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1 April 2001 100 YEARS AGO IN THE AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS' UNION

Since the first volume of The Auk (a name that was not without some controversy and the butt of many puns [see Auk 1:105]) was published in 1884, volume 18 (new series) appeared in the year 1901. The Auk, A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology, was still considered a continuation of the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club and was also referred to as volume 26 (old series).

In 1901, the Union decided to publish The Auk itself rather than use a printing company as it had up to then. A Finance Committee was established at the 1900 Congress to facilitate this change. The following was also announced to authors in 1901: “Complaint has justly been made of the habitual late appearance of The Auk, which has heretofore been issued from one to two to three weeks after the ostensible date of publication—the first day of the month. Great effort has been made to correct this evil, which is not by any means wholly due to the dilatoriness of either the editors or the printer, except that the former have been too lenient with tardy contributors…. This is to give notice that in the future all ‘copy’ for general articles must reach the editors six weeks before the date of their desired appearance, and all contributions to the department of ‘General Notes' and ‘Recent Literature’ must be in the editor's hand by the first of the month preceding the date of publication….”

The issue consisted of 42 major articles, 3 reports, 2 memorials, and numerous General Notes, and was 436 pages long. There were also two sections, one on Recent Literature and one of Notes and News, and an occasional Correspondence, or letter to the Editor. Some major articles were less than a page long (e.g. Joseph Grinnell's description [Auk 18:188] of the Long-tailed Jay [Aphelocoma californica immanis]. Many General Notes were no more than two or three sentences, whereas a few were longer than one page. Authors of General Notes supplied their hometown and state, but authors of major papers were identified by name only.

The first memorial (Auk 18:1–11), which was originally read by D. G. Elliot at the 18th Congress in 1900 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was for Elliot Coues, a former president of the Union who died on Christmas Day in 1899 at the age of 57. The accolades bestowed on Coues in that memorial reflect his stature as one of the greatest ornithologists of his time, and maybe of all time. His total list of written contributions numbered near a 1,000 works, and his book, Key to North American Birds, is referred to as ”the best bird book ever written.” Elliot concludes his nearly 11 page tribute with “we … may never look upon his like again….” The second memorial (Auk 18:11–23) was for George Burritt Sennett, a successful businessman who participated in many collecting trips to the western United States, particularly Texas, during the 1880s and 1890s.

Of the 42 major papers, most dealt with describing new species, subspecies, and races or adding new information on the distribution of birds. One of the most important of those from a historical perspective today was Outram Bangs and Thomas Bradlee's “The resident land birds of Bermuda” (Auk 18:249–257). An interest in J. J. Audubon's life was still prevalent, with one paper by Otto Widmann, the famous ornithologist from St. Louis, about his pilgrimage to Audubon's birthplace in Louisiana (Auk 18:150–157) and another on the unpublished letters of William MacGillivray to Audubon (Auk 18:239–249).

However, the most enduring work for this volume is “An ornithological mystery” (Auk 18:321–328) by William Brewster, the famous ornithologist from Massachusetts. Brewster and his cronies were stumped by a bird that they could only hear in dense marshes in eastern Massachusetts on a very few occasions. Dubbed the “Kicker” in that article because the vocalization sounded like ”Kik-kik-kik,” Massachusetts birdwatchers and professional ornithologists have been discussing and arguing over what the Kicker bird was (or is) for more than 80 years. Brewster concluded the bird was a rail and suspected Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis). That evoked a series of papers over the next 50 years suggesting that the bird in question was a Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis), but that was also discounted, primarily through the sleuthing of Joseph “Archie” Hagar, State Ornithologist of Massachusetts (see summary in Griscom and Synder 1955:84). Hagar made a presentation to the Nuttall Ornithological Club in 1954 on the Kicker not being a Yellow Rail. He eventually concluded that it was really a Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), but, being conservative in nature, he never published his analysis (W. Petersen pers. comm.). Nonetheless, the kicker call was attributed to a Yellow Rail on the 1959 record Field Guide to Bird Songs and more papers by ornithologists about confusing rail calls appeared, with Chan Robbins even offering in The Auk to eat a Yellow Rail “raw” if it was determined that a certain call was made by that species (Kellogg 1962). Hearing that Kickers were calling in Saskatchewan, Archie Hagar made the journey in 1964, and at 4:00 am on the 6th of July, found a male Virginia Rail giving the kicker notes (Callin 1968). A series of other short papers in the late 1960s and early 1970s (e.g. Bollinger and Bowes 1973) directly linked the kicker call to Virginia Rail, smugly stating that the mystery was solved. But wait, it turns out that many members of the genus Rallus give the kicker call in some form or another, including Clapper (R. longirostris) and King (R. elegans) rails and even the Eurasian Water Rail (R. aquaticus), although the function of the call remains obscure (Manolis 1981). So, what species did Brewster and his friends really hear? “Probably” a Virginia Rail (Veit and Petersen 1993).

Literature Cited

1.

R. C. Bollinger and E. Bowes . 1973. Another chapter in the “ornitholoical mystery story”. American Birds 27:741–742. Google Scholar

2.

E. M. Callin 1968. Vocalization of the Virginia Rail: A mystery solved. Blue Jay 26:75–77. Google Scholar

3.

L. Griscom and D. E. Snyder . 1955. The Birds of Massachusetts. Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. Google Scholar

4.

P. P. Kellogg 1962. Vocalizations of the Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) and the Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis). Auk 79:698–701. Google Scholar

5.

T. Manolis 1981. The “kicker” song—New synthesis of an old mystery. American Birds 35:261–263. Google Scholar

6.

R. R. Veit and W. R. Petersen . 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Audubon Society, Lincoln, Massachusetts. Google Scholar

Appendices

"100 YEARS AGO IN THE AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS' UNION," The Auk 118(2), 572-573, (1 April 2001). https://doi.org/10.1642/0004-8038(2001)118[0572:]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 April 2001
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