Friday, December 6, 2019

Audubon’s Mysterious Aviary: Investigating some Truly 'Odd Birds'

John James Audubon holding his most trusted field 'instrument' - a black-powder rifle. Painting: George P. A. Healy; Museum of Science, BostonEver heard of a Carbonated Warbler? No, we’re not talking about a fizzy bird-themed cocktail nor a bird with a sweet tooth for your favorite seltzer. I’m speaking about an unassuming yellow songbird painted by famed artist and ornithologist John James Audubon in his voluminous work The Birds of America. Still doesn’t ring a bell? What about Cuvier’s Kinglet, Bartram’s Vireo, the Townsend Finch (later called Townsend’s Bunting), the Small-headed Flycatcher or the Blue Mountain Warbler? Even if you are an avid bird enthusiast, there is a high chance you’ve never encountered these species on your bird-watching checklists. Don’t be alarmed however. There is a reason these species are elusive… it’s because they’ve likely never existed.

Of the 435 bird species drawn and painted by Audubon (1785-1851) for the original edition of his monumental work, The Birds of America (printed between 1827-1838), the six species listed above continue to puzzle ornithologists. Although renowned for the general precision and scientific accuracy with which Audubon painted America’s bird species - even among modern standards - the six 'mystery birds’ as they are collectively called, have proven difficult to positively identify, and no identical specimens have been confirmed since Audubon drew them. In the 181 years since Audubon finished his work, his mystery birds continue to stir debates over whether they might be color mutations, surviving members of species that soon became extinct, or even rare interspecies hybrids.

Before we delve into this feathery mystery any further, it’s important to understand the context within which Audubon collected over 500 specimens and produced his four hundred and thirty-five watercolor plates. After unsuccessfully managing his father’s plantation in Pennsylvania and finding his passion in sketching wildlife, Audubon devoted himself to his ‘great idea’ beginning in 1826 - a plan to publish an anatomically-accurate book of all bird species within the “United States and its territories” drawn life-size. The herculean project eventually preoccupied Audubon for over 12 years, taking him on a journey of several thousand miles by boat, foot, and horse in pursuit of as many birds as he could find.

In order to depict each species as realistically as possible, Audubon had to view his artistic specimens in person. After all, Audubon couldn’t rely upon photographs. French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce had only produced the first partially successful photo in 1816, a mere 10 years before Audubon embarked upon his journey to observe, shoot, and paint birds in their “natural realms.” It wouldn’t be for another decade and a half after he published The Birds of America, in the mid-1850s, until the first semi-portable cameras came into use, meaning Audubon had to use real specimens as models for his paintings whether he wanted to or not.

Although it was common practice at the time for illustrators to work from taxidermied or formalin- preserved specimens, Audubon found this method unsatisfactory. He was frustrated by the challenge of accurately depicting colors from lifeless preserved corpses, especially since the eyes, bills, legs, and bare skin can rapidly change color after a bird’s death. After trial and error in the field, Audubon devised a quick method of rigging up the dead corpses of birds he or others had shot using a system of bent wires inserted directly into the bird’s body. This method better-preserved their vibrant colors allowing him to paint birds in more ‘lifelike’ positions, sometimes among natural backdrops.

Audubon included a fictionalized depiction of himself collecting a dead bird specimen in the background of his original Golden Eagle watercolor portrait. The image was mysteriously removed in later editions of his work.
Audubon’s new method of illustration, which publishers likened to ‘drawing directly from nature’, bolstered the success of his publications. Whether true or not, while Audubon sought paying subscribers to help fund his expeditions and book printing, advertisers commonly implied that Audubon’s work was somehow superior in it’s accuracy and scientific depiction of the natural world because of the process by which he painted his subjects. Using carefully crafted language, advertisers alluded that Audubon painted directly from life, glossing over the fact that his models were still dead (just dead more recently).

