Birds of the Lewis And Clark Expedition
compiled by Mike Patterson

With the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition approaching, it is very likely that some will be (or perhaps already have been) called upon to help interpret what Lewis and Clark saw on their journey.  Neither was a professional natural historian, though Lewis received considerable instruction in preparation for the trip.   Many of the species they saw were noted in the generalized venacular of the time without further description, while others, usually those distinctly unusual, were carefully described.  Elliott Coues, among others, did his best to decipher the species alluded to in the journals and accounts, but many of his educated guesses need re-evaluation given what we currently know about avian distribution and phenology.

I have relied heavily on Raymond Burroughs's work on the Natural History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1961) which includes all of Coues conjectures.  Paul Cutright's Lewis and Clark:pioneering naturalists (1969) arranges the accounts in chronological order and makes for easier reading, but has excluded many of the species with equivocal descriptions, focusing mostly on those clearly described and new to science.
What L & C described  Conjectures, mostly from Coues, in Burroughs 1961 Current AOU equivalent  What I think they saw 
speckled loon  Pacific Loon  Pacific Loon  All 3 common loons, Pacific Loon is the least common (away from the ocean and lower estuary) of the 3 species that regularly occur on the Columbia River (see comments on divers).
divers with brick red necks  Holboell's Grebe  Red-necked Grebe  Red-necked Grebe (see comments on divers).
small species diver  Pied-billed Grebe  Pied-billed Grebe  Pied-billed Grebe (see comments on divers).
long necked loon  Western Grebe  Western Grebe  Western Grebe (see comments on divers).
white gull with remarkable beak  Pacific Fulmar  Northern Fulmar  Northern Fulmar, detailed drawing and description
pillican  White Pelican  American White Pelican  American White Pelican
cormorant  Farallon Cormorant  Double-Crested Cormorant  Pelagic and Double-Crested Cormorant, both are abundant on the Columbia River Estuary, only Double-crested would be expected east of Puget Island.
indian hen  American Bittern  American Bittern  American Bittern
white heron  American Egret Great Egret  Great Egret 
herrons  Great-blue Heron,  Great Blue Heron  Great Blue Heron
large white crane  Whooping Crane  Whooping Crane  Some Whooping Cranes some Sandhills, white cranes claimed along the Columbia River were almost certainly not Whooping Cranes.
sandhill crane Sandhill Crane  Sandhill Crane  Sandhill Crane
blue-winged teal  Blue-winged Teal  Blue-winged Teal  Blue-winged Teal
butter-box  Bufflehead Duck  Bufflehead  Bufflehead
canvisback  Canvas-back Duck  Canvasback  Canvasback
duchanmallard  Mallard Duck  Mallard  Mallard
red-headed fishing duck  Red-breasted Merganser  Red-breasted Merganser  Red-breasted Merganser, though Common Merganser is
also common on the river and only females of either species have red heads
unnamed  Ring-necked Duck  Ring-necked Duck  Ring-necked Duck, the detailed description is almost certainly Ring-necked Duck,  but some of the birds later referenced were possibly scaup sp., Greater Scaup number in the 1000's along the lower Columbia but were (apparently) not mentioned (see comments on ducks). 
unnamed  Shoveller Duck  Northern Shoveler  Northern Shoveler
summer duck  Wood Duck  Wood Duck  Wood Duck
brown brant  American Brant  Brant  Brant 
Canada Goose  Canada Goose  Canada Goose  Canada Goose
small Canada goose  Lesser Canada Goose  Canada Goose  Cackling Goose (formly consider small races of Canada Goose, but now considered a distinct species) 
white brant  Lesser Snow Goose  Snow Goose  Snow Goose
new brant sp.  White-fronted Goose  White-fronted Goose  White-fronted Goose, drawing and detailed description
small swan  Whistling Swan  Tundra Swan  Tundra Swan
large swan  Trumpeter Swan  Trumpeter Swan  Trumpeter Swan
