11 January 2009

Extinct Birds by Rothschild a Pinnacle of Historic Ornithology

A bit of the Rothschild family fortune was spent to produce a first in historic ornithology, when Lionel Walter Rothschild prepared a distinctive and unique volume on extinct birds.

Birds had been of special interest for several years, and his continued lucubration on the subject brought forth information shared through writings and speeches.

Dr. Rothschild - he had a Ph.D. and was a fellow in the Zoological Society of London - also wrote a journal article in 1905, published in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club, that described several macaw species. He was able to provide a suitable description - still recognized by modern taxonomy - after decades of efforts by many of the most renowned ornithologists' that had been consistently and regularly recognizing and suitably naming many hitherto unrecognized species that were new additions to earth's known avifauna.

Published in 1907, Extinct Birds was issued in a manner to ensure quality, and Rothschild spent about $100,000 to achieve the results. There were only 300 copies printed for "private circulation," which were to be sold for $125 each; or L25 according to a second source. Foreign editions were to follow.

The preface of the book indicates the basic reason for the work: "When I decided to read a paper before the Ornithological Congress of 1905 on Extinct and Vanishing Birds, I found it necessary to illustrate my paper by a number of drawings. These drawing roused special interest among those who listened to my lecture, and I was asked by many if I could not see my way to publish the lecture and drawings, in book form, as these plates were far too numerous for the proceedings of the Congress. After some hesitation I determined to do this, greatly owning to the persuasion of the late Dr. Paul Leverkuhn."

The book has this stated goal: "An attempt to unite in one volume a short account of those Birds which have become extinct in historical time - that is, within, the last six or seven hundred years. To which are added a few which still exist, but are on the verge of extinction."

The publishers had "been experimenting for years to obtain an imperishable paper, for Mr. Rothschild wishing the work to endure for all time, because he thinks it improbable that the subject will ever be rehandled," according to an announcement in the Publishers' Weekly (March 30, 1907, p. 1150), with similar details in Pitman's Journal in mid-April. "It is stated that the Hutchisons have now obtained for the plates paper so pure that it will take color printing without any coating and give perfect results. It costs about 36 cents a pound."

The forty-five coloured plates show a wide-variety of former species around the globe.

Now, copy No. 25 of the initial limited edition can be readily enjoyed world-wide.

The first section subsequent to the book's preface is a multi-page list of the "most important literature" that were analyzed, many which were in Sir Rothschild's library at the zoological museum at Tring, north of London.

Several North American species are included within the ruminations for the given species, which are not exhaustive and boring reviews of all pertinent details presented in the burgeoning literature, but short accounts presenting enough details to describe the species, and to refer to its habitat or where it occurred. There is actually little useful information on the distribution and occurrence, but obviously this was not the intent.

Species of interest to the history of ornithology for Northern America, include:

Siphonorhis americanus [Jamaican Pauraque]

Ara guadeloupensis [Guadeloupe Macaw, or, Lesser Antillean Macaw]; there are no known specimens

Ara erythrura [Red-tailed Macaw]; Rothschild was the first to describe this species; no known specimens

Anodorhynchus purpurascens [Guadeloupe Violet Macaw]; no specimens; Rothschild is given credit for recognizing and naming this species

Ara gossei [Gosse's Macaw]; described by Gosse, and designated a species by Rothschild; the sole record is from 1765 at Jamaica

Ara erythrocephala [Red-headed Green Macaw]; designated a species by Rothschild

Ara martinicus [Martinique Macaw]; designated a species by Rothschild

Amazona violaceus [Violaceous Trogon]

Amazona martinicana [Martinique Parrot]

Conurus labati [Guadeloupe Parakeet]; no known specimens; designated a species by Rothschild

Carbo perspicillatus [Spectacled Cormorant]

Camptolaimus labradoria [Labrador Duck]

Alca impennis [Great Auk]

Aestrelata caribbaea [cf. Black-capped Petrel]; the species described in Rothschild's work may have been a distinct species, according to modern taxonomists


Some of the these paintings were done by J.G. Kueleman and George Edward Lodge.

Included in the accounts, but not illustrated were the Ectopistes macroura, Passenger Pigeon, and Tympanuchus cupido, Heath Hen.

Additional species were listed because they had reduced populations, and were "threatened and may soon become extinct, if they still exist." There were no further details given for these.

Following the written sections, the profound colour-illustrations were simple in composition and each full-page image nearly always featured a single bird with background features to convey their habitat. They are not refined in endless detail, but showing the prominent features of a species' appearance, or how it might have looked when there were no specimens or other material on which to devise a rendition.

As can be expected with a prominent new book on birds, there was a review, with one in particular written by "C.W.R." in the April, 1908, volume of the Auk. This writer was trite and shallow in the given comments, doing a good job of missing the primary emphasis of the work by Mr. Rothschild.

Concerns were expressed about featuring too many species of fossil birds, or pointing out that a few other soon or recently extinct birds should have been included. The comments went to the extent of saying the research was lacking because there had not been sufficient correspondence with museums that could have contributed information on a limited number of additional, pertinent specimens. And it pointed out - in a concerned manner - the number of blank pages! There were also trivial quibbles about feather coloration shown for an illustration or two.

The entire review was a bland effort of babble that failed due to any effort to convey numerous positive attributes. The writer did a commendable job of missing the primary emphasis of the work by Mr. Rothschild.

Instead, Extinct Birds is a commemorative jewel. And, although this was not the last volume to account for extinct birds, it was a pinnacle in raising awareness about the extinction of species. It was among the first to combine prehistoric species with those of recent history, something which has only been done a few times in the ornithological literature of all time.

The comments by Rothschild were realistic, yet prophetic: "The cause of recent extinction among birds is in most cases due directly or indirectly to man, but we also have instances of birds becoming extinct for no apparent reason whatever.

"Man has destroyed, and is continually destroying species directly, either for food or for sport, but also in many other ways he contributes to their destruction. Some species have been exterminated by the introduction of animals of prey, such as rats, cats, mongoose, etc., and we know that also the acclimatisation of other birds, such as the mynah, etc. has proved to be harmful to the native birds. Again we find that the introduction of domestic creatures or others kept as pets has brought diseases which may prove fatal to the indigenous fauna. Another means by which may causes immense destruction, is by destroying the natural habitat of various species. ... The melancholy fact however remains that man and his satellites, cats, rats, dogs, and pigs are the worst and in fact the only important agents of destruction of the native avifaunas wherever they go."

These comments are as pertinent today as they were in the early 1900s.

Ara tricolor.

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