the History and Importance of Rothschild's Avifauna of Laysan
The new discoveries
arriving from the Hawaiian Islands excited the imagination of Newton's
pupil Walter Rothschild, who, using the wealth at his disposal, determined
to send out his own collector. It is far from certain to what extent he
may initially have attempted to collaborate with Newton in this effort---the
correspondence concerning this published by Rothschild's niece Miriam
can be interpreted in a different light from that she cast upon it. Regardless,
the relationship between Newton and Rothschild soured, with the result
that Hawaiian ornithology in the last decade of the 19th century became
a very competitive enterprise.
had somehow engaged the services of one Henry Palmer, said to have been
a sailor, though little is known about him. He seems to have first appeared
in New Zealand, but after his sojourn in Hawaii and a short stay in England,
he returned to Australia, where he was later "obscurely murdered"
in the gold fields (Amadon 1964, Mearns and Mearns 1992). Rothschild first
sent Palmer to the Chatham Islands, off New Zealand, in December 1889
- January 1890. These islands had been relatively well worked by then,
so that Palmer obtained only one new species, a pigeon, for Rothschild
to describe and name. Palmer was then sent to the Hawaiian Islands, where
he arrived in December 1890, with his New Zealander assistant George Munro,
who stayed with him until 1 March 1892, when he was replaced by another
New Zealander, Ed. ("Ted") B. Wolstenholme. Palmer remained
in the islands until August 1893, sending back shipments of bird skins
from which Rothschild eventually named 18 valid new species and subspecies.
could not be induced to resume his collecting activities, Newton became
the prime motivator in arranging for a joint committee of the Royal Society
of London and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to
sponsor the explorations of R. C. L. Perkins, but the delay proved disastrous
to Newton's ambitions, as was later lamented in the introduction of the
volume attributed to Wilson and Evans (p. xx): "The loss of the season
of 1891 was unfortunate for the credit of the Joint Committee; for many
discoveries which its collector, had one been sent out in that year, could
not have failed making fell to the lot of the persons employed by Mr.
Rothschild in 1890-92 . . ."
By the time
Perkins arrived, the font of new species had nearly dried up, and he was
able to secure only one, the Black Mamo Drepanis funerea, that
Palmer had missed. Perkins insisted that Newton take credit for describing
this new species. Meanwhile, the results of Scott Wilson's and Perkins'
ornithological endeavors were appearing as Aves Hawaiienses: The Birds
of the Sandwich Islands, a royal quarto volume issued in eight parts
from 1890 to 1899, with hand-colored plates by Frohawk, ostensibly authored
by Wilson and Arthur H. Evans, a colleague of Newton's at Cambridge.
At the same
time, in order to secure priority for his names during the period of competitive
discovery, Rothschild was publishing brief descriptions of his new species
in rapidly appearing periodicals, but had plans for an even more imposing
monograph than Aves Hawaiienses, to be published in imperial quarto
with colored plates by Keulemans. The first two parts of this appeared
in 1893, after the first four parts of the Wilson and Evans work had been
published. They bore the rather curious title The Avifauna of Laysan
and the Neighboring Islands: With a Complete History to Date of the Birds
of the Hawaiian Possessions. One can only speculate now why Rothschild
chose to emphasize Laysan, a small island in the northwestern Hawaiian
chain, when his work covered the entire archipelago. Perhaps he had a
particular fascination for Laysan with its myriad seabirds and five endemic
land birds in less than a square mile of land area; perhaps he wanted
a title that would immediately distinguish it from his competitor; or
perhaps he was trying to impress his father, who controlled the money,
with the importance of Laysan, for the money that Rothschild's collector,
Palmer, had to pay Capt. Wheeler for his miserable passage to the northwestern
islets was the single greatest expense of the entire expedition. In his
account book, a copy of which is in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Palmer
entered for 18 August 1891 "passage for self & assistant on 'Kaalohai'
@$250.00 per month $709.30." For perspective, Rothschild was paying
Palmer an annual salary of £250, then equivalent to $1200.
in August 1893, the first part of Avifauna of Laysan indeed deals
exclusively with the birds of Laysan Island and its exploration. The second
part, containing accounts of some of the species from the main Hawaiian
islands, followed in November of the same year. At this time, Rothschild
was only 25 years old. He, like Scott Wilson, must have benefited from
an éminence grise, and in his introduction he acknowledges
his curator of birds "Mr. Ernst Hartert for his assistance. He has
taken great interest in the work from its commencement, and has helped
me a great deal, especially with the synonymy and introductory chapters."
His entomological curator Karl Jordan evidently viewed Hartert's contribution
as being even more substantial. In the bibliography that accompanied his
memoir of Lord Rothschild, he places Hartert's name in parentheses at
the end of each entry for Avifauna of Laysan, which was the convention
he adopted to indicate "collaborators," by which he meant co-authors.
and final part of Avifauna of Laysan did not appear until December
1900, and the reason for the delay is apparent. Perkins was still collecting
in the islands and had the potential of discovering new species of birds,
and in addition Wilson and Evans' Aves Hawaiienses was still being
issued, with the last part not appearing until 1899. Rothschild clearly
held back the last part of Avifauna of Laysan to be certain to
include all the species of birds then known from the archipelago, and
also, no doubt, to have the "last word" on the subject.
of Laysan is of lasting value to the ornithologist, historian, and
aesthete. Many of the birds treated by Rothschild are now extinct or extremely
endangered. For some of them, we know nothing other than what was recorded
by Palmer and by Perkins, and our only source for Palmer's activities
remains Rothschild (except for portions of G. C. Munro's unpublished journal
in the B. P. Bishop Museum). Knowledge of Palmer's itinerary and time
afield is important for assessing the former relative abundance of species
that have either vanished or no longer occur in much of the range that
they occupied in the 1890s.
new taxa discovered on the Rothschild expedition and named by Rothschild
in scientific journals include (those marked with an asterisk are now
extinct): the *Laysan Rail Porzana palmeri (actually named by Frohawk
for Rothschild), the *Laysan Island Millerbird Acrocephalus familiaris,
the *Laysan Apapane Himatione freethii, the *Greater Koa Finch
Rhodacanthis palmeri, the *Lesser Koa Finch R. flaviceps,
the *Greater Amakihi Loxops sagittirostris, the Laysan Duck Anas
laysanensis, the Maui subspecies of Akepa Loxops coccineus ochraceus,
the *Maui Nukupu'u Hemignathus affinis, the *Lanai Akialoa Akialoa
lanaiensis, the Maui Parrotbill Pseudonestor xanthophrys, the
*Molokai O'o Moho bishopi, the Maui subspecies of Maui Creeper
Paroreomyza montana newtoni, the Maui Nui subspecies of Amakihi
Loxops virens wilsoni, the Laysan Albatross Diomedea immutabilis,
and the *Oahu subspecies of Akepa Loxops coccineus wolstenholmei.
Two new species
were first described in the Avifauna of Laysan itself: the Small
Kauai Thrush Phaeornis palmeri, and Perkin's Creeper Oreomystis
perkinsi, believed to be an aberrant individual or a hybrid involving
the Hawaii Creeper Loxops mana.
A unique contribution of the Rothschild Hawaiian expedition was the collection of eight specimens of the Lesser Koa Finch by Palmer and Munro in the Kona District of Hawaii Island. These were taken from 30 September to 16 October 1891, and the species was never seen again, even though Perkins searched specifically for it only a year later. Had Palmer and Munro not been collecting in Kona at that time, it is likely that we would know nothing whatever about Rhodacanthis flaviceps apart from what can be determined from fossils.
Chronologies of the Competitors in Hawaiian Ornithology in the 1890s
of Valid New Species