Wednesday 31 January 2024

Leafbirds in Hong Kong

AJP spotted these leafbirds at Tai Po Kau in Hong Kong during their recent cold weather. The species now goes under the name of Greyish-crowned Leafbird (Chloropsis lazulina) but was considered a subspecies of Hardwick's Chloropsis, Leafbird or Fruitsucker, Chloropsis hardwickii melliana. They live in high forests and the cold weather may have brought them down to the hills. They appear to have been taking nectar from the flowers.

They were once considered to be very rare in Hong Kong. Herklots noted that when he wrote his book in 1953 only one had ever been seen been seen—in Lam Tsuen Valley on 27 January 1934. The species occurs in south-west China down to Vietnam. They now have uncommon resident and winter visitor in the field guide. We have never seen one in Hong Kong either when we lived there in the 1960s or on our visits since.

Tuesday 30 January 2024

Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus. Finding Miss Waldron

This article started out as a follow-up to a previous one which touched on Willoughby Prescott Lowe (1872-1949), a major animal collector for the Natural History Museum in London and others. On looking him up in the Eponym Dictionary of Mammals and in the Eponym Dictionary of Birds I found the following:

…He is also notorious for having shot eight specimens of Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus Piliocolobus badius waldroni in Ghana in 1933. Miss Waldron also worked at the museum and accompanied him on this trip. The colobus was already rare and is now thought to be extinct.

But who was Miss Waldron. What was she doing in the Gold Coast—as  Ghana then was—in the 1930s. In the 2014 edition of the Eponym Dictionary of Birds she was described as:

Miss Fanny Waldron [dates not found] was an employee of the BMNH [British Museum Natural History]. She accompanied W.P. Lowe on his expedition…in 1934-35 when she was well over 60.

Intrigued by the lack of information I then found that others on the online Bird Forum had also failed to find out anything about Miss Waldron and that in one index she has been described as Frances since, presumably, Fanny was sometimes used as an informal derivation from the diminutive ‘Fran’, as in ‘Peggy’ for ‘Margaret’. Since Lowe and senior staff of the Museum used ‘Fanny’ I can only assume the indexer had not realised that an informal name would just not have been used in a formal report or paper in the 1930s.

I am pleased to say that I have found who Miss Waldron was. Readers will soon realise that much of the information given above is wrong while little is right or even half-right.

Finding Miss Waldron

I soon found her by searching through shipping records in and There she is, along with Willoughby Lowe, on board Elder Dempster Line ships, travelling between England and Gold Coast (now Ghana). Fortunately these records give her age and address in London.

With that information I was able to widen the search and obtain a fairly comprehensive picture of Miss Waldron. She was indeed a ‘Fanny’ but not ‘Fanny’ with a ‘y’ but ‘Fannie’. Fannie was the name registered at birth and was the one she used when filling in her own forms for a ship’s manifest, for example. However, census enumerators and those writing about her, in the ornithological literature for example, have used ‘Fanny’. It would seem her own family who had to fill in some census forms for themselves also forgot and used ‘Fanny’ on occasion. But her name was simply Fannie Waldron. Even the record of probate after her death notes her name as ‘Fannie otherwise Fanny’.

I have included some detail of Fannie and her family in the hope that others may have further information or photographs. Current family members are often unaware of what their antecedents got up to, as evidenced by the number of people contacting me to say they had found an article of mine while seeking information on family history.

FANNIE WALDRON was born on 5 June 1876 in Hungerford, Berkshire. She was the daughter of Walter Brind Waldron (1840-1913) and Marian Wood (1847-1917). The Waldrons came to own large estates in Patagonia and in Kenya, as well as farming in England. Walter and Marian had eight children: Mary Elizabeth in 1868, Clara in 1870, Edith in 1871, Walter George in 1872, Ruth Marian in 1874 (named as a contact by Fannie when entering the USA), Fanny in 1876, Hilda in 1878 and Dorothy Brind in 1890.

In the 1881 Census, Walter in shown as farming 1600 acres and employing 37 men, 10 boys and 8 women. The farm was Poughley Park near Lambourn. It was part of the Hungerford Registration District and it is where Fannie was born.

By 1891 the family was living in Peasemore House in Berkshire. Fannie was still living with her parents then as well as in 1901 and 1911. By the latter Census, the Waldrons had moved to 15 Portarlington Road, Bournemouth; Walter is described as ‘chairman and director of companies’. That record shows one of the children had died.

By the time of the 1921 Census, both Fannie’s parents had died. She can be found, as ‘head of household’, at The Broadway, Birkenshaw, Totland on the Isle of Wight. On census day she had three visitors from Bournemouth and a servant.

In 1924 shipping records show her address as 12 Southwell Gardens, London SW7. From then on, and probably until 1950, she was living at 26 Moore Street in Chelsea, London. Today this address is assessed as ‘a 5 bedroom freehold terraced house spread over 3,283 square feet, making it one of the largest properties here—it is ranked as the 5th most expensive property in SW3 2QW, with a valuation of £5,918,000’.


The following is a list of Fannie Waldron’s international travels from 1899 to 1938. It may be incomplete since only some shipping records can be found online. I have included them all because although I found no collecting activities associated with trips others than the two with Willoughby Lowe in 1933-34 and 1934-35 other records may turn up in the future that could be fitted to the earlier voyages.

