Mysterious and Obscure Birds

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Christopher Majka

Sep 28, 1993, 10:39:09 AM9/28/93
to (Jim Rising) originally wrote:

> The Cincinnati Warbler, like all of those things described by Audubon (and/or
> Wilson) and not subsequently reported would qualify--if accepted. E.g.
> Cincinnati Warbler (Vermivora cincinatiensis), Carbonated Warbler (Dendroica
> carbonata), Blue Mountain Warbler (D. montana - Audubon and Wilson),
> Small-headed Warbler (Wilsonia microcephala - A & W), and Townsend's
> Bunting (Spiza townsendi). Type specimen of Townsend's Bunting
> still exists, taken New Garden, Chester Co., PA, 11 May 1833 (by Townsend).
> Some of these were probably hybrids (such as Sutton's Warbler, D. potomac).

There are, in fact, quite a number of such 'mysterious' birds know only from
one or two specimens or simply from a published description. 19th century
zoologists sometimes had a penchant for describing 'species' on the basis
of what later proved to by aberrant individuals or hybrids. One the other
hand, during the time of Audubon and Wilson, large tracts of land in North
America were zoologically terra incognita so it was not unreasonable to
suppose that a peculiar bird, known only from a specimen or two, might turn
out to be a resident of some hitherto unexplored area.And, in fact, such often
proved to be the case. Some 'species', though, proved 'refractory', in the
taxonomic schemes and were later shown (or at least believed) to by hybrids.
Such was the case with:

* The Cincinnati Warbler (Helminthophila cincinatiensis) known only from one
specimen taken in Ohio, was thought to be a hybrid between the Pine Warbler
(Dendroica pinus) and the Kentucky Warbler (Oporornis formosus) by Coues [Keys
to North American Birds (1884)].

* The Carbonated Swamp Warbler (Helinaia carbonata) was collected by Audubon
himself near the village of Henderson in Kentucky in May of 1811 (two males)
and described by him Audubon in Birds of America (1841). R Bowdler Sharpe in
his Catalogue of Birds in the British Museum, Volume X (1885) wrote:

"This species has not been rediscovered since Audubon's time, and has been
thought by some ornithologists to be a hybrid between Perissoglossa tigrina
and Dendroeca striata." (i.e. between the Cape May Warbler (Dendroica
tigrina) and the Blackpoll Warbler (D. striata).

* The Blue-Mountain Warbler (Sylvicola montana) was described by Wilson
[American Ornithology v:113] and then further figured by Audubon [Birds of
America (1840-44)]. It seemed to have come from the Blue Mountains, either in
Virginia or Pennsylvania (or perhaps even California!). Bowdler Sharpe wrote:

"The identification of this species has puzzled ornithologists since the time
of Wilson. Dr. Coues suggests that it may be the young of Dendroica virens."
(i.e. The Black-throated Green Warbler).

* The Small-headed Warbler (Wilsonia microcephala) was described by Wilson in
1812 [American Ornithology vi: 62] as being found in New Jersey and
Pennsylvania to which Audubon added Kentucky. According to Robert Ridgway
[Birds of North and Middle America, Bull. U.S. Nat. Mus. 50]:

"I am unable to satisfactorily dispose of this hypothetical species by
reference to any other, the peculiar combination of characters indicated in the
original description being shared by no other bird to my knowledge."

* Similarly Ridgway wrote of Sylvia pumilia (I am unable to find an English
appelation for this warbler) which had been described by Vieillot [Ois. Am.
Sept. ii, 1807, 39, pl. 100]:

"I am unable to identify (this) with any American bird; certainly it is not the
same as Muscicapa minuta Wilson." (i.e. the Small-headed Warbler (Wilsonia

* Much more recently the Sutton's Warbler (Dendroica potomac) came into
existence. A.C. Bent in his Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers
[Bull U.S. Nat Museum 203] wrote:

"Recently Karl W. Haller (1940) described "a new wood warbler from West
Virginia' (12 miles south of Martinsburg) from two specimens, male and female,
which he collected on May 30 and June 1, 1939, respectively , at points 18
miles apart [Haller, 1940, CArdinal, 5:50]... Two more Sutton's warblers have
been carefully observed in the field; one at the point where the type was
collected on May 21, 1942, by Maurice Brooks and Bayard H. Christy (1942); the
second about 18 miles to the westward on June 21, 1944, by George H. Brieding
and Lawrence E. Hicks (1945)."

The contemporary thinking is that the Sutton's Warbler is actually a hybrid
between the Northern Parula (Parula americana) and the Yellow-throated Warbler
(Dendroica dominica).

