Last July, when it was really, really hot, we had no inclination to go look for birds. But in spite of staying indoors, we still managed to add a new bird to our life list, thanks to publication of the ‘Check-list Supplement’, the American Ornithological Society’s annual revision to birds of North and Middle America. The AOS committee on classification and nomenclature reviews change proposals, accepts some and publishes the results. Change proposals, often based on DNA results, can combine two bird species into one (lumping), which disappoints those birders who lose a tick mark from their life list. These changes also can add to life lists by dividing an existing bird into two or more new species, called splitting. This happened to us while we were reading old magazines. As we dozed off, the committee split the Magnificent Hummingbird into two species, the Magnificent found from Arizona south to Nicaragua, and the Magnificent found in Costa Rica and Panama. Our stroke of luck was that we had recorded Magnificent Hummingbirds both here and in Costa Rica, and our one life bird suddenly became two.
The committee also renamed both birds. The northern one is now Rivoli’s Hummingbird and the southern one is Talamanca Hummingbird. The Talamanca was originally suggested as the Admirable Hummingbird, but that must have been too much of a mouthful, so it’s named after the mountain range where it’s found in Costa Rica. The name of our Arizona bird is more interesting. Rivoli’s Hummingbird was the original name of this bird from 1829 until the 1980s, when it was renamed ‘Magnificent’. Where did ‘Rivoli’ come from? Well… Paolo Emilio Botta, an Italian doctor/naturalist on a French trading ship in the 1820s, collected birds as his ship the Blossom visited California and Mexican ports. He sent bird specimens to Victor Massena, a French nobleman and amateur ornithologist/collector. Massena passed bird specimens on to a French scientist/ornithologist and friend, Rene Primevere Lesson, where the naming buck apparently stopped, since Lesson named a lot of birds as well as other critters. Out of gratitude to Massena, Lesson named our Anna’s Hummingbird after Massena’s wife, and later named the Rivoli’s Hummingbird after Massena and his title, the Duke of Rivoli.
If you’ve been lucky enough to see a Magnificent/Rivoli’s/Talamanca hummingbird, you’ll understand this obsession with royalty. At 5 inches, it’s one of the U.S.’s two largest hummers (Blue-throated is the other), with a long bill and brilliant colors. The male has a violet crown, an iridescent throat, bluish green gorget and black belly (lighter on the Talamanca). Truly magnificent, or at least it used to be. The scientific names also reflect this nobility: the northern bird is Eugenes (high born) fulgens (glittering/flashing/gleaming/resplendent), and the southern bird is Eugenes (high born) spectabilis (remarkable, showy). Incidentally, Lesson also named the Blue-throated Hummingbird’s scientific name (Lampornis (torch bird) Clemenciae) after his own wife, Marie Clemence. About the only American connection to this gang of Italian and French birders is that the Duke of Rivoli’s collection of 12,500 birds eventually wound up at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. And you thought naming your kids was challenging?
(This article was originally published in the March, 2018 Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)