Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cape May Warbler: a bird with a Napoleon complex?

Birds are given such interesting names that one wonders how the nomenclature is decided. Physical attributes are often the key, but place names also come into the mix with some frequency. That’s how the Cape May Warbler came to get its name, as explained by the 1917 classic, Birds of America:

“A male Warbler, captured by George Ord in 1809 in Cape May, NJ was described by Alexander Wilson and named by him the Cape May warbler.”

Okay, fair enough, and mildly interesting. The description goes on to say,

Cape May Warbler
Cape May Warbler, blissfully NOT afflicted
by a Napoleon complex.
“Not until 1825 was a female taken, and this by Charles L. Bonaparte at Bordentown, N.J. This tan eared Warbler has ever since been eagerly sought, joyously welcomed, and enthusiastically praised.”

Bonaparte? As in the French military leader and emperor who sacrificed his name so the rest of us could attribute a complex to short guys acting like martinets? Napoleon Bonaparte?

Sort of. Charles Bonaparte was his nephew, born in 1803 out of wedlock to Lucien Bonaparte and his mistress. It seems that Napoleon didn’t approve of Charles’ mother and wanted his brother to marry the widow of the king of Etruria instead. One thing led to another, Charles’ parents got married, and after a series of movements around Europe, several members of the family ended up in Bordentown. I suppose that after all of that tzimmes, the quiet Burlington County town made a nice respite.

Somewhere along the line, Charles became an avid birder, delivering several papers at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. Some say that before leaving Italy, he’d discovered the Moustached Warbler, and that he collected specimens of a new storm petrel on his voyage to the United States. He eventually befriended John James Audubon, their ornithological talents complementing each other. While Audubon was highly skilled in finding specimens in the field and committing their images to paper, Bonaparte was more adept at taxonomic classification and nomenclature.

Bonaparte lived in New Jersey for only a few years before returning to Europe, but I’d like to think that he found the state to be as fascinating a field for study as birders do today. Whether it’s the Cape May Warbler or the Bonaparte’s Gull, or even the Zenaida genus of doves he named for his wife, his influence lives on.

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