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by Tom Thomson
Doctor Kirtland's Warbler
A Kirtland's Warbler photographed in Columbus.
"We cannot remember too often," wrote 18th century German physicist and philosopher G. C. Lichtenberg, "that when we observe nature, and especially the ordering of nature, it is always ourselves alone we are observing." A true enough observation- if you take it with a grain of salt, as my maternal grandmother used to say.
Lichtenberg would have seemed right on the money if we consider our rather belated and uncertain history regarding the Kirtland's Warbler, a species with plenty of problems of its own-first and foremost being a precarious grasp on survival itself. But for all that, the interrelationship between the firebirds, as they are sometimes called, and humans is a colorful one and, hopefully, in the long run, one that will benefit the warblers.
Rarest of North American warblers, the type specimen of the species was shot and collected May 13, 1851 by Charles Pease on the grounds of Doctor. Jared P. Kirtland in the village of Rockport, now a part of Lakewood, Ohio.
Doctor Kirtland seems to have been a Renaissance man. Born in Connecticut in 1793, he became a physician, a teacher, a zoologist, and a public servant. Since birders were a genre not yet realized, he would have to be described as an ornithologist, a collector of bird skins, and an accomplished taxidermist.
While still a boy he became intensely interested in natural history. When he was only fifteen he discovered parthenogenesis in silkworm moths, a convenient process in reproduction whereby eggs are fertilized without the benefit of sperms.
In 1813, he was a member of the first class of medical students at Yale College and received his M. D. in 1815. After practicing medicine for several years, he moved to Ohio where he served in the state legislature for six years. He taught at several small medical schools in Ohio and later became one of the founders of Cleveland Medical College.
Afield and in his study, Dr. Kirtland continued to contribute to our knowledge of natural history. He was interested in invertebrate zoology and he completed one of the earliest surveys of the zoology of Ohio.
Back to the uncommonly large, attractive warbler Charles Peace had collected with his trusty shotgun. He had no idea what it was. It had a superficial resemblance to a magnolia warbler, but was obviously not a member of that species. He gave the bird to his father-in-law, Dr. Kirtland, who was also totally puzzled as to its identity. The good doctor skinned it and a few days later gave the specimen to his old friend and corespondent Spencer F. Baird of the National Museum, who had stopped over in Cleveland on his return to Washington from a meeting in Cincinnati.
In 1852 Baird published a description of the warbler and he named it after his friend Kirtland, a man he described in his paper on the subject as "a gentleman to whom, more than anyone living, we are indebted for a knowledge of the natural history of the Mississippi Valley."
Like the taxonomic placing of a number of other warblers, it is an uneasy fit, might have deserved a genus of its own, maybe someday will find another niche in "the ordering of nature."
A bigger irony arose when it was discovered that ten years prior to the acquisition of the Ohio specimen, a male of the same species-unnamed at the time-was obtained during the second week of October in 1841 by Doctor Samuel Cabot of Boston, while aboard a ship near Abaca Island in the Bahamas.
Doctor Cabot and his colleague John L. Stephens, were on their way to the Yucatan where they became so engrossed with the flamboyant neotropical birds they collected there-many of them also unclassified-that they totally forgot about the warbler skin they had prepared aboard ship. It remained in Doctor Cabot's collection for more than twenty years, "unwept, unhonored, and unsung."
So there you are. But for the luck of the draw-if events had transpired differently-perhaps we would have a Cabot's Warbler, or maybe if the bird had been named after the good Doctor Cabot's wife, as was sometimes the custom, an Elizabeth's Warbler, or a Mary Jane's Warbler, or a Rebecca's Warbler. Or maybe it would have been called the Bahaman Warbler.
But there's more to tell about this rare and elusive bird.
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