Last updated: March 5, 2019
John Kirk Townsend
By Jack Nisbet
When Nathaniel Wyeth made a second expedition to the Columbia in 1834, he brought two naturalists with him: Harvard professor Thomas Nuttall and a young Philadelphia ornithologist named John Kirk Townsend. With a sensible Quaker background and a self-deprecating sense of humor, Townsend set about documenting the fauna of the region. After spending the winter of 1834-35 in Hawaii, Townsend returned to Fort Vancouver in time for songbird migration, and eventually described five wood warblers from the Pacific Northwest.
Specializing in bird and rodent specimens, Townsend kept careful behavioral notes about his prizes. He characterized the Audubon’s warbler as “always silent while engaged in seeking its food,” and observed that the shy member of the family we now call MacGillivray’s “warbles a very sprightly and pleasant little song, raising its head until the bill is almost vertical, and swelling its throat in the manner of many of its relatives.” John James Audubon later used several of Townsend’s specimens as models for his large paintings.
Well aware that the California condor had been studied by both Lewis and Clark and David Douglas, Townsend determined to make his own study skin of a bird he encountered feeding on dead salmon at Willamette Falls. After taking what he thought was a kill shot and stripping naked to swim over to a sand bar and retrieve it, the collector was surprised to discover that “the huge creature had been only wing-broken and as I approached him, seemed determined not to yield himself a willing captive.” As people and dogs from the local village gathered around, Townsend began to pelt the condor with stones. Laughter from the women rang in his ears as he tried to kick sand in the bird’s eyes.
Occasionally harassed by local dogs while hunting for specimens, Townsend threatened to shoot the unruly animals if they were not tied up. From then on, “whenever I approached the lodges, there was a universal stir among the people, and the words ‘iskam kahmooks, kalaklalah tie chahko (take up your dogs, the bird chief is coming)’ echoed through the little village.”
Townsend the "bird chief" was equally keen on small rodents, and one of the many species named after him is Townsend’s big-eared bat, about which he noticed a symbiotic relationship with the workers at the fort: “This species is protected by the gentlemen of the Hudson’s Bay Company, for their services in destroying the dermestes beetles which abound in their fur establishments.”
During his time at Fort Vancouver, Townsend became part of the fur trade community, serving on one of the first formal juries there and assuming the role of post surgeon after Meredith Gairdner left. Townsend developed a particularly close relationship with Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin, writing upon his departure for the East in November 1836, “I took leave of Dr. McLoughlin with feelings akin to those with which I should bid adieu to an affectionate parent.”
Nisbet, Jack. Visible Bones. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2003.
Townsend, John Kirk. Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River. Ed. by George A. Jobanek. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.
_____. Popular Monograph of the Accipitrine birds of N.A. No 2.” The Literary Record and Journal of the Linnaean Association of Pennsylvania College 4 (Oct. 1848).