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Jefferson’s Comeuppance

March 2023
1min read

My wish would put me in Thomas Jefferson’s study when he got his comeuppance as a bird watcher. The President, a dedicated naturalist, was a subscriber to The American Ornithology , a pioneer work by Alexander Wilson (often called the father of American ornithology) and he had asked Wilson to identify a rare species that had mystified him for years. It was, he wrote, “heard… but scarcely ever to be seen but on the top of tallest trees from which it perpetually serenades us with the sweetest notes… clear as those of a nightingale. I have followed it for years without ever but once getting a good view of it. ”

Flattered at being appointed presidential adviser on birds, Wilson tried to track down the elusive singer and came to a disappointing conclusion. To avoid a kind of ornithological lèse majesté , however, he never informed Jefferson directly but noted in a volume of his Ornithology that he had been asked about a puzzling bird by a “distinguished gentleman whose name, were I at liberty to give it, would do honor to my humble performance.” And he identified the bird as a wood thrush, which, though a very sweet singer, anything but rare or even uncommon.

Most bird watchers keep life lists of birds they have seen. I keep one of watchers. So I would like to have been with Jefferson as he read this and to have seen his chagrin at realizing he had succumbed to the watcher’s perennial weakness—an eagerness to puff up his list by making a rarity out of a familiar species. I’ve seen it happen with many birders, but a rara avis like Jefferson would be a notable addition to my list.

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