The Zoologist/4th series, vol 6 (1902)/Issue 738/On a Lost British Wild Goose, Anser paludosus

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On a Lost British Wild Goose, Anser paludosus (Strickland)
by Frederick Coburn

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 6, issue 738 (December, 1902), p. 441–448

Zool. 1902.

Plate III.

Zoologistmont46190260lond 516.jpg
Anser paludosus, Strickl. Anser segetum, Gmel.


No. 738.—December, 1902.


By F. Coburn.

(Plate III.)

When investigating the specific validity of Anser gambeli (ante, pp. 337) last winter, I resolved upon the overhauling of my entire series of British Wild Geese, some fifty to sixty mounted birds.

Upon coming to the turn of Anser segetum, I for the first time critically examined a bird which had always been a puzzle to me, and which I procured from St. Abb's Head, Scotland, on the 25th February, 1896. It was my intention at the time to fully examine the curious characters of this bird, but through extreme pressure of other business it was placed in a cabinet, and practically overlooked until this year. Fortunately I did not depart from my usual practice of making special notes on the colours of soft parts, and taking weight and measurements.

The characters of this bird which struck me most forcibly were its great size, being as large and heavy as a very big Greylag; the enormously lengthened swan-like neck; large and also swan-like feet; and the remarkably and distinctly shaped and coloured bill. These convinced me that the bird could not be A. segetum.

Upon further investigation, and a study of Count Salvadori's descriptions of the Wild Geese in the Brit. Mus. Cat. Birds, vol. xxvii., I was led to infer that the bird might be Anser serrirostris of Swinhoe, a name copied by Swinhoe from a manuscript left by the late John Gould, who intended to publish this name, but death intervened. I was strengthened in this belief from the fact that the serrations on the lower mandible of my bird were totally distinct in shape to those of A. segetum. However, I could not find any full description of this bird, and, subsequently receiving an invitation from Dr. Bowdler Sharpe to dine with the British Ornithologists' Club at their June meeting, I took my specimen, together with A. rubrirostris, to exhibit before the members.

Upon comparing my bird with the skins in the National Collection, I found that it was not A. serrirostris; and further, that there was no specimen in the Museum which would at all agree with my bird, especially as regards shape and colouration of bill. The result was that I could not formally bring the bird under the notice of the Club that evening, and did so incidentally only, pending a still fuller investigation at the Museum the next day, under the kindly assistance of Mr. Eugene W. Oates and Mr. Stewart Baker. The net result of this examination was simply to confirm my first enquiry: there was no bird like mine in the National Collection, and Mr. Oates intimated that I should be justified in giving the bird a name. This I was unwilling to do until further enquiries had been made, and I had prepared a paper for 'The Zoologist,' pointing out the characters of the bird. In the meantime I continued my investigations, and have now, I think, got to the real root of the subject, and can put a totally different complexion upon it.

There need be no doubt whatever that my specimen is the Long-billed Carr-lag Goose (Anser paludosus), first described by Strickland in 1858 before the meeting of the British Association at Leeds; and that Strickland was perfectly justified in describing the bird as a distinct species, there can be no shadow of doubt. It is much to be regretted that his observations did not receive more consideration at the time, as it is this neglect which has led to the bird being almost totally overlooked and forgotten for nearly fifty years. This might not have occurred but for a note published in the 'Proceedings of the Zoological Society' (1861, p. 19), from Mr. A.D. Bartlett, asserting that the bird described by Strickland as A. paludosus was only an old male Bean-Goose. This was an unfortunate error of Bartlett, brought about probably by the very poor outlines of bills published by Strickland in the 'Annals and Magazine of Natural History' (1859, 3rd series, vol. iii. p. 124)[1]. If Bartlett (or anyone else) had ever seen a specimen of the Long-billed Carr-lag Goose like the one which is now before me, he would not have been inclined to declare that it was only a very old Bean-Goose. However, so much acceptance appears to have been accorded to Bartlett's note that it effectually disposed of Strickland's new species, which has been disregarded until the fortunate acquisition of my specimen has brought it to the front again; at all events, I hope this will be so.

It is deeply to be regretted that so little information concerning this once resident and breeding, but now completely banished, British bird remains to us. Practically all we know is contained in Strickland's paper, and he had, it would seem, to depend upon the information supplied by the carr-men; for the bird had disappeared even before his time.

