Tag Archives: Academy of Natural Sciences

Smooth-billed Ani — in Philadelphia!

Like most birders, Philadelphians get excited about a rare bird. With over 250 years of bird records from Philadelphia, the birthplace of American ornithology, there are very few species that have been detected in the city only once—the rarest of the rare.

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ANSP 24271. Ornithology Department, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (Photo: M. Halley)

One of the most mind-boggling records is actually not well known by birders today—a Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) was collected in the 1850s by John Krider, apparently on an island in the Delaware River near Kensington, Philadelphia. Today, and during Krider’s time as well (Baird 1860), the nearest breeding ground of this Neotropical cuckoo-relative (Cuculidae) is in southern Florida. Otherwise, the species is a widely distributed breeder in the tropical and subtropical savannas of the Caribbean, Central and South America.

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ANSP 24271, label verbatim: “Shot on Peters Is. Delaware Riv. opp. Kensington Pa. J Krider Coll.” (Photo by M. Halley)

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Closeup of Charles Ellet Jr.’s (1843) map of Philadelphia, showing the location of Petty’s Island in the Delaware River.

However, the island opposite Kensington is called Petty Island today (not Peters Island, which is actually in the Schuylkill River near Montgomery Dr.), and during Krider’s time it was called Petty’s Island — so something here is amiss. To confuse things further, in Krider’s (1879:16–17) published account there is no mention of the island, and it actually implies that the bird was collected in the expansive meadows of South Philadelphia (i.e., Passyunk, Moyamensing), a habitat that would later be consumed by urban development: “The Ani is a southern bird. I shot one specimen in the month of September, in the meadows below the built-up part of the City of Philadelphia. It was flying in company with a flock of rusty Gracles [probably Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscala, or perhaps Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus]; the specimen is now in the Academy of Natural Sciences.”

So the precise locality where the bird was collected is uncertain, because Krider’s (1879) account disagrees with the information on the (not original) specimen label. Nevertheless, it was evidently collected in one of the marshes along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Spencer Baird (1860:73) wrote: “A Crotophaga, killed near Philadelphia, and now in the collection of the Philadelphia Academy, appears to be a typical C. ani (as described by Burmeister) in the smoothness of the bill and other peculiarities. It is decidedly smaller than rugirostris, the culmen straight at its highest point, the anterior extremities of this nearly straight portion anterior to the nostril. The colors are, however, almost precisely the same with those of rugirostris. Length, 12 inches: wing, 6.10; tail, 7.75; tarsus, 1.25; chord of culmen, 1.15.”

References
Baird, S. F. 1860. The birds of North America: the descriptions of species based chiefly on the collections in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Krider, J. 1879. Forty years notes of a field ornithologist. Philadelphia: Joseph H. Weston.

1831: The Academy gets tax-exempt status!

The first 20 years of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia were an uncertain time, and had it not been for the generosity of William Maclure (1763–1840), known in perpetuity as the ‘Father of American Geology’, the persistence of the now storied institution through that period would be doubtful. But others too, including corresponding secretary Reuben Haines III, about whom I have written much, had the long-term scientific mission of the Academy in mind, and made steps to secure its finances for that reason. In 1831, a major step toward that goal was achieved — the Academy received tax exempt status by the PA state legislature.

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In the Academy Library & Archives (Collection 396), there is a facsimile of a letter (above) dated February 22, 1831, written by Haines to his state representative, Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis, that chronicles the event:

Hall of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Philadelphia, February 22nd 1831.

Sir,
I am instructed by the Academy to return you the sincere thanks of the Members for your zealous and successful exertions in obtaining for our institution an exemption from taxes. The Academy will be at all times particularly flattered by your cooperation in promoting its views; and any of the natural productions of Pennsylvania, or of the other states in the Union which may come under your notice, will be gratefully acknowledged.