In Rauner’s copy of the 1826 prospectus (a printed advertisement and description of Audubon’s upcoming book, The Birds of America) for instance, W. Swainson notes, “To those who have not seen any portion of the Author’s splendid Collection of original Drawings, it may be proper to explain that their superiority consists in every specimen being of the full size of life, portrayed with a degree of accuracy…(Audubon’s) ornithological narratives...are as valuable to the scientific world as they are delightful to the general reader...There is a freshness about these essays, which can only be compared to the animated biographies of Wilson. Both these men contemplated Nature as she really is...they sought her in her sanctuaries. The shore, the mountain, and the forest were alternately their study, and there they drank the pure stream of knowledge at its fountain-head. The observations of such men are the cornerstones of every attempt to discover the natural system.” This lively advertising language, as well as the inscription written on Audubon’s illustrated plates, ‘Drawn from Nature’, are therefore misleading, especially to contemporary readers familiar with the practice of photographic and drawing from live animals or film.

Audubon did go to great lengths to draw freshly-killed birds, but time constraints during publication (after all, he agreed to release a certain number of plates each year to appease his paying subscribers) meant this was not always possible. As time passed, he increasingly used preserved specimens collected by others. Audubon’s occasional reliance upon preserved specimens is cited as one explanation why two of the mystery bird species-  the “Small Headed Flycatcher” and “Cuvier’s Kinglet” - are not found today. Both birds resemble known species but with unfamiliar color patterns. Some scholars suggest that the plumage of older specimens could have become worn or discolored during transport, leading to later misidentification by Audubon.

Aside from facing constraints on his time and ability to paint recently-killed specimens, a lack of robust scientific knowledge surrounding American wildlife in the early 1800s may also explain why several strange species appear in The Birds of America. Audubon was collecting, describing, and painting birds at a time when European Americans didn’t know the breadth of American birdlife, nor the breadth of wildlife in general across the continent for that matter. For example, just 20 years prior to the launch of Audubon’s ‘great idea’, then U.S. President Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for a live mammoth during their journey west, all while writing in a column for the American Philosophical Society’s Bone Committee: “It may be asked, why I insert the mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?…[the north and west] still remain in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed by us, or by others for us. He may as well exist there now, as he did formerly where we find his bones.” The fact that academics were still discussing the possibility of giant, wooly, 10,000-pound extinct elephants roaming the American West, waiting to be discovered, seems laughable today but paints a vibrant picture of the scientific excitement that characterized discovery at the time.

To be fair, in the early 1800s the discovery of new species was not only likely, but still extremely commonplace in the New World. In fact, over the course of completing The Birds of America Audubon discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies (not including the unidentifiable birds mentioned previously). For Audubon, every unusual morning chorus could signal a newly-discovered songbird, every ‘unexplored’ mountain range and woodland thicket could host species of hawks, owls, and herons no European ornithologist had yet seen or documented. The possibility of discovery must have been exhilarating, however the lack of prior literature to cross-check Audubon’s findings would also prove maddening by today’s standards. As Audubon Magazine journalist Nicholas Lund writes, “(Audubon) shot heaps of birds…and compatriots exploring far-flung regions of the continent brought him heaps more. Among the messes of dead birds he had to sort through were probably weird-looking juveniles, birds with plumage anomalies, or even the occasional hybrid.” Considering the sheer number of specimens Audubon examined and the relative unfamiliarity with color variations of North American birds at the time (birds vary in coloration according to their age, diet, sex, region of the country, and even time of the year) it’s no wonder that Audubon didn’t get everything right.

