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Kenn Kaufman: How Say’s Phoebe got its name

Say's Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe, Broomfield, Colorado. Photo by John Forsmark.

Kenn Kaufman’s column “ID Tips” appears in every issue of BirdWatching. In our October 2016 issue, he explains that Say’s Phoebe seems designed for open, arid land, and he describes how the bird got its name:

For anyone interested in nature, having a species named after you is a high honor. It guarantees that future biologists will be reminded of your name.

Thomas Say was a leading naturalist in the early 1800s, traveling widely in North America. In 1819-1820, he took part in a western expedition that discovered a number of species, including a phoebe. Charles Lucien Bonaparte described the bird to science in 1825, naming it Muscicapa saya in Say’s honor. Muscicapa is actually a genus of Old World flycatchers, but at that time, scientists were just beginning to realize that flycatchers in the Americas might be unrelated.

William Swainson promoted that view. He placed some flycatchers in a genus he called Tyrannula. When he described Black Phoebe in 1827, he called it Tyrannula nigricans. Several years later, Bonaparte designated a new genus for it — Sayornis — named, again, for Thomas Say, and the species became Sayornis nigricans. When scientists decided that the three phoebe species were all close relatives, Say’s and Eastern Phoebes were reclassified in the same genus. So the bird that Say had helped to discover now bears his name three times, as Sayornis saya, Say’s Phoebe.

Although Thomas Say worked in many areas of natural history, he was best known for studies of insects. So it’s appropriate that the bird named three times in his honor was a flycatcher! – Kenn Kaufman


Kenn Kaufman’s “ID Tips,” featuring the photographs of Brian E. Small, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. The article above is an excerpt of a column that ran in our October 2016 issue.

Attention, photographers!

If you take a picture of Say’s Phoebe, please share it in one of our photo galleries. Be sure to indicate not only the county, state or province, and country where you found the bird but also the month and date on which you took your picture. Thanks!

Kenn Kaufman: How Vesper Sparrow got its name.

See photos of Say’s Phoebe.


Read other articles by and about Kenn Kaufman.


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