Posted by: atowhee | March 25, 2023


Today we got two Townsend’s Warblers through our garden–one female, then one male. The female had the green face, the male’s the dark black markings. He posed, she didn’t.

This warbler is one of several species made known to science through the work of Dr. John Kirk Townsend. He is one of the foremost figures in the history of Oregon ornithology before the Civil War. He and Nuttall came here together, the first trained natural historians to walk across the North American continent, the first on land bird specimen collectors since Lewis & Clark three decades earlier.

“For North American birders and ornithologists, the name Townsend is familiar, even if the details are slightly hazy. Most know that John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851) was a naturalist in western North America in the early 1800s. Those who have dabbled in mammalogy will probably add that he didn’t just study birds. A few might remember his death– arsenic poisoning from his own specimen preparation method– as a cautionary tale. But his name is still mostly just that: a name frequently heard, but without a strong sense of the man behind it.

“Townsend was a naturalist from a young age, and got his big break when he was invited in 1833 to join Thomas Nuttall and Nathaniel Wyeth on an expedition across the Rocky Mountains. At the time, this was still an extremely unfamiliar area to most white settlers, and Townsend jumped on the opportunity. His collections of birds and mammals included many that were unknown to white scientists, and both Audubon and Rev. Bachman drew heavily on his collections in their work cataloging the animals of the continent.” Click here for more from the website quoted above.

Now if we could just the vole and solitaire to show up next to this warbler… Of course, there is an impossibly lengthy list of Townsend’s namesakes: long-ear bat, mole (besides vole), ground squirrel…and Townsend’s Bunting, a bird he found near Philadelphia, illustrated by Audubon…and then argued over for decades. Click here for likely solution to the Townsend’s Bunting mystery. If you want to get very, very, very deep into the taxonomy–click here. Audubon’s drawing:

Townsend and Nuttall stayed some time on Sauvie Island when they first arrived. Later Dr. Townsend was employed by Hudson’s Bay Company which directed its Columbia River operations from Fort Vancouver. He was an associate of Dr. Tolmei whose name turns up in warbler nomenclature as well.



  1. I enjoyed reading your detailed histories of the birds and the men who named them. Very informative

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