Now, back to the six mystery birds that grace the pages of our copy of The Birds of America… perhaps they are just cases of mistaken plumage - like two other avian oddities contained within Audubon’s work. Take for instance the case of the mighty “Washington Eagle” which Audubon declared to be a new species after acquiring a specimen along the banks of the Mississippi around 1818. After sighting five of these massive birds, Audubon was elated when he discovered what he describes as “a magnificent” new eagle in the first volume of his companion book, Ornithological Biography. According to his measurements the bird had a whopping wingspan of 10 feet 2 inches, making it larger than any known eagle found anywhere around the globe (by comparison, the largest known eagle species in the U.S. today, the Golden Eagle, tops out with a 7.2-foot wingspan). Audubon named the species “The Bird of Washington” given that it was, in his opinion “indisputably the noblest bird of its genus that has yet been discovered” (pg. 61, Vol. 1). Adding to the patriotic fervor of his new ‘discovery’ Audubon exclaimed “If America has reason to be proud of her Washington, so has she to be proud of her Great Eagle” (pg. 61, Vol. 1). Today, scholars don’t share Audubon’s enthusiasm; ornithologists commonly agree Washington’s Eagle was a juvenile Bald Eagle that was either unusually large or whose proportions were exaggerated for effect. Aside from the striking resemblance of Audubon’s illustration to a young Bald Eagle, Audubon oddly acknowledges in his Biography that the bird closely resembled other commonly-known species nesting in the vicinity, writing “passing over the affinity of (the) bird to the young of the White-Headed Eagle (Bald Eagle)... I shall institute a comparison between it and the true Sea Eagle, which bears so strong a resemblance to the Bird of Washington, that by a superficial observer they might be confounded.” Despite Audubon’s best attempts to convince his readers that “the Bird of Washington stands forth as the champion of America ...and henceforth not to be confounded with any of its rivals or relatives” today’s bird experts (a far cry from the ‘superficial observers’ Audubon denounces) agree that the species hatched from the imagination of a naturalist rather than a unique egg. The birds’ larger-than-normal size combined with its juvenile coloration likely explains why it was misclassified in Audubon’s menagerie.

Audubon is also known to have mischategorized males and females of the same species as two distinct ones. Males and females of many bird species, particularly songbirds, exhibit striking differences in their plumage and overall appearance (a phenomenon known as being ‘highly sexual dimorphic’). A good example here in the northeastern U.S. is the Northern Cardinal; males of the species are a striking crimson red with black face masks for most of the year, whereas the female remains a dull tannish-brown. A result of sexual selection, sexual dimorphism must have proven particularly puzzling to ornithologists like Audubon who were observing new species in their natural habitats for the first time, especially when males and females of some species are often not observed together except during short breeding seasons. At a time when naturalists relied primarily upon morphological differences to tell one bird species from another, the only way Audubon could ground truth whether birds were indeed the same species was to observe them breeding and nesting together or to have heard reputable accounts of such activities occurring. More times than not, this luxury was not afforded to Audubon. A good example of this confusion is evidenced by Audubon’s “Selby’s Flycatcher.” The beautiful yellow songbird, painted in Plate 9 of his book, is actually a female Hooded Warbler. It appears he classified the specimen separately from males of the species due to the lack of black face rings, having never observed males and females nesting together.

Unfortunately, the origins of Audubon’s six mystery birds require more complex explanations than simple mix-ups of juvenile/adult and female/male morphological traits. This brings us to the third most-commonly-suggested explanation. Perhaps Audubon’s mystery birds were on the brink of extinction as Audubon collected specimens and have since disappeared. There certainly are, sadly, several now-extinct species in Audubon’s illustrations including Bachman’s Warbler, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Eskimo Curlew, Carolina Parakeet, and the famous Passenger Pigeon. A handful of scientists have entertained the possibility that some already-range-restricted species could have been wiped out by the early 1800s before conservationists took any notice. However, most of Audubon’s six mystery birds were observed only once or twice by Audubon himself, and none of them left behind any fossil records or specimens, unlike the five species Audubon painted that are known to have gone extinct. This makes it highly unlikely that our six mystery birds are simply extinct species. Instead, we must look to a combination of factors or alternative explanations altogether (i.e. hybrids or birds with genetic mutations?) in our ongoing attempts to classify these feathered friends.

