How Many Buntings? Revisiting the Relationship Between Linnaeus and Catesby
Not many birds bedazzle as thoroughly as the adult male Painted Bunting. No matter how many you’ve seen or how often, every one remains a source of startlement, whether it is emerging shyly from a Florida thicket, swaying on a heavy grass halm in the deserts of Arizona, or chewing steadily at a feeder in snowy Massachusetts. This, the most gaudily colored bird north of Mexico, is guaranteed to create a stir.
That stir was even greater three hundred years ago, when European natural historians first confronted this novel beauty. So colorful was the bird that the first scientists to describe it believed that it must be native to regions even more exotic than America. Eleazar Albin, in the notes accompanying his or his daughter Elizabeth Albin’s 1737 engraving of the species, reported that the bird had been brought to England from China for the pleasure “of a curious Gentleman” (Albin 1738). A dozen years on, Linnaeus, having failed to find the bird described or depicted in the handbooks available to him, diagnosed it as a new species, which he inscrutably named Emberiza ciris, and determined that with so brightly colored a plumage, the specimens could have come only from India (Linnaeus 1750).
With the benefit of nearly three centuries’ hindsight, such wild geographic speculation was strictly speaking unnecessary. As early as the 1720s, the natural historian Mark Catesby had seen, drawn, and described the Painted Bunting in southeastern North America, an account that he published in London in 1729 (Catesby 1729). Moreover, the Spanish in America had known the bird even before that, poetically naming it the “mariposa pintada,” the ultimate source of the species’ modern English name. (Coincidentally, it was by way of Spain that Linnaeus’s type specimen would later reach Sweden.) In their early publications, neither Albin nor Linnaeus reveals any awareness of these facts, but in 1758, Linnaeus included the colorful little finch in the tenth edition of the Systema with a citation to Catesby and, this time, an accurate, if not overly precise, statement of its range: “Habitat in America” (Linnaeus 1758).
Even as he corrected earlier misapprehensions about the bird’s geographic distribution, Linnaeus introduced a new confusion into the historical record of the Painted Bunting. In the 1758 Systema, the formal species diagnosis—based, of course, on the colorful adult male—is followed by a description of the female, which is “blue, with white on the belly only, [and] becomes almost gray in winter” (Linnaeus 1758). The only citation Linnaeus gives for this brief account of the female is Catesby, who, he says, depicted her on Plate 44 of his Natural History of Carolina under the name Liniaria caerulea (Linnaeus 1758).
In fact, however, Catesby portrays only the male Painted Bunting on Plate 44 as published, and the accompanying text describes the female of that species quite differently, as “remarkable for her plain Colour, which is not unlike that of a Hen-Sparrow, but with a faint Tincture of Green” (Catesby 1729). Catesby treats his Liniara caerulea—the bird we know as the Indigo Bunting—as a distinct species, the Blew Linnet, the male of which is depicted on his Plate 45 and not, as Linnaeus erroneously indicates, Plate 44.
It is easy to forgive the odd typographical error in the nearly 1,400 pages of the 1758 Systema. But Linnaeus’s erroneous “lump” of the two bunting species and his mistaken claim that both are depicted on the same plate in Catesby are more than mere slips of the pen. Instead, these misstatements complicate what is generally thought of as the direct and straightforward link between Catesby and Linnaeus (for example, Stone 1929), shifting attention instead to the Swedish taxonomer’s still under-appreciated reliance on a different, intermediate source—the ornithological works of George Edwards.
In August of 1736, Linnaeus wrote to a botanical colleague that he had just returned from England, where he had spoken with Catesby “and the other botanists” (Linnaeus 1736). This was their only meeting. As prolific a correspondent as Linnaeus was, the sum total of extant letters between the two great naturalists is a single brief cover note accompanying a small shipment of plants Catesby sent to Sweden (Jarvis 2015). More surprising still, Linnaeus “almost certainly” did not own any of the volumes of Catesby’s Carolina, apparently consulting the Englishman’s work instead in the libraries of colleagues and patrons in Sweden and The Netherlands (Jarvis 2015).
The intellectual and personal relationship that bound Linnaeus and George Edwards ran far deeper—and centered not on botany but on ornithology. Linnaeus would eventually name nearly 350 species of birds on the basis of descriptions, paintings, and etchings furnished by Edwards over the years (Lederer 2019). A. Stuart Mason goes so far as to name Linnaeus as Edwards’s “admirer” (Mason 1992), an assessment amply vouched for in the preserved correspondence of the two naturalists. It is uncertain whether the two well-traveled colleagues ever met (James 1933), but Linnaeus clearly held Edwards and his work in considerable esteem.
