Friday, July 12, 2024

A Townsend’s warbler eats suet near the Linear Path in Cambridge on Jan. 29. (Photo: Ann Schlesinger)

In late January, you may have noticed small gatherings of people on the Linear Path in Cambridge. Some may have had binoculars or cameras, but most did not. These people stared into the trees. What rarity were they spotting?

The answer: a Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi), which usually lives along the Pacific Coast of the United States, but also winters in Mexico and Central America. So what was this cute little songbird doing here in Cambridge? No one knows, but it got people’s attention. 

Townsend’s warblers prefer locations with conifers. (Photo: Ann Schlesinger)

“On the Pacific Coast in winter, Townsend’s warblers often investigate backyard feeders, most regularly when temperatures drop below freezing, to eat energy-rich foods such as mealworms, peanut butter and suet. In all seasons, locations with coniferous trees are most likely to hold Townsend’s warblers,” according to All About Birds. This probably explains why this bird was spotted in January at a suet feeder among conifers in back of Cornerstone Cohousing, next to the path.

It does not explain what this bird was doing in Massachusetts, which is a very long way from the Pacific coast.

A Townsend’s warbler in the winter of 2008. (Photo: Linda Tanner)

The first European to note a Townsend’s warbler was John Kirk Townsend. He was an American naturalist who collected one of these birds near the Columbia River in Oregon in 1835. You may have heard that the American Ornithological Society plans to change the names of all birds that are named after people. The Society recognizes that certain names have offensive or derogatory connotations, especially to people who are not of European ancestry. The name Townsend’s warbler will be changed this year.

Who was Townsend, I wondered. Was he a bad guy? I had to investigate. At first, he did not seem offensive. He was a Quaker doctor from Pennsylvania, born in 1809. In 1846, two of his sisters, Mary and Hannah, wrote “The Anti-Slavery Alphabet” for a nationwide abolitionist organization. His brother Edward was President of the Philadelphia Institution for Instruction of the Blind. 

A Townsend’s warbler on November 2022 near Santa Barbara, California. (Photo: Channel City Camera Club)

Townsend himself became interested in natural history and bird collecting. The famous botanist Thomas Nuttall invited Townsend to accompany him on an expedition across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in 1834. Along the way, Townsend gathered many species of birds and mammals. He eventually sold 93 bird specimens to John James Audubon, 74 of which Audubon featured in his famous work Birds of America. Many of the bird and mammals that Townsend collected are now named after him: Townsend’s ground squirrel, Townsend’s chipmunk, Townsend’s mole, Townsend’s vole, Townsend’s pocket gopher, Townsend’s big-eared bat, Townsend’s warbler and Townsend’s solitaire.

A Townsend’s warbler at Cornerstone Cohousing in North Cambridge on Jan. 23. (Photo: Jeb Mays)

Thanks to Matthew R. Halley’s work, I learned that Townsend also collected human skulls. He dug up the graves of indigenous American men, women, and children. Then he separated the skull from the rest of the skeleton to add to his human skull collection, which he sent back to Samuel George Morton, also a Philadelphia Quaker and physician. 

Morton believed that skull capacity defined intellectual ability and that white people had larger skull capacities than other races. Morton eventually collected 867 human skulls to “prove” his hierarchy of human intelligence. The people at the top of the hierarchy, of course, were white like himself. 

A Townsend’s warbler in October 2008. (Photo: Kevin Cole, USFWS)

He based his ideas (sort of) on the Bible. He believed that not every race could have descended from Adam, and that there must have been five creation events that produced five species of human beings. His “scientific” books on this subject (along with the work of Cambridge’s Louis Agassiz) inspired Southern racists who claimed that science was on their side. 

When digging up skulls, Townsend was not making an innocent cultural mistake. Townsend knew he was committing atrocities that would anger the people he encountered. As he writes in “Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains, to the Columbia River”:

I visited to-day some cemeteries in the neighborhood of the fort, and obtained the skulls of four Indians. . . . I thought several times to-day, as I have often done in similar situations before:—Now suppose an Indian were to step in here, and see me groping among the bones of his fathers, and laying unhallowed hands upon the mouldering remains of his people, what should I say? – I know well what the Indian would do. He would instantly shoot me … Luckily for my pursuits in this way, there are at present but few Indians here, and I do not therefore incur much risk.

In one of Townsend’s letters to Morton, he describes his grave-robbing activities:

John Kirk Townsend in the 1830s. (Source: Wikimedia)

I send you a few skulls – one of a Klickitat Indian . . . . It is rather a perilous business to procure Indians’ skulls in this country. The natives are so jealous of you that they watch you very closely while you are wandering near their mausoleums and instant and sanguineous vengeance would fall upon the luckless wight who should presume to interfere with the sacred relics. I have succeeded in hooking one however, such as it is, and no doubt in the course of the winter I shall get more. There is an epidemic raging among them which carries them off so fast that the cemeteries will soon lack watchers. I don’t rejoice in the prospect of the death of the poor creatures certainly, but then you know it will be very convenient for my purposes …

The skull of the Chinook is that of a high chief as was known by the superior style in which his canoe was decked out, the unusual firmness of the wrappings with which the body was covered, and the evident care and attention which had been bestowed upon the whole business. I regret that I was not able to find the lower jaw. I groped about among the dry bones for half an hour but could not find it.

I for one am pleased that the American Ornithological Society plans to change the name of the Townsend’s warbler. As it is, birders must speak this man’s name every time they spot this marvelous, tiny songbird. This is systemic racism – baked into our everyday lives in ways in which we are not even aware. I was not familiar with this man’s history until I researched this article. Perhaps fittingly, this man died at the age of 41 from exposure to arsenic, which he used in his taxidermy applications.


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Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.