1899 Chile. Although only listed as ‘F Waldron’ it seems highly likely this was Fannie since the family had farming interests in Chile and had used Punta Arenas as their base. She arrived in Liverpool on 26 August 1898 from Punta Arenas on board Orissa (Pacific Steam Navigation Company).

1920-21 Hawaii. On 27 October she arrived in Quebec on board Canadian Pacific’s Empress of France having departed from Liverpool on 21 October. She crossed the US border the same day at St Albans, Vermont. Then she can be found arriving in Honolulu on the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand’s ship RMS Niagara on 17 November 1920 from Vancouver. Nearly three months later she left Honolulu for San Francisco on board Matson Line’s Matsonia, arriving on 16 March 1921. For immigration she was described as 5’ 8” with brown hair and grey eyes. She travelled with her maid, Dorothy Wales, aged 22.

1924. Amazon Cruise to Manaus, Brazil. Departed Liverpool on Booth Steamship Company’s Hildebrand

1926-27 India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). She departed from London on board P&O’s Rawalpindi on 12 November 1926. The next record is of her leaving Colombo on P&O’s Moldavia which arrived in London on 11 March 1927. She actually disembarked at Plymouth, before the ship sailed on to London.

1930 Trinidad. She left Avonmouth on 11 January 1930 on board the Elders & Fyffes ship Ariguani bound for Trinidad. She returned on the same company’s Camito which arrived at Avonmouth (Bristol) on 27 February.

1933-34 West Africa. Departed Liverpool for Takoradi, Gold Coast (Ghana), on board the Elder & Dempster Line ship Appa on 29 November 1933 with Willoughby Lowe. The return trip was on the same line’s ship, Accra, which arrived in Liverpool on 20 March 1934 from Takoradi.

1934-35 West Africa. Departed Liverpool for Takoradi, Gold Coast (Ghana), on board the Elder & Dempster Line ship Adda on 28 November 1934 with Willoughby. Returned on the same line’s Apapa to arrive in Plymouth on 18 March 1935. Lowe embarked at Accra; Miss Waldron at Takoradi.

1938 West Indies. A cruise from Dover (returning to Plymouth) to Kingston, Puerto Colombia, Curacao, Trinidad, Barbados on board the Royal Netherlands Steamship Company’s Colombia.

Reports of the 1933-34 and 1934-5 Expeditions to West Africa

Reports by David Bannerman of the Natural History Museum on the 1933-34 and 1934-35 expeditions appeared in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club. David Bannerman (1886-1979) at the time was chairman of the Club and the expert on the birds of West Africa:

Mr. David Bannerman made some remarks on a collection of some 560 birds recently made in Ashanti, Gold Coast, by Mr. Willoughby P. Lowe for the British Museum, and exhibited a specimen of Glaucidium tephronotum tephronotum, the Gold Coast Yellow-legged Owlet, from Mampong. Mr. Bannerman said that no large collection from the forests of the Gold Coast had been made since Governor Ussher had employed Aubinn—a native collector—to obtain birds for him between the years 1867-1872. Although a number of very rare birds were secured in that collection, and finally were presented to the British Museum, none bore any data on the labels, the only locality mentioned being either Denkera (a spot which is not marked on modern maps, but which is situated in lat. 6°15'N., 2°12'W. long., south-west of Kumasi) or "the interior of the Gold Coast." It was imperative, therefore, that we should have confirmation of Ussher’s records, and arrangements were made with Mr. W. P. Lowe, with the aid of the Godman Fund, to spend three months in Ashanti from December 1933 to March of this year. Mr Lowe's collection contains a number of rare species, but a cursory glance has not revealed anything entirely new. By far the greatest prize is a female specimen which had just finished laying of Glaucidium tephronotum tepgronotum Sharpe, which was secured on February 25, 1934, at Mampong, Ashanti…. Volume 54, p 122, 1933-34.

Other rare birds exhibited, of which Mr. Lowe secured specimens, are: The Black Dwarf Hornbill (Lophoceros hartlaubi hartlaubi), a rare species, of which few specimens are known. The Long-tailed Hawk (Urotriorchis macrourus macrourus), three specimens of which were secured at Mampong and Ejura. The Fernando Po or Fraser's Eagle-Owl (Bubo poensis poensis), two adults and an immature one being obtained-the first specimen I have ever seen in immature dress. The Maned Owl (Jubula letti), the first record from the Gold Coast: previously not known from any locality between Liberia and Cameroons. An account of Mr. Lowe's trip, together with an annotated list of the specimens he secured, will, it is hoped, be published in 'The Ibis' in due course. The passerine birds, which have not yet been named, are likely to prove of considerable interest, and the collection as a whole is a valuable asset to our West African material in the British Museum. Volume 54 p 123, 1933-34.

Mr. Willoughby P. Lowe visited the Gold Coast last winter on behalf of the British Museum, and made collections of birds, fish, and mammals in Ashanti. He is leaving again this month for the same destination. Volume 55, p  35, 1934-35.