In a 1759 letter introducing Edwards to Daniel Solander, the Swedish taxonomer names Edwards as preeminent among contemporary ornithologists, and pronounces himself happy to have lived to see the Englishman’s work with his own eyes (Linnaeus 1759). On the completion in 1764 of Edwards’s Gleanings of Natural History, Linnaeus would send his congratulations for having introduced to science “so very many extraordinarily rare birds, such a number as no one else has ever discovered or ever will, or far less will ever illustrate them so vividly that your birds are lacking only their song. They will sing your fame for as long as there are birds and men. Thanks to them, you have become an immortal ornament to our age…. Count me among your sincere admirers!” (Linnaeus 1765).
So great was Linnaeus’s respect for his English colleague that he had hung his portrait on the wall of his cabinet, where it served as a daily reminder of Edwards’s accomplishments (Linnaeus 1758b). Paintings, prints, and written descriptions passed between the two men almost non-stop, including both published and unpublished works (see, e.g., Edwards 1757 and Edwards 1760). The fact that Edwards sent Linnaeus “black”—that is to say, uncolored—plates from the Gleanings suggests that his gift was more than a simple ornamental courtesy, submitted instead for serious study.
In addition to his own significant accomplishments, George Edwards played a major role in preserving and promoting the works of Mark Catesby, whom he outlived by nearly a quarter of a century. The connection of the two men was both a personal and a professional one: not only did Catesby share certain of his specimens with Edwards (Edwards 1747), but he was so generous as to offer to teach Edwards, his “nearest rival” and his “good friend” alike, to etch his own plates for publication (Mason 1992). In turn, Edwards would see a second, posthumous edition of Catesby’s Carolina through the press beginning in 1754—and he would serve as his friend and mentor’s literary and artistic executor, preparing Catesby’s Nachlaß for auction to the benefit of the elder artist’s widow (McBurney 2015).
Edwards was clearly ideally situated to serve as the point of transmission between his two friends Catesby and Linnaeus, particularly so, of course, after Catesby’s death in 1749. With no convenient access to Carolina, the great Swede would quite naturally have relied on his London colleague’s intimate familiarity with Catesby’s work. Edwards, however, was not a transparent conduit, passing Catesbiana on to Upsalla verbatim. Instead, much of what he provided Linnaeus—and much of what is attributed in the Systema straightforwardly to “Catesby”—was in fact decidedly second-hand, filtered through Edwards’s own use, and in some cases his own reassessment, of Catesby’s American material in his ornithological works.
This should be unsurprising given the structure, chronological and geographic, of the network binding Linnaeus, Catesby, and Edwards, but until now it seems that the citations to “Catesby” in the Systema have been accepted at face value, as direct and unmediated references to that author’s Carolina. That assumption explains the persistent puzzlement in the scholarship as to “why Linnaeus omitted a number of Catesby’s birds” from the 1758 edition of the Systema, birds Catesby had illustrated, described, and published a generation earlier (Stevens 1936). O.A. Stevens counted ten such mysterious omissions, birds present in the first edition of Catesby’s Carolina but for some reason not taken over into the 1758 Systema.
If we accept that Linnaeus was not making direct use of Catesby but was instead relying on Edwards’s reception of Catesby, the matter is easily explained: of the ten species of Catesbeyan birds Linnaeus ignored, all ten—the Blue-winged Teal, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmouse, Gray Catbird, American Robin, Red-Winged Blackbird, Orchard Oriole, and Indigo Bunting—had also been excluded from Edwards’s Natural History of Birds. Had Linnaeus directly consulted Catesby’s Carolina, he would have had no reason to leave those species aside; depending entirely on Edwards, however, he would have had no reason to even suspect their existence.
That this was in fact the true chain of transmission—from Catesby to Edwards to Linnaeus, and not, as has long been assumed, directly from Catesby to Linnaeus—is demonstrated as well by the twisting career of the Painted Bunting in the ornithological works of all three authors.
As pointed out above, Linnaeus’s account of this species in the 1758 Systema introduces certain inconsistencies with his claimed source, Catesby’s Carolina. First, Linnaeus asserts that the female Painted Bunting is blue with a white belly, turning gray in the colder season; Catesby had described her quite differently, as dull-colored and sparrow-like, with an overtone of green. Linnaeus then goes on to cite Catesby’s Plate 44 as the authority for his description; in fact, though, that plate depicts only the male Painted Bunting, while the bird Linnaeus mistakes for the female, in reality a male Indigo Bunting, is shown on the following Plate 45.
