Historical Bios

Townsend‘s Warbler. Klaas‘s Cuckoo. Barrow’s Goldeneye. Anna’s Hummingbird. If you have ever flipped through a field guide for any part of the world, you’ve probably noticed how many birds bear the names of people.

Some seem self-explanatory. We’ve all heard about Audubon, of course, and there’s Lewis’s Woodpecker and Clark’s Nutcracker of Lewis and Clark fame. Others seem more obscure. Who was the Allen that the hummingbird refers to? Or Bendire, whose name is usually only encountered when arguing about which thrasher it was you saw on some lonely Southwest US back road?

“Who was this Bendire guy anyway?”

There are some books that endeavor to give life to the names. But in too many cases, these end up boiling down lives into brief rundowns of highlights and achievements. We wanted a fuller picture of these people whose names we remember whenever we speak a bird’s name- both the ones mostly unknown, as well the usually unspoken dark sides of figures we think we know.

The results of this digging are presented here. While there certainly are thrilling stories of adventure and inspiring tales of trailblazers, there is also a great deal of the worst sides of humanity. The history of ornithology is, in many ways, a microcosm of the history and the harms of Western science. In the biographies presented here, there are grave robbers who displayed humans in museums. There are explorers whose pursuit of knowledge was deeply entwined with the expansion of colonialism. There are phrenologists and eugenicists and owners of enslaved human beings, people who sought to build taxonomies of humankind that defined those who should rule and those that should be ruled, people who defined whole continents as up for grabs.

These are the people after whom we have named birds. It’s our responsibility to know of whom we speak when we say these names- and, hopefully, stop to consider whether we should.

J.F. McLaughlin

Read the profiles: