Google doodle celebrates ornithologist

Today’s Google Doodle (right now only in on UK Google, but presumably it’ll appear later on the U.S. Google page) celebrates the 224th birthday of William John Swainson (1789-1855), ornithologist, naturalist, and artist.

I have to admit that I’d never heard of the guy, though I immediately thought he might have given his name to the Swainson’s Hawk,  Looking him up, I discovered that, like many naturalists of his era, he made his name by collecting, describing and drawing many animals and plants. That was sufficient to make his name and get him elected to the Royal Society.

Screen shot 2013-10-08 at 4.57.21 AM

Clicking on the doodle (on the Google page, not here) will take you to a page of information about him.

Later in his life he moved to New Zealand and collected widely in the Antipodes, but his work seems to have gone downhill when he went down under. as the Guardian reports (this seems to have been lifted from Wikipedia):

He later travelled in New Zealand and Australia. During his time in the latter, he was hit by some of the most strident criticism aimed at him by contemporaries.

The Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) noted that much of his work as a botanist – not his usual discipline – was never published by the Royal Society of Tasmania.

Another botanist William Hooker wrote of Swainson’s attempts to define species there: “In my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. There is a man who left this country with the character of a first rate naturalist (though with many eccentricities) and of a very first-rate Natural History artist and he goes to Australia and takes up the subject of Botany, of which he is as ignorant as a goose.”

The ANBG noted that another Joseph Maiden described Swainson’s efforts as “an exhibition of reckless species-making that, as far as I know stands unparalleled in the annals of botanical literature”.

There are at least nine species of birds named after him:

Here’s one of his drawings (I don’t know the species) taken from The Bibliophile’s Lair:
UPDATE: Reader Pete Moulton just sent in a photo he took of a Swainson-named bird. His notes and photo:
 Swainson’s Hawk is indeed named for William Swainson, as is Swainson’s Warbler. I’ve never been fortunate enough to see the warbler, but here’s a photo of a juvenile Swainson’s Hawk in the Sulphur Springs Valley of southeastern Arizona. This one was hawking grasshoppers, stacking up the calories for its upcoming flight to the Argentine Pampas. Swainson’s is a common summer resident and abundant migrant in Arizona.
SWHA_Sulphur Spgs Vly 9-5-10_1732


  1. David Duncan
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    “Here’s one of his drawings (I don’t know the species)”:

    Looks a bit like the Green Rosella:

  2. Dominic
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Poor Swainson! There is a free article here of related interest
    Trees and networks before and after Darwin
    Mark A Ragan

  3. Posted October 8, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    We have Swainson’s thrushes locally in abundance and their songs are only bested, narrowly, by the Hermit thrush’s in my opinion. If you’re over 40, you’ll likely not hear some of the range that trails off at the end. :-(


    (Song recordings are good, but I’ve heard better outdoors)

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 8, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

      Well, those two are lovely, but my fav thrush voices are Wood Thrush & Veery.

    • Pete Moulton
      Posted October 9, 2013 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      Thanks for reminding me about Swainson’s Thrush, mikedziuba. It had completely slipped my mind. Also, when the AOU (finally) splits the Warbling Vireo, the western form will most likely take on the species name Vireo swainsoni.

  4. Duncan McCaskill
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the drawing is of a Green Rosella or any other Australian parrot. In suburban Canberra there are currently a good number of Superb Parrots (Polytelis swainsonii), also named in Swainson’s honour. Male Superb Parrot, Canberra

  5. Bob J.
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    All my favorite collecting spot have been paved into parking lots,
    Whatever will be come of me molecular biology

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