Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects Informative Summary

Overview:

This book, published in 1920, delves into the early observations of ornithology during significant voyages of exploration. James R. McClymont, the author, meticulously examines historical accounts and journal entries to provide insightful details about bird encounters during these journeys. The essays focus on the discoveries of the Rukh of Marco Polo, the penguins and seals of the Angra de Sam Bràs, the Banda Islands and their avian inhabitants, the etymology of the name ’emu’, Australian birds encountered by Willem de Vlaming in 1697, and the rich avian life of New Zealand observed by Marion Dufresne in 1772.

Throughout the text, McClymont meticulously analyzes the historical context of these voyages, often comparing the early descriptions with modern scientific classifications. He carefully navigates the complexities of historical accounts, separating factual observations from folklore and mythology, providing valuable insights into the evolution of our understanding of avian species.

Key Findings:

  • Early explorers often relied on observation and anecdotal evidence, resulting in inaccuracies and misinterpretations of bird species.
  • The discovery and exploration of new lands brought encounters with unique avian life, contributing to the growing knowledge of ornithology.
  • The importance of meticulous documentation and scientific analysis is highlighted, revealing the evolution of our understanding of bird species through time.

Learning:

  • The Rukh of Marco Polo: While the mythical rukh described by Marco Polo holds a place in folklore, it reflects a blend of observation and exaggeration. This highlights the tendency to embellish narratives with mythical elements.
  • The Etymology of the name ‘Emu’: The name ’emu’ likely originated from a distorted pronunciation of the Arabic name for the cassowary, ‘neâma,’ highlighting the influence of language and cultural exchange on scientific nomenclature.
  • Australian Birds in 1697: This section reveals how early explorers struggled to classify unfamiliar bird species, often relying on comparisons to known European birds. It also demonstrates the early interest in studying Australian flora and fauna.

Historical Context:

The book’s essays are set within a period of intense exploration and colonization. European powers, like Portugal, the Netherlands, and France, were actively seeking new trade routes and expanding their influence across the globe. This period was also marked by a growing interest in natural history, with explorers documenting their encounters with diverse flora and fauna.

Facts:

  1. The rukh, a mythical bird, holds a position in bird-lore intermediate between the utterly fabulous and the admixture of truth with fiction. The rukh was described as an eagle-like bird with remarkable flight capabilities, but its portrayal as a creature able to lift an elephant was entirely fictional.
  2. The Angra de Sam Bràs, a bay on the south-west coast of Africa, was a significant location for early Portuguese explorations. It was here that Vasco da Gama encountered penguins and seals, contributing to the early understanding of these animals.
  3. The Banda Islands were known for their production of nutmeg. The Dutch East India Company, after gaining control of the islands in the 17th century, eradicated nutmeg trees on most islands, aiming to maintain high prices for this valuable spice.
  4. The first reliable account of the Banda Islands connects their discovery with a Portuguese expedition dispatched from Malacca. Antonio de Abreu, under the orders of Alfonso de Albuquerque, explored the Archipelago, establishing trading posts and claiming land for Portugal.
  5. The cassowary, a large, flightless bird native to Ceram, was erroneously believed to inhabit the Banda Islands. However, early reports indicate that the cassowary was imported into other islands, including Amboyna and Java, where it was even presented to the Estates of Holland in 1597.
  6. Willem de Vlaming’s expedition in 1696 aimed to search for missing Dutch vessels and explore the ‘Onbekende Zuidland,’ a name used for Australia. During this voyage, black swans, cormorants, cockatoos, parakeets, and emus were observed on the Australian coast.
  7. The discovery of a tin plate engraved with the name of Dirk Hartog’s ship, the Eendragt, in 1616, provided valuable historical evidence of early Dutch exploration in Australia. This find, made by the pilot of the Geelvink during De Vlaming’s expedition, confirmed the presence of Dutch mariners in Western Australia in the 17th century.
  8. The French explorer Marion Dufresne, in 1772, visited Tasmania and New Zealand, documenting the avian life he encountered. His observations contributed to the early understanding of the unique bird species found in these regions.
  9. The Tui (Prosthemadura Novæ-Zealandiæ), a striking black bird with white tufts, was recognized by Marion Dufresne in New Zealand. This bird, known for its beautiful song, remains an iconic symbol of New Zealand’s wildlife.
  10. The New Zealand Wood Pigeon (Hemiphaga Novæ-Zealandiæ), a large, blue-colored pigeon, was also observed by Marion Dufresne. This species is known for its unique call and is often seen in forested areas throughout the country.