large buzzard (vulture of the Columbia)  California Condor  California Condor  California Condor, drawing and detailed description, they shot at least two
turkey buzzard  Turkey Vulture  Turkey Vulture  Turkey Vulture
bald eagle  Bald Eagle  Bald Eagle  Bald Eagle
calumet eagle (grey eagle)  Golden Eagle  Golden Eagle Some Golden Eagles and some sub-adult Bald Eagles, Golden Eagle on the Columbia west of Sauvie Island would be very rare and separation of sub-adult eagles can be confusing.
fishing hawk  American Osprey Osprey  Osprey 
Sparrow Hawk  American Kestrel  American Kestrel (see comments on hawks)
Marsh Hawk  Northern Harrier  Northern Harrier  (see comments on hawks)
Western Red-tailed Hawk  Red-tailed Hawk  Red-tailed Hawk (see comments on hawks)
Swainson's Hawk  Swainson's Hawk  Swainson's Hawk (see comments on hawks)
large hooting owl  Montana Great Horned Owl  Great Horned Owl  Great Horned Owl (Montana subspecies)
large hooting owl  Dusky Horned Owl,  Great Horned Owl  Great Horned Owl (Dusky subspecies)
large hooting owl Great Gray Owl  Great Gray Owl Great Gray Owl
prairie fowl  Prairie Chicken  Greater Prairie Chicken  Greater Prairie Chicken
growse or prairie hen  Plains Sharp-tailed Grouse  Sharp-tailed Grouse  Sharp-tailed Grouse (plains subspecies)
grouse or prairie hen  Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse  Sharp-tailed Grouse  Sharp-tailed Grouse (Columbia Subspecies) 
large heath hen  Sage Grouse  Greater Sage Grouse Greater Sage Grouse
black pheasant  Dusky Grouse  Blue Grouse  Blue Grouse (dusky subspecies)
black pheasant  Sooty Grouse  Blue Grouse  Blue Grouse (sooty subspecies)
black and white pheasant  Franklin's Grouse  Spruce Grouse  Spruce Grouse
small brown pheasant  Oregon Ruffed Grouse  Ruffed Grouse  Ruffed Grouse
blue partridge  Mountain Quail  Mountain Quail  Mountain Quail
turkey  Eastern Wild Turkey  Wild Turkey  Wild Turkey 
black ducks (with white bills)  American Coot  American Coot  American Coot, description of bill and feet eliminate the possibility that these were Surf Scoters.
large plover  Black-bellied Plover  Black-bellied Plover  (see "plover" comments)
gray or whistling plover  Golden Plover  American Golden Plover  (see "plover" comments)
kildee  Killdeer  Killdeer  Killdeer 
small (brown) curlooe or plover  Mountain Plover Mountain Plover  (see "plover" comments)
large brown curloo  Long-billed Curlew  Long-billed Curlew  Long-billed Curlew
small (brown) curlooe or plover  Upland Plover  Upland Sandpiper  (see "plover" comments)
Jack Curloo  Western Willet  Willet  Willet
Jack Curloo  Hudsonian Curlew  Whimbrel  (see "plover" comments)
bird of the plover kind  Avocet American Avocet  American Avocet 
small gull  Bonaparte's Gull  Bonaparte's Gull  Bonaparte's or Mew Gull, the description is equivocal with some elements in  favor of each.
large light brown gull  Glaucous-winged Gull  Glaucous-winged Gull  Glaucous-winged Gull
large gray gull  Western Gull  Western Gull  Western Gull
aquatic bird  Least Tern  Least Tern Least Tern
pigeon  Passenger Pigeon Passenger Pigeon  Passenger Pigeon
dove  Mourning Dove  Mourning Dove  Mourning Dove
parrot queets  Carolina Parroquet  Carolina Parakeet  Carolina Parakeet 
whip-poor-will  Eastern Whip-poor-will  Whip-poor-will  Whip-poor-will 
goatsucker  Pacific Nighthawk  Common Nighthawk  Common Nighthawk
goatsucker  Nuttall's Poorwill Common Poorwill  Common Poorwill 
hummingbird  Rufous Hummingbird  Rufous Hummingbird  Rufous Hummingbird (Green Point, Columbia Co., OR)
hummingbird at nest Broad-tailed Hummingbird  Broad-tailed Hummingbird  Hummingbird sp. (Weippe Prairie, ID) while Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a reasonable identification, there is no description and neither Calliope nor Black-chinned can be ruled out.  In fact, this site even falls into eastern edge of the breeding range for Rufous.
blue crested fisher (kingfisher)  Eastern Belted Kingfisher  Belted Kingfisher  Belted Kingfisher 
black woodpecker  Lewis' Woodpecker  Lewis' Woodpecker  Lewis' Woodpecker, specimen brought back
