Another Piece of the Grosbeak Puzzle

Western “finches.”

The story of the piecemeal discovery of the evening grosbeak is too well known to bear repeating here. One often overlooked piece of the puzzle, though, fell into place 171 years ago today, on the banks of the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota.

On May 29, 1843, John James Audubon and colleagues were hunting and collecting around Fort George. In his diary that evening, Audubon noted that John G. Bell — he of vireo (and later of sparrow) fame — had run across several evening grosbeaks in the course of the day. And in a bit of classically Audubonian snideness, he couldn’t help adding

therefore there’s not much need of crossing the Rocky Mountains for the few precious birds that the talented and truth-speaking Mr. —— brought or sent to the well-paying Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia!

I don’t know whether those eloquent dashes were present in Audubon’s manuscript or we owe them to the punctiliousness of his famously fussy granddaughter and editor, but in either event, it is obvious that they conceal the name of John Townsend. The Mearnses tell the full story of Audubon’s struggle to get access to the nova Townsend had sent ahead to Philadelphia, a struggle Audubon himself describes in the bitterest possible terms in the Ornithological Biography. While Nuttall, who had been with Townsend in the West, “generously gave [Audubon] of his ornithological treasures all that was new,” Townsend’s specimens were in the possession, or at least under the control, of the Philadelphia academicians:

Loud murmurs were uttered by the soi-disant friends of science, who objected to my seeing, much less portraying and describing those valuable relics of birds…. seldom, if ever in my life, have I felt more disgusted with the conduct of any opponents of mine, than I was with the unfriendly boasters of their zeal for the advancement of ornithological science, who at that time existed in the fair city of Philadelphia!

Half a decade later, a thousand and a half miles away on the banks of the Missouri, it still rankled.