* I have previously discussed the Townsend's Bunting (Spiza townsendii)
collected by Townsend in New Garden, Chester Co., PA, 11 May 1833 and
described by Audubon. Baird, Brewer and Ridgway in their History of North
American Birds (1874) wrote: "Its peculiarities cannot be accounted for by
hybridism, nor probably by individual variation."

However according to Bowdler Sharpe:"Only a single specimen known. Dr. Coues
suggests that it may be a hybrid between Spiza americana (female) and Guiraca
caerulea (male)." (i.e. between the Dickcissel and the Blue Grosbeak)

* So too the Brewster's Linnet (Acanthis brewsteri) known only from the type
specimen, taken 1 Nov. 1870 at Waltham, Massachusetts, described first by
Ridgway [American Naturalist in 1872: p. 443] and now thought to by a Common
Redpoll (Acanthis flammea) Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) hybrid.

* Much ink (electronic as well as conventional) has been spilled on the
Cooper's Sandpiper (Calidris cooperi) known only from the still extant
unique type taken in May 1833 at Long Island, New York. It is, apparently, not
the same as the recently discovered and much debated Cox's Sandpiper (Calidris
paramelanotos). Ridgway [Birds of North and Middle America, Bull. U.S. Nat.
Mus. 50] wrote:

"The relationship of this bird (C. cooperi), the type of which remains unique,
is distinctly with C. fusicollis (White-rumped Sandpiper), from which it could
hardly be distinguished but for its decidedly greater size, all its
measurements exceeding the maximum of them of C. fusicollis."

There are some other such 'mysterious' birds which haven't been touched on in
this thread of rec.birds, namely:

* Cuvier's Kinglet (Regulus cuvierii) described by Audubon [Orn. Biog., 1,
1832, p. 288] known from a single individual which Audubon himself shot on his
father-in-law's plantation at Fatland Ford near Norristown on the Schuylkill
River in Pennsylvania on June 8, 1812. I am not aware of what the final learned
disposition of this species has been but it may very well be an abberent
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), especially since there seems to be
some question about the veracity of Audubon's illustration (it may well have
been re-drawn from memory).

* The Cooper's Henhawk (Buteo cooperi) was described by Cassin in 1856 [Proc.
Nat. Sci. Phil. 1856: 253] from a type specimen taken near Mountain View,
Santa Clara County California in October of 1856. There was one other specimen
taken by a Mr. C. E. Aiken in Colorado roundabout 1875. Robert Ridgway wrote
about this species in articles in the Auk [1884, I: 253-254; and 1885, II:
165-166] believing it likely that it was a light colour phase of the Harlan's
Hawk (B. harlani) finally concluding:

"From the material which I have thus far been able to examine, I am, ... not
quite prepared to relinquish the claims of B. cooperi as a distinct species,
although still of the opinion that additional specimens would probably break
down the characters on which it at present stands."

* Finally H. W. Henshaw described the new Nelson's Gull (Larus nelsoni) from a
specimen taken at St. Michael's, Alaska on June 20, 1880. Henshaw noted it's
similarity to the Kumlien's Gull (L. kumlieni, now regarded as L. glaucoides
kumlieni, the western race of the Iceland Gull). It's status remained unclear
until Dwight reviewed the Family in The Gulls (Laridae) of the World [1925,
Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 52: 249-250] in which he concluded that the Nelson's
Gull is a hybrid between the Glaucus Gull (L. hyperboreus) and the Herring Gull
(L. argentatus vegae).

So, in summary, of these 'mysterious' species the following are probable

* Cincinnati Warbler (Helminthophila cincinatiensis)
* The Carbonated Swamp Warbler (Helinaia carbonata)
* Sutton's Warbler (Dendroica potomac)
* Brewster's Linnet (Acanthis brewsteri)
* Cooper's Henhawk (Buteo cooperi)
* Nelson's Gull (Larus nelsoni)

The other remaining 'refractory' species:

* Blue-Mountain Warbler (Sylvicola montana)
* Small-headed Warbler (Wilsonia microcephala)
* (Sylvia pumilia)
* Cuvier's Kinglet (Regulus cuvierii)
* Townsend's Bunting (Spiza townsendii)
* Cooper's Sandpiper (Calidris cooperi)

May represent either:
i) hybrids as well
ii) abberant individuals
ii) or possibly the remaining individuals of a relict species like the
Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchos labradorius) which vanished after the arrival of
Europeans to these shores -- or perhaps they're lurking out there still?


Christopher Majka

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