Mid-March, and Ted Floyd writes to ask whether I’d be interested in putting together a historical piece on Evening Grosbeaks for Birding. Before saying yes—writers always say yes—I looked at my calendar for the next several weeks: a Nebraska tour to conduct, a visitor from Germany to show around, a house closing and move to attend to, a lecture to give, three day-trips to lead for local birding groups, a new birding course to teach, a multi-day trip to run for Tucson Audubon, a long-awaited Hungarian vacation to enjoy...
Sure, why not?
Not that long ago, Ted’s request would have sent me into a dismayed panic: How on earth could I fit the library time in with everything else going on? Ah, but that’s precisely the trick. Nowadays, there’s almost no such thing as library time when you’re writing about birds. No dusty stacks, no unexplained gaps on the shelves, no towers of crumbling journal volumes studded with dollar bills and yesterday’s mail as bookmarks. Just a keyboard and a screen, and it’s all at hand.
Most birders know SORA, the University of New Mexico’s Searchable Ornithological Research Archive. A “keyword search”—how inscrutable a phrase like that would have been just a couple of decades ago!—for “Evening Grosbeak” will lead you to nearly 200 articles in more than a dozen of North America’s most important scientific journals of ornithology, from the earliest numbers of the Auk and Wilson Bulletin right into this century. Lots of the material there is technical, and I tune out as soon as I see a statistics formula (sorry, Ted); but especially in the earlier issues of the older publications, say up to the 1930s, these journals are chock-full of what would now be dismissed as “anecdote”—much of it in an elevated, even literary style that makes these stories of surprise sightings and bizarre experiences a blast to read.
Take Arthur H. Norton’s 1918 “Remarks” on the Evening Grosbeak in Maine and New England, a sort of spiritual forebear of my own essay but written in a prose the elegance of which is far beyond my reach:
Gifted with a striking richness of plumage, a phlegmatic disposition in which fear is but poorly developed, having a written history in which mystery, and romance have been involved, and having invaded a wide territory within a relatively short time, the Evening Grosbeak has received much attention wherever it has appeared.
A very rich source for this sort of thing, of course, is the series of Life Histories written, edited, or compiled by Arthur Cleveland Bent and his successors. Only a selection of these texts is online, so far as I know, and so it pays to have the paper copies on the shelf, too—happily, the Dover reprints of the whole series are widely available and cheap. The Evening Grosbeak account is one of the entries available in digital format, and reading it this time I was struck by the hands-on familiarity so evident in the author’s approach to the subject. In the old days, I might have jotted the author’s name down and forgotten about it, but thanks to Google, I was able to look her up immediately. Doris Huestis Speirs (1894–1989) turns out to be a fascinating personage, even if she doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry (yet). Her contributions to ornithology are commemorated in the Speirs Award, the most prestigious award granted by the Society of Canadian Ornithologists–Société des ornithologistes du Canada. She was a friend and champion of Margaret Morse Nice, and a minor artist with major connections to the so-called Group of Seven. Her interest in Evening Grosbeaks started while she was living in Ontario in the 1930s, and ornithology displaced painting for her when she and her husband moved to Urbana, where he took his Ph.D.
It’s always a good day when you get to know someone interesting, even someone from another century.
No matter how extensive the e-resources out there, they always leave some questions unanswered. The materials I collected from the 1960s contain several mentions of DDT and its effects on the Evening Grosbeak, especially in eastern Canada; have a look, for example, at this article or at this one. The species account in Birds of North American Online simply notes “no apparent direct effect,” but I would be very much interested in learning more about what birders and ornithologists thought at the time and what, if anything, was done to stop spraying in areas frequented by grosbeaks; we tell the story of DDT largely in terms of raptors, but here’s a chapter waiting to be added.