Mr. David Bannerman exhibited a selection of birds of many species which had recently been obtained by Mr. Willoughby P. Lowe in Ashanti, and made the following remarks :—

I am exhibiting tonight a number of beautiful and interesting birds which Mr. W. P. Lowe and Miss F. Waldron have recently collected from the Gold Coast. It will be remembered that in the winter of 1933-34 the same travellers made a large collection in the forests of Ashanti on behalf of the British Museum. I made some mention of the results of that trip at our April meeting in 1934…

This year they again visited the Gold Coast in the hope of adding a number of species to their former collection. In this they have been successful. They have not only secured a number of interesting species which they failed to get the year previously, but have been instrumental in making two or three discoveries of particular interest which I propose to mention to you now.

I am pleased to say that Mr. Lowe is present with us this evening and will be glad to answer any questions which may be put to him about his experiences. The birds are exhibited in the cases on the table. I am now engaged in selecting those birds which are required by the British Museum and the remainder will go to the Royal Natural History Museum in Sweden. Volume 55, p 126-126, 1934-35.

Mr. Bannerman next described a new race of the from the Gold Coast, which he proposed to name

Anthoscopus flavifrons waldroni, subsp. nov.

Description (adult male).—Differs from A. flavifrons flavifrons in the brighter, more yellowish-olive plumage of the crown, mantle, back, rump, and wing-coverts, and in the paler underparts, which are more yellow, particularly on the breast, than in the typical species. Eye dark brown, bill black, the base of lower mandible and edges of both mandibles bluish-white.

Measurements of type.—Bill 10, wing 55, tail 28, tarsus 13.5 mm. Distribution.—The forests of Ashanti, Gold Coast. Type.—♂︎ adult, Goaso, Ashanti, Dec. 15, 1934. Collectors: W. P. Lowe and Miss F. Waldron. Remarks.—The discovery, after many years, of a race of Anthoscopus flavifrons flavifrons in Upper Guinea is of great interest. The typical species inhabits the Cameroon forests, and no other race of this bird had previously been discovered. I have much pleasure in naming this bird after Miss Fanny Waldron, who accompanied Mr. Lowe to the Gold Coast and who has been instrumental in obtaining many valuable specimens—particularly of fish—for the Zoological Departments of the British Museum. Volume 55, p 131, 1934-35.

Mr. Bannerman finally exhibited an adult, young, and eggs of the Ahanta Francolin (Francolinus ahantensis ahantensis), and made the following observations :—Although the Ahanta Francolin has such a wide range in West Africa, Mr. W. P. Lowe is the first collector to secure specimens of the young and at the same time a clutch of eggs…. Volume 55, p 132, 1934-35.

Mr. David Bannerman exhibited a specimen of a rare Cuckoo-Shrike from West Africa, and made some further observations upon Mr. Willoughby Lowe's collection from Ashanti. He said :—

I have now completed the examination of the Passerine species in the collection which Mr. W. P. Lowe and Miss Waldron made in Ashanti last winter, and the following are worthy of record…. Volume 55, p 154, 1934-35.

Lowe himself wrote up an account the birds seen and collected in the two expeditions. The report (Report on the Lowe—Waldron Expeditions to the Ashanti Forests and Northern Territories of the Gold Coast) extended over three papers in The Ibis in 1937. The first part details the itinerary and the beginning of the bird list; parts two and three continue the list which includes notes on each species. He ended his acknowledgements with:

Finally, I must express my gratitude to my companion, Miss Fanny Waldron, without whose interest and assistance these natural history collections could never have been made.

He clearly did not know that her name was actually ‘Fannie’.

The 1934-35 expedition with Fannie, when he was 64 and Fannie 58 on their return, were Willoughby Lowe’s last. He was said to have been be in a low condition, from which he never fully covered, after his son, aged 21, drowned off Exmouth in 1931.

Photographs from Willoughby Lowe's Report on the two expeditions

Specimens in the Natural History Museum, London

A search of the catalogue shows the specimens collected by Lowe and Waldron in 1933-34 and 1934-35 that have been retained by the museum. In terms of specimens I counted 1 plant, 54 fish, 2 amphibians, 7 reptiles, 5 birds and 90 mammals. Bannerman (see above) and Lowe reported that the majority of birds from the 1934-35 expedition were sent to Sweden.


1. Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus

The most important finding of the two collecting trips was the monkey, now known as Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus (Piliocolobus waldroni, or sometimes as waldronae to reflect, pedantically, the female for whom it is named. It may be extinct but there appears to be some evidence that it may just be hanging on in the Ivory Coast. The first specimen was, I read, shot or obtained by Lowe in December 1933. It was named as a subspecies of what is now Piliocolobus badius waldroni by Robert William Hayman of the Natural History Museum in 1935 (not 1936 as stated in some publications, although the paper may have actually appeared from the printers in 1936, a matter taken into consideration by priority-obsessed taxonomists). I will deal with this species, if indeed it is a species, in a separate article.

2. Anthoscopus flavifrons waldroni

See Bannerman’s description of the subspecies of the Forest Penduline-tit in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club above. Again it sometimes appears as waldronae.

3. Barbus waldroni

Described by John Roxborough Norman (1898-1944) of the Natural History Museum in 1935. Currently regarded as a subspecies of Labeobarbus bynni, the Niger Barb. 

