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 Harry Fuller Birding Tours

This common American Icterid was named for a prominent 19th Century Boston ornithologist.  Yet it is likely that Dr. Thomas Mayo Brewer never saw this bird in the field.

Brewer attended Harvard as an undergraduate and then got his medical degree there at the age of 24 in 1835.  Though he spent the next few years as a practicing doctor, he abandoned that career for writing and politics.  That apparently ran in the Brewer genes, his father had taken part on revolutionary politics, including the Boston Tea Party.  Brewer became editor of a Whig newspaper, the Boston Atlas. Later he became a partner in a printing firm.  He died in 1880, at age 66.

Through his life birds were a passion with Dr.  Brewer.  As a teenager he began sharing his field observations with Audubon.  In turn Audubon's Ornithological Biographies (1831-9) often cited Brewer, "My young friend Mr. T. M. Brewer says…"  At age 26 Brewer published an updated, inexpensive text of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology.

Thus it is not surprising that Audubon named a bird after his young, expert collaborator.  Audubon first saw this "new" blackbird in the summer of 1843 during his final expedition.  He and several friends were on the upper Missouri River seeking new mammals for Audubon's new books on American quadripeds.  Audubon was done with his original bird volumes but new species kept appearing.  This new blackbird was later drawn by Audubon and appeared in a new edition of his Ornithology, published in 1844.  Audubon thought this was the first description of the bird he named Brewer's Blackbird.  In fact, the species had first been described in 1829 by Johann Wagler from a specimen taken in Mexico.  Audubon's scientific name was abandoned but the common name stuck.

After Audubon's death a new generation of American ornithologists dominated the mid-19th Century study of birds in this country.  Four men were the acknowledged leaders: Brewer, Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian, George Lawrence, and John Cassin of the Philadelphia Academy of Nautral Sciences.  Brewer, Baird and John Ridgway co-authored the monumental three volume History of North American Birds (1874-84).  Brewer's specialty in bird study was nesting and eggs.  As late as 1940 Brewer's pioneering observations were still being quoted by Arthur Bent, e.g. on the Common Nighthawk, "In 1870 and 1871 Dr.  T.  M.  Brewer (1874) found a number of instances of this bird nesting on the flat mansard roofs of Boston."

Brewer's only daughter, Lucy, was named for Audubon's wife.  In turn a new tropical bird was named for Lucy Brewer by her father's friend, George Lawrence.  It is the Amazilia luciae, the Honduran Emerald.

A second bird was also named for Brewer himself.  In 1856 Philadelphian John Cassin found this new sparrow among the Clay-colored Sparrow specimens in a drawer at the Academy where he was a curator.  Naming the new species for Brewer, Cassin wrote that he had "much pleasure in embracing the present opportunity to dedicate a bird of the United States to my esteemed friend Thomas M. Brewer, M.D., of Boston, one who to the highest abilities and social qualities adds an ardor in devotion to Ornithological science rarely paralleled."


TOWHEE.NET:  Harry Fuller, 820 NW 19th Street, McMinnville, OR 97128