American Birding Podcast



Townsend’s Lark-Bunting

In the early part of the 19th Century, the great wide west of North America was still a book whose pages were still unwritten to the builders of the young nation pressed up against the eastern seaboard. Dozens of expeditions were launched to fill in those empty spaces with information – reports of economic potential, ethnographies of the many nations of indigenous cultures there, and descriptions of the animals and plants found in this new landscape.

The most famous expedition, the one taught about in schools, was the first. Lewis and Clark found their way to the Pacific in 1805, describing over 200 new species of plants and animals along the way. But they were civil servants and military men, not professional naturalists, or even particularly well-versed in nature study. Their haul of new species says more about the bounty of western North America than it does about their skills. Any one of us could probably catalog an order of magnitude more simply by virtue of our bird-honed awareness, and who among us hasn’t imagined being on that expedition to do just that? But Clark and Lewis set the die, and expeditions west became more common thereafter. A swarm of entrepreneurs, missionaries, and government topographers began making their own ways west for a variety of reasons. It soon became a thing to bring along a scientist or two on these trips, and once that happened the natural history of the west began to really open up.

John Kirk Townsend, photo wikipedia.

John Kirk Townsend, photo wikipedia.

Nathaniel J. Wyeth was a fur entrepreneur hoping to make inroads in the Oregon Territory. In his first trip in 1832, trailblazing the route that would eventually come to be known as the Oregon Trail, he was aware enough to collect a few plants that were previously unknown to science. Buoyed by the discoveries, he invited botanist Thomas Nuttall (of the woodpecker) along on his second expedition, who in turn extended an invitation to 24 year old amateur ornithologist John Kirk Townsend. We naturalists known Townsend for his Solitaire and his Warbler and his Big-eared Bat, so the end of this story is already established, but at the time he was a physician and pharmacist in Philadelphia. A hobby naturalist but one of good enough standing that Nuttall would tag him to accompany the expedition as the bird expert. In his narrative of the Wyeth expedition, Townsend is nothing short of in awe at his circumstances and the incredible things he’s finding, even as he chafes at what is journey driven by the bottom line, writing:

What valuable and highly interesting accessions to science might not be made by a party, composed exclusively of naturalists, on a journey through this rich and unexplored region! The botanist, the geologist, the mamalogist [sic], the ornithologist and the entomologist would find a rich and almost inexhaustible field for the prosecution of their inquiries, and the result of such an expedition would be to add most materially to our knowledge of the wealth of our country, to furnish us with new and important facts relative to its structure, organization, and natural productions, and to complete the fine native collections in our already extensive museums.

Townsend seems to have predicted the BioBlitz craze in his work here, but his sentiments are familiar to anyone who has visited a new and wonderful place. Somewhere along the journey, while near the Platte River in Nebraska, he found and collected a Chestnut-collared Longspur, sending it back to J.J. Audubon, who illustrated the “Chestnut-collared Lark-Bunting” and included it in his landmark Birds of America.

Unfortunately, Townsend doesn’t include any specific remarks about the bird in his memoir. There were simply too many new things to see and document and catalog, so one grassland bird among many didn’t make the cut when placed up against the narrative goldmine that is bear attacks, encounters with indigenous tribes, and the scenic grandeur of the west. I’ll say this for Townsend, he seemed to know his audience.

Though the western plains are different now, cut into pieces by agriculture and grazing, shadows of their former glorious selves, there are parts of them that are as relevant now as they were those nearly 200 years ago, as Townsend and his fellow explorers experienced it. Like, for instance, the tinkling song of a Chestnut-collared Lark-Bunting ringing out over a seemingly rich and inexhaustible landscape.