2016 BOC Meetings

Tuesday 15 November 2016  Guy Kirwan gave a talk entitled When failure equals success: searching for the Critically Endangered Hooded Seedeater Sporophila melanops in central Brazil. The mysterious Hooded Seedeater Sporophila melanops is known only from the type specimen, a male, collected in the 1820s by the Austrian naturalist and explorer Johann Natterer, on the rio Araguaia in central Brazil. A female specimen, postulated potentially to represent the same species, also collected in the state of Goiás, Brazil, by Gustav Baer in 1906, was identified decades later by Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee. As was explained, Natterer’s extraordinary travels in Brazil (17 years!) yielded a host of novelties and specimens of several species rediscovered only within the last c.2 decades. His contribution to Brazilian ornithology is understated versus his better-known contemporary, Spix, perhaps in part because his bird collections were only written up much later by Pelzeln in the late 1860s.

Guy explained how Sporophila melanops has become the great enigma of Brazilian ornithology, which prompted him and co-workers in Argentina and Brazil to search for it in the field (without success) and to study the two specimens in museums in Austria and the USA, as well as sequence their DNA. The results of their investigations have effectively removed any doubts regarding the status of the proposed species. Based on the morphological and genetic data, the female is either a Yellow-bellied S. nigricollis or Double-collared Seedeater S. caerulescens, whereas the male is one of the so-called ‘capuchinos’, a group of seedeaters with colourful male plumage that breed in the Southern Cone, but which are virtually undifferentiated molecularly. It is probably a Dark-throated Seedeater S. ruficollis showing melanism on the cap feathers, but it might be a melanistic-capped individual of a local population of seedeaters known to breed in the Esteros del Iberá, Corrientes, Argentina, to which the name S. ruficollis is potentially applicable; a hybrid provenance currently seems unlikely. The full results were published last year in PloS ONE 11(5): e0154231.

In addition to describing the major result of his work in this region of Brazil, which has effectively removed a species from the Red Data List, Guy also described some of the basic constituents of its avifauna. Together with colleagues in the USA and at the Museu Nacional, in Rio de Janeiro, their field work has yielded improved knowledge of the range and status of several globally threatened species and range extensions for many commoner birds. In addition, soon-to-be published work (in the journal Emu) has elucidated an interesting hybridisation phenomenon in two species of riverine tanagers, Crimson-fronted Cardinal Paroaria baeri and Red-capped Cardinal P. gularis, with once again genetic data providing some of the key details.

Saturday 17 September 2016: Report on the joint meeting on Neotropical birds with the Neotropical Bird Club and the Natural History Museum in the Flett Theatre, NHM, London.

This second joint one-day meeting between BOC, NBC and NHM took place five years after the inaugural one in 2011. A highly enthusiastic, but in size somewhat disappointing, audience of c.60 people were treated to five impressive main talks, as well as shorter contributions by Raymond Jeffers on the NBC fundraising tours programme and by Chris Storey, who outlined the planned changes to how the BOC will operate.

During the morning session, Christina Banks-Leite, Imperial College London, opened with a presentation on How to save birds in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest on a shoestring. The endangered species-rich avifauna here inhabits one of the most threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world. Despite few recorded avian extinctions, the bird community has been strongly impacted by extensive deforestation, which in turn has had important consequences for functioning of ecosystems. Based on research to date, she highlighted cost-effective approaches to reforestation aimed at providing adequate habitat for long-term conservation of the unique bird community. She was followed by Alex Lees, formerly at the Goeldi Museum in Belém but just taking up a position at Manchester Metropolitan University, who drew on his long-term experience of working on the ecology and conservation of Amazonian avifauna to address the broader issue of Bridging shortfalls in Brazilian ornithology. He approached this by considering current shortfalls in understanding of bird biodiversity within seven contexts: evolutionary patterns (Darwinian), species taxonomy (Linnean), species distribution (Wallacean), abiotic tolerance (Hutchinsonian), abundance (Prestonian), species traits (Raunkiaeran) and biotic interactions (Eltonian). To have any hope of addressing massive ongoing habitat loss and likely concomitant avian extinctions, ornithology in Brazil needs to make full use of new technologies from full genome sequencing through satellite telemetry to large-scale citizen science initiatives, to provide the evidence necessary to bring about political and legal action.

In the afternoon, Thomas Donegan, council member of Fundación ProAves de Colombia, summarised much of his research on a diverse array of Colombian birds over the past 20 years in a complex talk addressing the topic of What is a species and what is a subspecies? A new look at an old question, based on Colombian birds. Developing and extending the approach being used by BirdLife in the new HBW-BirdLife illustrated checklist of the birds of the world, the subject of Nigel Collar’s final talk of the day (see below), Thomas provided and defended novel recommendations for assessing species and subspecies rank in a consistent manner. Moving from the general to the particular, Fabrice Schmitt, recently returned to France after living and studying birds in Chile for ten years, presented a fascinating travelogue entitled White-masked Antbird unmasked, hung on a seven-man amateur expedition to the Amazonian lowlands of northern Peru in 2013. Primarily aimed at rediscovering the rare and enigmatic Pithys castaneus at the location where it was first found in 1937, the talk ranged widely over the habitats visited and diversity of organisms found, highlighting successes and failures alike. Closing the conference, Nigel Collar of BirdLife International provided a heavyweight but involving contribution on Changes and challenges in the HBW-BirdLife checklist of Neotropical passerine species. BirdLife’s aim of promoting effective conservation priorities by applying a set of standard criteria (the Tobias criteria), based on morphological and acoustic evidence, to resolving problems of species limits in the global avifauna produced a mixed response, part laudatory and part critical, following the publication of the first (non-passerine) volume of the Illustrated checklist of the birds of the world in 2014. Nigel outlined how Neotropical passerines will fare in the forthcoming second volume, highlighting some of the challenges both to taxonomy and to conservation that have emerged from the endeavour.