Without further adieu, here’s a chronological rundown of Audubon’s six mystery birds, along with our best explanations as to their true identities: Audubon’s first mystery bird - “Cuvier’s Kinglet” (also called Cuvier's Regulus; Regulus cuvierii) - seems to be a unique case of misidentifying a well-known species. Although birdwatchers would adore another charming kinglet species, Cuvier’s Kinglet hasn’t been documented since Audubon (supposedly) shot a male of “this pretty and rare” bird in Pennsylvania and named it after “Baron Cuvier... at present unrivalled in the knowledge of general Zoology.” Audubon noted that the specimen was very similar to Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, admitting he “supposed it to be one of its relatives” until he picked the bird’s body up from the ground (pg. 288, Vol 1, Ornithilogical Biography). Unlike these well-studied species however, Audubon’s bird sports a black forehead and a striking red cap alongside the familiar dark head stripes characteristic of Golden-crowned Kinglets. Nineteen years after collecting this odd bird, Audubon wrote in his Ornithological Biography that he “never (saw) another” and had not heard of anyone else who had (pg. 288). This didn’t stop Audubon (nor other ornithologists) from tirelessly searching for other examples of the supposed species. In 1840, Audubon wrote to Spencer Fullerton Baird (famed natural historian and first curator at the Smithsonian Institution) regarding a “singular variety” of Ruby-Crowned Kinglet the then 17-year-old had shot, asking “Have you compared the Regulus with the description of Regulus cuvieri? Could you not send me your bird to look at?” Although the specimen was never sent, Baird continued to believe Cuvier’s Kinglet existed nearly 20 years later (seven years after Audubon’s death); describing in his 1858 report On the Birds of the Railroad Surveys: “I have introduced the diagnosis of (Cuvier’s Kinglet) from Audubon for the sake of calling attention to it and of completing the account of the genus.”

Cuvier's Kinglet. Plate 55. Illustration: John James Audubon.
The verdict: Although rumors of Cuvier’s Kinglet sightings circulated well into the 1870s, the American Ornithological Society declared that Audubon’s kinglet is likely just a Golden-Crowned Kinglet with “aberrant plumage.” After all, the coloration is not all that different from a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, save for the bright red (as opposed to yellow-orange) headcrest and an additional black stripe extending over the top of the bird’s beak. It is possible that the specimen Audubon shot had a genetic condition occasionally observed in many bird species known as melanism; which results in unusual darkening of body tissues caused by the excessive production of dark melanin pigments. Since melanin produces the blacks, browns, and reddish-browns in a bird’s body, this could explain why the head crests and stripes are an unfamiliar - and darker- color than your typical Golden-Crowned Kinglet.

Audubon’s second befuddling species - the “Carbonated Swamp Warbler” (Sylvia carbonata)- appears on Plate 60 in our second volume of The Birds of America. Named for its dark streaking and head cap - not, unfortunately, because it lives in a bubbly bog - Audubon painted his Carbonated Warbler from two males he shot on his father’s plantation in Henderson, Kentucky. Audubon expressed uncertainty about the familiar-yet-not-so-familiar coloration of the two birds, noting on page 308 of his Biography (Vol. 1) that he was “of the opinion that they were each young birds of the preceding year, and not in full plumage, as they had no part of their dress seemingly complete, excepting the head. Not having met with any other individuals of the species, I am at this moment unable to say anything more about them.” Indeed, Audubon’s notes about S. carbonata are comparatively sparse amid his almost superfluous descriptions of other warbler species.Carbonated Warblers. Plate 60. Illustration: John James Audubon.

The verdict: Although the black cap, wing bars, and general streaking pattern match a commonly-observed species called the Blackpoll Warbler, Blackpoll Warblers are black and white, rather than bright yellow as in Audubon’s illustration. Blackpolls do exhibit surprising color variations including yellow-tinged wings and backs, meaning Audubon’s S. carbonata could be a rare case of yellow mutation. A more likely explanation some contend - including famed field guide author David Sibley (illustrator of Sibley’s Field Guides) - is that Audubon mis-represented a bird he was drawing from memory. As Sibley noted in a lively blog post from 2008, “We know that Audubon worked on some paintings from memory at that time, and I think this painting is consistent with ‘from memory’ work. As any artist knows, working from memory will get some details correct and others very wrong. It's impossible to perfectly recreate a memory as a drawing, because memories tend to be fragmentary (drawings must be complete).”

