Thursday, May 27, 2010

Natural History Across Time

You can't just research one thing at a time. It's not possible.

I spent yesterday at the Castroville Public Library looking at the local history reference materials in the break room next to the hamster. I started with Medina County History, Vol. I (Vol. II is still in production) and am going through systematically, skimming for certain dates and types of data. In an aside in the article on Freemasonry, Mr. Yancy Russell informed me that the town of Quihi was named after the "white-necked Mexican eagle," by which I presumed he meant the caracara, and wondered who called it a quihi. In the Quihi article by Josie Rothe Finger, she claims that the area supported a large number of distinctive birds. "Popularly known as the Mexican eagle, it was a large brown bird with white feathers on tail and tips of wings." The Indians called it Keechee. The Mexicans spelled this "Quichi." The Germans who founded the town chopped out the c when they came to spell it.

Although I wouldn't have used either description (as far as I'm concerned, the caracara is the bird of prey it's easy to confuse with the black-crowned night heron), when I compare the combined descriptions to the caracara, I find that the field marks are accurate as far as they go. They omit the red face and dark crest, but at any distance, and especially when flying, the white throat, tail, and wingtips ("white at all four corners", per Peterson) are diagnostic. So I have added to my vocabulary of regional bird monikers, and note the reliability of old-timers describing nature without optics or field guides.

Then I ate my lunch outside in the arbor behind the building, and read A Texas Pioneer, by August Santleben. Santleben has only one chapter on the Civil War, but his account of his postwar life hauling freight between Texas and Mexico is intrinsically interesting. Here I read the following description of the fauna of Mesa de Vidaurri in northern Mexico:

Cinnamon and common black bears, tigers, panthers, and Mexican lions were common and dangerous; other animals also were numerous, including the mountain sheep of Mexico that have immense horns that serve to protect them when forced by danger to jump down precipices. On such occasions their bodies and limbs are drawn into a lump and they fall without injury on their enormous curved horns, which throw them a somersault before landing them on their feet.


Santleben doesn't claim to have witnessed this astonishing feat, and to be fair animals are adapted to their environments in so many surprising ways that this means of descending a hill can be placed in a context so as to look plausible. I can even imagine somebody once seeing a bighorn come a cropper and, by freak accident, somersault on his horns and depart without injury. But I can't help thinking somebody, probably one of the locals, was drawing the longbow for Santleben's benefit.

The cinnamon bear, as you probably know, is a color morph or a subspecies (depending on whether you're a lumper or a splitter) of the American black bear. The word "tiger" used by an English speaker in the Southwestern US or in Mexico usually refers to the jaguar, colloquially called "el tigre." The terms "panther" and "Mexican lion" are used interchangeably in America, along with painter, puma, cougar, catamount, sneak cat, mountain devil (screamer, or demon), king cat, and a few dozen other names, for that wonderfully successful American big cat, felis concolor. The difference in nomenclature may, or may not, indicate recognition of two different subspecies with overlapping territory in the region. Another possibility is that the tendency to call melanistic spotted cats "panthers" dates back to the 19th century, and use of the term indicates a population of black jaguars on the mesa.

This sort of confusion is only to be expected, and gets worse the closer the source is to the Old Country. In Castroville, Texas 1844-1899, Illustrated by 3 Pioneer Families, the Pichots, Pingevotes, & Ihnkens, Yvonne Chandler Ludwig remarks on the odd creatures the earliest Castro Colonists, fresh off the boat from Alsace, claim to have seen in the western Texas prairie: tigers (jaguars), lobsters (crawdads, I expect), "golden-necked starlings" (an interesting puzzle, that - yellow-breasted chat? One of the orioles? A yellow-headed blackbird way further east then he is nowadays?), and cobras (don't look at me; I got nothing). People don't like being around things with no names, and if nobody's around to tell them "oh, that's a thrush" they'll take a salient feature and slap a description or a familiar name on it, creating the American "robin" on the basis of a red breast and confusing future generations of Americans reading British-illustrated editions of The Secret Garden.

This is the kind of thing you have to be aware of when you're a researcher. It's part of the interest. A little distracting, sure. But who knows what dramatic uses I might have for a melanistic jaguar in a story someday? When I might need a character with a vast supply of prank stories he can use to bait tourists? Where I might run across the reference that solves the "golden-necked starling" mystery? A little distraction is good for you.

(She says, having not gotten halfway through transcribing her notes. Back to work.)

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