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Subject: American Goldfinch (long and possibly boring)
From: willy <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Irish Bird Network <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 20 Mar 2005 20:18:39 -0000

text/plain (420 lines)

As promised, my assesment of the American Goldfinch record.
This was sent to the IRBC in 1994, but other than a thanks, I am unaware of any further movement

regards Willie

American Goldfinch re-visited.




In the Zoologist for 1894, the following observation was recorded by J.R. Sheridan of Dugort, Achill Island:


      "American Goldfinch on Achill Island, Co. Mayo.- On September 6th, while in Keem Bay, in company with some visitors to this Island, I observed a small bird feeding on a thistle by the sandy beach. Its yellow colour and black head and wings made me think it might be an American wanderer, and, having my 12-bore with me, I easily secured it with a charge of No-8 shot. It was in company with Linnets, Stonechats and Meadow Pipits, and it seemed quite at home, flitting about, and uttering a soft mellow note. After I had shot it, I was satisfied that I had one like it in my collection, namely, one that I had shot in America in 1873. 

I immediately sent it to Mr. A.G. More, of Dublin, who identified it as the American Goldfinch, Astragalinus tristis. The migration of North American birds to Achill Head deserves attention, and on some future occassion I hope to deal with the subject more fully, as I consider Achill Head and Crougham great landmarks for migratory birds, as also the Blackrock Lighthouse, which throws its revolving light seawards for miles. I am convinced that many of the North American migrants visit our bold headlands, from the fact that I have observed and secured many of them in Achill. I should be glad to learn from any American naturalist how far north on the American continent the bird in question has been observed. So far as I know this is the first example which has been taken in the British Islands.


J.R.Sheridan (Dugort, Achill Island)" 



Also included as an addendum is the following note from the Editor of the Zoologist, J.E. Harting.


[Through the kindness of Mr. A.G. More, we have had an opportunity of examining the bird above referred to, which he has correctly named, and from the much worn appearance of the wing and tail-feathers - the latter especially being much abraded - we are decidedly of  opinion that it had been not long previously in captivity. It is not unlikely that it may have escaped from some homeward bound vessel from New York, and found its way to land on the west coast of Ireland -Ed.]




The record as such has been dealt with by various authors in the following ways:


            Ussher and Warren (1900)2:      not mentioned.


            Ussher            (1908)3:      not mentioned


            Nichols           (1924)4:      not mentioned


            Humphreys         (1937)5:      mentioned as follows: 


       [ American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis (Linn.) A specimen shot on Achill I., Mayo,on September6th, 1894, had probably escaped from captivity (Zool., 1894, p. 396).]


            Kennedy, Ruttledge and Scroope (1954)6: Mentioned as follows: [NOTE. The specimen of the North American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis (L.) shot on Achill Island, Co. Mayo, on 6th September 1894, had no doubt escaped from captivity (cf. Zool., 1894, 396).]



            Kennedy           (1961)7:       mentioned as follows 


[North American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

One shot on Achill, Mayo, on September 6th, 1894, has been regarded as an escape from captivity (Zool., 1894, 396)

The record is mentioned here, as it is now accepted as possible for even small birds to cross the Atlantic in certain conditions of weather. It cannot, of course, at this date be ascertained whether the bird was an escape or a genuine migrant. But it is rather curious that , like so many other so called escapes of American birds, it was found at the time of normal migration and at the nearest point of these islands to America. One wonders too whether "signs of captivity" in a small bird can be distinguished from the effects of a stormy passage across the Atlantic and a rough landing on a rocky shore.]


It should be noted that R.F. Ruttledge and F. King are acknowledged as having read the proofs.


            Ruttledge (1966)8:            not mentioned


 The Irish Bird Report for 1974 , p. 23 states the following:


Previously accepted records re-assessed by the Irish Records Panel


      American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis


      The record of one shot at Achill, Mayo, on 8th September 1894 (A List of the Birds of Ireland, 1961, p.94) is considered unacceptable as this species is only a short-distance migrant and unlikely to reach Ireland as a genuine vagrant..


Several things here strike me as strange:

(1) The record was never previously accepted, it was either ignored or square bracketed so why did it have to be re-assessed.


(2) The reason given for non-acceptance (short distance migrant) is not the same as that previously given (escape from captivity)


(3) the date given is incorrect (should be 6th September)


Recently I requested the files relating to this record from the IRBC and they kindly furnished me with the relevant information concerning the assessment of this record.

I will try to outline the events in chronological order:


In 1974, R.F. Ruttledge was in the last stages of preparing a list of Irish Birds for the National Museum ( a tradition going back to 1885 when A.G.More prepared the first list) Ruttledge realized that this species and indeed the old Belted Kingfisher records from 1845 would need to be properly assessed and wrote to J.T.R.Sharrock ( a member of the B.O.U.R.C.) to ask if the B.O.U.R.C. had ever considered these old Irish records.

Sharrock said they had not but offered the services of  the B.O.U.R.C. in properly assessing the American Goldfinch; this was done quite quickly to facilitate the publication of the Museum checklist.(Ruttledge, 1975)

Those members of the B.O.U.R.C.commenting on the record were: 

      M.D. Evert?

      I.C.T. Nesbitt






      J.T.R. Sharrock




It was only after the record had been circulated around the B.O.U.R.C., that Ruttledge realized that he had not dealt with this matter using the correct protocol for the record should most assuredly have been dealt with by the I.R.P., whose members included the following: 



          R.F. Ruttledge




Having realized this error of protocol, the record was subsequently distributed to the I.R.P., along with the comments of the B.O.U.R.C. members and with Ruttledge's interpretation of the details of the record from the Zoologist. Ruttledge also included some personal observations on Sheridan.


These are worth quoting in full:


Some facts about the history of the American Goldfinch shot in Ireland

I enquired about the Zool, 1894, p.396 authority. Dr. O'Riordan of the National Museum, Dublin kindly read the note out to me from that Zoologist. It was as was the custom then a long, verbose account of seeing the bird, where it was and what it was doing etc. etc. and how it was finally shot by J.R. Sheridan of the Slievemore Hotel, Dugort, Achill Island.

Sheriden sent the specimen, it is stated, to A.G. More of the National Museum in Dublin. More confirmed Sheriden's identification but remarked that he considered it had, he thought, escaped from captivity due to the  much worn appearance of the wings and tail feathers; the latter were much abraded.

We know nothing more. Dr. O'Riordan says the specimen is not in the National Museum. More in his List of Birds of Ireland9 (the Museum booklet) does not mention it being in the Museum. Now I know that Sheriden was an avid collector of rare birds and he obtained a number of , well, certainly unusual aves for that part of Ireland, on Achill Island. For years he had a private collection in the Slievemore Hotel.

When he became an old man he began to dispose of birds in his collection and was as greedy for the money as he had been in obtaining the birds. I know this from personal experience as he used to try to persuade me to buy specimens at high prices. He did in fact sell me a Pied Flycatcher, rostrata Redpoll and a Blackcap, all of which - gave to the Museum. As far as I know he did not sell the collection in toto and fancy most of the birds were disposed off to individuals.

Sheridan died soon after the end of the First World War and if I remember correctly and his son was killed in that war.There is nobody left who would know what happened to birds in his collection.

It seems quite clear that we cannot trace this specimen of the American Goldfinch.


Whether or not birds suffer abrasion in course of the Atlantic crossing especially in moult I don't know. But I think we in the Committee had some cause to consider this in the case of a passerine we dealt with a year or so ago. I forget the outcome

                                    R.F. Ruttledge 15.5.74


To my mind this can hardly be refered to as "facts" surrounding the history of the American Goldfinch. RFR would have done better to have sent around the original Zoologist reference.

The "well, certainly unusual records for that part of Ireland" mentioned by Ruttledge may well refer to the following records all submitted to the Zoologist by Sheridan.


Buffon's Skua, Achill Island, Mayo 29th September 1892( Zool., 1894, p.152)


Mealy Redpoll, Achill Island, Mayo, Feburary 1893 (actually shot by a Mrs Harvey of Glenderary ) (Zool., 1894, p. 152).


King Eider     Achill Island, Mayo 12th December 1892 (Zool., 183 p. 151).


Surf Scoter    Achill Island, Mayo, Oct/Dec c.1870 (Zool., 1894 p.151).



Several members of the I.R.P. were not pleased at the course of action taken by Ruttledge and expressed their displeasure variously as:-


      "It is an insult to be asked to comment only after this record has been circulated overseas. I certainly cannot accept this sequence of events as a mere oversight "


      "In my opinion this Committee (B.O.U.R.C.) has no buisness assessing Irish records without first consulting the Irish Records Panel"



Other correspondance from Sharrock indicated that he was unhappy at any criticism levelled at him due to lack of protocol, since he had assumed the request for assessment by the B.O.U.R.C. was a "corporate" decision, rather than unilaterally by RFR.



In correspondance to Sharrock, Ruttledge agreed that the final decision about the record would lie with the I.R.P. Now here lies the first problem; if the I.R.P. adjudicated on this record the file only records 3 members of the Panel as having come to a decision and 2 of those were wearing their B.O.U.R.C. caps (Ruttledge and Sharrock were on both the B.O.U.R.C. and I.R.P.) rather than their I.R.P. caps. Two members merely expressed indignation as noted above.


