Bird Lady Blog

August 17, 2017

Wha ARE These People?


 

Townsend’s Warbler

Steller. Say.  Anna.  Grace.  Townsend.

Each of the names above is found in the names of one of the birds we find in Munds Park. Steller’s Jay.  Say’s Phoebe.  Anna’s Hummingbird.  Grace’s Warbler.  Townsend’s Warbler.

I personally prefer bird names that relate to what the bird looks like or area in which it resides – for example, White-Breasted Nuthatch or Western Bluebird. But some lucky people got to have a bird named after them, and there is a little history behind each one.

The Steller’s Jay is the only jay found in Munds Park. It is large and glossy blue and black, has a crested head, loves peanuts, is noisy at times, and will nest near our homes – at the top of a garage light fixture, for example.  It will rob other birds’ nests of both their eggs and young.  Its range is confined to the Western United States and it likes coniferous and mixed forests.  It was named after the naturalist who discovered the bird, George Wilhelm Steller, who is considered a pioneer of Alaska natural history.  He died at age 37, most likely of scurvy and fever, on an expedition, and several of the other animal species he identified are already extinct.

Our Say’s Phoebe, a medium-sized flycatcher, is found mostly on the Pinewood Country Club golf course. This bird is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist who focused primarily on insects.  He explored the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains.  He died at the age of 47 from typhoid fever.

Anna’s Hummingbird was named after an Italian duchess, Anna De Belle Massena. A naturalist named Rene Primevere Lesson named the bird after her in a time when “collecting” new species was all the rage.  Supposedly a specimen of the bird was given to Lesson by John James Audubon, and Lesson, a French naturalist, named it after the duchess.

I identified what I think was a Grace’s Warbler one afternoon in our front yard. I spent a good 10 minutes watching it flit in the highest parts of the Ponderosa Pines and ended up getting “warbler’s neck” after those 10 minutes.  Grace’s Warbler was named by Spencer Fullerton Baird, at the request of Dr. Elliot Coues, in honor of Dr. Coues’ sister Grace Darlington Coues.  Dr. Coues was a naturalist and discovered the bird in the Rocky Mountains in 1864.  His sister was 18 at the time.

A couple of years ago I identified a Townsend’s Warbler heading through Munds Park during migration. Its distinctive head pattern of a yellow face and dark cheek patch made it easier to identify than other warblers.  John Kirk Townsend was trained as a physician and pharmacist who also had a strong interest in nature and bird collecting.  Besides the warbler, he has the following named after him;  Townsend’s Vole, Townsend’s Mole, Townsend’s Chipmunk, Townsend’s Ground Squirrel, Townsend’s Pocket Gopher, Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat, and Townsend’s Solitaire (a bird which I found on a trip down Schnebly Hill on the way to Sedona).  Mr. Townsend died in 1851 of arsenic poisoning – he had developed a potion for taxidermy and the secret ingredient was arsenic, which he himself got too much of.

It’s pretty fascinating I think to learn how these birds were named. Also makes me grateful for modern day medicine – treating scurvy and typhoid fever and having warning labels on poisons like arsenic!

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