Victorian Firescreen ID Challenge!

One of my first tasks as a Curator of Natural History was to identify several unknown bird species contained in the Victorian firescreen featured in our Going, Going, Gone? exhibit. This unique item was prepared by “Naturalist, Furrier & Taxidermist” William Thompson of Chester, UK, sometime in the mid- to late 1800s. All but three of the specimens are from the New World.

Victorian firescreen on exhibit at OHC

Two things made this task an interesting challenge: the firescreen’s age (the specimens have faded) and its accessibility (a meter behind a plexiglass exhibit barrier). We can’t restore lost color, but fortunately we do have a good zoom lens!

Our Curator Emeritus Bob Glotzhober laid the groundwork for many of the IDs for this item shortly after its acquisition. I confirmed the ID for several birds, including the large turquoise and rust-colored European Bee-eater near the top, the Rainbow Lorikeet from Australia in the center, and the two shining blue Red-legged Honeycreepers to the upper left and lower right of the lorikeet. However, the IDs of many of the hummingbirds–all of which are male specimens–were still unknown.

A few were a “slam-dunk”, such as this Booted Racket-tail (seemingly caught in mid-swoop above a Hooded Mountain Tanager).

Although this species’ ridiculously adorable fluffy white “boots” are not visible on this specimen, only two species of hummingbird sport such distinctive racquet-shaped tail feathers–the other being the endangered Marvelous Spatuletail. The Spatuletail’s raquets have a longer and more curved rachis (feather shaft), and it has a violet crown rather than the greenish one we see on the Racket-tail. What other differences do you see?

Another easy ID was this Ruby Topaz.

This specimen’s relatively large size, “long nosed” face and short bill along with its red cap and gold gorget (appearing green at this angle) left no other possibilities. There are two in the firescreen–can you spot them?

Other hummers featured in the firescreen include a Golden-tailed Sapphire
Golden-Tailed Sapphire Yes, this is real.

…the aptly named Tufted Coquette

Tufted Coquette Aptly named, but poorly photographed.

…and a stunning Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph Bee-eaters have no concept of personal space.
But the most challenging specimen by far was this one!
Mystery Hummer 1 The tanager’s opportune moment was preserved for all time.
It’s hiding in the shadow of the Hooded Mountain Tanager near the bottom of the firescreen, which made it difficult to see. Flash photography made its otherwise dull plumage appear to glow gold and turquoise.
Without an all-inclusive guide to Neotropical hummingbirds (which I don’t think exists, by the way!) my recourse was intensive image searches on the Internet. The broad rufous tail, iridescent greenish turquoise underparts, small orangey-gold gorget and overall greenish color seem pretty distinctive, but the vastness of the Interwebs failed to yield definitive IDs. I was stumped.
Mystery Hummer 2 Up to 334 possibilities…
I turned to my colleague and former labmate Dave Slager, a PhD student and curatorial assistant at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Thanks to Dave’s extensive bird knowledge, field work in the Neotropics, and the Burke’s large collection of reference books and specimens from around the world, he was quickly able to narrow it down to two possibilities–either a Scaled or Tyrian Metaltail.
No, not Tyrion

Tyrian is more likely given its abundance and wider distribution, but in any case this hummer is almost certainly in the Metallura genus.  (Thanks for your help, Dave!!) What do you think it is?There are four birds in the firescreen that can be found in Ohio. Can you spot them? Let us know in the comments!


Posted July 25, 2014

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