The Partridge Snipe

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2011-05-02

One of the many treasures on archive.org is a copy of the 1713 book "Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium" by the British scientist John Ray (or "Joannis Raii" in Latin). The book is interesting not only because it predates and influenced Linnaean taxonomy, but especially because it includes a few illustrations and descriptions of "Indian birds about Fort St. George" (near Madras) at the end, contributed by Edward Buckley, a surgeon at the Fort.

Appendix from Synopsis Methodica Avium

There are twenty-four captioned illustrations, most of which can be identified easily (e.g. the Madras Sea-crow is obviously an Indian Skimmer). But the illustrations aren't very lifelike—beaks in particular being suspiciously similar—and some species (e.g. "Small Blue Jay" and "Red Jay-Dove") aren't readily recognisable. Some of the descriptions are quite detailed, however, and I tried to translate a few of them just to see if I could identify the species involved. I meant to post some of these translations, but never got around to it.

One of the species described is the Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, which the book calls the Partridge Snipe. This is a common species that I somehow missed seeing for many years until Hassath and I encountered a pair in a puddle by the road at Basai. It is one of the few species where the female has a much more striking plumage, and is polyandrous to boot, with the offspring being raised by the male. I was reminded of the description in the book by the lovely photographs Sharad Sridhar sent me today.

Female Greater Painted-snipe Male Greater Painted-snipe

Here's the description from the book, followed by my very rough translation.

2. GALLINAGO Maderaspatana Perdicis colore.
The PARTRIDGE-SNIPE. Fig. 2. Coloribus variis,
maculisque elegantibus undique ornatur. Venter &
Pectus (quod linea lata transversa nigra dividit)
albescunt. Caput, Tempora, & margo Alarum superior
maculis nigrofuscis asperguntur. Remiges alarum, &
Cauda luteo, griseo, nigroque eleganter interstinguuntur.
Rostrum longum (apice crassiusculo) rufescit. Digitus
posticus (ungue adunco) longitudine anteriorem aequat.

"Gallinago Maderaspatana" is the Latin name given to the species, which is described as "Partridge coloured" (Partridge being Perdix in Latin). It is "decorated elegantly everywhere with spots of varying colour". The "stomach, divided from the breast by a broad black transverse line, becomes white", and the "head, forehead, and edges of the upper wing are sprinkled with brown/black spots". The "flight feathers and tail are yellow and grey with fading[?] black markings in between", the "long beak (stout at the tip) becomes reddish", and the "hind toe (with curved claw) is the same length as the ones in front".

(If you have a better translation, please send me email.)

It's interesting that the description obviously applies only to the male bird. This suggests that Buckley knew the more striking-looking bird was the female (but did not find that fact worth a mention). I'm also a bit surprised that the very distinctive eye-marking on both sexes is not mentioned at all. Besides, the hind toe of the female in the photograph above seems clearly shorter than the ones in front.

(P.S. "The Red-legged Crane" in the first description on the page above is a Black-winged Stilt, as the Himantopus suggests.)