Videos of the presentations can now be watched using the following link (via the NBC website): conference videos

Robert Prŷs-Jones

Tuesday 24 May 2016 After the 2016 AGM Dr Pat Morris spoke on Birds of the parlour, a peep into some aspects of Victorian taxidermy, intended as a brief survey of a topic that has been long neglected. So called ‘stuffed birds’ form a significant part of the history of Britain’s wildlife, but fell out of favour after World War II. But it is important to remember that in the 19th and early 20th centuries taxidermists performed a prominent role, embedded in the social history of their times. Preserved birds (and mammals to a lesser extent) were probably more important in Britain than in other countries because of their acceptance as part of the domestic scene. No respectable household was without a few specimens. This led to the establishment of hundreds of small taxidermy businesses throughout the country, with up to 18 operating simultaneously in Glasgow alone (with more in Birmingham and London). Much of their output was dire and gives taxidermy a bad name today. The great mansions often had taxidermy in the main hall or on prominent display, making a clear statement about the owners and their estate. Exotic species might be conspicuous, indicating foreign travels, or a selection of gamebirds indicative of the sporting opportunities in the environs. But even a modest middle-class home would have taxidermy as part of its decoration. This led to a demand for colourful displays in glass cases, often with the species of two or more continents mixed. There was no scientific intent, just the eye-catching colour of unfamiliar species.

A contrary approach was that of dedicated collectors who built up substantial displays of British and foreign birds, often motivated by a genuine interest in the study of plumage variations and patterns of distribution (with voucher specimens for the occurrence of rare species). This type of taxidermy frequently outgrew domestic space and required a whole room (or entire outbuilding!) to accommodate the birds. It is easy to forget how important such collections were in the compilation of the early county avifaunas and the illustrations needed for field guides that make such collections obsolete today. Supplying collectors led to George Bristow, taxidermist of St. Leonards in Sussex, being blamed for fraudulently distorting ornithological history by passing off imported birds as British, the so-called ‘Hastings Rarities’. The evidence is strong but not incontestable, and it is hard to see how such a fraud could have been a practicable possibility. Nevertheless, the role and reputation of taxidermists were dealt a serious blow and to this day many assume that Bristow was one of the 20th century’s greatest fraudsters. He is the only British taxidermist to have been awarded the accolade of a blue plaque on his former residence — for entirely the wrong reasons.

In modern times, with fresh perceptions and declining wildlife abundance, there has been a tendency to express regret that birds are seen stuffed in glass cases rather than alive in the wild. Taxidermists are blamed for present-day scarcity, the stuffed birds being evidence of their guilt. This is false logic. Taxidermists were simply doing a job. Blaming them for present-day scarcity is akin to blaming undertakers because people die. Modern taxidermists are tightly constrained by national and international legislation, although this creates expensive bureaucracy and probably achieves comparatively little in real terms.

Tuesday 15 March 2016 Dr Robert Prŷs-Jones (Collections Manager, Birds, and Head of the Bird Group at the Natural History Museum in Tring) spoke on The Soul of the Collection: key developments in the documentation of the British Museum’s bird collection, 1753 to 1909. His talk aimed to give an overview of the manner in which scientific documentation of the museum’s bird acquisitions developed and improved over the first 150 years from its foundation in the 1750s. It was based on research conducted initially in conjunction with Jenni Thomas, who has already published an overview of the period up to 1836 in Archives of Natural History 39: 111–125 (2012) to which interested readers should refer. During its first 50 years, the museum’s focus was almost entirely on the acquisition of ‘novelties’, notably new species, almost all of which went on display. Little interest was shown in associated information beyond generalised locality, many specimens decayed due to poor preparation and the rigours of display, and few details were kept of what was lost or destroyed. This situation persisted into the first 30 years of the 1800s, although on the credit side at least an attempt at the systematic cataloguing of the collection was begun, though this remained both extremely partial and largely unpublished.

It was only in the 1830s that the situation seriously began to improve with, firstly, the appointment in 1830 of George Robert Gray as the museum’s first staff member solely responsible for birds and, secondly, as a result of a Parliamentary Committee into ‘the condition, management and affairs of the British Museum’ that was set up to address perceived gross deficiencies in wider museum management. Key recommendations from this Committee resulted in the setting up in 1837 of the modern museum registration system, whereby every newly accessed specimen was immediately recorded in a standardised format with a unique identifying number, and led to a start in producing and publishing the first systematically arranged scientific catalogues of bird specimens held. However, it was only with the appointment in 1872 of the great Richard Bowdler Sharpe as bird curator that previously slow improvements accelerated to a grand culmination. In the course of less than 40 years up to his death in 1909, he increased the size of the collection by more than an order of magnitude, introduced clear separation between a mounted display collection and much larger bird skin research collection, and wrote a massive history of the bird collection that provides an unrivalled source of information on the collectors of the specimens held. Most importantly, however, he oversaw the production of the great 27-volume Catalogue of birds in the British Museum (1874–98), which has been referred to as ‘unquestionably the most important work in systematic ornithology that has ever been published’. The bird collection had its ‘soul’, one still constantly referred to over 100 years later.

Dr Prŷs-Jones has been with the Natural History Museum at Tring for more than 20 years, with particular interests in the evolutionary biogeography of Indian Ocean island landbirds and in collections-related projects aimed at enhancing the information associated with museum specimens.