailliard’s son Adolphe succeeded his father as Bonaparte’s amanuensis; he stayed on after Joseph returned to Europe, building a house just across the road from Point Breeze.
Two sons were born in Bordentown to Adolphe and Ann Eliza Ward Mailliard. Around 1867, the family moved to California, where young John and Joseph Mailliard found that
Marin County was a paradise for young fellows in those days…. the line of natural history was the one most common among boys — the collecting of birds’ eggs.
The young naturalists “fell in with” Charles A. Allen, of Allen’s Hummingbird fame, who helped them skin their birds; in return, Allen was “given a cottage and about an acre of land on [the Mailliard place] … for a nominal rent.”
Both of the younger Mailliards remained enthusiastic collectors, and they became munificent patrons of the California Academy of Sciences, where both also occupied curatorial positions. John Mailliard‘s natural history activities were occasionally interrupted by business concerns, but Joseph, his health never stable, devoted himself entirely to things ornithological.
The Mailliards knew and were known by everybody who was anybody in early twentieth-century California ornithology. Joseph Grinnell named the Modesto Song Sparrow for Joseph Mailliard, and A.J. Van Rossem’s Bicolored Red-winged Blackbird commemorates both brothers in its subspecies name mailliardorum.
Van Rossem published the description of his new blackbird in the Condor, a fitting place indeed to honor men who had been active supporters of the Cooper Ornithological Club since its earliest days — an organization named for the son of the man for whom Charles Bonaparte had named the Cooper’s Hawk, back at Point Breeze.
There are days when the birds show up, and there are days, like yesterday, when they simply don’t. But “good” birds aren’t always necessary for good birding. Sometimes it is enough to walk paths new to us but old to ornithology, to stand beneath old trees and to admire the same views that inspired others, long ago. Sometimes, just sometimes, it can be enough to recall other people’s memories.
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