When I set out to write this essay, I decided to start at the beginning: with the first scientific description of the species. Locating formal descriptions used to be fraught with difficulties: Few were the libraries that housed all of the incredibly disparate sources in which the older descriptions were published, and even then many were held in closed collections, with access limited to inconvenient hours of the day. No longer. Welcome, Biodiversity Heritage Library! This spectacular resource is my first port of call when I suspect that I have a difficult citation. In this case, the AOU Check-list told me that I was looking for something possibly quite obscure: The citation there reads “Fringilla vespertina W. Cooper, 1825, Ann. Lyc. Nat. Hist. N.Y. 1: 220. (Sault Ste. Marie, near Lake Superior [Michigan].)” Challenging—especially since I wasn’t sure what language the journal title was in, each element being susceptible of resolution in English or Latin or French or, what do I know, Romanian. Because the type locality was given in English, though, I guessed that the journal must be something like the “Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York.” Good guess. An easy thing, then, to click on the cited page and read Cooper’s very words from nearly two centuries away.
The original descriptions of North American—and other—birds offer hours of interesting, sometimes amusing reading. Grazing one’s way through them used to be simply impossible, but today, there’s nothing easier than having a checklist open in one “tab” and BHL in another.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library is also great for finding old illustrations. BHL has a flickr page with some tens of thousands of bird images, and of course the books themselves are full of pictures. The Internet Archive, though not as extensive or as well arranged as BHL, also hides treasures. Take a look at Lesson’s “Bonaparte Grosbeak”
from his riotously miscellaneous Illustrations de zoologie.
I’d wanted to include that image in the Birding article, but we opted instead for an Audubon plate. The one we chose, number 424 in the original double elephant edition, is interesting for a number of reasons.
Not only does it illustrate the contemporary tendency to see the Evening Grosbeak as a decidedly western bird, but this plate also purports to show for the first time the juvenile male of that species. In fact, though, as Benjamin Shaub pointed out in The Wilson Bulletin in 1964, Audubon’s label is “among the great errors to be found in Audubon’s superb paintings. It is, indeed, quite evident that he had never seen a juvenile male Evening Grosbeak, and probably none were described prior to the account by Magee” published in 1934. Another splendid example of how long it has taken ornithology to figure this mysterious bird out.
The Audubon plate harbors other mysteries. As our caption laconically put it, “The identities of the other birds are not as clear.” How many did you figure out? The other species depicted here on number 424 are 1. Lazuli Bunting, “Lazuli Finch”; 2. House Finch, “Crimson-necked Bull-finch”; 3. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, “Gray-crowned Linnet”; 4. Brown-headed Cowbird, “Cow-pen Bird”; and 7. Sooty Fox Sparrow, “Brown Longspur.”
Three of the images from this plate were used in the construction of the “Composite Plates” with which Audubon supplemented the original edition of his Birds of America. The female Lazuli Bunting was added to the original Plate 398 to accompany the male, and both Evening Grosbeaks were added to the original Plate 373, which had been drafted with only a single male bird.
The painting by Allan Brooks that accompanies my essay breaks the Evening Grosbeak out of its exclusively western context to make it one of a decidedly miscellaneous group. The White-collared Seedeater is a tropical south Texas specialty, and the “gaudy” Painted Bunting is nearly as resolutely southern in distribution; few are the birders who have seen either of those species in the company of an Evening Grosbeak, and I’d be willing to wager that no one has ever seen all three in the same day. The Dickcissel—here labeled the “masquerader,” I suppose for its distant resemblance to a meadowlark—is a more interesting companion for the grosbeaks: Just as the Evening Grosbeak had moved east, to “ramble in winter over all northern States,” the Dickcissel had retreated west, forsaking “the eastern seabird for interior States some 65 years ago.” The mind dwells on imagined flocks of grosbeaks and Dickcissels, crossing paths somewhere in eastern Ohio as the one flees the East and the other conquers it.
Even more piquant is the fact that 20 years before Brooks’s painting was published, Joseph Grinnell had described a new subspecies of the Evening Grosbeak. He gave the bird the English name “British Columbia Evening Grosbeak,” and assigned it the subspecific epithet—get this—brooksi, “in recognition of Allan Brooks’s contributions to northwestern ornithology.”
It all makes me happy I said yes.