Press Coverage

Willoughby Lowe appears to have had an eye to publicity. He announced his plans for the 1933-4 trip to the Western Morning News and Daily Gazette of 4 October 1933:

…In an interview granted to a “Western Morning News” representative, Mr Willoughby Lowe discussed his plans for his latest expedition, on which he expects to be absent from England for three or four months, With a map. spread in front of him, Mr. Lowe indicated that he would land at Takoradi, on the Gold Coast, and, collecting his safarl, would proceed by train to Kumasi, in the interior. Mr. Lowe's party will not be large, and he will be the only white man…

Northwards from Kumasi huge forests, through which, owing to the rapid growth of vegetation, travel is painfully slow. "These jungles have never been properly explored, and it Is here that I hope to get some of my best specimens." said Mr. Lowe. I think these jungles ought to hold mammals, birds, and plants that no one has ever seen. In the swamps there should be rare fishes and reptiles. Previously I have only visited the coast of West Africa, but I have always come back with some new specimens….

The Western Morning News of 31 March 1934 in a long article gave news of his return:

In neither article does Miss Waldron get a mention. By contrast in the press coverage of the return in 1935, both Lowe and Waldron feature. The Yorkshire Post of 30 March, provides an example:

At the Natural History Museum South Kensington. I watched to-day a number of fish from West Africa being classified. These have been collected by Miss F. Waldron and Mr. Lowe. and some may prove to be new to science. Miss Waldron and Mr. Lowe have brought back certain mud or lung fish which, during the heat of Summer live in a state of suspended animation completely encased in dry mud. Even should the Summer drought up particularly severe they can survive well over six months.

The Belfast Telegraph, 18 March 1935:

Several new species were among a collection of 800 birds, reptiles, and monkeys consigned to the British Museum and Zoo which were landed at Plymouth on Sunday. They were brought ashore from the Elder-Dempster liner Apapa by Mr. Willoughby Lowe and Miss F. Waldron, the naturalists, who have travelled 1,000 miles in the interior of West Africa, searching for specimens for the British Museum. One of the most interesting finds was a sleeping fish, which can remain inanimate and apparently dead for months when the rivers dry up. These fish bury themselves in the mud or clay and remain in a comatose condition until the rainy season comes round and floods the dried-up river beds.

This story made the national press as this article from the News Chronicle (18 March):

It would appear that the party had brought some animals for London Zoo. Examination of the ‘day books’ in ZSL’s archives could provide more information. Lowe mentioned in his 1937 report that:

We caught two [Red-necked Buzzards, Buteo auguralis] alive at Ejura, and intended them for the Zoological Gardens, London, but we were so short of space we could not carry them.

Lungfish certainly made it to the Zoo. as desribed in a syndicated article that reached the Motherwell Times (29 March 1935).

The 1933-4 and 1934-5 Expeditions: Unanswered Questions

Throughout her life, Fannie Waldron was not employed but ‘living on private means’. She was not, as is has been stated, or inferred, a member of staff of the Natural History Museum; nor was Willoughby Lowe. Collectors were on short-term contracts of some sort but in this case I do not know if Lowe was paid a fixed sum plus expenses, or if payment was based on the number of specimens. Did London Zoo pay Lowe for the animals it received? Was Miss Waldron included in the arrangement with Lowe? I have been unable to find any information on how Willoughby Lowe and Fannie met or planed their first trip. Bannerman mentioned that the Godman Fund had been used to part finance the 1933-34 trip. The charity, now closed was the Godman Exploration Fund set up to support travel on behalf of the museum. I strongly suspect that given the acknowledgement Lowe wrote in his account of the expeditionsI, the fact that Fannie Waldron was a very wealthy woman together with the three eponyms bestowed by museum staff, she may have largely funded the two expeditions. 

London Circles

Perhaps as a result of the collections made in West Africa  Fannie Waldron must have become known in the zoological circles of London. She was a guest on two occasions at meetings of the  British Aviculturists’ Club (founded in 1946) . The first was on 12 November 1947; the second  on 22 June 1948. The latter was a pretty grand affair :

That is all the information I have found on Fannie until her death. A press report stated that she had moved from London to Goring-by-Sea, near Worthing, on the Sussex coast in 1950. That move would have come when she was 74.


The Worthing Herald of Friday 6 November 1959 announced:


A member of St. John's Guild for the Blind and a well-known supporter of the Church and South American Missionary Societies, Miss Fannie Waldron, of Wayside, Ashurst-drive, Goring, died at a Worthing nursing home last Thursday. She was 85. Miss Waldron came to Worthing from London in 1950 and soon became well known for her regular visits to Gifford House and other homes for disabled and elderly folk. Among the societies she supported were the RSPCA, the Society for Sick Animals and the Putney Home for Incurables. She was also a member of Goring Parish Church. The funeral was at Peasemore Parish Church on Monday.

Peasemore House, Berkshire, had been her family’s house and other members of the family are buried at Peasemore.

Fannie died on 29 October 1959 in a nursing home at 40 Mill Road, Worthing. The probate record is shown below:

The Worthing Gazette (24 February 1960) later provided some details of her will:

…Probate has been granted to her nephews, Stephen W. Brown, of Peasemore, near Newbury, Berks.. and Maurice C. Waldron, of 16 Coleman-street, E.C.

She left an annuity of £300, a legacy of £300, the proceeds from the sale of her residence and certain effects, to her friend Gertrude Aldridge; £100 to St. John's Guild for the Blind; £50 each to South American Missionary Society and Putney Home for Incurables; £25 each to the Society for the Protection of Animals in North Africa, Peasemore Churchyard Fund, the Society for Sick Animals, and the R.S.P.C.A.

