What’s in a Name: Brewer’s Blackbird
Blackbirds, as a family, often have those simple descriptive names that are easy to mock (Yellow-rumped Warbler, ugh) until a non-birder comes describing such a species to you and asking for an ID. Then you bless the folk wisdom that gave the Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and even the Rusty Blackbird their names.
Which is not to say that the creeping hand of ornithological nepotism has never touched the blackbirds. Take Brewer’s Blackbird. It is a bird, and it is indeed black, so that part of the tag is accurate enough. “Brewer’s”, however, comes not from any affinity for barley or baseball but from a buddy of John James Audubon.
Thomas Mayo Brewer was younger than Audubon but less itinerant, spending all his life in Boston. There he dedicated himself to his dual passions of science and publishing, combining these interests in work on a number of important books related to ornithology and oology: aficionados of books about birds may know his name as the joint author, with Spencer “Baird’s Sparrow” Baird and Robert “Buff-Collared Nightjar” Ridgway, of the three-volume A History of North American Birds published in 1874. The blackbird wasn’t Audubon’s only venture into naming things for the guy; there was also a Brewer’s Duck, but that proved to be a hybrid resulting from the notoriously incontinent habits of Mallards, and it fell by the wayside.
Audubon greatly and sincerely admired Brewer, by all available evidence. After Audubon’s death, however, Brewer managed to put some serious scratches and dents in his own ornithological reputation, first by advocating for the introduction of the House Sparrow to Boston and later by vehemently opposing those who wanted the invasive species eradicated. He was even suspected by his opponents of using his standing with the Boston press to print scurrilous anonymous editorials about them. In the long run, all of this proved to signify nothing, as the sparrows were more than able to take care of themselves.
Spare a thought also for Johann Georg Wagler, assistant to Johann Baptist “Spix’s Macaw” von Spix. He described the Brewer’s Blackbird for science more than a decade before Audubon. As a result, while Brewer still has the distinction of the bird’s common name, he was removed from the binomial in favor of Wagler’s cyanocephalus: a nice, plain, blackbird-worthy description of the blue gloss on the male’s head.
Image: Brewer’s Blackbird by Lip Kee Yap