Interestingly, as if to preemptively quell any doubts that he hadn’t painted Plate 60 from life, Audubon adds that his Carbonated Warblers “were drawn, like all the other birds which I have represented, immediately after being killed” (pg. 308, Vol. I). Although Audubon asserted his works were “Drawn from Nature”, we know that in 1812 (one year after he supposedly shot the Carbonated Warblers)  rats destroyed almost 200 of his stored paintings, causing him to “nearly put a stop to (his) researches in ornithology” and forcing him to repaint several of his illustrations from memory. Audubon’s original Cerulean Warbler watercolor was lost to the nibbling rats, so the Carbonated Warbler could have been destroyed too, forcing Audubon to repaint the scene without a specimen at hand for reference. As Sibley and other ornithologist point out, this may explain the appearance of several anatomical oddities in the illustration, including several strange feather groups which are arranged incorrectly and misshapen. As Sibley remarks, perhaps he was looking at actual specimens, “But... the fact that this painting is one of his less detailed efforts, with errors and omissions of a sort that I would expect from drawing without a model, leaves open the possibility that he was working from a faulty memory.” Plate 60 also lacks one of Audubon’s usual artistic flourishes - intricately painted tails which he usually fanned in artful positions. As Sibley observes, Audubon “seemed to be fascinated by the shapes and patterns of tails”, however the tails of his Carbonated Warblers are frankly “vague and boring” when compared to his other drawings. All of these clues have led him and other artists to conclude that S. carbonata is merely a result of a jumbled memory. Still, others including famed American ornithologist Elliot Coues (1842-1899) assert that the bird was a unique hybrid between a Cape May and Blackpoll Warbler. Unless one of these birds is discovered, it seems unlikely that we’ll never know the true story.

The mystery behind our next species - Audubon’s “Townsend’s Bunting” or “Townsend’s Finch” (Emberiza townsendii) - recently concluded with a satisfactory explanation, all thanks to a photograph captured in 2014 by a trigger-happy birder. Audubon writes in the first volume of his Ornithological Biography, “Of this species only a single specimen has yet been found, which was lent to me by Dr. (John) Townsend… Nothing is known of its habits” (90). The bird was built like a sparrow with a conical bill, but had a white throat and “eyebrow” in addition to a gray chest unlike any known sparrow species. Audubon said nothing else about the circumstances surrounding the bird’s collection in 1833 near Philadelphia, PA, aside from his anatomical description which asserts that “the throat and fore-neck are white..the middle part of the breast and abdomen are also greyish-white” (pg. 184, Vol. II, Ornithological Biography).

Townsend's Bunting (pictured bottom left). Plate 400. Illustration: John James Audubon.The verdict: Interestingly, unlike Audubon’s other five unknown species, the specimen he painted still exists. After the stuffed bird sat collecting dust in the Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. for over 160 years, Ornithologist Kenneth Parkes studied the specimen and consulted with Townsend’s notes; concluding that is was an aberrant-plumaged Dickcissel. As Parkes noted in his 1985 paper, “the specimen probably represents a Dickcissel that lacked the normal carotenoid (yellow) pigments in its plumage … such pigment deficiencies, resulting from mutations or failures in development, are common in some groups of birds” (pg. 90, Natural History 4/85). Parkes hypothesized that Audubon stumbled upon a once-in-a-lifetime specimen with the opposite ‘problem’ as his Cuvier’s Kinglet. Although it could produce melanin at normal levels, it was either unable to process or store carotenoids (pigments which typically come from berries or other foods in the bird’s diet) in its feathers. Despite Parkes’ tentative conclusion (the specimen was, after all, in rough shape) the birding world again erupted with excitement when images of a supposed Townsend’s Bunting captured in Ontario helped confirm his diagnosis in 2014. After the internet buzz subsided and the experts examined the photographs, the consensus was… an aberrant-plumaged Dickcissel! Although we’re now certain Townsend’s Bunting was never a distinct species, as only the second-known example of this plumage in recorded history, it was a surprising discovery to say the least.

Audubon’s final three mystery species - “Bartram’s Vireo”, the “Blue Mountain Warbler”, and the “Small-Headed Flycatcher” appear together in one odd illustration (Plate 434) contained in the fourth volume of his work. First there’s Bartram’s Vireo, which Audubon declared a new species not because of its appearance (its a spitting image of the common Red-Eyed Vireo), but rather because of its unfamiliar foraging and territorial behavior. According to Audubon’s biography, though the species is “often confounded with, or mistaken for, the Red-Eyed Vireo” Bartram's Vireo was “remarkable” in that “it rarely if ever ascends even moderately tall trees” and exhibits “disregard for the approach of man, or indeed of any other intruder” (pg. 297, Vol. V).

