Who is the “Lincoln” that the Lincoln’s Sparrow is named for?

April 1, 2009
Like many other birds, the handsome little Lincoln Like many other birds, the handsome little Lincoln's Sparrow was named after the first person to discover the species. Photo by Michele Weisz via Birdshare.
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In 1833, John James Audubon made an expedition to the coast of Labrador when he was working on his huge project, painting every bird known in North America. He took along Thomas Lincoln, the 21-year-old son of a friend of his. Dr. William Ingalls met all of the expedition members and, in a 1902 letter, described Tom Lincoln as “quiet, reserved, sensible, practical and reliable.” Lincoln was especially victimized by the caribou flies feasting upon the expedition members; Audubon wrote in his journal, “Tom Lincoln, who is especially attacked by them, was actually covered with blood, and looked as if he had had a gouging fight with some rough Kentuckians.”

The group discovered the sparrow in a beautiful valley at Natashquan. Audubon wrote about the discovery of the sparrow in his Birds of America:

“But if the view of this favoured spot was pleasing to my eye, how much more to my ear were the sweet notes of this bird as they came thrilling on the sense, surpassing in vigour those of any American Finch with which I was acquainted, and forming a song which seemed a compound of those of the Canary and Wood-lark of Europe. I immediately shouted to my companions, who were not far distant. They came, and we all followed the songster as it flitted from one bush to another to evade our pursuit. No sooner would it alight than it renewed its song, but we found more wildness in this species than in any other inhabiting the same country, and it was with difficulty that we at last procured it. Chance placed my young companion, THOMAS LINCOLN, in a situation where he saw it alight within shot, and with his usually unerring aim, he cut short its career. On seizing it, I found it to be a species which I had not previously seen; and, supposing it to be new, I named it Tom’s Finch, in honour of our friend LINCOLN, who was a great favourite among us. Three cheers were given him, when, proud of the prize, I returned to the vessel to draw it, while my son and his companions continued to search for other specimens. Many were procured during our stay in that country.”

The painting of Lincoln’s Sparrow in Audubon’s Birds of America includes three plants which were also collected by Lincoln. Audubon wrote in his journal on July 4, 1833: “I have drawn all day, and have finished the plate of the Fringilla lincolnii, to which I have put three plants of the country, all new to me and probably never before figured; to us they are very fitting for the purpose, as Lincoln gathered them.”

Early naturalists make for wonderful reading. You might like John James Audubon’s Birds of Americaor Charles Wendell Townsend’s In Audubon’s Labrador.

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