Monday, July 28, 2008


One bit of grade school history that’s stayed with me lo these many years is the 1805 Lewis and Clark expedition. Of course there wasn’t very much time devoted to it in class, and it wasn’t until I saw the 1997 PBS documentary by Ken Burns that I really understood for full significance and sheer magnitude of the their accomplishment. If you haven’t seen this DVD, I would heartily recommend it, even if you don’t think you have an interest in the subject. It’s so movingly presented, with breathtaking scenery, intimate passages from Lewis’s journals and other correspondence, and a wonderful soundtrack; you can’t help but be drawn in. Not only is the factual account of their travails enthralling, but the obvious emotion of the some of the historians in speaking about it will leave you with a lump in your throat, too.

If you’re a birdwatcher (I’m old school, I don’t use “birder”) you will probably be one step ahead of me here…yes, the fame of Messers Lewis and Clark lives on in two birds named in their honor: Lewis’s Woodpecker and Clark’s Nutcracker. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some good views of both. Clark’s Nutcracker can be found in the Rockies not far from where I used to live, in Alberta. And I saw several Lewis’s Woodpeckers once on a trip to British Columbia. It should be pointed out that Clark’s Nutcrackers don’t actually crack nuts for a living, and Lewis’s Woodpeckers doesn’t peck much in the way of wood, either, but the wisdom of ornithologists and taxonomists is no doubt behind the names, so who are we to raise a hand in question.

Birdwatchers, in fact critter-watchers of any kind, will note that many species are named after famous naturalists. One fellow who has been tagged more than most is William Swainson. His name precedes a species of Warbler, Francolin, Sparrow, Antcatcher, Fire-eye, Flycatcher, Toucan, Hawk…and counting. Another frequent name is Georg Wilhelm Steller, who must have spent the bulk of his exploring under sail. He lends his name to a species of Sea Otter, Sea Lion, Eider, Sea Cow, Spectacled Cormorant, and my particular favorite, the Steller’s Jay. Sadly, the Cow and the Cormorant have been hunted to extinction, but the name still stands. And Latin buffs can find Steller’s name associated with the Gumboot chiton (a kind of mollusk and no, it doesn’t look particularly like a boot, at least not to me) and a species of wormwood.

For me, knowing a bit about the names behind the names really adds to both. It’s too bad they don’t teach kids history and bird watching at the same time.

Update July 31/08: I just discovered that there is also a Mount Steller, a Steller Range, and a Steller Glacier. I think we have a winner!

Photos top to bottom: Clark’s Nutcracker (Shutterstock), Lewis’s Woodpecker (Wikimedia Commons), Steller’s Jay (Wikimedia Commons)


Poetikat said...

Lovely post and you're right - it would be a charming element to add to the history books.

Just so you know, the soundtrack to Ken Burns's The Civil War, is one of my all-time favourite cds. (I haven't played it in ages, so I think I'm going to have to do that tomorrow.)


bobbie said...

Ah, but what's in a name? The lovely birds and other animals are totally oblivious to the burden they carry. Seriously, it would not be a bad idea if nature and history lessons could be combined. But first, we'd have to teach the teachers.

Kathiesbirds said...

Beautiful photography. I love these birds. I saw my first Stellar's Jay in Yellowstone along with a Clark's Nutchracker, but I had to move all the way to AZ to see a Lewis's woodpecker for the first time this year. Thanks for all the history. I found your blog from Bobbie's "Almost There". I am an avid birder down in AZ. My Blog is "Sycamore Canyon" and I also have an art and poetry blog called Kathie's Poet Tree. Nice to meet you!

me ann my camera said...

This is wonderful and the reading of it leaves me with an urge to visit the west again. I have always loved the accounts of the early explorers and as a child in school my fantasy was to grow up to be an explorer. In 1967 I visited Rocky Mountain House and watched the reenactment of voyageurs launching their canoes in the Saskatchewan within sight of David Thompson's fort. What endurance and fortitude these men must have had. But I wander from the topic of your post. This was a lovely read.