I cannot do better than here quote some of Strickland's observations on this bird. He says:—"Before the beginning of this century, when the carrs of Yorkshire were the resort of countless multitudes and numerous species of wildfowl, giving employment to numbers of decoy-men, fowlers, and carr-men, I understand it was stated there were two species of Geese frequenting and breeding in the carrs, known by these people by the name of the Grey-lag and the Carr-lag. What the Grey-lag was is well known, as fortunately that bird retains the name originally given to it by the fowlers. What the Carr-lag was it is probably impossible now to demonstrate; but I have every reason to think it was this Long-billed Goose—a bird that resided and bred in the carrs along with the Grey-lag, and, like that, is no longer to be found in these districts, and, as far as I know, is not at present to be found in any part of this country, and is now one of our scarcest British birds, or almost a lost species. This bird is distinguished from the Bean-Goose by its entirely different habits, and, as before stated, by its long bill. It may be thought by some that this difference of length may be the result of age; but this cannot be maintained, as its bill is small and weak, suited to its aquatic habits—very unlike the short bill of the Bean-Goose, suited to its granivorous and herbivorous feeding."

Here then we get the crux of the whole matter. A Goose of aquatic habits would need a long swan-like neck and large swanlike feet, the two characters which are so striking in my bird! In the illustration which accompanies this paper, I publish for the first time the head and neck of Anser paludosus, side by side with that of a typical A. segetum. For their portraits to be taken the birds were placed opposite each other on exactly the same level, so that a glance will show the extraordinary disproportion in the length of neck in each bird; at the same time the difference in shape and the remarkable colouration of bill in paludosus are apparent. I feel sure that no one who may critically examine these figures will fail to be convinced that the birds are of totally distinct species. A question which may have to be discussed in the future will be, whether the bird should not be placed nearer to Anser cygnoides than A. segetum. It is almost incredible that a bird so handsome and striking in appearance as this is should have so completely escaped observation, not only here, but on the Continent as well. I can only ascribe this to the extreme rarity of the species, for it is certain that if Count Salvadori had ever seen the bird he would not have passed it over.

As no complete description of this species has ever been published, so far as I can discover, I here append one:—

As before stated, the bird is of very large size, equalling a fine Grey-lag. The general tone of colouration of plumage resembles that of the Bean-Goose, but is much bolder and decisive-looking. The head is blackish umber from sides of bill, fading into a dark drabish umber for rest of head and upper neck; at base of bill the faintest possible trace of white, curiously exaggerated by the camera in figure (p. 445); the middle and lower neck has a distinct rusty brown tinge. Mantle deep dusky brown, broadly margined with pale drab and light brown. Back and rump dark slaty brown. Upper tail-coverts white, the middle ones clouded with drab. Tail of eighteen feathers, long and broad, of a rich seal-brown, each distinctly fringed and very broadly terminated with white. Breast and flanks drab, margined with paler, the flanks gradually becoming a rich seal-brown, broadly margined with white. The middle of the under parts are very pale whitish drab, gradually becoming white on abdomen and under tail-coverts. On the middle of the breast there is a black feather, with several others showing the dark pigment being thrown into them, while at the roots of most of the feathers on the sternum a dark colouring matter is making its appearance.

Zoologistmont46190260lond 521.jpg
Anser paludosus, Strickl. Front view of bill.