I am sir, with great respect,
your obediant servant.
R Haines
Corresponding Secty

The Academy apparently acquired the letter over 100 years after it was written; presumably it was initially been passed down through the family of Colonel Davis. It was donated to the Academy by William C. Meek, as documented in a 1962 letter from Academy librarian Venia T. Phillips to Mr. Meek, thanking him for the gift:

January 11, 1962

Dear Mr. Zeek,

I was very happy to have an opportunity to look at the letter pertaining to the Academy of Natural Sciences. This Reuben Haines, who signed it, was Corresponding Secretary between February 15, 1814 and October 16, 1831 in which year he died in office, so you see the letter written by him on February 22, 1831 would have been one of his very late letters. I understand from Miss Dicken that we were priveleged to have a copy of this made for our files, which I have done.

Please accept our sincere thanks for the courtesy in regard to the matter.

Sincerely yours,
(Mrs.) Venia T. Phillips
Manuscript Librarian

Audubon and the Academy of Natural Sciences: It’s complicated.

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Oil portrait of Audubon by John Syme, 1826. Source: Wikipedia.

In the halls of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University you will occasionally hear it mentioned, in a slightly boastful way, that the Academy was an “original subscriber” to John James Audubon’s masterpiece The Birds of America. This statement is technically true, because the Academy became a subscriber shortly after the work was published, probably around 1831, but it is also disingenuous. In 1824, when Audubon came to the Academy in search of an engraver and/or publisher, he was turned away and later rejected for membership. As the story is told, Audubon drummed up some animosity with George Ord and engraver Alexander Lawson, who had worked with the late Alexander Wilson and were at the time financially invested in publishing a second edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology. It may be that Audubon’s extraordinary talent was perceived as threatening to the success of that venture, or perhaps his paintings were simply too difficult to engrave but Lawson was too proud to admit it—either way, Audubon met significant resistance to his plan.

Reuben Haines III, corresponding secretary of the Academy, took a liking to Audubon and invited him to his country estate called Wyck, which is now engulfed by urban development in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Audubon stayed at Wyck on July 25th, and the next day traveled to his teenage home Mill Grove, in Haines’s carriage. That evening they dined with the famous clockmaker Isaiah Lukens at Mill Grove, which was at that time under the ownership of Mr. Wetherill, who had bought the property from the Audubons many years prior.

At the next meeting of the Academy, on the evening of July 27, Audubon was nominated for corresponding membership by Haines, Lukens, and the French naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. But his nomination was “black-balled” (rejected) in a vote on August 31. In a recent facebook post, Academy archivist Jennifer Vess described the balloting procedure that was used:

“After the founders’ meeting, it was decreed that every new member must be nominated by two active members, his name read before the group and voted on at the next business meeting. A single black marble in the voting box meant the nominee had been rejected. It was presumed that the prospective member knew nothing of his nomination, so that the insult of being rejected would not be known by him. If black-balled, the nomination blank was destroyed to remove any record of the outcome of the election.”

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Original record of nomination of “J. J. Audubon, Natchez Correspondent,” on July 27, 1824, by C. A. Lesueur, R. Haines, and I. Lukens. Notably, Audubon was the only nominee rejected by vote (“X”) on August 31. Courtesy of the Library and Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, collection 115.

It is curious that Audubon’s rejection was not destroyed as was the custom, and there is no evidence of any reason why—so cue the speculations. Two relevant facts are that Audubon was no longer in Philadelphia when the vote was cast, and that he was stressed about his failure to find support in America. In a recently discovered letter from Audubon to Haines dated December 25, 1825, the desperate ornithologist pleaded for help one last time:

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A wooden ballot box like those used in the 1824 vote – perhaps the same one. (Image courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, coll. 115)

