Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Birding History: Lichtenstein's Oriole

I've been browsing through a 1966 printing of Golden Books: Birds of North America. I think this was the first printing of this sometimes underrated guide (I'll save that for another post).

It's interesting looking through this guide and seeing the former names of some species and the past status of many splits and lumps. You can learn a lot from knowing some of these old bird names. Some of the historical name changes make perfect sense, but some don't. I'm going to do a series of posts on some of the less familiar bird name changes and the history behind them.

The first bird I'd like to start with is a name I'd never heard before - Lichtenstein's Oriole (Icterus gularis). This yellow-orange oriole with a black throat was named after German zoologist Martin Henrich Lichtenstein (1780-1857). Lichtenstein was a well known ornithologist and held positions as a professor of zoology at the University of Berlin, as well director of the Zoological Museum of Berlin. I can't find information on whether he actually described Icterus gularis or if it was just named for him. I did find that he described 5 species of North American birds including the Kelp Gull and many others around the world.

The common name of Lichtenstein's Oriole was changed in the 1970's (probably 1974) to Altamira Oriole. Altamira is a city in the state of Taumalipas, Mexico. The Altamira Oriole is widespread along the Mexican gulf coast, northern Central America, and into the extreme southern tip of Texas - where I had the pleasure of viewing one in 2005. Interestingly, from what I can gather from my online research, it seems this bird was known as "Alta Mira" Oriole prior to the 1940's. So, the AOU essentially changed the name back to a former name. As far as common name changes go, this one doesn't help the observer any, but it does help place the distribution of this species to its Mexican roots and eliminates any possibility of thinking this bird has its origins in a tiny European country.

Blurry pic I took at a trailer park in southern Texas


Nate said...

I love the old Chandler Robbins Golden Guide! It's too bad we don't see more Pigeon Hawks and Oldsquaw anymore

Rick Wright said...

That was my first field guide, too, and I used it until the annus mirabilis of 1983. My copy went missing in our last move, alas; among other marginalia, its pages featured a discreet smear of vomit from Nebraska's first Black-legged Kittiwake, making it well and truly irreplaceable!

Wagler, himself commemorated in the names of many Central American birds, described the oriole in 1829; whether he gave it a vernacular name honoring Lichtenstein or not I don't know.

Deppe, in his 1830 description of the genus Dives, does say that Lichtenstein discovered the Melodious Blackbird, though.


Patrick B. said...


Right on! I love the old bird names.


Thanks for the great additional info. Is this when it pays to have access to the Cornell BNA web site? Or do you have other sources of info? I think we need a full write-up of this Kittiwake story!

Rick Wright said...

Actually, synonymies and other bits of nomenclatural history are a weak spot in BNA Online (a source I use every day for one thing or another). The first port of call for such questions is always the AOU Check-list, and the latest printed edition is on line for free at aou.org. Searches like this, though, are more easily conducted using the book itself, which isn't all that expensive ($50 or so?). Won't be long before the next edition appears, and it will once again treat subspecies, something we've been waiting for now since, oh, 1957.

Patrick B. said...

Rick, thanks for the tip. I had seen the list itself on the AOU site, but now I see where you got that info. That's a great resource.

LauraHinNJ said...

I like the old names too, especially if they're a bit more descriptive of the bird.

Birders mostly like splits, but not lumps, right, because of the effect on their lists?

Patrick B. said...


Splits are definitely better from a lister's perspective. However, they can be inconvenient because you might have to travel to a different place to "check off" a new "species" that you had previously seen before because the one from that different location is now a full species. Then again, there's nothing wrong with birding new places.

Rick Wright said...

I can think of more than a few lumps I'd welcome, and a number of potential splits I dread.

I'm a great fan of "Western Flycatcher," for example, and I can't help worrying that my enjoyment of our winter flocks of Brewer's Sparrows will diminish greatly should the Timberline split come.

Over the years, I've sort of developed my own idiosyncratic notions of what constitutes difference: I can sit happy for hours in the middle of a flock of feeding juncos, but really couldn't get into the Puna/Red-backed Hawk thing in Ecuador last month.


Patrick B. said...

Lord help us if Red Crossbill gets split into 8+ species as I've heard mentioned! Some welcome the new ID challenge... I'm not sure I do in this case. I had a hard enough time finding ONE in NJ.

Christopher Taylor said...

I've put a link to this post up at Linnaeus' Legacy.