This is very important indeed, as it indicates that during the breeding season the under parts may become black, a character quite unknown in the Bean-Goose. The upper wing-coverts are a dark bluish slate, gradually becoming rich hair-brown, broadly margined with dull white on the medians and first coverts. Primaries dark seal-brown, the rib white. Secondaries almost black, margined and fringed with dull white. Tertiaries rich seal-brown, very broadly margined with dull white; giving a very conspicuous appearance to the upper parts of the bird. Alulæ rather pale bluish slate. Axillars and under wing-coverts dark slate. At the bend of the wing a protuberance, which may have had a spur on it at some time. The bill is long, slender, and straight along the culmen, orange-yellow in colour from base to nail; along the culmen, commencing about half an inch from base, there is a remarkable shield-shaped patch of black, wich will be best understood by referring to the figure. The nail is slaty black in colour, and larger in proportion than that of A. segetum. The under mandible is black from the base for three parts of its length, then a band of orange-yellow, and terminated with a black tip. There is a very important feature in connection with the bill. The serrations on the upper mandible are large and distinct, but do not show to advantage in the photograph. On the lower mandible the serrations are remarkable and quite distinct from those of A. segetum; they are large in size, sharply pointed, and directed backward, whereas in the Bean-Geese they are straighter, blunt, and more fused together. This suggests that the bill is adapted to pulling up roots of aquatic vegetation, and is a further valuable proof of the aquatic habits alleged by Strickland. The feet are very large, with the inside nails curiously curved inwards like those of a Swan; the first nail on foot white in colour, second and third half black and white. The legs, toes, and webs are orange-yellow in colour. Iride dark hazel. Weight, 8 lb.; total length, 35 in.; wing, 19 in.; tarsus, 3·55 in.; centre toe, 3·35 in.; bill, 2·60 in.

This bird appears to have been banished from Great Britain for something like a century! it must have found a home somewhere else—but where?

It has been suggested to me that A. paludosus may be identical with Brehm's A. arvensis. A paper on this latter bird has quite recently (Oct. 4th, 1902) been communicated to the 'Field' by Mr. Frohawk, who endeavours to prove that this is the common Bean-Goose of our land. I cannot at present agree with him on several points he raises.

At first I was somewhat inclined to think that. A. paludosus might be identical with A. arvensis, as there is certainly some similarity between the bill of my bird and of that figured by Mr. Frohawk, but more mature study has for the present dispelled the idea. There is a similarity, and that is all. There are differences which would need much explanation. Mr. Frohawk appears to have examined a considerable number of Continental skins of A. arvensis, but he makes no mention of the long neck and swan-like feet. I do not think that Dr. Brehm would have bestowed such a name as arvensis—i.e. appertaining to a meadow or arable land—on a bird possessing such distinctly aquatic characters as a long neck and large feet imply. Further, as Brehm's name was given to his bird in 1831, it must have been well known to such an ornithologist as Strickland in 1858, who would not have given such a distinctly opposite name as paludosus (i.e. marshy or boggy) without good reasons for so doing. I am forced to the conclusion that arvensis does not possess these characters, consequently cannot be confused with A. paludosus. As none of the German works containing Brehm's observations on this bird are available where I write, nor are Continental skins, I am not in a position to hazard an opinion as to the specific validity of this bird.

There is one point in Mr. Frohawk's paper upon which I may touch briefly. It appears to me that he has too hastily come to the conclusion that the black on the bill of what he terms the true A. segetum must in all cases come well below the nostrils, leaving only a narrow band of orange. On this point Strickland, who must have seen great numbers of A. segetum, says: "But they vary greatly in the quantity and form of the black; indeed, I have seldom found two alike." This is my experience, and must also be that of others who have had much to do with Bean-Geese. A glance at my figure will show the typical bill of segetum, but with the yellow colour extending almost beyond the nostrils; in other cases I have seen the yellow reaching almost to base of bill. The fact is that the black is not permanent and both paludosus, arvensis, and segetum may have the black extending to below the nostrils at some period, but it fades away at others, leaving the bill in the latter bird sometimes entirely yellow, as is the case with a specimen now in the British Museum. In the case of the two former birds, the black remains only on the shield-shaped space of the first and the bar of the second. A change takes place in the colouring-matter on the bill of Bewick's Swan and several Ducks; why not in the Geese also?

This paper has already much exceeded the space I intended it to cover, notwithstanding which I shall have to pass over several interesting points, and, in conclusion, direct attention to the very narrow escape this bird has had from complete oblivion. Utterly ignored by those of our forefathers who gave their time to ornithology, it appears to have been known only to those keen outdoor observers, the marsh-men and carr-men of half a century back. Their observations fortunately fell upon the discriminating ears of Strickland, but not until the bird had vanished from its native haunts.

How near these valuable observations of Strickland have been to complete oblivion, I have shown in the preceding pages. The appearance in Scotland of this solitary specimen of the long-lost bird, and its passing into my hands, are incidents almost sensational, if the full details were made known.

  1. Strickland 1859, p. 121f., with plate, online available in BHL (Wikisource-ed.)

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.