Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Characaro=Red-Winged Blackbird


Photo from Red Orbit
The mystery of the characaro may just have been solved, by none other than the artist himself - Louis Nicolas! The Queen's-McGill edition of the Codex is accompanied by Nicolas's Natural History of the New World, in both modernized French and translated English. There has been some debate over who was the actual author of this document, but through the scholarship of Francois-Marc Gagnon, Nancy Senior and Real Oullet, as well as Germaine Warkentin, it now seems pretty clear that it belongs to Louis Nicolas. His text is both studious and idiosyncratic, much like the drawings, and it roughly follows the order of images in the Codex, but not exactly.

Anyways, in the section of the Natural History where he is describing the other birds on the page in question - the grey jay, the blue jay and the American robin - he also mentions the starling, which he describes as being of two kinds, the first black with all the varieties of colours seen through a beautiful glaze; "and the second, much more beautiful than the first, for in addition to the beautiful plumage it has on the back of both wings a heart that is so distinct that there is nothing more precise, nor of a more beautiful golden colour, set off by a very fine bright red like a golden glaze on the whole surface of the heart, which is almost as large as the French double or liard coin on each side, in the place that I have indicated."

As is his custom, he also goes on to say that the flesh of the bird is tough and not very good to eat, while in the next sentence he says they have a beautiful song and he thinks they could be taught to speak.

Now, as you can see, the red spot on the wing doesn't really look like a heart. It certainly inspired quite a rhapsody from Pere Nicolas, though, so perhaps, as Jean commented, he had fallen in love. Not proper Jesuit behaviour, but then again he wasn't exactly a proper Jesuit.

Where the term "characaro" came from could be anybody's guess. My friend, artist, poet and bird lover Sue Wheeler suggests that it sounds like the name of a South American falcon, so maybe common names of birds were not as fixed as they are now, and certainly not as they were before Linaeus created his system of classifcation.

And finally, I discovered the other day that I am not the only fan of Pere Nicolas. A PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Merideth Beck Sayre, has posted an article about Louis Nicolas. After my excited communication with her, she has also posted a lovely article about my work and the similarity of my process to her own research. Such a wonderful surprise for the Internet to bring to wrap up the year!

4 comments:

  1. when I read the title of this post I thought "characaro" might be someones attempt at describing the music this bird makes. I grew up by the waterside in the northeast and that sound was my alarm clock and ticked off the hours of my days. I always paid attention because it always heralded something to get excited about.

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  2. So glad the mystery bird is named! Though I bet it would be a lot harder to identify many of Pere Nicolas' delightful critters without his captions. How neat that you've found a fellow fan!

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  3. I loved the article that Merideth wrote about your work. Isn't it amazing how the internet can sometimes put us in touch with interesting people'
    Happy new year, Heather!

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  4. Anonymous6:46 AM

    Interesting to read of fans of The Codex Canadensis and Father Nicolas' Red-Winged Blackbird (Characaro). love your work. I am from Québec and fascinated by the history from all angles. Denise

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