speckled woodpecker  Rocky Mountain Hairy Woodpecker  Hairy Woodpecker  Hairy Woodpecker (see woodpecker comments)
small speckled woodpecker  Harris' Woodpecker  Hairy Woodpecker  Hairy Woodpecker (see woodpecker comments)
small black and white woodpecker  Downy Woodpecker  Downy Woodpecker  Downy Woodpecker (see woodpecker comments)
small white woodpecker with red head  Northern Red-breasted Sapsucker  Red-breasted Sapsucker  Red-breasted Sapsucker (see woodpecker comments)
lark woodpecker Northern Flicker  Northern Flicker  Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)
lark woodpecker Red-shafted Flicker  Northern Flicker  Northern Flicker  (Red-shafted)
red-headed woodpecker  Red-headed Woodpecker  Red-headed Woodpecker  Red-headed Woodpecker 
log cock  Northern Pileated Woodpecker  Pileated Woodpecker  Pileated Woodpecker
prairie lark  Horned Lark  Horned Lark  Horned Lark
flycatch  Empidonax Flycatcher  Emipdonax sp Ruby-crowned Kinglet or Hutton's Vireo, this bird was noted at Fort Clatsop on March 4, 1806 which would be much too early for any of the regularly occuring Empidonax. Both kinglet and vireo are regularly mistaken for flycatchers by inexperienced bird watchers.
bee martin or kingbird  Kingbird  Tyrannus sp  Western Kingbird
peawee  Wood Pewee  Western Wood Pewee  Western Wood Pewee
small martin  Cliff Swallow  Cliff Swallow  Cliff Swallow, cliff nests well described 
magpy or 
party-coloured corvus
American Magpie  Black-billed Magpie  Black-billed Magpie
raven  Raven  Common Raven  Common Raven
crow  Crow  American Crow  American Crow
blue crested corvus bird  Black-headed Jay  Steller's Jay  Steller's Jay
blue jay bird  Pinyon Jay  Pinyon Jay  Pinyon Jay
another jay  Rocky Mountain Jay  Gray Jay  Gray Jay; possibly Woodhouse's Scrub Jay, this bird was described as being blue and was seen in the same general area where Pinyon Jays were found on the Jefferson River in Montana.  This would have been somewhat north of the current range for Woodhouse's  Scrub Jay, but worth considering given the description.
small, white-breasted corvus  Gray Jay  Gray Jay (Oregon Jay) Gray Jay 
woodpecker (jaybird)  Clark's Nutcracker  Clark's Nutcracker  Clark's Nutcracker 
species of flycatch  Western Winter Wren  Winter Wren Winter Wren
Catbird  Gray Catbird
Mockingbird  Northern Mockingbird 
brown thrush  Brown Thrasher  Brown Thrasher 
robbin Eastern Robin  American Robin 
bluish brown robbin  Pacific Varied Thrush  Varied Thrush  Varied Thrush
crested cherry bird  Cedar Waxwing  Cedar Waxwing  Cedar Waxwing
catbird-sized with large convex beak White-rumped Shrike  Loggerhead Shrike  Loggerhead Shrike
large blackbird  Brewer's Blackbird  Brewer's Blackbird  blackbird sp., the description is too vague to commit to.
buffalo-pecker  Cowbird  Brown-headed Cowbird  Brown-headed Cowbird
old field lark  Western Meadowlark  Western Meadowlark  Western Meadowlark
beautiful little bird  Western Tanager  Western Tanager  Western Tanager, very well described
nightingale  Eastern Cardinal  Northern Cardinal  Heard only one night June 1804 in the Missouri Valley.  Cardinal seems unlikely, but I don't have any guesses about what this was.
large brown sparrow  Golden-crowned Sparrow  Golden-crowned Sparrow  Sooty Fox Sparrow, a far more likely large brown sparrow for the habitat around Fort Clatsop in the winter (though morphna-type Song Sparrow would be another good candidate).
goldfinch  Goldfinch  American Goldfinch  American Goldfinch
large sparrow with white tail  Lark-Bunting  Lark Bunting 
large dark-brown sparrow with some white tail feathers  McCown's Longspur  McCown's Longspur 
linnet Pine Siskin  Pine Siskin  Cassin's Finch, linnet is (more or less) the European equivalent to House Finch (which, in turn, is often referred to as "house linnet" in early bird texts). This leads me to suspect that the bird seen was reddish (though no actual description was given).  The location on the Marias River fits for Cassin's Finch, though Red Crossbill,Pine Grosbeak and even Pine Siskin are credible guesses.

