Research and content by Rick Williams, YAS Board Member
There recently has been much national debate over the legacy of our forebears, the celebration of past deeds and misdeeds, and the need to address this past in an effort to promote a more equitable society. The National Audubon Society has issued its own statements on the subject. (1, 2)
Two ornithologists, Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter, have created the website Bird Names for Birds, devoted to eliminating all eponymous names and have sent a letter, co-signed by 182 ornithologists and leading birders, to the American Ornithological Society, requesting that the AOS and its North American Classification Committee (NACC) address the “role that eponymous common bird names play in perpetuating the effects of colonialism” by August 15, 2020. (3) The AOS did not specifically address their request, but did announce on August 7, 2020, that the NACC had accepted a proposal to change the name of McCown’s Longspur to Thick-billed Longspur. So, as birders and members of the Yolo Audubon Society, we should be aware that this discussion is on the table, and that it is perhaps timely to examine some of the namesakes of our familiar birds.
An Abbreviated History of Ornithology in the West
Among the earliest Western explorers from the East was the Englishman Thomas Nuttall, who retraced the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-1806) in 1811, explored the Arkansas and Red Rivers in 1818-1820, and then went on an overland expedition to the Northwest Pacific coast led by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth in 1834. Nuttall was accompanied on this last trip by the young naturalist John Kirk Townsend, and numerous birds were found and named by them, including on later trips to California. Their discoveries and exploits are well-known and documented. Another remarkable explorer was William Gambel, who met Nuttall in 1838, when Gambel was 15 years old. He became Nuttall’s apprentice for several years and at age 18 set off along the Santa Fe Trail, “becoming the first botanist to enter California from the east.” (4) He discovered his quail, the Mountain Chickadee, and Nuttall’s Woodpecker in 1843, at age 20.
Taking a look at the age of discovery and naming of many of our Western birds after 1850 takes us back to the United States of the 1850-1890’s, with the states of Texas (statehood 1845), California (1850), Oregon (1859), and Nevada (1864) and the Territories of Utah (established 1850/statehood 1896), Arizona (1863/1912), New Mexico (1850/1912), Oklahoma (1890/1907), and Indian Territory (1834-1907 in ever-shrinking size until eliminated by merging with Oklahoma — the only U.S. territory on the continent to never gain statehood). (5) It is a vast subject and there are many rabbit holes to get lost in. Disputed discoveries, merging and splitting of subspecies, and renaming of species add to the confusion.
The history of ornithology in the West at this time is largely the history of United States Army surgeons, medical personnel, and officers dispatched to distant military outposts. I draw heavily on Lt. Col. Edgar Erskine Hume’s 543 page tome, Ornithologists of the United States Army Medical Corps. (6) The flavor of the book may be appreciated by its opening sentences:
When the U.S. Army was playing its mighty part in the winning of the West there was often great opportunity for scientifically minded officers to study bird life in the Territories which, as yet, were hardly known to the white man. The Army was small, and it’s function was that of a fighting force only. It had nothing of the present additional duty of the Regular Army, the training of the reserves.Lt. Col. Edgar Erskine Hume, Ornithologists of the United States Army Medical Corps
They fought Native Americans and the Army of Mexico, who felt they had rightful claims to the land. The Army defended military outposts, railroad lines, and the migration routes and settlements of the increasing waves of newcomers.
Spencer Fullerton Baird began his association with the Smithsonian Institute in 1850 and was “dedicated to expanding the natural history collections of the Smithsonian, which increased from 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over 2 million by the time of his death (1887)”. (7) He married the daughter of the Inspector General of the Army and used this connection to cultivate military physicians and officers to be his collectors in the West. Some were dispatched before the Civil War as part of six War Department survey parties in the 1850’s to scout routes for the transcontinental railroad. Most were posted after the war and many had been surgeons in the Civil War. A notable exception was Elliott Coues, who graduated from medical school in 1863 and was assigned directly to Fort Whipple, the newly constructed first capital of Arizona Territory, in 1864.
