02 April 2010

Original Notations of Blakiston's Fish-Owl Date to Mid-1880s

Each species of bird has an origin in some account of its features or occurrence, based on observation at some particular place and time, and this also applies to the magnificent Blakiston's Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni) where it lives in its homelands of eastern Asia.

The particulars though are somewhat obscure.

Captain Thomas Blakiston, a visitor to what for him was a foreign land, was instrumental in identifying the birds in the northern region of Japan in the early 1860s. His efforts documented numerous occurrences of birds and was perhaps first in adequately documenting the variety of species in northern Japan. Details of this ornithological history were issued in several authoritative articles in appropriate journals.

A subsequent reference to Blakiston's paper on the Ornithology of Japan, issued in 1883, included an account of "Bubo Blakistoni, Seebohm, antea, p. 42. (Plate VI.)."

Bubo blakistoni as illustrated in the Ibis, 1884, Plate 6.

The verbage discussed an immature species, designated to Bubo coromandus, and as being distinctly different from Bubo blakistoni, with a reference to a figure which illustrated the species.

This dates the literature for this huge owl of eastern Asia to 1883, when a terse few words did not include any type of description for the species, where it occurred or, actually, anything other than it being a new species based on the views of the contributor.

"Mr. Seebohm exhibited an example of a new species of Owl from Yezo, the north island of Japan, which he proposed to call Bubo blakistoni. It was most nearly allied to B. coromandus from North India, which it resembled in general style of coloration; but was much larger, and had the toes entirely bare of feathers, thus forming a link between the genera Bubo and Ketupa." - Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London

Further details - in the online archive - indicate Henry Seebohm named the bird after Thomas Blakiston, who collected the original specimen in 1883 at Hokkaido, Japan.

Seebohm was an English steel manufacturer, but more significantly, an amateur ornithologist and oologist. His interest in birds of the pertinent region were based on travels to Siberia, which were issued in 1880 and 1882.

The next tidbit of information was in 1886, also was presented in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. In its entirety, it reads:

"The Secretary exhibited on behalf of Mr. L. Taczanowski, C.M.Z.S., the skin of an Owl from the south-east of the Ussuri country, on the frontiers of Corea, which appeared to be referable to Bubo blakistoni, Seebohm, P.Z.S., 1883, p. 466, and Ibis, 1884, p. 42 et p. 183, pl. vi.
"Two adult females of this Owl had been obtained by Mr. J. Kalinowsky, during his recent stay in Kamtschatka, from the environs of the river Sidemi in Russian Mantchuria, on the frontiers of Corea, where they were collected in the latter part of May 1885. They appeared to agree with Japanese specimens of B. Blakistoni in the National Collection, where Mr. Sharpe had kindly made the comparisons."

Ladislas Taczanowski, of Warsaw, according to his obituary, had an appreciation of birds which dated to his childhood. His first studies were focused on his Polish homeland, yet expanded with the access to further information and details about species in other regions of the world. He visited Algeria in 1866-1867. As a result of his network of contacts, he wlrked on bird specimens from Peru and Siberia.

In 1884, he was coauthor of a list of the birds of Kamtschatka and the Commandores Islands, issued by the Societe Zoologique de France. Another endeavour was compiled the bird species for Corea, now known as Korea.

Scientific Origin of a Species

The type specimen for this big fish-owl is apparently in the British Museum, which, based on online sources considered, reportedly has numerous specimens:

"blakistoni - Bubo blakistoni Seebohm, 1883.
"Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond., 1883: 466. Holotype, Adult. Reg. no. 1884.1.23.1. Hakodadi, Yezo, Japan. Dec. Collected and presented by Capt. Blakiston."

The known history for the owl continues to be notably brief in subsequent years. Once the species was recognized, there were apparently few accounts, based on searches on the vast amount of online journals, accounts and other publications available on the global internet.

One particularly terse account - decades later - has these details in a list of Japanese birds issued in 1922, which included:

374. Bubo Blakistoni blakistoni Seebohm ... Shima-fukuro.
1883. Bubo blakistoni Seebohm, P.Z.S. p. 466 (Hokkaido, Japan).
Blakiston's Eagle-Owl.
Hab. Saghalin, Hokkaido.

These details convey so few tidbits for the first history of Blakiston's Fish-Owl, yet there is so much unknown in its history.

Even in the modern era, the species is known based on studies of just a few years, which none-the-less, indicate in a profound and essential manner the status of this species, which is classified as being endangered.

The owls don't care how they are classified, as in this case it makes no difference how they can catch a fresh fish during a harsh winter, but the legacy of knowledge is something which studious humans are cognizant of and give attention.

Blakiston was obviously instrumental in the recognition of the owl which was named in recognition of this man. Several other species were also named in his honor.

In an 1892 account of his demise, an article in the Auk, said: "no man has done so much towards the thorough understanding of the ornithology" of Japan. The captain had spent two decades in the northernmost region of the country, on Yezo Island. In 1879, in collaboration with Mr. Pryer, "Fauna Japonica" was issued, and was the first authoritative catalogue of birds for Japan.

Captain Blakiston's ornithological endeavours included studies done in the early 1860s at the interior of British North America, which was Canada. His legacy includes a natural history survey conducted along the Yangtse River, in China.

Blakiston's efforts in ornithology shall never be forgotten though they may now be little known, and worthy of greater awareness.

Further efforts are now underway to understand Blackiston's Fish Owl, which add so much to the knowledge and lore of the species, and hopefully to its ongoing survival in its distinctive range in a land where the birds are little known.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hallo James,
My colleagues in Japan and I have studied Blakiston's collection in detail. If you'd like to get in touch please email me gerganandass@hushmail.com.

best, Andrew

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