Comments on "divers": Lewis and Clark lumped loons and grebes together and most of the descriptions are fairly general.  The speckled loon Coues identifies as Pacific Loon could just as easily be a Common Loon or a Red-throated Loon, in fact, Red-throated Loon is argueably more speckled in winter plumage than Pacific (which I would described as banded).  It seems likely that all three species were seen and that any loons seen east of Tongue Point (east of Astoria) were more likely Red-throated or Common.  The description of Western Grebe is sufficient to assume that it is what they saw (and 100's winter on the Columbia River estuary), as is the description for Red-necked Grebe, but I can't help wondering how they missed Horned Grebe.

Comments on ducks: Given the number of species of ducks that winter in Columbia Estuary today, the dearth of duck species listed by Lewis and Clark for the Columbia River is puzzling.  Jefferson had instructed them not to waste time on familiar species, but Mallards are referred to regularly, so one would expect that numbers of Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal and Greater Scaup would have also been mentioned. The description of the duck later assigned as Ring-necked Duck (new to science at the time) is sufficient and most probably correct, but the apparent absence of scaup from accounts is strange. The number of scaup recorded on the Columbia Estuary Christmas Bird Count averages around 1000 and the Wahkiakum Count around 5000, yet they would seem to have gone undetected.  Also surprising is that there is no mention of Surf Scoters which winter along the coast between Tillamook Head and Long Beach in groups of up to 20,000.

Comments on hawks: Lewis and Clark apparently only mentioned hawks generally and without descriptive details.  The species listed are those presumed by Coues (as listed in Burroughs), given the ground covered and the habitats.  These species are all common to very common species and the speculation that they were seen is certainly justified.  I also received an e-mail regarding Peregrine Falcon, which was supposedly see on a nest.  Neither Burroughs or Cutright mention any large falcons, but I would think that Prairie Falcon or Peregrine should have been encountered.  When I receive a reliable reference, I will update the list.

Comments on "plovers": Lewis and Clark use the terms plover and curlew very loosely.  Of the descriptions given, only that for Willet is complete.  The others are not particularly helpful and early interpreters of the journals were making a best guess.  Most were recorded along the upper Missouri river in the spring and summer of 1805.  Given that neither Common Snipe nor Spotted Sandpiper are mentioned, there are just too many possible choices to determine species with any confidence.

Comments on woodpeckers: speckled woodpecker easily describes both Hairy and Downy Woodpecker, but also is sufficient for Three-toed Woodpecker and Red-napped Sapsucker.  This is another case where species which share a common, generalized description were probably lumped together.  Even the account assigned to Red-breasted Sapsucker, which is almost certainly correct, has some room for doubt given that Lewis says "saw a white woodpecker with a red head of the small kind common to the United States".

Burroughs, R.D. 1961. The Natural History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Michigan State University Press.

Cutright, P.R. 1969. Lewis and Clark: pioneering naturalists. University of Nebraska Press.

Other Lewis and Clark Natural History sites

Lewis and Clark Herbarium
PBS Online: Lewis and Clark
Birds and Mammals seen in North Dakota

This page created by Mike Patterson, created December 18, 2002 (last revision 11/02/2005).