Plate 434, depicting the Small-Headed Flycatcher (second from top, right), Blue Mountain Warbler (second from top, left), and Bartram's Vireo (second from bottom, left). Illustration: John James Audubon.The verdict: We frankly aren’t convinced that the behaviors Audubon viewed were “remarkable” in any way. If anything, Bartram’s was a particularly bold Red-eyed Vireo that preferred to forage in the understory.

Finally, we conclude with the Blue Mountain Warbler (Sylvia montana) and Small-headed Flycatcher (Muscicapa minuta); both which perch alongside Audubon’s misidentified Red-eyed Vireo. Both ‘species’ likely owe their presence in The Birds of America to Audubon’s main rival of the 1800s, fellow ornithologist and artist Alexander Wilson. M. minuta and S. montana were first documented in Wilson’s groundbreaking work - American Ornithology - which he published in 1808. Wilson had embarked upon a mission similar to Audubon’s twenty years prior, painting as many birds as possible in his new abode after immigrating from Scotland. Although his work is considered artistically and scientifically inferior to Audubon’s The Birds of America, Wilson became the first respected authority on America’s bird species. Wilson died in 1813, but Audubon’s work was continually compared to his predecessor's ( as evidenced in the prospectus for his new book, quoted previously), which many bird enthusiasts (and hence potential subscribers to his own work) were already familiar with. To omit a species from his work that a supposed authority like Wilson had documented - whether real or not-  could have proven disastrous to Audubon’s reputation among observant readers. Hence, it is quite likely that Audubon faced pressures to include some species he himself never encountered.

Indeed, Audubon expresses frustration about how difficult it was to obtain specimens of several of his mystery species when he writes in his entry on the Blue Mountain Warbler that, “it is somewhat strange, that among the numerous species of birds that visit the United States, a few should have been met with only in single instances. The present Warbler is in this predicament, as are the Carbonated Warbler and Cuvier’s Wren… it has not been my good fortune to meet with (a Blue Mountain Warbler)” (pg. 294, Vol. V). Although Wilson claimed to have shot his warbler in Virginia’s Blue Mountains (hence the bird’s name), a combing of the region by Audubon and his colleagues yielded no birds matching its description. So where did Audubon supposedly acquire his specimen? Audubon briefly remarks that his “figure was taken from a specimen lent to me by the Council of the Zoological Society of London, and which had come from California” (pg. 295, Vol. V). As Audubon Magazine journalist Nicholas Lund humorously remarks, “It sounds to me like Audubon was jealous that Wilson found a bird he couldn’t, but claimed he had one in the same way some people claim to have a “long-distance” girlfriend.”

The verdict: It’s possible Audubon had only Wilson’s painting of the Blue Mountain Warbler to reference, and, being unable to observe the species or otherwise obtain a specimen for himself, felt compelled to paint an unknown bird only documented in Wilson’s book. Overall, this one truly is an odd bird with no conclusive explanation.

The story for the Small-headed Flycatcher is reversed. Audubon claims to have discovered the species first but did not disclose his finding at the time because as he contends “In those happy days, kind Reader, I thought not of the minute differences by which one species may be distinguished from another in words, or the necessity of comparing tarsi, toes, claws, etc..” (pg. 291, Vol. V). Audubon remarks that he first drew the species in Louisville Kentucky in “long-past days… (in) the early part of the spring of 1808” (conveniently the year before Wilson published his work!). He continues the narrative by stating “When Alexander Wilson visited me at Louisville, he found in my already large collection of drawings, a figure of the present species, which, being at the time unknown to him, he copied and afterwards published in his great work, but without acknowledging the privilege that had thus been granted to him” (pg. 291, Vol V). Audubon expresses contempt for what he considers to be plagiarism of his discovery, noting “ I have more than once regretted this” , however he assures his readers that his intentions for setting the record straight are benevolent. He claims to be sharing the story because he respects Wilson’s legacy, writing “I share this...for the sake of one to whom we are so deeply indebted (Wilson) for his elucidation of our ornithology”(pg. 291, Vol. V).  Although Audubon did visit with Wilson in 1808, it seems odd that Audubon waited until well after Wilson had died to contest Wilson’s narrative of the Small-headed Flycatcher. For comparison, Wilson claimed he’d first seen a flock of birds in New Jersey, where he shot one in an undisclosed apple orchard.

