This is the 38th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Until 1873, the species we now know as the Nelson's Sparrow remained unknown to scientists. It was a naturalist named Edward Nelson, who spent his formative years in Chicago, who's responsible for the first identification of this elusive denizen of wet meadows and freshwater marshes.
Citizen science in 1873 differs from that of 2020. Nelson shot a specimen in the marshes near the Calumet River in South Chicago and sent it to a scientist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The scientist, J.A. Allen, dubbed the bird Ammodramus nelsoni.
Nelson lived quite a life; he and his mother were left homeless by the Chicago fire of 1871. He eventually spent many years in Alaska and served as the President of the American Ornithologists Union and as Chief of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey.
An article appeared in the April 1935 edition of The Auk, a quarterly journal of ornithology, soon after Nelson's passing:
"His scientific explorations during more than 20 years embraced a life of adventure in many regions, from the far North to Central America, and included ascents of the highest mountains of the continent south of Alaska.
"His very large collections of birds and mammals, and his notable accumulations of specimens of fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants, attest the wide range of his interest in natural history. From these collections, gathered for the most part in almost unknown territory, he and others described new genera and hundreds of species and subspecies new to science."
As Nelson's Sparrows now pass through the Chicago region on their way to their breeding grounds, more evidence that nature has loved Chicago and Chicagoans have loved nature for a long time.
Thank you to Matt Beatty for suggesting this piece. Joel Greenberg's A Natural History of the Chicago Region provided important background.