Arabian Babblers, now and then

In 2005, I traveled to Israel to learn about evolution from Drs. Amotz and Avishag Zahavi (see Handicap Principle), who have been studying the social behavior of individually-marked (i.e., color-banded) Arabian Babblers (Turdoides squamiceps) since the early 1970s. I had just recently returned from an intensive study of manakins in western Panama, where I had learned from Adam C. Stein how to observe social interactions at BabblerDancestationary lekking sites; and now I was ready to take the next step in my ornithological education, to observe and record behaviors of songbirds that moved around in a group. Arabian Babblers are a model species for this type of ornithology, because they live in a desert environment that has very little vegetation. There are almost always good sight-lines, and so their fascinating behaviors can be continuously observed and recorded. Amotz showed me how to follow the group and record their interactions, and to pay attention to the direction of each bird’s gaze. For the next 6 years, I used that approach to locate nests and observe many other species in semi-open environments (e.g., sagebrush scrub, tropical savannahs), and then in 2011 took that approach into the forest where there are very few sight-lines, to study the thrushes that have become my obsession.

In the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, we have an Arabian Babbler specimen (#52043) that was collected in 1864 by Henry Baker Tristam (1822–1906), not far from the site of the Zahavis’ color-banded population. The original label is still attached to its tarsometatarsus (see photo). Tristam was an English clergyman who was profoundly affected by Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of evolution, and who became a devoted natural historian and scientific collector, especially of birds. There are several species named for him, including Tristam’s Starling and Tristam’s Warbler. The babbler specimen was collected during his pilgrimage to the Levant with the English ornithologist Edward Bartlett (1836–1908), near Ein Gedi oasis in southern Israel. It is fun to consider that this bird of unknown sex, in a climate-controlled specimen drawer on the other side of the world, may be a distant ancestor of the babbler families to which the Zahavis have devoted their lives in study. We are all connected and build upon the past—even the birds “stand on the shoulders of giants” as they grow and learn from each other.


Arabian Babbler (Turdoides squamiceps) specimen collected at Ein Gedi in 1846 by Tristam. Original Label Vertabim: “E.S. Mus. H.B.Tristam No 19489 Engedi Argya squamiceps (Cretzsch.) H.B.Tristam Jan, 1864″. Photo courtesy of the Ornithology Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.


Categories: History of Science, Natural History, Ornithology

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