Some were not medical men. Lt. Col. James William Abert and Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson were Army Engineers. Capt. John Porter McCown served in the U.S. Army in battles in Mexico and Texas, and sent most of his specimens to George N. Lawrence, New York City businessman and ornithologist, rather than to Baird. McCown added seven birds to the U.S. First Seen list (Black-bellied Duck, Green Kingfisher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Pyrrhuloxia, and Great-tailed Grackle) and discovered three species (Olive Sparrow, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and the Longspur). Elliott Coues (sort of) credits him with one more, as we shall see later on. McCown resigned from the U.S. Army in 1861 to join the Confederacy.
Maj. Charles Bendire was a career soldier and officer. Hume claims him as part of the Medical Corp because he briefly served as a Hospital Steward in the Civil War. He fought in multiple battles in the Civil War and against Native Americans. It is said once he went deep into Apache land and met with Cochise to broker a temporary peace. Bendire was also an incredible naturalist and ornithologist. His many contributions to zoology are too numerous to mention. His 8,000-specimen egg collection was the largest donation ever to the Smithsonian and Prof. Baird made him a lifetime Honorary Curator of Oology. He wrote many papers and in 1892 published his Life Histories of North American Birds. Several birds were named for Bendire, but only the Thrasher, named for him by Coues, remains. He described and named Attwater’s Prairie Chicken.
Asst. Surgeon (Lt.) William Wallace Anderson collected specimens for Baird before the Civil War, including a new species of warbler, in 1858, which Baird named after Anderson’s wife, Virginia. He resigned from the U.S. Army in 1861 and joined the Confederacy.
Asst. Surgeon James Graham Cooper was the son of William Cooper (for whom Charles Lucien Bonaparte named the hawk, possibly the best known American eponymous bird). He was a member of one of the Pacific Railroad Surveys in the 1850s, served in California during the Civil War, and was a voluminous writer in natural history, including his Ornithology of California in 1870. The Cooper Ornithology Club of California is named for him. Several species were named for him, all now relegated to subspecies. He described Lucy’s Warbler, named after Baird’s daughter Lucy, and the Elf Owl (formerly Whitney’s Elf Owl).
The most famous of them all, Surgeon Elliott Coues, wrote his first paper on the genus Tringae of North America, at age 19, based partly on personal research he did in Labrador. At Fort Whipple, the headquarters for the military campaigns against the Yavapai and Tonto Apaches, he was often unable to do his collecting outside the fort. Once, the company was under strict orders that no one discharge their weapon so as to not reveal their position, and if any shots were fired, all were to rush to aid. A shot was heard, and all ran to the rear, to find Coues holding a bird. Coues reportedly said, “I really could not allow this bird to escape without causing a serious loss to science.” His commanding officer replied, “Well, I shall deprive science of any further collections for a week by placing you under arrest.” (8)
In 1872, at age 30, while on duty at Ft. McHenry, Maryland, Coues wrote his Key to North American Birds, a description of every species of bird, living and fossil, known north of the U.S.- Mexican border. (9) In 1881, he resigned from the Army to become full time naturalist of the Geographical Survey of the Territories, and published 15 volumes of his reports.
Coues was also a major combatant in the Great Sparrow War of 1874. This was not a military campaign, but a dispute about the House Sparrow. Dr. Thomas Mayo Brewer of Boston felt the rapidly spreading birds should be left alone; Coues and others were in favor of extirpation. It is strange that Coues has no remaining eponyms (all now subsumed as prior described species), but he did ask Baird to name a new warbler after his sister Grace in 1865. He seems to be the most decent and accomplished of all of them. (10) He described and named many birds; a partial list of the ones that continue as species to this day include Black-vented Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, Ashy Storm Petrel, Least Storm Petrel, Rock Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Bendire’s Thrasher, Gray Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, and Rufous-winged Sparrow.
Surgeon William Alexander Hammond collected many specimens for Baird at Ft. Riley, KS, before the Civil War, including a new species of toad and snake. He trained John Xantus and connected him with Baird. Xantus discovered and named a flycatcher after Hammond in 1858. Hammond went on to become Surgeon General of the U.S., and is famous as being the “Father of American Neurology.”
