14 August 2013

Squabbles Over Names of the Ortolan and Reed Bird

Concerning the "Ortolan"

To the Editor of The Evening Star:

It seems odd that in a city containing a national museum and many good libraries that a little water fowl by the name of "water rail" or "sora," should be so generally called "ortolan"? — a bird that it resembles about as much as a robin does a wren. All the market gunners and all the restaurant keepers fall into this mistake is is shown by the bills of fare.

The Star of to-day, under the caption of "Gunning in the Marshes," after naming over a number of men who ought to be sportsmen enough to know the names of the game they kill, says: "The majority brought home less than a dozen ortolan, and a few reed birds." Now, as the ortolan and the reed are one and the name bird, the information is rather uncertain for sportsmen and those who haven't always lived in a City where "gudgeons" are called smelt." The small yellow and brown bird known in different sections of the country under the names of ortolan, reed-bird or rice-bird, is a bunting the male of which changes its color in the spring to black and yellow, and then called Bob-o-link (Bob Lincoln.) It feeds as often on the uplands as on the marshes. Many country people sow an acre in millet or buckwheat, and they draw to it by hundreds. A pick up of thirty or forty at a shot is often made over this attraction. Now the "water rail" or "sora" is a solitary bird, and never found away from a river or stream. It, resembles somewhat the snipe, except it has a short bill and is web-footed. Its flight is slow and short. Whence they come and where they go after the first heavy frost is a mystery that future ornithologists will have to rise and explain. Audubon, Wilson and others having failed to do so satisfactorily. I wrote a card last year to one of our locals relative to this popular error, and I hope you will again remind the gunning fraternity that water quails or sora are not ortolans, and reed-birds rice-birds, ortolans and bob-o-links, according to all authorities, are birds of a feather.

"G. T. A."
September 8, 1883. Washington D.C. Evening Star 62(9479): 2.

Concerning the Carolina Rail.

To the Editor of The Evening Star:

A communication from "G.T.A." In last Saturday's Star, evidently from a gentleman interested in the uniformity of the nomenclature of our birds, is so full of positive error, and tainted with superstition, that a correction of some of his statements will not be out of order. The so-called "Ortolan" is the Carolina Rail (Parzana Carolina), known also by the names of Common Rail and Sora, the latter being the general term applied throughout Maryland and Virginia. It is the most abundant and familiar of our marsh birds during the migrations, and the most ruthlessly hunted by the sportsman. Habitually skulking and hiding rather than seeking safety in open flight is a characteristic of the bird that has prevented its observation even in localities where it occurs in considerable numbers. Its habitat includes the whole of temperate North America, but it is far more abundant in the Atlantic than in the Pacific states. The bird is not web-footed, but is provided with very long toes, which enable it to tread the mazes of the marshes without sinking in the soft mud or vegetation. It travels through the tall reeds with surprising swiftness at low tide and at high tide, when the marshes are submerged, clings to the reeds. Notwithstanding the absence or webbed feet it swims with ease, and never hesitates to navigate in that manner from one clump of reeds to another when occasion requires rattier than take wing. The wings are short and rounded, and the flight appears so feeble that many sportsmen persist in doubting its ability to perform extensive migrations, nevertheless such is the fact, as they often board vessels at sea between the southern states and the West India Islands, where many of them pass the winter. Although not truly gregarious, it is far from "a solitary bird," as is evidenced by their sudden and plentiful arrival and departure. In the migrations favorable winds are taken advantage of. They breed in must of the northern states and British America, laying four or five eggs of a dark drab color, with brownish spots, in a nest rudely constructed of coarse grasses. The young are covered with a blackish down, and, like the quail, are active as soon as out or the shell. "G.T.A." says, "From whence they come or where they go after the first heavy frost is a mystery that future ornithologists will have to rise and explain." This is a remnant of the absurd superstitions that prevailed in the minds of the colored people before the war, and even now many can be found on the banks of the Potomac or Patuxent rivers firm in the belief that the rails hibernate in the mud of the marshes or turn into frogs. Wilson records an old man who claimed to have captured a specimen in which the transformation was but half accomplished, and it lived three days — but Wilson didn't believe the story. The real fact of the case is that the Rail performs its migrations only at night, which is the case with most migrants, and consequently its arrival and departure are seldom observed. Moreover the nature of its feeding grounds and haunts precludes the possibility of its being detected as readily as land birds. Hence many theories have been invented to account for their seemingly inexplicable advent. The same writer has also somewhat mixed up the common names of the Reed Bird, (Dolichonyx Orizyvorous) in the northern states this bird is the familiar Bobolink, in the middle states the Reed Bird, in the southern states the Rice Bird, and in the West India Islands the Butter Bird.

W. F. R.

Are the Reed Bird and Ortolan the Same Bird?

To the Editor of The Evening Star:
Washington, D. C., Sept. 8, 1883.