Statistics:

  1. Thirty or thirty-three sailors on one ship of the first Dutch expedition to Bantam suffered from scurvy. This highlights the health risks faced by early explorers and the importance of finding fresh fruit sources.
  2. Three black swans were brought alive to Batavia from Western Australia during Willem de Vlaming’s expedition, but they died soon after their arrival. This demonstrates the difficulty of transporting exotic animals over long distances and the challenges faced in maintaining their survival.
  3. Marion Dufresne spent approximately four months in New Zealand during his voyage, documenting the rich avian diversity of the region. This extended period of observation allowed for more detailed insights into the species present.
  4. The French expedition observed numerous ducks and teals on the lakes of New Zealand. This indicates the abundance of waterfowl in the region, emphasizing its importance as a habitat for these birds.
  5. The curlews observed by Marion Dufresne in New Zealand are known to spend the summer months in the country before migrating to islands of the Pacific Ocean. This migration pattern reflects the seasonal movements of various bird species.

Terms:

  1. Roteiro: A Portuguese word meaning ‘itinerary’ or ‘route’. In the context of the book, it refers to a personal narrative of a voyage, often lacking the technical details of a sailing chart.
  2. On-dit: A French term meaning ‘hearsay’ or ‘rumor’. It is used to describe stories and accounts that are based on unreliable information or speculation.
  3. Assagais: A type of spear commonly used by indigenous peoples of southern Africa, often tipped with horn or metal.
  4. Sotilicario: A Portuguese name for the Cape penguin, reflecting the bird’s supposed cunning and its ability to dive underwater to evade predators.
  5. Struthious Birds: A group of flightless birds, including ostriches, emus, cassowaries, and rheas, characterized by their large size and strong legs.
  6. Wallace’s Australian Region: A zoogeographic region defined by Alfred Russel Wallace, encompassing the islands of the Banda Sea and sharing a common avifauna with Australia.
  7. Psittaci: The scientific order that includes parrots, characterized by their colorful plumage and strong beaks.
  8. Megapodius: A genus of birds that includes the Scrub Fowl, known for their unique nesting behavior of building large mounds of vegetation and debris to incubate their eggs.
  9. Cormorants: Birds with webbed feet and a hooked beak, known for their diving abilities and feeding on fish.
  10. Gannets: Seabirds with a distinctive white plumage and a long, sharp beak, often seen diving for fish.

Examples:

  1. The Rukh of Marco Polo: Marco Polo’s account of the rukh, a mythical bird said to be capable of lifting an elephant, illustrates the blending of observation and exaggeration that often occurred in early accounts.
  2. The Angra de Sam Bràs: The first voyage of Vasco da Gama to India, documented in the Roteiro da Viagem de Vasco da Gama, provides valuable insights into the encounters with penguins and seals at the Angra de Sam Bràs, a bay on the south-west coast of Africa.
  3. The Banda Islands: The Dutch East India Company’s strategy to eradicate nutmeg trees on all islands except Amboyna and the Banda Islands, demonstrates the pursuit of economic dominance and control over valuable commodities.
  4. The Cassowary in Java: The story of a cassowary being presented to the Estates of Holland in 1597, after being brought from Java, highlights the fascination with exotic animals and the exchange of species between continents.
  5. Willem de Vlaming’s Encounter with Black Swans: The discovery of black swans in Western Australia during De Vlaming’s expedition in 1696 illustrates the unique avian life of the region and the challenges faced in identifying unfamiliar species.
  6. The Discovery of Dirk Hartog’s Tin Plate: The retrieval of a tin plate engraved with details of Dirk Hartog’s ship, the Eendragt, in 1616, provides concrete evidence of early Dutch exploration in Australia.
  7. Marion Dufresne’s Observations in Tasmania: The identification of pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) by Marion Dufresne in Tasmania demonstrates the accuracy of his observations and the presence of this species in the region.
  8. The Tui in New Zealand: Marion Dufresne’s description of the ‘black thrushes with white tufts’, which are now recognized as Tuis (Prosthemadura Novæ-Zealandiæ), highlights his ability to observe and document distinctive features of these birds.
  9. The New Zealand Wood Pigeon: The detailed description of a large, blue-colored wood pigeon in New Zealand, likely the Hemiphaga Novæ-Zealandiæ, provides valuable information about the bird’s appearance and habitat.
  10. The Sooty Oyster-catcher: The ‘black bird of the form of an oyster-catcher, and possessing a red bill and red feet’, described by Marion Dufresne, is now identified as the Sooty Oyster-catcher (Hæmatopus unicolor), showcasing his keen observation skills.

Conclusion:

The essays in this book provide a fascinating glimpse into the history of ornithology, revealing how our understanding of birds has evolved over time. While early explorers often relied on subjective accounts and comparisons with known European species, their observations laid the groundwork for future scientific exploration. This collection highlights the importance of meticulous documentation, critical analysis, and ongoing research in the pursuit of knowledge about avian diversity and behavior. The essays also serve as a reminder of the profound impact that exploration and cultural exchange have had on our understanding of the natural world.

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