Audubon, Swainson, Cassin, Townsend, Steller, Pallas and Wilson and the Birds Named After Them

There will be at least two blog posts later on my recently ended excellent trip to North Carolina.  One of the last birds seen on that trip was a Swainson’s Warbler.  It had been hoped for but I was not expecting to find one and certainly not expecting a photo.  Thanks in large measure to the wonderful birding ear of my travel companion, Frank Caruso, we found one and it cooperated for a fine photo.

Swainson’s Warbler

Swainson's Warbler 2

Earlier I had earlier seen my ABA first Wilson’s Storm Petrel and my ABA first Audubon’s Shearwater and the combination of the three made me wonder about the naming of these three species and maybe others that were named after people.  So I went all bird nerdy and checked the AOU Checklist (the one before Hawaii was added – I will never accept that addition).  I may well have missed some but found that there were 100 species on the list that appeared to be named after specific people – although I wasn’t sure about Anna’s Hummingbird and three warblers – Lucy’s, Grace’s and Virginia’s.  The vast majority were one-off mostly rarities like for example Stejneger’s Petrel.  Remove them and the list drops dramatically.

If thus limited to species where at least two are named after a specific person, the list has only 36 species.  Drilling down a bit further, of those 36 there are 14 named after 7 individuals – like the Bell’s Sparrow and Bell’s Vireo named after John Graham Bell who accompanied John James Audubon on one of his trips.  But it’s my blog so I get to make executive decisions and I am using Audubon’s Warbler instead of Yellow Rumped Warbler to move John James Audubon from that group of seven to the group of seven for whom at least three species are named.

Here then are the remaining 25 species where at least three are named after one individual – listed from most to fewest by their namesake.

  • John CassinCassin’s Auklet, Cassin’s Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch, Cassin’s Kingbird and Cassin’s Vireo
  • Alexander WilsonWilson’s Warbler, Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Plover and Wilson’s Phalarope.
  • William SwainsonSwainson’s Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush and Swainson’s Hawk
  • John Kirk TownsendTownsend’s Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire and Townsend’s Storm Petrel
  • Georg StellerSteller’s Eider, Steller’s Jay and Steller’s Sea Eagle
  • Peter Simon PallasPallas’s Rosefinch, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and Pallas’s Bunting
  • John James Audubon: Audubon’s Shearwater, Audubon’s Oriole and Audubon’s Warbler – currently lumped with the former Myrtle’s Warbler as the single species now known as Yellow Rumped Warbler.

Including Audubon, these 7 ornithologists/naturalists/artists thus give us names for 22 ABA species.  All of the Pallas species are rarities from Eurasia found almost exclusively in remote areas of Alaska.  The same is true for the Steller’s Sea Eagle.  At first, I could not find any Ebird ABA area record for the Townsend’s Storm Petrel which generally occurs in Pacific waters off Central America but learned it has been seen on some San Diego pelagic trips.  It was a split from Leach’s Storm Petrel.  Excluding those five very rare species, after my trip to North Carolina, I have now been very fortunate to have seen and photographed all 20 remaining species – all of them in 2018.  It just turned out that way as I was chasing other targets – but a fun outcome.  The remainder of this blog shares some information about the people who gave their names to these species and includes my sighting records and photos for the year.

John Cassin (1813 – 1869)

John Cassin

A noted taxonomist who among other things named 198 species not previously described by Audubon and Wilson.  He served as Curator of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.  All of the birds named after him were found in the West, his major area of focus but one he never visited.

Cassin’s Auklet – Westport Pelagic, Washington March 17

Cassin's Auklet

Cassin’s Sparrow – King Ranch April 6

Cassin's Sparrow

Cassin’s Finch – Texas and Washington April 13

Cassin's Finch Llano

Cassin’s Kingbird – Ramona, California, February 28

Cassin's Kingbird with Berry1

Cassin’s Vireo – Bullfrog Pond, Washington May 8

Cassin's Vireo

Alexander Wilson (1766-1813)

Alexander Wilson

Regarded as the founder of American Ornithology due to his pioneering American Ornithology – a 9 Volume set published between 1808 and 1814 (the last volume posthumously).  His work encouraged John James Audubon.