Will your correspondent, "G.T.A," give some of his authorities, to sustain his assertion that the "Reed bird" and "Ortolan" are the same bird? In Coues' "Birds of the Northwest, p. 178," is found the following heading: "Dolichonyx oryzivorus, Bobolink; Reed bird; Rice bird." And on page 538 is found "Porzana Carolina, Carolina rail; Sora; 'Ortolan,'". On the last mentioned page the name of Prof. Baird is cited as the authority for the technical name, given as belonging to" the "Ortolan," and this name, Dr. Coues adds, is adopted by "all late U S. writers." It looks very much as if "G.T.A." were the only authority who considers the Reed bird and Ortolan to be identical; but the nearest way to a solution of the question is to ask Prof. Ridgway or Dr. Coues to give the answer.

Hugh M. Smith.
September 12, 1883. Washington D.C. Evening Start 62(9482): 2.

The Ortolan Question.

To the Editor of The Evening Star:

I am glad to see that "W. F. R." and Hugh M. Smith, esq., have in The Star of Wednesday further agitated the ortolan question, because I should like the attention of the sporting fraternity drawn to the subject. If Dr. Coues contends that the rail and ortolan are the same, then the District people have some authority for misapplying the word ortolan; but where does Dr. Coues get his authority? For it is not to be supposed that he ventures to make his own classification. As Mr. "S." doubts the source or my information, and asks for it, I shall presently accommodate him. Wishing to make these remarks as brief as possible, I confine myself closely to the point in question: Can the rail be called ortolan?

Strictly speaking we have no ortolan. Our smaller American brother bears about the same resemblance to it that the English quail does to our partridge, or the English hare to our rabbit. But if the name must be used — and it seems so — then for heaven's sake let it be applied to a land bird that is nearly identical, and not to a waterfowl totally unlike it.

"Audubon" does not consider the ortolan an American bird; neither does "Swainson." "Wilson," page 48., vol. 2: Eurberza, Oryzivora, Le Ortolan de la Caroline, L Agripeum on L Ortolan. "This is the Bob O Link of eastern Pennsylvania and the northern states, and Rice bird and Reed bird of Pennsylvania." Again, "Supposed by some to be equal to the famous Ortolan of Europe." Thus classing him with the rice bird, but nowhere with the rail, which he describes as "wild, solitary and shy." "Wood," page 481: Ortolan or Garden Bunting. "Jasper," page 47: The Bob O Link or Rice bird is also known as the American Ortolan. "Gosse," in his Birds of Jamaica, says: "Butter bird, Ortolan, Rice bird." Appleton's American Enc.: "Ortolan, a Bunting." American Universal Enc.: "Ortolan, a species of Bunting." Chambers' Enc.: "Ortolan, a Bunting, &c." Zell's Enc.: "Ortolan, a Bunting." Webster's Dic.: "Ortolan (Garden) a Singing bird; the Eurberza hortulana." Worcester's Dic., under a wood cut of the Rice bird, says it belongs to the family Fringilildae (Finches.)

Here are a few of my authorities (I could give more), not one of whom mentions the Ortolan among the Rails (Rallus). He is in ever}' case spoken of as a Bunting or Fringilla. I come now to the only exception to this rule. Mr. Smith and "W.F.R." in selecting Dr. Coues for their sole authority are rather unfortunate, as that ornithologist not only contradicts all of hers, but contradicts himself. In several of his works I find. Carolina Rail, Sora, "Ortolan," (quotation marks not over Ortolan in his "Key to American Birds.") In his general treatise, page 155, he says: "The name Ortolan applied by some to the Rice bird and by others to the Carolina Rail is a strange misnomer, the Ortolan being a fringilline bird of Europe."

The Rice bunting is a genus of the family Fringillidae. Audubon shows the slight subdivision when he writes: "The buntings scarcely differ from the finches in any other character than the knob on the palate." Dr. Coues should not think it strange that some people call the rice bird Ortolan, but it is passing strange for an ornithologist, who furnishes texts books for schools and taxidermists, to call a rail a finch. Mr. H.M. Smith also says: The name of Prof. Baird 1s cited as the authority for the technical name given as belonging to the ortolan, and this name, Dr. Coues adds, is adopted by all United States writers. Mr. S. should not quote from a scientific work unless he knows how to read it. In this instance he does injury to Prof. B. and all late United States writers. Dr. Coues in writing upon the rail, gives below the names of writers or works he has consulted as references to the reader, among them Prof. B. and C., &c. None of them may have mentioned the ortolan (and I have read many of them that do not), and yet Mr. Smith makes it appear as if Dr. Coues cites Prof. B. and all late United States writers,. &c., as authorities for this name.

September 14, 1883. "G. T. A."
September 19, 1883. Washington D.C. Evening Star 62(9488): 2.

Where the Sora is Found.

To the Editor of The Evening Star:

In your issue of September 8, 1883, which has just come to hand, G. T. A. says the sora or rail is "never found away from a river or stream." I have killed them on the prairies. In Missouri, ten miles from any stream, and a mile or more from water of any kind. I know the bird, as I have shot them on the flats of the Potomac. Again, G. T. A. says, "it resembles a snipe," about as much as a crow does an eagle. I am afraid G. T. A. is not a sportsman.

B. L. O., Emporia, Missouri.
September 22, 1883. Washington D.C. Evening Star 62(9491): 2.