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This is the story of a beautiful western bird and four 19th Century bird men.  Dr. William Tolmie (1812-86) was a Scottish doctor sent to the Northwestern part of America to work for the Hudson's Bay Company.  He was an avid naturalist and professional medical doctor.  Shortly after his arrival in 1833, Dr. Tolmie became the first white man known to climb Mt. Rainier.  On that climb he collected many specimens, including one of the warbler that became known scientifically as Oporornis tolmiei.

In 1836 Dr. Tolmie was moved to Fort Vancouver where he was to replace Dr.  John Townsend (1809-51).  Townsend had come west on an expedition with Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) who had since returned to the East Coast.  During several months of overlapping duties the two men became close friends and Tolmie gave Townsend several bird skins, including the new warbler and the first scientific specimen of the Black Oystercatcher.  It was in his book on the western trip, published in 1839, that Townsend named the new warbler for his friend, the bird's scientific discoverer.

After Townsend and Nuttall returned to the East, they sold over ninety bird skins from their western expedition.  The buyer:  John Audubon.  Nearly one-seventh of all the birds that appeared in Audubon's Birds of America came from the Townsend collection. 

When Audubon drew the first published depiction of this warbler he gave it another name, MacGillivray's Warbler.  While Townsend's initial description of the bird established the scientific name, Audubon's popular name stuck.

William MacGillivray (1796-1852), like Tolmie, was a Scottish-born, medically trained man.  However, MacGillivray never came to America.  He did become a leading naturalist in Great Britain.  He also wrote much of Audubon's Ornithological Biographies from 1830-1839.  This was the lengthy, multi-volume written description of the birds depicted in Audubon's parallel illustrated books.  MacGillivray turned Audubon's halting, colorful prose into understandable English, adding scientific background and solidity.  As Elliott Coues, himself a stickler, wrote:

"MacGillivray supplied what was necessary to make his [Audubon] work a contribution to science as well as to art.  In fact he wrote a good deal of Audubon's book….The anatomical matter of Audubon's works is probably all MacGillivray's."

Audubon paid the Scotsman for his work.  About two pounds for every eighteen pages of text.  The two had a close, mutually respectful relationship.  Surprising, as each was a strong personality.  But both loved being in the wild.  MacGillivray often denounced and alienated those he called the "cabinet scientists" of his day.  Though deeply imbued with scientific knowledge and method, MacGillivray loved most to be in the field where he spent many days and nights:

"To those really desirous of information respecting our native species, I would say, let us betake ourselves to the fields and woods; let us traverse the hills and valleys together; let us there study our favourites, pursue them from brake to bush…."

He also became an accomplished artist, portraying birds and plants beautifully.  Among his successful publications: A Systematic Arrangement of British Plants (eight editions printed), The Conchologist's Textbook, A History of British Birds (5 volumes from 1837-52).

MacGillivray worked most of his adult life as lecturer, nature essayist, museum curator.  He and his wife raised nearly a dozen children.  Their oldest son, John, became one of Australia's foremost naturalists.  The MacGillivray's Petrel of the southern Pacific was named for John.

Most of MacGillivray's books are now rare, none are in print.  A brief biography of him was published in England (not in the U.S.) in 1993.  In the back are 32 color plates, a small portion of his paintings.  Among them are the Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven, Stoat and Turbot.  Perhaps most striking is his fine rendering of the Wren (our Winter Wren), perched in singing pose.  It is a lifelike, moving depiction.  Along with the other originals it is in the British Museum of Natural History which occasionally puts some of MacGillivray's art on display.  He could never afford to have it engraved and published as did Audubon.  Except for the few in the biography, all the others remain unpublished to this day.

In Audubon's own words, here are the paintings we have never seen:

"I think them decidedly the best representations of birds I have ever seen, and have no hesitation in saying that, should they be engraved in a manner worthy of their excellence, they will form a work not only creditable to you but surpassing in splendour anything of the kind that Great Britain or Europe has ever produced."

With a little provincial pride you might say the same thing of MacGillivray's Warbler.


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