Townsend captured the Oregon dark-eyed junco, above, and the Townsend’s warbler, below, named after him—for now. In May 1835 in Willamette Falls, Oregon, an eager young Philadelphia naturalist named John Kirk Townsend collected a female California condor. It’s one of the oldest specimens among the Smithsonian’s 625,000 preserved bird skins, the third-largest collection in the world. A bouquet of tags attached to the condor’s legs, along with the original label in Townsend’s copperplate handwriting, shows it has become only more valuable to science over the decades. Every natural specimen is full of information about the time and place from which it came, but it also suggests a story about the people who discovered or collected it. Townsend’s condor , as well as more than 130 other bird specimens that he prepared and that are kept at the National Museum of Natural History, are part of a little-known American story of curiosity, bravery, wanderlust, bias and even tragedy. Townsend was born into an intellectual Philadelphia Quaker family in 1809, and developed an early passion for birds. In 1833, in nearby Chester County, the young man shot and stuffed a finchlike bird that he couldn’t identify; John James Audubon, to whom […]

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