In need of a name for a new sunbird in 1831, Irish zoologist Nicholas Aylward Vigors turned to Elizabeth Gould. Mrs. Gould was the better half of the better known John Gould, famous today as the father of Australian ornithology. John Gould was a self-taught English ornithologist, who published a number of major contributions, and played a key role in setting Charles Darwin onto his path towards writing On the Origin of Species. It was Gould who first noted the ground finches likely represented a new, previously unknown group. Few ornithologists have had a more significant impact than John Gould, but he had a lot of help along the way, particularly from his wife Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Gould, from Ramsgate, England was a relatively little known figure in the history of ornithology until a collection of her letters was discovered and recounted in a book titled, The Story of Elizabeth Gould (Alec Chisholm, 1944). The letters and a diary revealed a woman of great depth and character, with interests in languages and music, and she and her husband were a dynamic duo indeed. After their marriage in 1829 she learned lithography from Edward Lear, and went on to illustrate a remarkable list of publications including The Birds of Europe (1832–1837), The Birds of Australia (1840–1848), and Darwin’s Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle (1838–1841), among still others. Yet all of these works still lay ahead of her when Vigors named this remarkable sunbird in her honor. Both the Gouldian Finch and the Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird are named for Elizabeth Gould, and each is stunningly beautiful.
Sunbirds, of course, are well known as among the most beautiful birds in all the world, and as a group they seem to be doing pretty good. Only a handful of the near 140 species are really at risk, and despite being stunners they are not actively sought as cage birds. Insectivores with brush-like tongues for slurping nectar, they fulfill a similar niche to the hummingbirds of the New World. Ranging from northern Australia and across Africa, many sunbirds are found in Asia too, including those in the genus Aethopyga, like Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird which is found in China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, India and Bhutan.
If you’re in search of a new adventure in 2017, you can see Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird and a whole bunch of other cool birds too on several upcoming Rockjumper trips. Bhutan (18 March – 6 April 2017) offers fabulous opportunities for Ibisbill, Satyr Tragopan, Blood Pheasant, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Ward’s Trogon and Beautiful Nuthatch while China – Sichuan Birding (15 May – 2 June 2017) boasts chances at a snazzy line-up of pheasants and parrotbills, Grandala, Black-necked Cranes and much more. And if you want to honour Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird at another destination, consider Myanmar (4 – 17 March 2017) where Mount Victoria Babax, White-browed Nuthatch, Mrs. Hume’s Pheasant and the spectacular Gurney’s Pitta, found only on our special extension, are all possibilities as well.
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