The verdict: Unfortunately, neither of these stories shed any light on just what these birds actually were, if they even existed. Both Audubon and Wilson’s descriptions connote some type of wood warbler, but the coloration doesn’t match anything described today. As Elliott Coues suggested back in 1870, the Small-headed Flycatcher likely “never existed”, but was rather a result of rivalry and misunderstanding between Wilson and Audubon.

Overall, at a time when naturalists like Audubon lacked modern tools such as gene sequencing and remote tracking to aid in distinguishing new species on the basis of reproductive isolation, it’s remarkable that more birds we recognize today were not misidentified in his monumental work. Equipped with only a looking glass that today’s birders would probably dismiss as low-quality and a single-shot gun, Audubon was able to accomplish something truly remarkable; he accurately described and painted over 400 American bird species, many for the first time. As Dr. Roberta J. M. Olson, Curator of Drawings at the New York Historical Society and an authority on Audubon’s work, remarked, “The presence of a few mystery birds in (Audubon’s) work “is a testament to the kinds of challenges that the artist-naturalist faced in his pioneering attempt to study and codify taxonomically hundreds of American birds in this pre-photographic age.” Even in the instances when his work wasn’t scientifically accurate, Audubon’s watercolors were undoubtedly memorable works of art that ignited considerable interest in American birdlife, inspired future generations of artists, and helped spur the modern age of wildlife field guides.

Although we’ve been unable to positively identify all of Audubon’s mystery birds, their presence adds to the intrigue that characterizes exploring old works of natural history like The Birds of America. These befuddling species continue to stir lively debates involving scientists and artists alike, each one serving as a window into the life and work of one of America’s most famous naturalists. Although it’s unlikely we’ll discover the true identity of all Audubon’s mystery birds, the search has furthered our understanding of known species, the motivations that drove early artists to produce monumental scientific works, and the behind-the-scenes logistical challenges that shaped Audubon’s artistic renderings. In a world where we take for granted the increasing ease with which we can fact check and cross-reference scientific discoveries, perhaps it's good that we still have some old mysteries to ponder; not just for an added challenge, but to remind us just how lucky we are to live in a world with so much technology and information at our disposal.

To see our incomplete set of Audubon's  Birds of America, come in and take a look at the permanent display in our reading room. If you'd like to turn some of the pages, just ask the reference desk staff for help.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Binge-Listening Time!

Screenshot from podcast website of episode 26 blurb
What do do with all this time now that it is break? You've got five weeks before you are due back on campus. Sleeping is definitely a priority, and there are plenty of festive holiday things to do, plus it is a good time to earn a little money for Winter term. It is also a great time also to catch up on some of the cool things you have been missing out on while you have been so busy studying and writing papers. Well, we have a treat for you: it is time to binge listen to Hindsight is 20/19.

Hindsight is 20/19 banner
At the start of the year, the Dartmouth Library released the first episode of Hindsight is 20/19, our first adventure in podcasting. We set out to create 25 episodes by using one object from each of Dartmouth's decades to tell a series of alternate histories of Dartmouth that add depth and breadth to our understanding of what it means to be a 250-year-old institution. We miscounted--if you are 250-years old, you have 26 decades to deal with, so, like magic, there are 26 episodes. We posted the last official one yesterday (but a couple of bonus episodes are coming!).

Most of them are 10-15 minutes long, with a few longer episodes. We took on some heavy topics, but we also highlighted some of our favorite lighter moments in Dartmouth's history. We think the series is pretty entertaining. It sure was fun to produce, and we hope you love listening as much as we loved making it!

Oh, and when you are done, and still hungry for more, download Tales from the Old Burying Ground: Stories Inspired by the Dartmouth College Cemetery.