One of the little unsolved ornithological mystery gems I came across in my research for The Fascination of Nature had at its core one of the book’s real “characters”: the never-boring, serial truth-bender Edward “Ned” McIlhenny, heir to the still-extant (and still in the family) Tabasco sauce company. McIlhenny got very chummy with Stone in the 1930s, even paying the expenses of a trip Witmer and Lillie took to McIlhenny’s Louisiana estate in 1935. He was simultaneously sending articles to Stone for publication in The Auk, some of which, as detailed in my book, contained bogus material. McIlenny claimed in a 1937 Auk article that he had trapped and banded a Turkey Vulture x Black Vulture hybrid in Louisiana, and had sent the bird (alive) to Frederick C. Lincoln at the U.S. Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in Washington, D.C. This would be the only known instance of hybridization between the two species — if only it were true.
In Ralph S. Palmer’s excellent (and underappreciated) Handbook of North American Birds (Palmer was editor, and authored some of the accounts), the Turkey Vulture account states that the “hybrid” actually proved to be a Black Vulture with red paint applied to its head! Maybe it looked like this:
The assertion of the hoax was cited simply “E.P. Walker.” The Turkey Vulture account was written by Dr. Jerome Jackson, so I contacted him to get more info on his Walker citation. Dr. Jackson replied that the sentence about the hoax was an editorial insertion by Palmer (who passed away in 2003), and that he knew no more about the Walker citation than I did. He shared that Palmer had a card file (remember them?) for each species, and would sometimes pull info from the cards and insert them into the accounts, with limited documentation.
Some further recent research enabled me to get the picture about as clear as I guess we’re going to get it. According to another 1937 article he wrote, McIlhenny’s “hybrid” ended up at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. “E.P. Walker” is undoubtedly Ernest Pillsbury Walker, who was assistant director at the zoo at that time, and presumably discovered, or heard of, the duplicitous paint job. At some point, Walker must have shared the painted vulture story with Palmer, who diligently added the info to his card file.
Bottom line: if a birder today thinks they’ve found the first-ever hybrid between a Turkey and Black Vulture, because they saw a bird that looked like a Black Vulture with a red head, a simple digital photo won’t do. They’ll have to capture the bird and try a little paint thinner on the head to make sure someone else out there isn’t up to Tabasco Ned’s old tricks.