Jefferson made more notations in his weather diaries about birds than about any other class of animal life. Some of the references can require interpretation, such as his use of the term “yuckers” for the birds that are now called flickers. He used “wren” to mean what was probably a golden-crowned kinglet, “wood robin” for the wood thrush, and “tyrant martin” for the eastern kingbird. And from usage at the time, it is hard to know exactly what bird he meant by his single reference to a “wagtail.” Most of his observations of birds were visual, with the exception of whip-poor-wills, which he probably identified by their calls.

We know from his correspondence that he considered the arrival of whip-poor-wills and purple martins as markers of the spring season. (So too swallows, by which he probably meant the birds now called chimney swifts, yet he didn’t note their appearance in his weather diaries.) Also seasonal, although relating to fall rather than spring, were his notations about the appearance of dark-eyed juncos, which he called snow birds. Some notations of birds may have had nothing to do with seasonality, perhaps meaning only that he saw something noteworthy (such as his sighting of a distant flock of passenger pigeons in Maryland in 1784).

Jefferson included a table of birds of Virginia in the chapter on Query VI of Notes on the State of Virginia, “Productions Mineral, Vegetable and Animal.” He based that list on the descriptions of Mark Catesby. A manuscript copy of the list is in Jefferson’s papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Use the links below to view the table as published in the edition of Notes published by John Stockdale in London in 1787 (Jefferson’s copy, in the University of Virginia library):

For more information about a bird in Jefferson’s weather records and to see the entries in which it is noted, click on its image below. See below also for an interactive table of the bird references.

Bird Observations

Discover at what point in the season Jefferson would have heard certain birds for the first time during the year.