Wild Neighbors: Apologies to William Rich Hutton

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday April 26, 2011 - 09:56:00 AM
Hutton's vireo at a suet feeder.
Minette Layne (via Wikimedia Commons)
Hutton's vireo at a suet feeder.
William R. Hutton: not so obscure after all.
Baltimore Architecture Foundation
William R. Hutton: not so obscure after all.

Close to five years ago, I wrote a piece for the Planet about an obscure native California bird, the Hutton’s vireo. It’s a small greenish thing, often mistaken for a ruby-crowned kinglet; the accompanying photo shows the vireo’s diagnostic broken eye-ring. grayish legs and feet, and stronger beak. Unlike our other vireos— the migratory Cassin’s, warbling, and Bell’s—Hutton’s vireos appear to be year-round residents. They frequent oak woods, build their nests with hanging lichens, and commonly join mixed-species foraging flocks in winter. Much of the species’ life history is undocumented. 

At the time, all I could dig up about the eponymous William Hutton was that he had collected the type specimen of the vireo  

near Monterey in 1847 and sent it to Washington, DC where it was formally described by the ornithologist John Cassin. (Cassin got his own vireo, along with a finch, a kingbird, and an auklet.) Cassin seems to have been lobbied by the Smithsonian’s Spencer Fullerton Baird (who has a sparrow and a sandpiper) to name the new bird after Hutton. Cassin groused a bit; “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 went along in the end. 

According to the references I had on hand, that was about the last anyone heard of Hutton. Cassin and Baird mentioned that he was somewhere near San Diego in 1851. Then the trail went cold. There was nothing else in Barbara and Richard Mearns’ authoritative Audubon to Xantus, or Ernest Choate’s Dictionary of American Bird Names, or Edward Gruson’s Words for Birds —not even dates of birth and death. Which allowed me to speculate: “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.” 

Last Saturday, working my way up Valencia Street in the Mission after a book event at Flora Grubb Gardens and a catfish po’-boy at the Hard Knox Café, I found a used copy of Whose Bird? by Bo Boelens and Michael Watkins at Dog-Eared Books: another biographical dictionary of people who have had birds named for them, this one covering not just North America but the entire world. That included the Adelie of the penguin, the Zenaida of the dove, and the infamous Colonel Meinertzhagen, spy, specimen thief, and probable murderer, of the snowfinch and warbler. Bought it, of course. That night, just on principle, I looked up Hutton, and the mystery was solved. 

According to Boelens and Watkins, William Rich Hutton (1826-1901), born in Washington, was an artist, surveyor, and civil engineer. He went out to California in 1847 (another source says 1846) to clerk for his uncle, who was paymaster for the First New York Volunteers in the Mexican War. Two years later, then-Lieutenant Edward Ord (as in Fort Ord) tapped him for a statewide survey, which seems to have allowed ample spare time for sketching landscapes and collecting specimens. 

Far from wandering off into Mexico, Hutton returned to Washington in 1853, married into the Clopper family, and devoted the rest of his career to engineering, somehow avoiding the Civil War. His projects included the Washington Aqueduct, the Washington Bridge over the Hudson, and the Hudson River Tunnel. A biographical sketch on the Baltimore Architecture Foundation’s web site ( also mentions his work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the Western Maryland Railroad, and the Kanawha Canal, for which he designed the lock system. When he learned that Cassin had named the vireo in his honor, he was more embarrassed that anything else. “It goes against my principles to name after individuals unless for important scientific service,” he wrote to a relative. 

Hutton was not at all obscure, then. It was just that no one had ever connected the young bird collector with the distinguished engineer. My hat is off to Boelens (AKA the Fat Birder) and Watkins for assembling the pieces.