Presidential Birds

What do Lincoln’s Sparrow and Wilson’s Warbler have in common? Do you know? Can you guess? You’re right—they were not named after presidents. However, since they do share a last name with a former president, it seems appropriate to learn about this Lincoln and this Wilson on President’s Day.

Lincoln's Sparrow_EchoLake-MtEvans_CO_LAH_5987

Lincoln’s Sparrow is a cute little bird. Its brown feathers are suffused with a coppery tint. (I use the copper color as a handy mnemonic—coppery bird, copper penny sporting a profile of Lincoln.)

Instead of Abraham L., this sparrow is named after Thomas Lincoln, a traveling companion of John James Audubon. At the age of 21, Mr. Lincoln accompanied the famed ornithologist on an expedition to Labrador. On the way, they found a new sparrow in Quebec—but no one could catch it. Audubon wrote at length about the bird’s  bucolic valley, how beautiful its song was, and how elusive the it proved to be—until Lincoln finally nabbed the specimen by shooting and killing it.

I feel sorry for the sparrow, whose only crime was to be as yet undiscovered. However, the bird was avenged. Like so much of the northeast, the valley was infested with voracious black flies, and they apparently found Lincoln to be especially tasty. According to Audubon’s journal, “Tom Lincoln, who is especially attacked by them, was actually covered with blood, and looked as if he had had a gouging fight with some rough Kentuckians.”


Wilson's Warbler_CrowValleyCG-PawneeGrasslands-CO_LAH_2418Now we come to Wilson, whose first name was Alexander, not Woodrow. This Wilson, who lived from 1766 to 1813, is the person behind not only the warbler that carries his name (left), but also a storm-petrel, snipe (below, left), phalarope (below, right), and plover (bottom). That’s a lot of birds! Who was this Wilson?

At first glance, he seems a rather unlikely person to have five North American bird species named after him. Born in Scotland, Wilson worked as a poet. Perhaps he wasn’t all that sensible—or he didn’t have a lot of self-restraint—as he was arrested for writing a poem insulting a local mill owner. (I didn’t realize that being satirical could get your arrested.) As a result, he departed his homeland in 1794 and sailed for America, settling in Pennsylvania.

Scotland’s loss was our gain. While earning his living as a schoolmaster, Wilsons primary focus was on describing and illustrating every bird in the newly formed United States. His work was compiled into a tome with the all-encompassing name of American Ornithology, and it earned him the lofty title of the Father of American Ornithology.

Wilson's Plover_CaboRojoNWR-PR_20100527_LAH_4747

I discovered that Wilson continued to write poetry in his new country, and not surprisingly, he wrote about birds. I’ll close with an excerpt from “The Blue-bird”. (You can read the entire poem here.)

WHEN winter’s cold tempests and snows are no more,
Green meadows and brown-furrowed fields reappearing,
The fishermen hauling their shad to the shore,
And cloud-cleaving geese to the Lakes are a-steering;
When first the lone butterfly flits on the wing;
When red glow the maples, so fresh and so pleasing,
Oh then comes the blue-bird, the herald of spring!
And hails with his warblings the charms of the season.

He flits through the orchards, he visits each tree,
The red-flowering peach and the apple’s sweet blossoms;
He snaps up destroyers wherever they be,
And seizes the caitiffs that lurk in their bosoms;
He drags the vile grub from the corn he devours,
The worm from their webs where they riot and welter;
His song and his services freely are ours,
And all that he asks is in summer a shelter.

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