Other bequests were. £50 to her friend Irene Wix; £25 each to her friends Mary O'Dea and Teresa Crowley; £25 *as a token of my appreciation for the many kindnesses he has shown to me during my lifetime" to Mr. G. Dixon. of 3 Tennyson-road, Worthing; a few other personal legacies and the

remainder specifically to relatives and The Friends of the Poor and Gentlefolk's Help, Wireless for the Bedridden Society, The Church Missionary Society, and Royal London Society for the Blind.

A Sad Afternote: Pure Fiction

A story based on Willoughby Lowe and Fannie Waldron and their expedition to West Africa appeared in the book Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti in 2004. At the end of the short story the author wrote: ‘Although loosely based on historical fact, all characters and events in this story are fictional’. However, the work of fiction traduces both Lowe and Waldron and has reinforced my utter loathing of historical fiction.

A Revised Entry for Eponym Lexicographers


Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus Colobus badius waldroni Hayman, 1935 (currently Piliocolobus waldroni)

Forest Penduline Tit Anthoscopus flavifrons waldroni Bannerman, 1935

Barbus waldroni Norman, 1935 (currently a ssp of the Niger Barb, Labeobarbus bynni)

Miss Fannie (sometimes Fanny) Waldron (1876-1959) took part in two joint collecting expeditions with Willoughby Prescott Lowe (1872-1949) to the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1933-34 and 1934-35 for the British Museum (Natural History). Some specimens were sent from BMNH to the Royal Natural History Museum in Sweden. Live specimens were received by London Zoo. All three of her eponymous organisms are sometimes shown as waldronae. Lowe wrote: 'Finally, I must express my gratitude to my companion, Miss Fanny Waldron, without whose interest and assistance these natural history collections could never have been made'.

Bannerman DR. 1950. Willoughby Prescott Lowe. Vice-President B.O.U. 1943–45 and Union Silver Medallist. Ibis 92, 142–145 

Beolens B, Watkins M, Grayson M. 2009. The Eponym Dictionary of Mammals. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Beolens, B, Watkins M, Grayson M. 2014. The Eponym Dictionary of Birds. London: Bloomsbury.

Hayman RW. 1935: On a collection of mammals from the Gold Coast. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.1935, 915-937.

Lowe WP. 1937a. Report on the Lowe-Waldron Expeditions to the Ashanti Forests and Northern Territories of the Gold Coast.. Ibis 79, 345-368.

Lowe WP. 1937b. Report on the Lowe-Waldron Expeditions to the Ashanti Forests and Northern Territories of the Gold Coast.—Part II. Ibis 79, 635-662.

Lowe WP. 1937c. Report on the Lowe-Waldron Expeditions to the Ashanti Forests and Northern Territories of the Gold Coast.—Part III. Ibis 79, 830-846.

McGraw WS. 2005. Update on the Search for Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus Monkey. International Journal of Primatology 26, 605-619.  DOI: 10.1007/s10764-005-4368-9 

Norman JR. 1935. A collection of fishes from the Ashanti Forest, Gold Coast. Annals and Magazine of Natural History (Series 10) 15, 215-221.

Thursday 18 January 2024

George Finlayson (1790-1823) on travel, curiosity and science - plus his eponymous bulbul

In a recent article I wrote on George Finlayson’s eponymous squirrel. Finlayson had written notes before his death on board the ship carrying him from Calcutta to London. Sir Stamford Raffles, who edited Finlayson’s account of his travels in south-east Asia as part of the East India Company’s diplomatic/trade mission in 1821-22, thought the notes were intended for inclusion in a book to be written by Finlayson after his return to Britain. In an introduction Raffles included the following, which, apart from the supervention of Charles Darwin, is an apt a statement today as it was over 200 years ago:

In a greater or less degree, there is, perhaps, inherent in the minds of most men, a desire to visit foreign countries,—desire which neither storms nor tempests, deserts, wilds, nor precipices, with all their appalling fears, have been able to counteract or to check. Cast naked and helpless on this earth, man has aspired to scan its limits, to ascertain its bounds, and even to scrutinize its nature: he has risen superior to the contending elements, which might seem to have opposed an insuperable barrier to his restless ambition, to his ever-active, never-satisfied curiosity; and even the great globe itself no longer seems to offer a theatre too great or too extensive for the exertion of his activity. 

Insatiable ambition, boundless curiosity, are to be reckoned among the more prominent of the attributes with which man is endowed. To what mighty ends have they not led? If they have brought upon him, and upon the race, unnumbered evils, they have also had their attendant good. His share of peace, perhaps of happiness, had been greater had he indulged these propensities less; but it is not in his power to resist the unalterable impulse, conferred upon him, doubtless, for the best of purposes. The curiosity that is gratified with inquiring into the laws implanted in organized beings, or into the general phenomena which characterize the material world at large, admits of, and is usually attended by gratification as permanent as it is unmixed; every step is attended with unalloyed pleasure, every new acquisition leads and stimulates to further discovery. 

