American Birding Podcast



The Meruahan Birding Association

It's not the strangest thing a birder has ever done, but Elliott Coues's association with the American Theosophical Society remains a remarkable chapter in the history of ornithology. Coues joined Mme Blavatsky's gang in 1880, and by mid-decade had ascended to the presidency of the Society, only to be expelled as an apostate in 1889.


As far as I can remember, only once in his strictly ornithological oeuvre does Coues allude to his time among the theosophes. The Coues Check List and Ornithological Dictionary, the most important of the pre-AOU lists of North American birds and still today a pre-eminent (if not infallible) authority on ornithological etymology, was re-issued in a second edition in 1882, shortly after the author had affiliated himself with the Society. The entry for the Blue Yellow-backed Warbler Parula americana refers for the etymology of that species' scientific epithet to Mme Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled:

"It is most plausible that the State of Central America, where we find the name Americ signifying great mountain, gave the continent its name." (Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, i, p. 692.) The author cited seeks to establish a connection with the Hindu Meni, or Meruah, of similar signification.

Discreetly, Coues leaves securely veiled Blavatsky's further remarks on the "strange coincidence that when first discovered, America was found to bear among some native tribes the name of Atlanta," the "great lost continent" of Atlantis.

It's too easy to make fun of Coues's theosophical besottedness, but the Check List is full of wonderful insights and facts available nowhere else, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in birds, words, and birdwords. It is also, now that no living soul has had the advantage of actually speaking with him, the authoritative source for the pronunciation of its author's name. In 1880, Robert Ridgway described a specimen of Rock Sandpiper as Arquetella couesi, and the human possessor of the patronym tells us in a footnote that

The name of this person is Norman-French, and is still not infrequently found in the north of France, pronounced in two syllables, with the grave accent on the last : Cou-ès — Coo-ayz. On the removal of his ancestors to the Isle of Wight, the pronunciation naturally became corrupted into Cowz. The original spelling, though sometimes changed to Cowes, has been preserved in the family, no grown male members of which are known to be living in the United States excepting the person here in mention and his brother, Dr. S. F. Coues, U. S. N. The meaning of the word is unknown to us.

And so, straight from a very distinguished horse's mouth, the name "Coues" rhymes with "browse"–an activity greatly to be recommended for anyone who has not had the pleasure of spending a few hours with this book and its endlessly fascinating author.