“Now my dear Mr Haines I must change my subject.—I must touch the only thing that ever vibrated sorrow to my heart.—I must leave America.—And you, and a few more friends.—I must go and seek far from my few connections, a […] purse for my long labours with as little hope to obtain this abroad as I am sure never to possess it in this my beloved country.—I assure you I count every day that are to [elapse] between this and the awfull moment when the sails will be spread that will waft off the vessel bearing my hopes, much like he who consigned to unmerited punishment hopes and yet dreads that another world will not be better to him than the one he is about to leave for ever.—With an allmost despairing heart I shall leave America early this ensuing spring, and now bid you my farewell.—Yes it is my farewell indeed for unless a success scarce expected should take place, I never will review this happy continent, will have to abandon my long acquired habits of watching nature at work and will droop moreso amongst the dreg of the world as it is called.” (Halley 2015, ‘The Heart of Audubon‘)

Audubon later published a more subdued synopsis of the events, practically bereft of emotion, in Ornithological Biography (1831: xiv; bracketed names mine):

“America being my country, and the principal pleasures of my life having been obtained there, I prepared to leave it with deep sorrow, after in vain trying to publish my Illustrations in the United States. In Philadelphia, Wilson’s principal engraver [Lawson], amongst others [Ord], gave it as his opinion to my friends [Bonaparte, Haines, Lesueur], that my drawings could never be engraved. In New York, other difficulties presented themselves, which determined me to carry my collections to Europe.”

Years later, after The Birds of America was a sensational hit, on September 27, 1831, Audubon’s name was again moved to nomination for Academy membership, and this time the vote passed despite Ord’s continuing enmity. He became a corresponding member on October 25th, 1831, but sadly, his friend and confidante Reuben Haines missed the vote, having died of a laudanum overdose six days earlier…but that is another story.

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Original record of Audubon’s second (and successful) nomination, on Sept 27, 1831, the numerous signatories, and the election on October 25th, 1831. Courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, collection 115.

Thanks to Jennifer Vess and the staff of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Bert Filemyr of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club for insightful comments that improved historical accuracy.

“Winter” specimens of Swainson’s Thrush in eastern North America

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ANSP193361 — C. u. swainsoni, collected by J.H. Weber on 3/3/1904. Photo: Matthew R. Halley

I came across a specimen of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) in the ornithology collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP193361) that was collected by J. H. Weber in Fort Lee, New Jersey on March 3, 1904! This sparked my curiosity because this taxon, considered a subspecies by most authorities but a species by the Brazilians (Piacentini et al. 2015), spends the winter in South America and does not typically arrive in North America until April. This set me on a brief search for other North American “winter” specimens of C. u. swainsoni. For the purpose of my investigation, I was hesitant to rely on sight records, because it is easy to misidentify these thrushes in the field (trust me), and eastern Hermit Thrushes C. guttatus faxoni are normal winter residents in these regions. For these reasons, I wanted hard evidence, and a search of major specimen collections did the trick.

I looked for specimens collected during November through March. A query on VertNet.org returned 800 specimen records from that time period, of which 24 were collected in North America east of the Mississippi River. Of those, 9 were erroneous or dubious (e.g., several records had the date 1/1, the default of some databases when a date field is left blank). After separating the wheat from the chaff, I managed to uncover 15 (apparently) legitimate “winter” records, which I plotted alongside an eBird chart compiled from three “Bird Conservation Regions” that cover a large portion of the ‘transient zone’, i.e., in between the breeding and wintering grounds of C. u. swainsoni. Interestingly, the specimen that started my search (ANSP193361) was actually one of three taken by J. H. Weber in Fort Lee, New Jersey—20% of the “winter” C. u. swainsoni specimens taken in eastern North America were found at the same place by the same guy!

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The orange curves in the figure show the annual cycle (in total # of birds detected) from the perspective of birders in the ‘transient zone’. There is a sharp decline in autumn (far right of the graph), and detections typically cease by the end of October. The birds are then absent for the next five months (they are “on holiday” in South America). Then, the spring migration brings a rapid increase in detections in early- and mid-April, as Swainson’s Thrushes migrate northward to their breeding grounds.

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C. u. swainsoni in the ‘transient zone’. Photo: Matthew R. Halley.