This disposition of the mind is particularly observable in those who have made nature and natural objects their study. Hence the eagerness with which men engage in them: no one capable of reflection but has at one time or other experienced this laudable curiosity, and wished for the power to gratify it. To this source we must refer the encouragement held forth in the present day to voyagers and travellers, and in general to every one engaged in matters of discovery. It is not extraordinary, therefore, that persons should readily be found eager to enter upon the investigation of new and distant countries, and of the various objects of knowledge which they contain. It is the lot of few to indulge their inclinations this way; and of these few, how scanty is the proportion of individuals qualified for the important task, either by original endowment, by previous pursuits and habits, or by the necessary education, or by a proper train and temper of mind! Fortunately, however, the objects of pursuit are as numerous as the taste of man is various, and something is left even to the most humble intentions. A proper consideration of this matter would lead to the most important acquirements both on the part of the most humbly endowed, and for the benefit of science and knowledge in general. The principle need not be enforced by argument: let us follow it, if possible, with alacrity, and make the most of the opportunities which fall in our way. Let us devote to the task those abilities, however moderate, with which the Almighty has endowed us, and we shall rarely fail altogether of deriving benefit from our exertions. We may rest secure that the labours so bestowed will seldom fail to be duly appreciated; that our observations will be received with candour, and our alignments, if urged with modesty, will rarely fail to be listened to by the circle of our friends and acquaintances, to the approbation of whom no one can be altogether indifferent. It is in this temper of mind that we may hope to avoid a two-fold evil; that of exaggerating the importance of the feeble exertions of an individual on the one hand, and of thinking too meanly of his capacity on the other,—since both are alike hurtful, and alike oppose the acquisition of useful knowledge. 

Since I can find no portrait of Finlayson I include a photograph of his eponymous bird, Pycnonotus finlaysoni, the Stripe-throated Bulbul. He collected it on the mission. Thomas Horsfield, curator of the East India Company’s museum in London and who described Finlayson’s Squirrel, sent the specimen to High Edwin Strickland (1811-1853) who got round to describing it in 1844, over 20 years after Finlayson’s death.

Streak-throated Bulbul in Thailand
Photograph by JJ Harrison*

Finlayson G. 1826. The Mission to Siam, and Hué the Capital of Cochin China in the Years 1821-2. London: John Murray.

Strickland HE. 1844 Descriptions of several new or imperfectly-defined genera and species of Birds. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 13, 409-415.

*JJ Harrison Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Saturday 13 January 2024

Bronze-Winged Mannikins: a colour plate from 1969

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the 16th in the series.

– – – – – – – – – –

The artist for this plate was Chloe Elizabeth Talbot Kelly (born 1927) who went on to illustrate a number of field guides. Her paintings of birds appear in art sales. She began painting in 1945 at the Natural History Museum in London.

The article accompanying this plate was written by Colin James Oliver Harrison (1926-2003) who worked for many years at the Natural History Museum’s bird collection at Tring.

The Bronze-winged or Bronze Mannikin (Spermestes cucullata) occurs in grassland across a large swathe of Africa. Large flocks feed mainly on grass seeds but also take small invertebrates during breeding in the wet season. 

Avicultural Magazine Vol 74, 1968

Saturday 6 January 2024

The Army Surgeon’s White Squirrel of Siam

This article could begin as part of a quiz: What mammal of unusual coloration connects a mission to Thailand, when it was Siam, and a Scottish doctor to my parents’ garden in the early 1960s?

The answer is Finlayson’s Squirrel. Callosciurus finlaysonii is unusual for two reasons. The first is that it comes in a wide variety of colour forms in different parts of its range in south-east Asia. The second is that in one of those colour forms the colour of the pelage is entirely white.

Finlayson's Squirrel, photographed in Saraburi, Thailand
Photograph from the project Noah Website*

It was this white form that was seen and collected by George Finlayson in southern Thailand. He was the surgeon and naturalist to a less than successful trade/diplomatic mission from the East India Company to Siam and Cochin China (Vietnam) led by John Crawfurd (1783-1868) and comprising the following members of the Indian Army plus Mrs Crawfurd: Captain Frederick Dangerfield (1789-1828) was assistant head; he had established a name for himself as a surveyor and geologist; Lieutenant Walter Rutherford (1801-1856) was in command of thirty sepoys. As far as I can ascertain all members of the mission—apart from the sepoys—were Scottish or of Scottish descent.

George Finlayson was born in Thurso in 1790. He became clerk to Dr Somerville, head of the army medical staff in Scotland during the Napoleonic wars. He did so in succession to his elder brother, Donald, who Somerville had moved on to the army medical service, such were his talents. This was a time when clerks served effectively as clinical apprentices. George followed Donald into the army. Donald served in the engagements preceding, and at, the Battle of Waterloo but then came to a sad end. He was assistant-surgeon to the 33rd Regiment of Foot but disappeared as the army marched on to Paris. It was thought Donald had fallen to marauders following in the wake of the retreating French army. George took leave to search for his brother but could find no trace. He was so distraught that the army, at Dr Somerville’s suggestion, moved him to the medical staff about to leave for Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Once there he threw himself into the pursuit of natural history. In 1819, he moved to India as assistant-surgeon to the 8th Light Dragoons then stationed at Meerut.

In order to stay in India for Crawfurd’s mission, when his regiment sailed back to Britain after its service in India, Finlayson moved to a different regiment.

After the mission in south-east Asia, George Finlayson quickly succumbed to what he self-diagnosed as phthisis—tuberculosis, as it later became known. He died on the passage from Calcutta to London on the East India Company’s ship, General Hewett, in 1823.

