Home & Garden Columns

A Vireo of Your Own: The Immortality of William Hutton

By Joe Eaton, Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 12, 2006

By Joe Eaton 

Special to the Planet 


It’s an odd kind of distinction, having your name attached to a plant or animal. Cartoonist Gary Larson says he considered it an extreme honor when a new species of louse was christened Strigiphilus garylarsoni—a reaction I can understand perfectly. 

Long after his work has been forgotten, his name will endure--at least among a small subset of entomologists who specialize in the parasites of owls. Who remembers Poinsett, Dahl, Zinn, Forsyth, or Wistar? But botanists and gardeners invoke them all the time. 

I recently picked up a wonderful book called Audubon to Xantus, by Barbara and Richard Mearns: a series of short biographies of the men and women for whom North American birds were named.  

Audubon everybody knows: he got an oriole, a shearwater, and a warbler (the last now considered just a subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler). Xantus was a Hungarian exile and compulsive fabulator who collected birds at Fort Tejon and Cabo San Lucas in the 1850s. A murrelet and a hummingbird bear his name. 

Somewhere between Audubon and Xantus comes William Hutton, of Hutton’s vireo. Hutton’s vireo is one of our more obscure songbirds: common in California oak woodlands (C. C. Van Fleet called it “the spirit of the live oak tree”), but inconspicuous in appearance and retiring in habit. And I suspect even a lot of birders misidentify these birds as ruby-crowned kinglets. 

Both are small greenish-gray birds with white wingbars and nervous, twitchy demeanors. But the vireo has a heavier bill and slightly different facial and wing patterns, and it doesn’t twitch quite as much as the kinglet. Its call is also quite different: a whining, raspy “rheeee,” as opposed to the kinglet’s “che-dit.” 

Vireos are a strictly New World family, related, according to genetic studies, to the corvids (crows, jays, magpies) and shrikes. They’re feisty as small birds go. Birding maven Rich Stallcup says you can always tell whether the bird you’ve trapped in a mist net is a vireo or a warbler by its attitude. Warblers go limp; vireos will try to bite you. 

Most vireos are some shade of green, with white accents: eyestripes, spectacles, wingbars. Their vocal performances tend toward the monotonous. 

The song of the eastern red-eyed vireo—the “preacher bird”—has been represented as “First on the one hand, then on the other,” repeated indefinitely. With one partial exception, all the North American forms are migratory. That exception is the Hutton’s, or at least the California population of the Hutton’s; some interior populations do move south for the winter. 

Hutton’s has other quirks. For nest construction, it favors the hanging lichens—lace lichen, beard lichen—that festoon California oak trees. In winter, both California residents and those that winter in western Mexico join mixed foraging flocks: bands of chickadees, kinglets, warblers, and woodpeckers that roam the woods, apparently taking advantage of additional eyes to spot predators. The Mexican flocks may be composed of 18 or more species, but they almost always include a Hutton’s vireo or two.  

There’s a lot ornithologists still don’t know about this bird: its territorial behavior, whether it’s single- or double-brooded, its migratory movements. The most recent studies of nesting in California were published in 1919. 

And since the vireo’s nesting season begins early, it tends to be overlooked in breeding bird surveys. But we know a great deal more about Hutton’s vireo than we know about William Hutton. The Mearnses, who appear to be dogged researchers, were unable to determine when or where he was born, or when or where he died.  

We know that he collected the vireo near Monterey in 1847 and sent its remains back east, where it came into the hands of John Cassin (Cassin’s auklet, finch, kingbird, sparrow, vireo), then working on a book about western birds. Hutton may have been a friend or protégé of Spencer Fullerton Baird (Baird’s sandpiper and sparrow) at the Smithsonian Institution, who asked Cassin to name the new species for him. Cassin was unenthusiastic: “This kind of thing is bad enough at best, but to name a bird after a person utterly unknown is worse than that,” he wrote to Baird. But he eventually gave in. 

Correspondence between Cassin and Baird suggests Hutton was in the San Diego area around 1851. Then the flow of specimens stopped. Hutton may have been abandoned bird-hunting for gold-hunting; he may have returned east in time to be killed in the Civil War; he may have disappeared into Mexico, like Ambrose Bierce. It’s anyone’s guess. 

An obscure bird with an even more obscure namesake, and even that tenuous claim to fame may soon be gone. The California and interior populations of Hutton’s vireo, separated by miles of desert, turn out to be genetically distinct. 

Each may deserve separate species status. If the species is split, it’s likely that the old name will be dropped and each of the new forms will be rechristened, as happened when the plain titmouse was separated into oak titmouse and juniper titmouse.  

William Hutton, whoever he was, will be consigned to taxonomic limbo. That’s immortality for you.