Three of the “winter” specimens were collected in early November, and can easily be attributed to late departures, and not overwintering birds (MCZ338962, UMMZ234592, UWBM86964). To my knowledge, there have been no specimens collected during December, and only one legitimate record from January, a specimen collected in Brown Co., Wisconsin (FMNH351309); and that specimen was collected in late January (the 21st). Two specimens from mid- and late-February were collected in Frederick Co., Maryland (UWBM 38236), and New Haven Co., Connecticut (YPM ORN 002630), respectively. The remaining 9 specimens were taken in March, one month before the expected arrival of the species in North America, and so can be explained as early arrivals. Indeed, given the distribution of these “winter” specimens, clustered near the tails of the eBird distributions, there is very little to suggest that any of them were actually over-wintering individuals. Rather, they seem to be aberrant individuals with early or late departure or arrival dates, outliers way out on the tail ends of the normal distribution, but still a part of that distribution. However much I might like to think one of these Swainson’s Thrush specimens was an over-wintering bird, the null hypothesis is that they are just super late/early migrants (i.e., a migrant with wacky timing seems more plausible than a bird that ceased to migrate altogether). At present, the weight of the evidence is not enough to reject the null.

So no—sorry to get you excited, but at the present moment there is no evidence of a Swainson’s Thrush wintering in North America. Many thanks to the folks at ebird.org and VertNet.org, and to the many collectors, preparators, and curators of the collections.

[UPDATE, 12/21/2016: I recently came across an article in Cassinia (62:65) in which Keith Russell reported a Swainson’s Thrush at Cape May Courthouse, NJ, on December 24, 1985! Identification was corroborated by Bob Ridgley. This indeed is a good candidate for an individual *actually* overwintering in this region, but I do not know if it was seen in subsequent weeks.]

Genetic sampling of Townsend’s 1835 type specimens of Catharus

In 1834, pioneer naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) and John Kirk Townsend (1809–51) ventured westward with the second expedition of Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth (1802–56), across the Rocky Mountains and eventually to the mouth of the Columbia River. The trip was a huge success, and Townsend discovered numerous bird species that were previously unknown to science. In 1836, Townsend opted to venture farther west to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and so entrusted his bird collection to Nuttall, who returned with it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. There, the specimens were eagerly awaited by John James Audubon (1785–1851), who was preparing the final plates for The Birds of America:

“Dr Townsend’s collection was at Philadelphia; my anxiety to examine his specimens was extreme…Having obtained access to the collection I turned over and over the new and rare species but he [Townsend] was absent at Fort Vancouver on the shores of the Columbia River, Thomas Nuttall had not yet come from Boston and loud murmurs were uttered by the soidisant friends of science, who objected to my seeing, much less portraying and describing, these valuable relics of birds, many of which had not yet been introduced into our fauna.” Audubon (1838:xi)

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Paralectotype of Catharus guttatus nanus, collected by Townsend and described by Audubon (1839)

Among the specimens in the collection were two thrushes new to science, that we now know as Catharus ustulatus Nuttall (i.e., Swainson’s Thrush) and Catharus guttatus nanus Audubon (now considered a subspecies of Hermit Thrush). The prepared specimens are still in the Academy collection. See my previous post about the discovery and description of the C. ustulatus type.

Today, I harvested a tiny sample of skin from the C. ustulatus holotype, and a paralectotype of C. g. nanus—both collected by Townsend during the Wyeth expedition. The samples will be prepared and submitted for DNA sequencing—genetic data that will be included in my dissertation work on the systematics, evolution, and taxonomy of the genus Catharus. These two type specimens, which were examined 180 years ago by Townsend, Nuttall, and Audubon, will now be used again to clarify the ancestry and taxonomy of these species. I hope that, if they were alive today, Townsend and the rest would approve!

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Collecting skin tissue for DNA sequencing from the holotype of Catharus ustulatus (ANSP #23644)—collected by Townsend and described by Nuttall (1840). Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Photo: Steve Miller.

