Friday mystery object #404 answer

Last week I gave you this bird from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

It wasn’t really much of a challenge for the usual suspects, with everyone recognising this as a Common Hill Myna Gracula religiosa Linnaeus, 1758.

However, my reason for picking this as a mystery object wasn’t for the challenge offered, but as an illustration of just how frustrating the taxonomy of old collections can be. Everyone recognised this bird, which is not a huge surprise, given how familiar this species has become due to the pet trade, but anyone looking at this specimen on display would probably struggle to match the specimen to the species considering the label that was attached:

The common name here suggests that the specimen is from Malaysia, then the scientific name suggests Java, but then the locality associated is just “East Indies”. The genus name does at least bear a passing relationship to the modern specific name (“Eulabes” means “pious” or “devout” while “religiosa” is self-explanatory). Similarly “Grackle” does hold a clue to the modern Genus name of “Graculus“. Most confusing.

To make things worse, the Graculus is now recognised as forming a species complex across Asia, so it would be good to narrow down which subspecies this specimen belongs to:

Distribution of the various species and subspecies within the genus Gracula. Image by L. Shyamal, 2009

The pattern of coloured feathers on the neck and head on the Dead Zoo specimen appears to match G. religiosa intermedia most closely, so when I eventually reach the stage of rewriting labels for specimens on display, I’ll do my best to improve the information. Unfortunately, this will probably need to happen for around 75-80% of the collection, so no pressure…

4 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #404 answer

  1. Hi Paolo,

    I enjoy your puzzles very much. If you need more second opinions about doubtfully labeled bird mounts, skulls or skeletons than one every two weeks, just put them in a folder or gallery on your website with a form in which visitors can give you their identifications.

  2. Pet birds in homes were more popular before the ’80s?
    Relabelling might take a Count Gracula lifetime or two. I don’t suppose you could print the labels with white ink on black paper – reflections of white labels on glass cabinets was a real pain getting photos at Tring Museum 👍🏻.
    It would be good if you could tag the info to the specimens on Domavue/Matterport too.
    Most of the 3D Virtual Visit labels can’t be read, so it’s hard to cheat. Here’s the birb:,1.13&ss=54

  3. Religious because… the dark plumage reminded someone of clerical robes? Or is there a further reason for the trivial name?

  4. Very interesting. My “bible” is Salim Ali’s ‘The Book of Indian Birds’ but it clearly has a limitation: it only says where in the Subcontinent they’re to be found. No mention of the wealth of sub-species in southeast Asia. It hampers ones understanding of species and their distribution, to everybody’s non-benefit.

    Thanks for this.

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