Ornithology back in the day

It’s interesting to note that back in the 1800’s, ornithologists brought along their shotguns when going on birding expeditions. Specimens were “collected” for scientific research and eggs were gathered as well. Now, it is highly illegal to possess any wild bird, and outside of hunting season, any game bird. And only game birds that were legally hunted are allowed to be mounted. It is for good reason that feathers, eggs, and nests of wild birds are also prohibited possessions. It used to be a popular hobby to collect and catalog bird eggs. It is very understandable that a hobby like that could have a devastating effect on bird populations.

When the new world was settled by the Europeans, there was intense interest in all the new species being discovered, especially in the avian world where there were so many new birds. It was, and still is, a great honor to discover a new species and then have it named after you. There are many examples like: Swainson’s Thrush, Swainson’s Hawk, and Swainson’s Warbler all named after William Swainson (1789-1855) or Alexander Wilson (1766-1813): a Petrel, a Plover, a Warbler and a genus of Warblers bear his name. Ironically, John James Audubon, the famous naturalist who we associate the most with discovering and documenting birds, did not name any birds after himself. Later the sub-species of the Yellow-rumped Warbler that occurs out west was named after Audubon.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

The Warbler name that has always intrigued me is the Blackburnian Warbler. This spectacular little Warbler should have an equally special name, but the name Blackburnian confused me until I found out the real reason for the name. According to my Dictionary of American Bird Names: “Some time in the later eighteenth century, a specimen was sent from New York to England, and there described and named for a Mrs. Blackburn who collected stuffed birds and was a patron of ornithology.” Even the scientific name doesn’t do justice to the bird, Dendroica fuscus, which means “tree-dweller” and “dark”. I guess there’s a lot of black on the bird, but what about the flaming orange! Maybe Dendroica tigrina, which means “striped like a tiger”, would be a better name, but that is the name of the Cape May Warbler, another jewel of our northern forests. 

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Which brings up another conundrum, many birds were named after the place where the first “specimen” was “collected”. And that’s why we have names like Magnolia Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Nashville Warbler, and Philadelphia Vireo just to list a few. These birds all go to the northern parts of North America (including northern Minnesota) to breed and merely migrate through the places that they’re named after. Go figure…

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