Friday, April 11, 2014

Answer: What kind of bird is that?

Credit:  Bill Walker. Link to his site.

Let's dive right into the question.  These birds are visiting... but help me out with understanding what these fine birds are!  

1.  What kind of birds are these?  (Common name and Latin names, please.  No fair using Search-By-Image this time!)  
2.  In his masterwork on the illustrations of American birds, the great artist and ornithologist John James Audubon gave this bird a common name that is no longer used.  What is the common name that he used for this bird? 
3.  Speaking of that book--I'd really like to see an actual copy of the masterwork.  Where's the closest copy to me (in California)?  (For extra credit:  Is there a copy I could actually touch and turn the pages with my own (gloved) hands?) 

What kind of birds?  The classic way to answer this question is with a bird identification key or some kind of bird identification book.  I have the classic Roger Tory Peterson ("Field Guide to Western Birds")  Amazon link. Google Books link.  

The way guide books work is to work your way down a decision tree by answering questions and turning to the next entry in the tree.  "Is it passerine bird?" -- but the Peterson method is to first jump into a category of bird ("Owls & Nightjars"  or "Hummingbirds" or "Shrikes and Vireos") and then answer a few questions, but mostly looking at the color images.  Of course, you need to be able to tell your Tanagers apart from your Towhees, so it assumes a bit of learning up front.  

If we don't know anything about this bird to begin with, how would you start?  Would you recognize that the appropriate chapter is labeled "Waxwings, Phainopepla, and Starlings"?  Probably not.  

Luckily, as most people figured out a simple search for: 

     [ bird crest tan yellow ] 

gives a pretty decent set of hits on the first page, quickly learning that this is a Cedar Waxwing, or Bombycilla cedrorum.  (At least for me in California.  If you're in another part of the world, you might have to add in a georeference such as "California" or "North America" to get similar results.)  

The thing about bird identification (or plant, or insect, or most biologicals) is that you have to check the details carefully.  

This is where the Peterson guide is useful (see the section on Waxwings in either of the above links).  It includes helpful tips to discriminate between similar birds.  In this case, the Bohemian Waxwing is the bird that's most like the Cedar Waxwing.  Peterson's book points out that the Cedar Waxwing has yellow on the belly, while the Bohemian does not.  The Cedar has yellow band at the tip of the tail, while the Bohemian does not.  

In addition to Bill Walker's site, David Leahey has a nice collection of Cedar Waxwings, all of the photos taken from my immediate location.  (Hat tip to Rosemary for the link.)  

Common name of this bird used by Audubon?  The question itself suggests that there might be more than one name.  That's true for many animals and plants.  Not only are their local variations, but the common names change over time.  It's ALSO worth noting that the scientists will change the names as well.

In this case, I was curious what Audubon drew for this particular bird, so my initial search was: 

     [ Audubon cedar waxwing drawing ] 

and I looked in Images to see what he might have written as a description of the bird along side the drawing.  

It didn't take me long to find a few images (relatively small, it must be said) of the original Audubon drawings.  On those drawings he identifies the bird as a "Cedar Bird" with the scientific name of Bombycilla carolinensis. (Compare this with the Latin binomial name given above! You'll find it's different.)  

When you're doing your searches, note such differences, because older work might well have THOSE terms used instead. 

Here I've done the two searches side-by-side.  Notice how different the results are.  The Bombycilla carolinensis results are all much older, and refer to books that are no longer current.  (But still beautiful.)  

Where's the closest copy?  Whenever you're looking for a book (or music manuscript, or film, or ... any kind of library-like object), the WorldCat system run by OCLC is your friend.  

     [ WorldCat ] 

will find you the entry.  

Now, what's the book we're looking for?  

A query for Audubon will quickly lead you to the Wikipedia entry (and many others) that will all concur:  Audubon's master work was his giant ("elephant folio") edition of his collected drawings, "Birds of America."  

Having looked up OCLC's WorldCat search service, I simply entered: 

I can then enter my Zip code (94304 - Palo Alto, right next door to the Googleplex)

Of course, you want to click through the entry to make sure it's an original copy (remember that I wasn't looking for facsimiles, but the original publication).  

As several people pointed out in the comments, this is a fabulously expensive book.  I can watch an archivist turn the pages (e.g., as the Drexel Academy of Sciences daily (3:15PM) page-turn event)  

Fun facts picked up along the way:  As Regular Reader Hans (and others) pointed out, Cedar Waxwings are notorious for gorging themselves on berries, and then either getting too drunk (on the fermented berries) to fly, OR basically choking themselves to death via gluttony.  

When I was reading some of the writing of Audubon about Cedar Waxwings I was surprised to learn that they are "so tender and juicy as to be sought by every epicure for the table." 

I wouldn't have thought of that. 

He wrote that he knew of instances of a basket full of these little birds had been forwarded to New Orleans by a hunter as a Christmas present. They never arrived. "I afterwards discovered that the steward of the steamer, in which they were shipped, made pies of them for the benefit of the passengers." 

I also learned that Audubon was born as Jean-Jacques Audubon in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).  He moved to France at young age. 

Although we think of Audubon as a very American character, he almost certainly spoke with a strong French accent.  (Although I haven't been able to confirm that with a contemporary letter account.)  

Search Lessons:  While there are often many ways to learn the identity of a bird, the simplest way is often the best.... but with careful checking to make sure the details line up.  

Note that birds (plants, animals, people, countries) often change their names over time.  Audubon's "Cedar Bird" quickly changed to "Cedar Waxwing" when was grouped with other waxwings in North America.  

As always, it's good to use multiple sources to validate your identification.  Turning to well-known sources (e.g., the Peterson guides) is a great way to also pick up the identification tricks you need to be good at this.  

Finally, remember that sometimes specialist external resources (OCLC's WorldCat index across thousands of libraries) can help you find exactly the object you need.  Google doesn't have this information, but this is precisely what WorldCat does best.  

Search on! 

And many thanks to Bill Walker for the use of his marvelous picture of the Cedar Waxwings.  

1 comment:

  1. Dan

    A little side note about the use of gloves.

    Dick Eastman pointed to this article

    Uncle Google too, knows about the myth of gloves.

    Good topic this week. I knew these guys who have visited just down the street here on Vancouver Island so I disqualified myself. But, I did check the very same reference book you did just to make sure.