Acting Asst. Surgeon Adolphus Lewis Heermann received his M.D. in Maryland and was a surgeon naturalist in the Fifth Pacific Railroad Survey led by Williamson. He sent many specimens to both Baird and John Cassin, Curator of Ornithology of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. He sent a new gull species to Cassin, who named it after him.
Surgeon (Lt. Col.) Thomas Charton Henry was stationed at Ft. Fillmore, NM Territory, in 1852, collected for both Cassin and Baird, and sent and named a new species of thrasher to Cassin (who then sent it to Baird for second opinion), the Crissal Thrasher. Crissal refers to the undertail coverts surrounding the cloaca.
The LeConte family is a chapter onto itself in natural history. John Eaton Le Conte lived most of his life in New York, but spent the winters in Liberty County, GA , where his brother Louis had inherited the family rice plantation, Woodmanston, which held 231 slaves. He wrote many papers on plants, insects, and vertebrates. He described and illustrated 22 species of terrapins in the southeast and was called the “Audubon of Turtles.” He explored the St. John River in Florida in 1822, as did Audubon in 1831.
It is likely Audubon named Le Conte’s Sparrow after him in 1844. Most sources say Audubon named it after his son, John Lawrence LeConte (who dropped the space after Le), who was 19 years old and in medical school in 1844, which seems unlikely. John Lawrence LeConte, however, was to have a glorious natural history future. He never did much doctoring, being independently wealthy (from the family’s Northern land holdings) and turned to beetles. (11) He described 5,000 new species of beetles, and named and described over half of all insect taxa known in his lifetime. While beetle collecting in Arizona in the Mojave, he discovered the thrasher, named after him by George N. Lawrence. He also sent specimens to his distant cousin Baird, who in turn had his collectors send LeConte beetles.
Louis’s sons (John Lawrence LeConte’s cousins) were born at the Woodmanston plantation; John and Joseph LeConte. They moved to Oakland in 1869, after both lent their scientific expertise to the Confederate Niter Works, to join the newly established University of California; John as professor of physics, Joseph as professor of geology. (12) Joseph LeConte founded the Sierra Club with John Muir in 1892. LeConte Hall in Berkeley, one of the largest physics buildings in the world, is named after the brothers. A proposal to “un-name” LeConte Hall was issued by the Chair of the UC Berkeley Physics Dept on July 15, 2020, because of Joseph LeConte’s openly racist views. The Sierra Club has addressed this as well. It should be noted that John Lawrence LeConte briefly resumed his medical career, as a surgeon in the California Volunteers, Union Army, and became Asst. Director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, so he did not share all his cousins’ sympathies.
Sometimes splitting and lumping gets you an eponym; sometimes it takes one away. Samuel Washington Woodhouse, M. D., was the last survivor of the U.S. Army surgeon naturalists in the Pacific Railroad surveys, living until 1904. He described the Black-capped Vireo, Cassin’s Sparrow, White-throated Swift, and got his scrub jay eponym returned to him in 2016. John Xantus, however, had his Murrelet split into Guadalupe Murrelet and Scripp’s Murrelet in 2012. Xantus, like Audubon, was a “fabulist,” a shadowy and “romantic” character who was from Hungary, and embellished or fabricated many details of his life. He worked as an Army Hospital Steward at Fort Riley and Fort Tejon, CA, and wheedled his way into a consulate in Manzanillo, Mexico. Unfortunately, he threw his lot in with a local warlord and was forced to return to Hungary. He did collect birds, though, and Baird supported him in his various scrapes.Besides Xantus’ Murrelet and Hammond’s Flycatcher, he described the Spotted Owl, Cassin’s Vireo, and Gray Thrasher (a Baja California endemic).
John Henry Clark, surveyor and collector, also had a long wait. While Meriwether Lewis got the woodpecker and William Clark the nutcracker, the grebe is named after John Henry Clark, who sent it to Lawrence. First described in 1858, the AOU did not make it a species until 1985. (13)
There were other U.S. Army Surgeons who were renown ornithologists. Lt. Col. Edgar Alexander Mearns and Maj. Robert Wilson Shufeldt were founders of the American Ornithological Union, along with Maj. Bendire. (14) By their time, however, the Indian and Mexican Wars were over. The Army had now expanded into the U.S. possessions of the Philippines and Cuba, fighting new battles (such as with the Moros in the Philippines). Under the command of Surgeon Maj. Genl. Leonard Wood, they were given the time and latitude to pursue their ornithological interests, and collected and named dozens and dozens of species. If you bristled at the mention of colonialism in the introduction, it may be time that we admit that our march across the continent was to establish U. S. colonies and territories with boundaries, laws, ownership of land, and enforcement that we chose and imposed, ignoring the rights of prior occupancy.
