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Curious Collections: Identifying a Rare Bird

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Curious Collections: Identifying a Rare Bird
This photo shows a Congo Peacock feather from the Museum's Department of Ornithology collections. Catalog no. 837876. © AMNH/D. Finnin

Ornithologists generally discover new species by collecting them in the wild. But early in the 20th century, Museum ornithologist James P. Chapin found one on a hat.

In 1913, Chapin, while serving as an assistant to German taxidermist and photographer Herbert Lang on what would become known as the Lang-Chapin Expedition to the Belgian Congo, came upon a native of the Ituri forest wearing a headdress with a distinctive feather. To the young naturalist, it suggested a pheasant or peacock, a strange possibility since these birds were native to Asia. Curious, he took it.

Fast forward to 1936. Chapin was visiting the Congo Museum in Tervuren, Belgium, and, by pure chance, found an odd pair of taxidermied birds atop a cabinet. A label indicated they were familiar Indian or Blue Peacocks, but he suspected otherwise—feathers on these birds matched the one he had collected 23 years earlier. Later that year, in a professional journal, he described Afropavo congensis, or Congo Peacock, a unique species whose closest relatives are the Asian peacocks.

Eager to pursue his discovery in its habitat, Chapin returned to Africa in 1937, and in virgin forest in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he observed the birds on the ground and in flight and heard their nighttime call, repeated syllables of “gowé-gowah,” although Chapin wrote that he failed to catch the deep introductory “rro-ho-ho-o-a” also attributed to this bird.

Over the years, for a number of reasons, including the bird’s restricted distribution and characteristics that differentiate it from the Asian species, such as lesser ornamentation and a monogamous mating habit, ornithologists hypothesized a closer relationship to African guinea fowls or Old World partridges. However, genetic studies suggest that Afropavo is a sister taxon to the Asian Pavo species or true peafowl and that Chapin’s hunch 100 years ago was right.

The recipient of many professional awards, Chapin served as vice president of the American Ornithologists’ Union from 1934 through 1939 and as its president from 1939 until 1942. When he died in 1964 at the age of 74, he was a research associate in Ornithology and curator emeritus at the Museum. Dean Amadon, the then-chair of the Ornithology Department at the American Museum, said of him, “He was the best-loved and at the same time one of the most scholarly of American naturalists.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.