Whose Bird? - Number 2

William John Burchell

by Bruce Poulter

William John Burchell was born in Fulham, London on the 23rd of July 1781. His father was a botanist, so William followed in his footsteps when he undertook a botanical apprenticeship at Kew. In August 1805 he sailed for St. Helena intending to set up as a merchant with a partner from London. After the dissolution of this partnership Burchell accepted a position as a schoolmaster on the island and, later, he became the official botanist. He moved on to South Africa in 1810 and soon began his travels in that country. In the next five years he collected over 50,000 specimens, covered over 7,000 km and described his journeys in two volumes. His travels are commemorated by the variety of species named after him.

One such species is Burchell’s Sandgrouse (Pterocles burchellii), which is featured on stamps from Bophuthatswana and Namibia. This bird, with its heavy white-spotting, is normally found in pairs in the Kalahari sandveld.

Another bird originally named after him is Burchell’s Gonolek (Laniarius atrococcineus). This species, which is Namibia’s national bird, has a series of English names including Crimson-breasted Gonolek (in Clements), Crimson-breasted Shrike and Crimson-breasted Boubou. A bird of the arid savanna, it features on stamps from 10 African countries. On the stamp from Niger it is simply and aptly described as ‘Gonolek rouge et noir’.

Guides to the Birds of Southern Africa continue to refer to Burchell’s Coucal (Centropus burchelli) as a separate species. Clements, however, currently considers it to be one of the four races of the White-browed Coucal (namely Centropus superciliosus burchelli). The White-browed Coucal – a large, rather lethargic cuckoo-like bird – featured on this Ciskei stamp would have a darker head with no eye stripe, if it were ‘Burchell’s’ race.

The two other birds named after him - Burchell’s Courser (Cursorius rufus) and Burchell’s Glossy-Starling (Lamprotornis australis) – have not (yet?) appeared on stamps.

His name is perhaps most often associated today with Burchell’s Zebra (Equus burchelli), the national animal of Botswana. Finally, his early days as a botanist are remembered by the Wild Pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina), which is illustrated in the header block of this article.

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