Finlayson had written an account of the Crawfurd Mission. It was published in 1826 with a ‘Memoir of the Author’ written by Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), founder of modern Singapore and of the Zoological Society of London. Raffles clearly thought very highly of Finlayson.

Finlayson had embarked on General Hewett with the specimens he had collected, including a white squirrel, destined for the museum of the East India Company which was in Leadenhall Street in London. The Keeper was another friend of Raffles, Thomas Horsfield (1773-1859). There Horsfield described the squirrel and named it after Finlayson as Sciurus finlaysonii. He began his description with a quotation from Buffon:

Sc. lacteus dorso flavescente, oculis vibrissis palmis plantisque nigris, cauda pilis nigris raris interspersa.

Ecureuil blanc de Siam, Buff. Hist. Nat. VII. p. 256.

Which translates as: a squirrel, milky with a yellow back; vibrissi, palms, plantar surfaces of feet black, a hairy tail interspersed with rare blacks.

Horsfield continued:

This species is dedicated to the memory of Dr. George Finlayson, (of His Majesty's 59th [2nd Nottinghamshire] Regiment [of Foot],) the naturalist, who accompanied John Crawfurd, Esq. in his mission to Siam and Cochin-China. His health was in a precarious state, from the effects of an Indian climate; and we have to lament that he did not live to return to his native country.

This species has hitherto been mentioned by Buffon alone [in 1789], from the following concise notice in P. Tachard's Travels. “Nous y (at Lonpeen, a village situated in the extensive forests of Siam) vimes aussi des Ecureuils, qui ont le poil parfaitement blanc et la peau tres-noire."—Second Voyage du P. Tachard, Paris, 1689, p. 249.

The following description is extracted from Dr. Finlayson's manuscripts:—“The head and body yellowish white; the head round; the cheeks full; the nose large ; the ears large, plain, not tufted; the iris dark brown; the whiskers long and black; the tail bushy, interspersed with black hairs, and tufted; palms of the feet black. This is an elegant, lively, and active species of Squirrel, almost perfectly white. The body is about seven inches in length, and the tail is equal in length to the body. The eyes are black and lively; and the animal, though white, has not the leucæthiopic habit common in the animals of Siam. It frequents large trees, feeds on their bark and fruit, and is generally seen upon a tall species of Aleurites. One of the specimens was shot by Lieut. Rutherford, on the Islands called Sichang, in the Gulf of Siam."

The India Museum closed in 1879 and the specimens transferred to what is now the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. And there the type specimen—the one shot by Lieutenant Rutherford on the island now known as Koh Si Chang—can be found, catalogued under its original scientific name of Sciurus finlaysonii. In his journal, Finlayson noted that on the group of islands that includes Koh Si Chang:

The [squirrel] is rare, about eight inches in length; an active, lively, and handsome animal.

On the morning of the 13th [August 1822) we landed on the principal island, in pursuit of white squirrels. 

Moving to the 21st century, Finlayson’s Squirrel is now known to vary widely in the coloration of its fur. It varies geographically (the basis of the erection of numerous subspecies, 16 of which are currently recognised). It varies within populations and it varies according to season. Coloration across its range (Burma/Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and centred in Thailand) varies widely including, as well as white, black, red and agouti. Intergrades between these forms have also been seen where populations meet. An example of variation within a population is in C. f. bocourti, common in Bangkok parks. Individuals may be dark on the dorsal surfaces of the body and forelimbs or entirely white. Variation with season has been described in a population that is maroon-red at one time of year and white at another. Charles Francis in his book published in 2008 made the point that there is a need for more observations in the field and for molecular genetic studies. A key question, of course, is whether all the Finlayson’s Squirrels currently labelled as such are indeed of a single species and whether other forms currently included in different species should be moved to C. finlaysonii. Possible reasons for the great variation in colour and pattern do not seem to have been explored and one can only speculate on the selective forces at play.

George Finlayson realised that white squirrels were present in southern Thailand as well as on the island of Si Chang. It just happens that the formal description of the species was from one shot on Koh Si Chang.

The variations in colour have been shown in several books and papers:

From Francis 2008 - see below

From Wilson, Lacher & Mittermeier 2016 - see below

The coloration of the species varies so much that the name Variable Squirrel has been used and indeed adopted by IUCN for its Red List. Why they should do that when everybody worth knowing has always called it Finlayson’s Squirrel I do not know.

Distribution of Finlayson's Squirrel
Adapted from the IUCN Red List

Horsfield’s use of -ii for the genitive of Finlayson in its specific name of finlaysonii is not the preferred form. Most, and certainly modern usage, would be finlaysoni, the single -i. As the latter it has often appeared in scientific papers and books including Walker’s Mammals of the World in at least some of the editions published since 1964.  However the rules are such that it is also incorrect to change it to the single -i. C. finlaysonii is the original spelling and therefore retained.

