07 January 2009

Identification of a Grouse Species an Ornithological Blunder

When a supposedly new species of was described and named in a newspaper of Cornell University in 1871, it led to an exchange of views that pointedly indicated a profound ornithological blunder.

[Ruffed Grouse image from Jardine, 1834]

The new species of grouse was when T.W. Jaycox wrote about Bonasa Jobsii in the December 8, 1871 issue of the Cornell Era (page 182), with further information given in the January 19, 1872 issue of this Ithaca, N.Y. newspaper. The author studied standard works to assist in determining the species identity, including Baird's 'Birds of North America,' Alexander Wilson's 'American Ornithology,' Samuel's 'Birds of New England,' and 'Observation's of Wilson's American Ornithology.' None of these apparently indicated one of the primary facets of referring to a new species - the number of tail feathers, which was sixteen. And, Baird had written that there was more than one species of Bonasa genera grouse.

There was no apparent match recognized, so Bonasa Jobsii became the designated name for a grouse specimen that has to be included in the lore of historic birds of the era.

It was, however, a recognition given in error.

Celebrated ornithologists were quick to respond to the description. Their comments made certain to indicate that the species was not based in the strict specifics needed to properly describe a bird species to the ornithological community dealing with many new additions to recognized species throughout North America and elsewhere.

"It is such a complete fiasco, and at the same time is written with such ingenuousness, that I cannot do what you ask and spare the writer's feeling too. I must say that not one of the 'striking differences' that Mr. Jaycox thinks 'are sufficient to characterize a new species and perhaps a new genus,' are of the slightest consequence," said an article with no given author, in the March issue of the American Naturalist, in the same year. Further details of comparison with the local, well-known species of grouse were also considered.

Subsequent details further clarified rationale for errors in describing a new species, as considered by Burt S. Wilder, of Cornell University, citing comments by bird authorities of the period.

Professor Spencer F. Baird wrote: "... after a careful examination of the account I have no hesitation in pronouncing your bird to be one of the numerous variations assumed by the common ruffed grouse," (May 1872, American Naturalist 6(5): 300-301).

Dr. Elliott Coues, took another practical view: "...the article in which a supposed new species of bird, Bonasa Jobsii is characterized, merely adds to the synonymy with which ornithology is overburdened. So far from conflicting with the genus Bonasa, or forming a new genus, the ruffed grouse that Mr. Jobs was unlucky enough to shoot, and Mr. Jaycox still more to write about, shows nothing of specific consequence."

This article also indicated other items leading to the mistaken identity: "So neither the Era nor the University are in any way responsible for 'Bonasa Jobsii' but the Natural History Society, from the proceedings of which the description was an extract, and by the President of which (and not the President of the University) the specific name was suggested; and since some of your readers may know that the Professors of the University are honorary members of the Society, and often attend its meeting, it is but fair to them to state that none were present when 'Bonasa Jobsii' was introduced; had they been, Mr Jaycox would have been at once referred to the able papers of Mr. Allen (Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool., vol. i, No. 8, and vol. ii, No. 3) in which the whole subject of specific characters is discussed."

Editorial comments subjoined to the remarks by Mr. Wilder, tempered the entire affray.

"Unquestionably bad as was the work your correspondent was called to pass upon the indiscretion here alluded to was evidently encouraged, if not indeed actually induced, by equally unfortunate 'blunders’ previously made, not by mere tyros, but by recognized ornithological authorities. That this was the case seems evident from the comparisons and precedents cited in the remarks accompanying the description of Bonasa Jobsii. Is not, in fact, Bonasa Jobsii, one of the legitimate fruits of the excessively analytic system followed in the only general works on North American ornithology accessible to students? The authors of these valuable works may have modified their opinions, and even their methods of working since the publication of these works, but as yet the general student has no means of knowing it. It seems to me that as long as species no more worthy of recognition than Bonasa Jobsii have the appearance of being currently accepted, because not yet publicly retracted, mistakes like that make by Mr. Jaycox need not be looked upon as wholly unpardonable. In fact if the author of B. Jobsii could have truthfully added, Hab. 'Columbia River,' or, 'Hudson's Bay Territory,' to his description, his pseudo-species might even now have been less summarily dealt with though none the less untenable."

Even though it was a pseudo-species, the name endured for a time with enough consideration to get mentioned in subsequent classic works in the 1870s and beyond. Dr. Coues refers to Bonasa Jobsii in his checklist of North American birds. Robert Ridgway also mentions it in his expansive work on the birds of North and Middle America that was published decades later.

This was all much adieu about a "somewhat abnormal specimen" of the common Ruffed Grouse, Bonasa umbellus, and another interesting example of one of the few mystery birds described in the bird history of the middle 1800s.

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