These errors, at first regard trivial, are in fact revelatory of George Edwards’s crucial role as the link between the ornithologies of Catesby and Linnaeus. In his Natural History, published the year after Catesby’s death, Edwards corrected what he believed was his friend and mentor’s misapprehension. Edwards wrote that the tricolored bird of Catesby’s Plate 44—a Painted Bunting—and the blue bird of Plate 45—an Indigo Bunting—“are both the same; the one not arrived at its perfect Colour, and the other perfect…. This Bird in its first State resembles a Hen Sparrow, its second is Blue, and its last as the above described [that is to say, the particolored adult male Painted Bunting], with many intermixed Stages between each of these” (Edwards 1750).
In London, Edwards had studied a cageful of buntings of various colors, brought to Lady Anson from Mexico by Admiral Knowles; the conclusions he drew about the species’ plumage sequence were affirmed by his friend and patron John Monro (Edwards 1750). Linnaeus’s citation to “Catesby” notwithstanding, it was Edwards’s assessment of the buntings as “both the same,” and not Catesby’s original identification of two distinct species, that entered Linnaeus’s Systema in 1758.
Edwards must be held responsible, too, for Linnaeus’s erroneous reference to Catesby’s Plate 44 for the “female” of the Painted Bunting (in fact, the male of the Indigo Bunting). As already noted, the plate published as number 44 in Carolina depicts only a male Painted Bunting—but a watercolor painted in preparation for that plate, one of the unpublished works the sale of which Edwards facilitated on Catesby’s death, shows two birds sharing a perch in a magnolia (RL 25875). The upper individual is a brightly colored male Painted Bunting; the lower is an adult male Indigo Bunting. Each is labeled, in Catesby’s hand, as an apparently distinct species: the Painted Bunting as “Tricolor. Ligurinus,” the Indigo as “Linaria Cœrulea.” At least the upper inscription antedates the trimming and mounting of the sheet. Most tellingly, Catesby also numbered his painting, “44.”
That number is clearly a reference to the Plate 44 that Catesby would subsequently publish in his Carolina. Plate 44 depicts only one bird, an adult male Painted Bunting. That bird is clearly based on the individual in Catesby’s earlier painting, now perched somewhat more steadily in a somewhat more decorative magnolia. The Indigo Bunting figured in the painting was also taken over into the published work, but on a separate plate—Plate 45—where it balances tremulously on the leaf of a trillium.
Linnaeus’s citation to Catesby’s Plate 44 for his description of the female Painted Bunting makes sense only if it in fact refers to the preliminary painting, not to the published plate. The painting certainly passed through Edwards’s hands as he prepared the Catesby estate for auction, and it is reasonable to conclude that the information he supplied Linnaeus was based on that “44,” not on the published plate assigned that number. The painting’s confrontation of the two buntings—in spite of Catesby’s labels—could be read as confirmation of Edwards’s theory of conspecificity, a theory he had illustrated himself, wordlessly, in a whimsical 1732 painting depicting what we now recognize as a Painted and an Indigo Bunting posed intimately on the same branch.
In reliance on Edwards’s initial understanding of the species’ status and plumages, Linnaeus again identified the male Indigo Bunting as a female Painted in the eleventh, 1760 edition of the Systema naturae (Linnaeus 1760). The truth would out, however, and in 1766, in what was the first major revision since 1758, the twelfth edition of the Systema “split” the buntings to recognize the Indigo as a separate species, Tangara cyanea, for the first time; describing only the adult male (“blue, with blackish rectrices”), Linnaeus now cites the correct text page and plate from Catesby’s Carolina (Linnaeus 1766).
Linnaeus’s change of view had been preceded, half a dozen years earlier, by another reassessment of the buntings: that in George Edwards’s Gleanings of Natural History. In the second, 1760 volume of this continuation of his Natural History of Birds, Edwards provided a new and accurately labeled plate of the Painted Bunting, showing both a colorful adult male and a female, the latter “wholly of a parrot green colour” (Edwards 1760b).
The addition of the female figure, and Edwards’s description of the other, non-adult and non-male age and sex classes “as plain-coloured as a hen Sparrow” (Edwards 1760b), reveal that his rethinking was the result of a renewed consultation of Catesby’s Carolina, which had described the female Painted Bunting in much the same words. This is no coincidence. Just as Linnaeus’s earlier “lump” of the Indigo and Painted Buntings was the result of his relying on Edwards’s interpretation of Catesby, so too did his “split” of the two birds in 1766 reflect Edwards’s re-evaluation of their status.
No one can deny the significance of Mark Catesby’s work to the natural historical enterprise of the eighteenth century in general, or to the Linnaean tradition specifically. But an examination of the other bird species attributed by the Systema to “Catesby” would likely confirm what the case of the buntings so cogently suggests: that not Catesby but his “good friend,” pupil, and literary executor George Edwards was Linnaeus’s direct source for the North American birds credited to him.
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Most interesting piece. Thank you! Presumably implications for Linnaeus’ taxonomic assessments of other species .