Unlike the vast majority of animals that I have kept over the past 65 years I cannot recall how I obtained a female Finlayson’s Squirrel in 1960 or 1961. Had I known then what I know now I would not have done so. Variegated Squirrel Bornavirus 1 (VSBV-1) was first reported in 2015 following reports of the three human deaths in Germany between 2011 and 2013 from of a previously unknown encephalitis. The novel virus was isolated from tissues of a Variegated Squirrel, Sciurus variegatoides, native to Central America, owned by one of those who had died. The virus has since been found in other captive squirrels, including C. finlaysonii and Prevost’s Squirrel (Callosciurus prevostii), in collections in Germany, the Netherlands and Croatia. Those who died were breeders of squirrels, were known to each other and belonged to a squirrel breeding association where they met regularly. Another fatal case occurred in a zoo keeper in Germany, with the virus being found in a Prevost’s Squirrel in the collection. The whole history of the appearance and evolution of the virus has been investigated by studying the molecular epidemiology, together with the activities of the individual keepers and the movement of animals between breeders and from the breeders to private keepers and zoos. Current evidence indicates that a Prevost’s Squirrel was responsible for the primary introduction of the virus.

Prevost’s Squirrels, a beautifully marked species, were commonly available from animal dealers in the 20th century. I have seen them for sale recently in UK and several zoos breed them. I do hope they are all tested, since the fate for those keepers who have caught VSBV-1 has been dire. Fortunately, there have been no cases of human-human infection reported. I do wonder if there have been unreported cases of encephalitis of unknown aetiology from keepers of other species of Callosciurus. For example, In Hong Kong, Pallas’s Squirrel (C. erythraeus) was a popular pet, kept in small cages in small flats and, therefore, in close proximity to the human inhabitants.

Since the discovery of VSBV-1 there has been considerable work in Europe to follow-up these findings with surveys of wild squirrels, zoo workers and the wider human population.

Returning to my Finlayson’s Squirrel of the early 1960s, it was an unsatisfactory addition for the simple reason is that it only appeared from its sleeping box at first light for a short run around its capacious outdoor cage and to eat. Except on rare occasions it stayed in its box for the rest of the day, summer and winter, for years. Only much later did I realise how it could survive on one meal a day. In the wild they are known to eat fruit, seeds, bark, buds, flowers and sap, all of low energy density. I gave the sort of mixture suitable for rabbits or rats: biscuit, wheat, maize, oats, sunflower seed and the like plus fruit like apples and vitamin supplements. All the former have 4-5 times the energy density of tropical fruits. It did not need to emerge for more food and it never or hardly ever did so even in the depths of winter. By contrast, I have seen photographs of tame Finlayson’s Squirrels reared in captivity.

All I remember from around that time is that the Finlayson’s Squirrels were advertised as white. Only much later did I find that not all Finlayson’s Squirrels are white. My guess is that importers wanted white squirrels and that whoever was exporting them from Thailand sorted them accordingly. 

As far as I can recall Finlayson’s Squirrels were only imported into Britain for a relatively short period from around 1960. However, they have now become naturalised as a result of releases/escapes in Singapore, in two areas of Italy from the 1980s, and the Philippines. Genetic evidence suggests they are also present amongst the introduced squirrels of Japan. In short, there is great concern in those regions that they have become a problem as an ‘invasive species’.


Cadar D, Allendorf V, Schulze V, Ulrich RG, Schlottau K, Ebinger A, Hoffmann B, Hoffmann D, Rubbenstroth D, Ismer G, Kibbey C, Marthaler A, Rissland J, Leypoldt F, Stangel M, Schmidt-Chanasit J, Conraths FJ, Beer M, Homeier-Bachmann T, Tappe D. 2021. Introduction and spread of variegated squirrel bornavirus 1 (VSBV-1) between exotic squirrels and spill-over infections to humans in Germany. Emerging Microbes & Infections 10 doi: 10.1080/22221751.2021.1902752 

Finlayson G. 1826. The Mission to Siam, and Hué the Capital of Cochin China in the Years 1821-2. London: John Murray.

Francis CM. 2008. A Guide to the Mammals of Southeast Asia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Horsfield T. 1824. Zoological Researches in Java and the Neighbouring Islands. London.

Mazzamuto MV, Wauters LA, Koprowski JL. 2021. Exotic pet trade as a cause of biological Invasions: the case of tree squirrels of the genus Callosciurus. Biolog 10, 1046. doi:10.3390/ biology10101046 

Public Health England. 2019. Human Animal Infections and Risk Surveillance group. Qualitative assessment of the risk that variegated squirrel bornavirus 1 presents to the UK population.

Wilson DE, Lacher TE, Mittermeier RA. 2016. Handbook of Mammals of the World. Volume 6. Lagomorphs and Rodents I. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

On that Cassowary in Timbuctu

I was looking for something else when I came across this letter in The Times of 14 October 1892.

It came after several days of correspondence following the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate. A relation indicated that Tennyson was the author (with slightly different words) to complement his poem entitled Timbuctu which won him Cambridge’s Chancellor’s Prize in 1829 at the age of 20. Others then wrote in to suggest different words and different authors for the quatrain which had become well known during the reign of Victoria. An account can be found here. These days I see the poem is attributed to Samuel Wilberforce but I have seen no actual evidence that he was indeed the author of the zoologically nonsense verse. But how delicious to see Huxley on the topic, given his famous put down of ‘Soapy Sam’ (the ‘unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous’ Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce) in the debate on Darwin's Origin of Species at Oxford in 1860.

And even more entertaining* for me since I was one of many successors to an office once held by both Huxley and Wilberforce.

*and yet even more so was a website describing the Oxford debate as between Wilberforce and Aldous Huxley. Oh well, only a couple of generations out.