5MR Lifer: Townsend’s Solitaire
I just got back from a vacation to Spain, which I’ll write up soon (hoopoe! chiffchaff! jackdaw! firecrest! flamingo!). But it turns out there was a decent bird to find here at home. A possible 5MR lifer had showed up the day we left for Europe, and it had apparently stuck around. So after I dropped my kid off at school, I drove over to the LMU campus to see if the Townsend’s Solitaire was still around. It had been hanging out in a little grove of oak trees near the library that I’ve often scanned for vagrants to no avail. When I walked up, it didn’t take me 2 minutes to see the solitaire moving around the trees. After racking up a string of lifers during our fantastic adventure to Spain, it was icing on the cake to add a 5MR lifer the day after I returned.
Townsend’s Solitaire is a gray, slender thrush that darts about and often perches on middle-level branches. It shows a flash of buffy yellow in its wings when it flies. It is typically a higher elevation mountain bird. I’d seen them multiple times up in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles (above 5,000 feet each time), in Madera Canyon in Arizona (4,900 feet elevation), and in Santa Fe, New Mexico (7,000+ feet). This bird atop the Westchester bluff was at approximately 150 feet above sea level. They’re pretty unusual in the L.A. basin. There seem to be more around this winter, perhaps because of all the snow we’ve had this year.
The bird gets its name from John Kirk Townsend, a naturalist who traveled the American West in the 1830s. In addition to the solitaire and Townsend’s Warbler, he’s got several mammals named after him. Townsend apparently died of arsenic poisoning, on account of the secret ingredient he used to prepare his taxidermy specimens. He’s often noted as one of the examples behind the bird names for birds movement, which seeks to rename birds who are named after people. It’s an effort I generally support. Most of the honorific bird names do not recognize the first person to ever find or identify a particular species of bird. Instead, they recognize the first white male to do so. Surely native residents all over the globe knew about the birds before the white guys they are named after ever saw them. It’s also a weirdly possessive practice. And many of these 19th century white guys may not deserve the honor. The problem with Townsend, apparently, is that he was a phrenologist who dug up Native American burial sites to bring skulls back to his racist skull-studying friends.
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