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Grackle and Pipit

The two large black birds in the nineteenth century case ‘KMB 1985.201’ were labelled “Blue-headed Grackle from S. India”. In India, the family Gracula consists of several species of Mynah Birds, all of them larger than these specimens and different in appearance. There is also a family known as grackles in North America -  the Icteridae, also called blackbirds. These specimens are the right size, shape and colour for a member of this family, the Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), which is also known as the Blue-headed Grackle. The conclusion is that these are Common Grackles from north America.  

The real puzzle was the small brown bird in the same case, labelled ‘Persylonian pipit’: - there is no bird known by this name and no such place as Persylonia.

There are 40 species of pipit in the world, several of them very similar to this specimen. Initially, the Upland Pipit was a possibility because it lives in India and its companions in the case were said to be from there. One expert, on a brief examination, said he thought it looked like a Water Pipit, a very widespread but undistinguished pipit. The Old World Water Pipit is very similar to its closest American relative, the Buff-bellied Pipit, Anthus rubescens, and in view of the grackles turning out to be American, this seemed possible. Although a little faded, the specimen seemed to match.

Then came a breakthrough on the word Persylonia. A search under the spelling Persilonia, revealed a suggestion that this was a portmanteau word for the region of Persia and Babylonia, i e. modern Iran and Iraq. In that region, there are only four species of Pipits: three with distinguishing features not present in this specimen, leaving only one, the Water Pipit, Anthus spinoletta, probably the middle eastern subspecies coutellii, very like the Buff-bellied Pipit. Knowing that the original collector, Frederick Sessions, sometimes put specimens from different regions into the same case, I thought I had found the answer.

But after the publication of this conclusion on the Museum website, another expert suggested that the word Persylonia might have been a mistake for Pensylvanian. There has never been a bird known as the Persylonian Pipit but the Buff-bellied or American Pipit, now Anthus rubescens, was formerly classified as Anthus Pensilvanicus, which would translate as Pennsylvanian Pipit.

This led me to search for any older version within the Museum records. The extant label was written by Alfred Wainwright in the mid-twentieth century. The Sessions Collection, dating from the late C19th, was acquired by Kendal Museum in 1924 and the Museum holds a list was made at that time. This case was listed as containing ‘Blue headed Gracle’ and ‘Persyloanian Pippit’ (sic). Alfred Wainwright, who had very limited reference resources, appears to have added the words ‘from S. India’ and ‘corrected’ the spellings to ‘Grackle’ and ‘Persylonian Pipit’. The 1924 hand-writing is clear but has been copied from the C19th writing of Frederick Sessions, which may not have been so clear. The extraneous letter ‘a’ in the middle of Persyloanian could be explained if the original was Pensylvanian, the letter ‘n’ being misread as an ‘r’ and the cursive ‘v’ as an ‘o’.

So it does indeed seem that the case contains two American species: the Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula and the Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens.