The discovery and description of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)

John James Audubon (1785-1851). Digital source:

In 1834, pioneer naturalists John Kirk Townsend (1809–1851) and Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) accompanied Nathaniel Wyeth‘s second expedition, to the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest of North America. Among the treasures collected by Townsend were two specimens of a bird species, then unknown to science, that is known today as Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus Nuttall). In 1836, the bird collection returned with the expedition party to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP), where it was eagerly awaited by John James Audubon (1785–1851), who wanted to include any new species from the collection in The Birds of America (1827–38) and Ornithological Biography (OB 1831–39). However, at first, Townsend’s friends at the Academy were defiant (Audubon 1838; OB vol. 4: xi):

Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), captured in May 2011 at White Clay Creek State Park, DE.

Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), captured in May 2011 in northern Delaware, USA. (Photo: MRH)

“Dr Townsend’s collection was at Philadelphia; my anxiety to examine his specimens was extreme. . .Having obtained access to the collection I turned over and over the new and rare species but he [Townsend] was absent at Fort Vancouver on the shores of the Columbia River, Thomas Nuttall had not yet come from Boston and loud murmurs were uttered by the soidisant friends of science, who objected to my seeing, much less portraying and describing, these valuable relics of birds, many of which had not yet been introduced into our fauna.”

Nuttall c.1928, during his time at Harvard. Portrait is attributed to J. Whitfield. Digital Source:

Nuttall eventually agreed, without Townsend’s consent (He was still out west and wouldn’t return until late 1836), to sell duplicate specimens to Audubon upon condition that any new species be first published in Townsend’s name (Audubon 1838; OB vol. 4: xii). The subsequent paper by ‘Townsend’ included the descriptions of twelve new species (1837, Journal of the Academy 7:187–193), but did not include the new thrush, perhaps because Audubon (OB 1839, V:204), who had not observed the species in life, expressed doubt as to whether it was different than Wilson’s Thrush (Turdus Wilsonii; known today as the Veery Catharus fuscescens):

“I have by me a female specimen of a Thrush sent me by Dr Townsend, who procured it on the Columbia River on the 19th June 1838, and which he considered as new, but which I find to differ in no other respect from specimens of Turdus Wilsonii than in having some of the spots on the sides of the neck and the breast of a darker brown. This skin measures seven inches two and a half twelfths in length.” [NOTE: The year 1838 in this quote seems to be an error, since Townsend and Nuttall’s expedition occurred in 1834-35.]


John Kirk Townsend, discoverer of C. ustulatus

One of Townsend’s types, mis-identified, was apparently sold to Audubon as a duplicate. Years later, Audubon gave this specimen to Spencer Baird (1823-1887), who deposited it with his extensive personal collection in the United States National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), where it resides today (Specimen #2040; Deignan 1961, Smithsonian Bulletin 221:431-432).

The other specimen remained at the Academy. When Nuttall realized his error, he included the new thrush species in the second edition of Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada (1840:400), presumably describing it from the Academy specimen, having sold the other to Audubon—ANSP Specimen #23644, Fig. 1 below; see Stone 1899, Proceedings of the ANSP 51(1):19). On its authority, he (erroneously) named the new species cestulatus, but published an erratum in the preface of the same volume, correcting it to ustulatus (Nuttall 1840:xi):

“. . .The only specimen from which I am now able to describe the species is that of a female procured on the banks of the Columbia on the 10th of June by my friend Mr. Townsend. This neglect arose from the too hasty conclusion that it was no other than the well known Wilson’s Thrush.”

Fig. 1. Side and ventral views of the holotype specimen, which is missing the original label. The replacement label bears this citation on the front,

Fig. 1. Side and ventral views of Townsend’s holotype specimen. The original label is missing. The replacement label bears this citation on the front, “Turdus ustulatus Nutt Man. N. A. Bds I (1840) p.400,” and on the back, presumably copied verbatim from the original label, are written Townsend’s initials in quotes and a female symbol: “♀ J.K.T.” Photos by MRH, with gratitude to members of the ANSP Ornithology Dept.

Categories: Exploration, History of Science, Natural History, OrnithologyTags: , , , , , ,

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