Who Is Baird?

Baird's Sandpiper
The Baird's sandpiper is named to honor a great man who contributed to birds' natural history and museum collections. Dominic Sherony

Baird's birds are recognizable to many birders, but not many birders realize just how those birds got named and how significant one naturalist, ornithologist and museum curator has been to modern birding.

Name: Spencer Fullerton Baird
Birth: February 3, 1823, Reading, Pennsylvania, United States
Death: August 19, 1887, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, United States

About Spencer Fullerton Baird

Spencer Baird, the third of seven children in his family, was surrounded by the natural world from a young age, enjoying gardening with his father and birding with his brother. Baird was well-educated, receiving both a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as well as taking courses at Columbia University in New York City, but much of his interest in naturalism was self-taught, often through long walks outdoors. He shared that interest with students when he was a teacher of natural history at Dickinson, often leading his classes on local field trips to make natural observations.

Baird did have a prestigious introduction to ornithology, having met John James Audubon in 1838, from whom he learned some of the fundamentals of how to illustrate birds in a scientific fashion. He also corresponded with John Cassin as a young man.

Throughout the 1840s Baird traveled extensively, often with support from the Smithsonian Institute as he was collecting specimens for the museum's collection. He added to his own collections at that time, and further expanded his knowledge not only of birds, but also of reptiles, plants and fish.

In 1846, Baird married Helen Churchill. Their only child, a daughter named Lucy Hunter Baird, was born in 1848.

Baird's expertise in natural history and his experience collecting for the Smithsonian Institute led him to be chosen as the first curator for the museum in 1850, a position he undertook with great passion to expand the museum's already extensive collection. He encouraged a greater focus on the natural history of the United States and all of North America, and revolutionized the museum through coordinating the extensive sharing and trading of specimens with other museums around the country. He also donated a large number of his own specimens to the museum, some of which are still part of the museum's collection. Journals and research publications were also exchanged, helping strengthen the institute's research base.

Already a prolific reader, Baird also became a prolific writer. He published more than 1,200 papers, articles and books in his life, many dealing with natural history in general as well as birds and other specific topics.

Spencer Baird died in 1887, and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Contributions to Birding

While Baird may not have been tremendously active in field work, his contributions to bird museums and the understanding of the natural history of birds should not be undervalued.

  • Developed the extensive collection of the Smithsonian Institute, and in trading specimens with other museums nationwide, also brought preserved birds to many other institutions. The preserved specimens allowed much closer study of birds while minimizing human impact on existing populations.
  • Primary writer of A History of North American Birds (1874 – Little, Brown, and Company), Catalogue of North American Birds (1859 – Smithsonian Institute) and many other ornithology publications and articles.
  • Founding member of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1883, though he declined attending the annual meeting that year because of his museum duties.
  • The Baird Ornithological Club in his birthplace of Reading, Pennsylvania is named in his honor. The club was founded in 1922 and continues to promote Baird's interests and devotion to the natural of history of birds to this day.

Birds Named After Spencer Fullerton Baird

The greatest honor for anyone dedicated to birds is to have a bird named for them. Spencer Baird is connected to a number of birds that depict that honor both in their common names and in their scientific binomial designations, keeping his name familiar to birders for generations.

  • Akikiki (Oreomystis bairdi)
  • Baird's Flycatcher (Myiodynastes bairdii)
  • Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii)
  • Baird's Sparrow (Ammodramus bairdii)
  • Baird's Trogon (Trogon bairdii)
  • Banded Prinia (Prinia bairdii)
  • Cozumel Vireo (Vireo bairdi)
  • Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Cuban subspecies (Campephilus principalis bairdii)
  • Peg-Billed Finch (Acanthidops bairdi)

Photo – Baird's Sandpiper © Dominic Sherony