As the old adage goes, “History is written by the winners”. These men (and they are all men — I have searched for ornithological participation by women during this period, and all I can find are references to Virginia Anderson, Lucy Baird, and Grace Coues — I suspect this is an undercount of women’s contribution) were impressive, seemingly boundless in energy and output, and they do engender a wonder, “How did they do it all?“ But maybe it wasn’t all them. How many others in all capacities and walks of life contributed their knowledge of local flora and fauna to them? How much collateral damage came with their scientific quests? We shall never know all, but I think a reckoning with the past is something that each of us should consider. In our own way we can examine whether our own heart is pure; when confronted by wrong, try to call it out; strive to see all as equal and worthy; and acknowledge that great wrongs and injustices have been done.
As for McCown, I don’t think we should miss him. His fellow officers Elliott Coues and Charles Bendire would not. In his Life Histories of North American Birds, Bendire, always quick to credit collectors, conspicuously avoided ever mentioning his name, using only Lawrence’s descriptions of his many finds. Coues also called McCown out: “The Black-capped (now Black-tailed) Gnatcatcher…was discovered by Capt. J.P. McCown, then of the United States Army, who subsequently changed his allegiance to a temporary confederation which was declared in 1861.” (15)
1. Yarnold, David; President and CEO, National Audubon Society; Revealing the Past to Create the Future.
2. Nobles, Gregory; The Myth of John James Audubon
3. Bird Names for Birds; www.birdnamesforbirds.wordpress.com
4. William Gambel. n.d.
5. A proposal to admit Indian Territory (now eastern Oklahoma) as the state of Sequoyah was rejected by Congress in 1905. Indian Territory. n.d.
6. Hume, Edgar Erskine. Ornithologists of the United States Medical Corps. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1942.
7. Spencer Fullerton Baird. n.d.
8. Hume relates this anecdote as published by Capt. Charles Curtis, a member of the company at the time.
9. J. A. Allen called this “one of the best, if not the best, bird book ever written.”
10. In a jarring exception to his storied life, promptly after arriving at Ft. Whipple, Coues applied for a divorce from Sarah Richardson, claiming although there had been a marriage ceremony in 1863, it was not “ratified by a marriage bed.” Since there were no divorce laws in the newly created territory, the separation had to be “accomplished through an act of the territorial legislature,” one of Arizona’s first divorces. Arizona Historical Society Library and Archives, MS 178, Papers, 1864.
11. Scudder, Samuel. Memoirs of John Lawrence LeConte. National Academy of Sciences, 4/17/1884. www.nasonline.org.
12. Stephens, Lester. LeConte Family. New Georgia Encyclopedia. www.georgiaencyclopedia.org.
13. Beedy, Edward and Pandolfino, Edward. Birds of the Sierra Nevada. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. This great book, by one of our local luminaries, also explains the eponymous origins of many of our birds.
14. In 2016, the American Ornithological Union (AOU) and the Cooper Ornithological Society merged to form the American Ornithological Society (AOS).
15. Fischer, Dan Lewis. Early Southwest Ornithologists, 1528-1900. University of Arizona Press
16. American Birds, March, 1981, pp.172-173
All opinions and the veracity of statements of facts are solely the responsibility of Rick Williams and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Yolo Audubon Society. He was a Commissioned Officer (Lt.) in the U.S. Public Health Service from 1979-1981, posted to Field Station, Immokalee, FL. While there he published no monographs. He did collect, with his brother, the first and still only reported Eared Grebe in Collier County, FL (found dead floating in Lake Trafford). The specimen resides in the Museum of the University of South Florida, Tampa. (16)