Wilson’s Warbler – Scriber Lake Park, Washington May 21

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Storm Petrel – Hatteras, N.C. Pelagic June 1

Wilson's Storm Petrel 6

Wilson’s Snipe –  Ridgefield NWR, Washington January 7

Wilson's Snipe2

Wilson’s Plover – Tule Lake, Corpus Christi, Texas April 2

Wilson's Plover B

Wilson’s Phalarope – County Line Ponds (Grant), Washington May 19

Wilson's Phalarope1

William Swainson (1789 – 1855)

William Swainson

An English ornithologist, entomologist, conchologist, natural historian, and a gifted illustrator of the natural world. He was a pioneer of the new lithographic technology, which enabled quicker reproduction of his work than engraving.

Swainson’s Warbler – Columbia, N.C. June 4 

Swainson's Warbler 1

Swainson’s Thrush – Whitehorse Centennial Trail, Washington June 7

Swainson's Thrush1

Swainson’s Hawk – Kittitas, Washington April 19

Swainson's Hawk Below

John Kirk Townsend (1809- 1851)

TownsendA naturalist, ornithologist and collector who accompanied Thomas Nuttall on a Western expedition where Townsend, better known for the many mammals he found and were named after him, also collected many new bird species including Vaux’s Swift, Sage Thrasher, Mountain Plover and the Townsend’s Warbler sending many to John James Audubon.  An unfortunate note:  he died of arsenic poisoning – the secret ingredient used in his taxidermy preparations.

Townsend’s Warbler – Edmonds, Washington January 8

Townsend's Warbler

Townsend’s Solitaire – Camano Island, Washington January 21

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend’s Storm Petrel (Photo from the Internet – I have not seen one and definitely could not ID it)).  It is a recent split from Leach’s Storm Petrel.  I hope to see one in San Diego in August.

Townsend's Storm Petrel

Georg Steller (1709 -1746)


A German botanist, zoologist, physician and explorer, who worked in Russia and is considered a pioneer of Alaskan natural history from his work in the North Pacific.  In addition to the three avian species, the well known Steller’s Sea Lion is named after him.

Steller’s Eider (Female) – Seaside Cove, Oregon January 28

Steller's Eider

Steller’s Jay – Bow, Washington, January 1

Steller's Jay

Steller’s Sea Eagle – (I have not seen this species – maybe someday in Alaska)

Steller's Sea Eagle

Peter Simon Pallas  (1741 – 1811)


A native German naturalist, he is remembered mostly for his  research occurred during the Siberian Expedition in 1768 arranged by Catherine the Great, ruler of the Russian Empire, where he lived thereafter.  He worked extensively in far eastern Russia. I have not seen any of the species bearing his name and all photos are from the internet.

Pallas’s Rosefinch

Pallas's Rosefinch

Pallas’s Bunting

Bruant de Pallas Emberiza pallasi Pallas's Reed Bunting

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler


John James Audubon  (1785-1851)


The most well known and prolific of the early naturalists and illustrators.  He is best known for his paintings found in his seminal Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size and most importantly life-like prints an American art classic.  Like most of the others mentioned in this blog, he lived in Pennsylvania where he is said to have conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes learning that they returned to the same nesting sites each year.  He traveled extensively in the eastern and southern U.S. collecting specimens and he collaborated with many other naturalist collectors of the period.  I am including the “former” Audubon’s Warbler as his third eponymous species because it would be wrong to not have Audubon on this list (and I am still hoping they return to that name).

Audubon’s Shearwaters – Hatteras, N.C. Pelagic June 1

Audubon's Shearwaters 2

Audubon’s Oriole – King Ranch, Texas April 6

Audubon's Oriole

Audubon’s Warbler  – South Padre Island, Texas April 8

Audubon's Yellow Rumped Warbler

All of these birds and all of these naturalists/ornithologists were from such a very different time in history.  No cameras, so collecting meant shooting specimens and studying them feather by feather.  That is still done today, of course and there is no substitute for having a bird in hand, but in our digital world, how nice to have our apps, cameras, phones etc.  How nice too to be able to fly to – wherever – rather than the long, arduous, dangerous and sometimes even fatal adventures taken over land and sea by these pioneers.  Birding offers so many areas of interest.  I enjoyed this brief departure from sometimes blow by blow descriptions of my own trips and observations.  It was nice to have this historical framework for these experiences.

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