The Zoologist/3rd series, vol 1 (1877)/Issue 1/On the European Redpolls

On the European Redpolls  (1877) 
by Alfred Newton

Published in: The Zoologist, 3rd series, vol 1, issue 1 (January, 1877), p. 5–7


By Alfred Newton, M.A., F.R.S., V.-P.Z.S., &c.

Having on two previous occasions expressed my opinion (Zool. 2nd ser. 2223, 3880) on some matters relating to the nomenclature and distribution of the European Redpolls, I think it only right to acquaint the readers of this journal with certain results at which I have arrived after several prolonged examinations, in consultation with my friend Mr. Dresser, of a very considerable series of specimens from various localities—the more so since on a few points, and these not altogether unimportant, my views have thereby been somewhat modified. I have now come to the conclusion that we must count four forms of Redpoll among the birds of Europe, three of which have been obtained in the British Islands.

1. There is the real Fringilla linaria of Linnæus. This is the Mealy Redpoll of English authors, and seems to have the widest range of all the forms. Specimens from this country (to which it is a not infrequent winter visitant), from Lapland, Northern Russia, Japan, California, Pennsylvania, and Greenland (to which last it is only a summer visitant), cannot by any means that I know be distinguished from one another. In Part 10 of the revised (4th) edition of Yarrell's 'British Birds' (ii. pp. 133–143), I have attempted a full account of its history, under the name of Linota linaria. Among its numerous synonyms are Linota borealis and, to some extent, L. canescens.

2. Considerably surpassing the foregoing in size, and distinguishable besides by its very hoary plumage and deeply-forked tail is the Linota hornemanni of Holböll. This is a resident in Greenland, whence, many years ago, Mr. Bond, I myself and others received its nests and eggs. It would appear from a specimen in Mr. Hancock's collection to be the form of Redpoll which occurs in Iceland. It is also the bird found breeding in Spitsbergen by Mr. Eaton (Zool. 2nd ser. 3805–3808), and, under the English name of Arctic Redpoll, Mr. Hancock has figured a specimen (B. Northumb. & Durh. pl. 5, p. 54) which was obtained at Whitburn, April 24, 1855. There are grounds for believing that it has strayed in winter to the north of France, and probably indeed it occurs, though in small numbers, every winter in Scandinavia and in the northern parts of the American continent. The kindness of Mr. Gould fortunately enables me to declare that this form is not his L. canescens, as was asserted by Bonaparte and Prof. Schlegel, who have been followed in their mistake by most ornithological writers. A brief notice of this Redpoll is given in my new edition of Yarrel's work before named (ii. pp. 143–145).

3. Next there is a very interesting form, not until this year recognised as an inhabitant of the Old World. This is the bird described some fifteen years ago by Dr. Coues under the name of Ægiothus exilipes (Proc. Ac. Nat. Sc. Philad. 1861, p. 385). Our adventurous countrymen who have lately visited the northern parts of Russia, Messrs. Alston, Harvie Brown and Seebohm, have brought thence numerous specimens of it. In the depth of winter it is nearly as hoary as the last, but its small size enables it to be easily distinguished therefrom. I have seen examples from Lapland proper, but I cannot aver that it breeds there. From Archangel eastwards to the Petchora country it must be very common. Mr. Dresser has specimens obtained in Turkestan by Dr. Severzov, and we may guess that its range extends wholly across Siberia. At any rate it appears in that part of North America which is subject to the most severe climate, and it is as an Arctic-American species that Dr. Coues described it. Meanwhile we may speak of it as Linota exilipes. It has not, so far as I know, been obtained in these Islands: Mr. Dresser will no doubt do it justice in his valuable work.

4. Lastly we have the peculiarly British form of Redpoll. This, though commonly called by English and some foreign authors Linota linaria, is, as I have often said before, not the true linaria of Linnæus, and its earliest specific epithet is rufescens, assigned by Vieillot some sixty years since (Mem. R. Accad. Sc. Torino, xxiii. Sc. Fis. p. 202). To Temminck, the inveterate antagonist of the naturalist just named, is undoubtedly due the confusion which for so long a time surrounded this charming little pet of our childhood. According to all the information I have been able to obtain and sift, it would not appear to breed anywhere but in the British Islands, and, were it not that its roving disposition sends it to southern countries in winter, it would be as emphatically peculiar to our own land as is the Red Grouse. In point of size it fairly agrees with L. exilipes, but L. rufescens is never hoary and keeps from its youth upward that rufescent colouring which prompted Vieillot to give it the appellation by which it should be known. In a former notice (Zool. 2nd ser. 2223) I said that I believed it had been observed in the extreme south of Sweden. I now think that I was misinformed on this point, and certain it is that this form of Redpoll has not yet been found to breed in Scandinavia. What else is known of its history I have done my best to trace in the account given in the revised edition of Yarrell's 'British Birds' (ii. pp. 146–152).

I will here abstain from any generalizations from the facts I have just stated, and will only call the attention of my readers to the remarkable results at which my lamented friend Mr. John Wolley arrived with regard to the curious seasonal growth of the bill in L. linaria, as observed by him more than twenty years ago, and recently set forth by me in my history of that bird above referred to. Their truth was confirmed by the instinctive deduction of the late Dr. Gloger, to whose happy knack of solving an ornithological difficulty I the more readily bear witness since it was once my fate to confront and refute him on another matter. I will, in conclusion, point out that Wolley's experience of Lapland and knowledge of its birds has of late frequently met with scant appreciation. I have found his testimony set at no higher rate than that of another Englishman who having lived ten years in Sweden knew not the confines of the country, and but once, and that but for a single summer, visited one district in Lapland.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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