Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Bonaparte's Gull.....What's in a Name?

Charles Lucien Jules Laurent Bonaparte is I am sure a familiar name to all! Nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, he appears to have had a turbulent, but comfortable childhood moving from place to place in Europe, his father having fallen out of favour with brother Napoleon. I believe a few other individuals (and armies) had a problem with that same Napoleon. Let’s just miss out all of the political stuff and jump to when Charles was living in Italy as a teenager with the title of Prince of Musignano. I did say that things were comfortable! At this time Charles had taken an interest in the scientific literature and ornithology. He found and shot (as they did) a streaky brown warbler and was unable to find it in his book. He prepared it and sent it to Temminck who went on to describe it as a new species, the Moustached Warbler.

Shortly after his nineteenth birthday Charles married his cousin Zenaide and they sailed off to live in Philadelphia where Charles began his study of American birds. By all accounts the marriage was not all plain sailing, however Charles did express his affection in years to come by naming a genus of doves, Zenaida. I bet that was a joy to the missus. I believe this genus includes the likes of Galapagos Dove, Mourning Dove and Zenaida Dove.

During the sea crossing to Philadelphia Charles caught and studied species of Storm Petrel and used this information for his paper ‘Four Species of Stormy Petrel’. The vernacular name of Wilson’s Storm Petrel stems from a proposal in the article to honour the then deceased American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Charles produces a supplement to Wilson’s work into which he incorporated recently discovered species and the females and immatures of many of the common species. This included the Cooper’s Hawk and Say’s Phoebe which he named after friends. Also included were the first illustrations of American Goldfinch, Golden-winged Warbler and Cape May Warbler. Charles had great skill in the systematic arrangement of genera and species.

Charles appears to have born some influence upon Audubon who he encouraged to seek a publisher in Europe for Audubon’s Birds of America. If at least some Americans were less than keen on Audubon at the time! I don’t suppose that they like to admit that now.

In 1826 Charles left America and sailed back to Europe. He set up home in Rome in 1828 and made a home there for his family for the next twenty years. It was during this period that a small gull was named after him Larus Bonapartii. It had initially been named Sterna Philadelphia and then Larus capistratus by Charles himself. The specific name has since returned to the original although the English vernacular name still includes Bonaparte. In the mean time Charles turned his attention from the birds of America to the birds and animals of Italy and he published three volumes filled with such information, between 1832 and 1841.

Charles became involved politically and I shall skip that part of his life apart from saying that he did name a newly discovered bird of paradise Diphyllodes republica as a swipe at his cousin Louis Napoleon, President of France. This bird was included in a large work of the classification of birds of the world which he never finished prior to his death in 1857. I understand this work is still sometimes consulted, even today.

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