Name Dropping at the Dunn Gardens

Published: 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Name Dropping at the Dunn Gardens

I unexpectedly found the name of someone I am related to in the Seattle Times and felt quite odd. Reading my family name, Swainson, instantly conjured up a knot of childhood memories. The most notable among them was an image of my father gardening with his pet pigeon on his shoulder. That particular memory popped up because the article was about the effect of habitat loss on birds. In particular, the difficulties of breeding of a beloved songbird in urban areas was explained. The bird was Swainson’s Thrush. 

Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) is a small, brown specimen and is named after my great-great-grandfather, William Swainson. He was a British naturalist of some renown, with a cranky disposition besides, if historic (and family) accounts are to be believed.

After seeing the article I emailed Woody Wheeler, also a noted naturalist, but one without the cranky disposition, to ask if participants in his April 11 bird watching class at the Dunn would see Swainson’s Thrush. “Not really,” he told me. “You’ll have to wait till May when there is a chance of hearing one, even if we don’t see it. “ (The call is described as upward-spiraling and flutelike by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Woody should know. He has given bird identification classes at the Dunn before and they are always well attended. With good reason. The man has a long resumé that testifies to his passion and knowledge, plus an ability to share both with others. He has traveled the US and eight countries in tours related to birding and will have just returned from Peru as a guide on an Amazon River cruise when the Dunn class is held. So, even if you have been to a class at the Gardens before, there is much you can learn from him.

Genetic variation being what it is, I haven’t shared my ancestor’s passion for birds, but I enjoy traveling, as did he. And so does the thrush that bears Swainson’s name.

The little brown birds travel up and down the Americas in response to the seasons. I am hopeful one or two of them will choose to stop in the Dunn Gardens when they return in May. I will also welcome class members back to spot, or at the very least, to hear one over the summer.

But, if I have failed to keep up academically with the recognized scholar in my family, I am proud of working to maintain an urban forest, otherwise named The Dunn Gardens. It is an oasis where birds that lose their habitats to urban development can breed and sing. And for Swainson’s Thrush, along with many other birds, that is critical if we want to keep them in our midst. And who can argue against an upward-spiraling and flute-like sound welcoming a spring morning. Doubtless that would have soothed even my cranky great-great-grandfather.

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