But what of the record itself; it is apparent from the file that the B.O.U.R.C. never actually saw the original note in the Zoologist, but merely Ruttledge's interpretation quoted above. On the basis of this I C T Nesbitt of the B.O.U.R.C. commented as follows which I quote in full:


      Species                 American Goldfinch Carduelis tristis

      Locality                Achill Island, Mayo

      Date                    6th September 1894

      Record present by       Major R.F.Ruttledge

      Secretary's comments    Since this record is over 50 years old, it is not eligible for categories A or D; it can only be B or rejected.A decision  seems to hinge on the likely cause of plumage abrasion and on the species' migration pattern in America in relation to the date it was shot in Ireland.

      Circulation             MDE ICTN FRS KW KP DIMW RFR JTRS IJF-L

      Comments                Any escape comment is pretty useless and I can only say that North American birds were more commonly imported then than now.


                                                signed MDE 22.5 .74


The American Goldfinch nests primarily in late July and August; most eastern birds would still be nesting or caring for young in early September. It is only a partial migrant and its migrations have not been worked out, but it seems to moult in late September and to migrate in October, if at all. It is a short distance migrant and not a strong candidate as a genuine migrant. Consequently I vote to REJECT.


Wild birds are generally in abraded plumage in early September.


I would have lingering doubts about the identification unless the original account gave a description or stated the bird was an adult male. Other plumages are not unmistakable. I would in general be very cautious about accepting a record for the list without either a specimen or a description, whoever identified the specimen at the time of the record


                                          signed ICTNesbitt 7.10.74





Other members of the B.O.U.R.C. and the 3 members of the I.R.P. who voiced an opinion basically agreed with I.C.T.Nesbitt's comments and added nothing further. But are I.C.T.Nesbitt's comments valid given more data in the 1990's. Lets look at the points made:-


      (1)American Goldfinchs are late breeders and therefore on the 6th September, they would either be tending young or, as fledglings, still be in the nest.The assumption here is that is not possible for a non-breeding bird to be involved in this record.


      (2)ICTN has doubts as to the identity of the species

 Had the assessors been in possession of the full record i.e. the Zoologist 1894, they would have known that the bird was quite clearly an adult male (black head, black wings and yellow body).  There should be no dispute as to the identity of the species ( not only did More see the specimen but also J.E. Harting and others, again not mentioned by Ruttledge in his note  but in the original record)


      (2) American Goldfinch is described as a short distance migrant and therefore not able to make a transatlantic crossing. The migration of American Goldfinch is not unlike the following species all of which have been recorded in Britain or Ireland: 

                  Evening Grosbeak

                  Fox Sparrow

                  Dark-eyed Junco

                  Rufous-sided Towhee


                  Cedar Waxwing

                  Northern Mockingbird

                  Gray Catbird

                  Brown-headed Cowbird                                                    

                  Mourning Dove


(Please see attached note from A. McGeehan and B. Mactavish)



(4)ICTN does not reject the record on the basis of the abrasion; in fact he says "Wild birds are generally in abraded plumage in early September" Other assessors appear to have missed this point


Clearly ICTN did not receive the original Zoologist reference or he would not have had to speculate on the age and/or sex of the bird involved. Had he received the Zoologist reference he might have had less or no doubt as to the identity, since he clearly did not know that More had sent the specimen to Harting, the Editor of the Zoologist who further confirmed the identity.


To my mind rather than having a situation where total rejection is the order of the day, it seems to me that the record may well have some validity.


In Summary:


(1) This record may not have been properly rejected since 2 members of the Irish Records Panel appear, according to the file, not to have cast a vote.


(2) The assessors appear to have not been in possession of all the information                                                i.e. the original note from the Zoologist; the information supplied by RFR was by its very nature liable to influence the assessors.


(3) Evidence has been produced to show that the perceived shortcomings of the record re. (a) the species being a short distance migrant

                  (b) the species being a late breeder 

                  (c) the abrasion of various feathers

are all easily explainable.





(1)   Sheridan, J.R., Zoologist, 1894, p. 396.

(2)   Ussher,R.J and Warren,R. The Birds of Ireland, Gurney and Jackson,            London, 1900.

(3)   Ussher, R.J. A List of Irish Birds, HMSO, Dublin, 1908.

(4)   Nichols,A.R. A List of Irish Birds, The Stationery Office, Dublin 1924.

(5)   Humphreys, G.R. A List of Irish Birds, The Stationery Office, Dublin 1937.

(6)   Kennedy, P.G., Ruttledge, R.F. and Scroope, C.F. The Birds of Ireland,        Oliver and Boyd, 1954.

(7)   Kennedy, P.G., A List of the Birds of Ireland, The Stationery Office, Dublin       1961.

(8)   Ruttledge, R.F., Ireland's Birds, H.F. & G. Witherby, London, 1966.

(9)   More, A.G., A List of Irish Birds, HMSO, Dublin, 1885.




William M. McDowell.

4, Gairloch Park,

Holywood, BT18 0LE

Co. Down,

Northern Ireland


December 15th 1994

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