 

 

Origins of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

4 William Russell Birch (English artist, 1755-1834) New Lutheran Church on Fourth Street, Philadelphia. City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania, North America, as it appeared in the Year 1800

View from 4th St., Philadelphia, as it appeared in 1800. Artist: William Russell Birch (1755–1834)

In 1812, during a time when exceedingly few people showed any interest in wildlife or nature for its own sake, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now of Drexel University) had its humble beginnings when John Speakman, a Quaker apothecary, and Jacob Gilliams, successful dentist and close friend of ornithologist Alexander Wilson, solicited some like-minded acquaintances to have regular meetings to compare their natural history collections and share ideas. Within about a month, they had assembled a group that included chemist John Shinn, Jr., distiller Nicholas Parmentier, physician and geologist Dr. Gerard Troost, entomologist and conchologist Thomas Say, and an Irishman named Dr. Camillus Mann, who served as secretary and about whom little is known. These seven men were the founders of the Academy. On April 16, 1812, physician Dr. John Barnes became the first elected member, and 13 more were elected by the end of the year. In the summer of 1814, the roster had grown to 46 elected members plus the founders, although by that time some members were deceased (like Wilson, who died in 1813) and one of the founders (Mann) was no longer affiliated with the Academy.

Mann served as secretary at the early meetings and is the only founder who was “struck off” the membership list. According to Nolan (1909, A Short History…), he had fled his native Ireland in 1798 and lived “for a time” in the United States. His association with the Academy lasted only two years, after which he apparently severed ties. Even the date of his death is unknown.

On August 24, 1814, Barnes wrote a letter to Reuben Haines III, the Quaker naturalist who was to replace Mann as corresponding secretary, that included a complete list of all the early members of the Academy and the dates of their elections [sidebar: Haines was proprietor of Wyck and the recipient of Audubon’s lost prospectus in 1825. See “The Heart of Audubon“]. Barnes also expressed frustration with Dr. Mann’s “negligence.” Remarkably, the letter and list still exist, albeit missing the addresses, which must have been on a second page now lost. They now reside in a rather obscure location (not at the Academy where they probably ought to be), in the papers of Reuben Haines’s great-grand nephew, in the Quaker and Special Collections of the Haverford College Library (Haverford, PA). The names that appear in Barnes’s flowing script include many of the progenitors of American arts and sciences, including Robert Hare (chemist), William Strickland (architecture), Alexander Wilson (ornithology), Isaiah Lukens (clock-maker), and Thomas Gilpin, Jr. (paper-maker, inventor).

Phila. 8th mo. 27th. 1814

Respected Friend,JBarnes_Letterto_ReubenHaines_1812

The enclosed list contains all the names of the corresponding members. Some have
and others have not been notified, and some have changed their places of residence since being elected. I have put down the places at which they resided when elected. I think it would be proper to notify all with a printed notice, accompanied by a letter stating the negligence of the former Secretary &c. Dr. Charles Moot the last mentioned on the list I notified with a printed notice as corresponding Sect. […] J. Gilliams being desirous of transmitting it on to him. Perhaps it would be prudent to consult the Academy respecting the European members. Would it be prudent to notify them, previous to transmitting them a diploma?

With sentiments of esteem, I remain

Respectfully,

John Barnes

JBarnes_Letterto_ReubenHaines_1812_ListOfANSPfounders

Celebrating Audubon’s 231st birthday at the Academy of Natural Sciences

Today we celebrated the birthday of famed ornithologist John James Audubon (1785–1851), with a public page turning of the first volume of his masterpiece The Birds of America (published 1827–1838). Enjoy this short video of the event, featuring Academy librarian Alexandria Capone turning to the plate of the Cowpen Bird (now known as Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater), and myself talking a bit about that species, Audubon’s legacy, and how today Academy scientists continue to study the evolutionary relationships of birds, but now we are armed with DNA sequencing technologies and digital computers.

A fun thing about turning the page is that the species depicted on the following page is a surprise! For more on the history of Audubon’s The Birds of America, see my recent paper The Heart of Audubon, published in Common-place: the journal of early American life 16(1).

Thanks to the Academy staff for making and publishing the video on the Academy of Natural Sciences facebook page.