This Bonaparte was not a military man but an energetic and accomplished naturalist. This birdy Bonaparte was the son of Lucien Bonaparte who had disagreed with his powerful brother, Napoleon, and fled France with his family. Thus Charles was raised in Italy and spoke Italian, French and English. In addition he was adept in reading Latin, useful in his scientific pursuits. Charles Bonaparte's interest in birds was lifelong. Swainson, a superb ornithologist himself, described Bonaparte as "destined by nature to confer unperishable benefits on this noble science."
He arrived in America in 1823, age 20 and had already discovered new species of European warbler, the Moustached, in the countryside near Rome. On the boat trip to America, Bonaparte noticed two different storm-petrel species: Leach's and one which was unnoticed by previous naturalists. He shot several and in 1824 Bonaparte presented his first scientific paper before the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He named the new storm-petrel after America's greatest ornithologist to that point, Wilson. Bonaparte's pedigree and his impressive knowledge quickly made him accepted among Philadelphia's scientific elite.
A contemporary remarked that the energetic, smart and opinionated Bonaparte cut a wide swath: "He appeared to make warm friends and equally warm enemies."
Bonaparte was determined to conquer American ornithology and set about updating Wilson's American Ornithology which had become outdated in the decade since Wilson's death. Bonaparte was very much a museum scientist and depended heavily on others' collections and field knowledge. Among those we helped and encouraged him were Thomas Say, William Cooper and George Ord. Say even helped edit the text so the English would read smoothly. Also, Bonaparte first described several new species collected by Say and Titian Peale on Major Long's 1819 expedition to the Rocky Mountains. It was Bonaparte who named the new phoebe after his friend, Say. He also created the new genus, Sayornis.
In 1824 Bonaparte played a central role in the first major controversy of American ornithology. He met and admired the paintings of John James Audubon, a still unpublished and unknown artist. Then
Bonaparte tried to get Audubon, a fellow French citizen, accepted by the Academy of Natural Sciences. However, the influential George Ord took a strong dislike to the backwoods upstart, Audubon, who now threatened to replace Ord's dead friend Wilson as the leading American bird artist. Ord all but banished Audubon from the Academy and its collections. Bonaparte was powerless to help.
The updated American Ornithology by Wilson and Bonaparte appeared in four volumes from 1825-1833, contemporary with Audubon's first publications. In his work on American birds, Bonaparte identified 20 new species including Cooper's Hawk, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Say's Phoebe, Sage Grouse, Swainson's Hawk, Brown Creeper, Scott's Oriole and Semipalmated Plover. After 1828 Charles Bonaparte returned to Europe and all but abandoned his American interests, focusing on other parts of the globe. Late in his life he got involved in the pro-nationalist movement in Italy and got himself banished by his own conservative cousin, Louis Napoleon.
In addition to his own name, Bonaparte left another important bird name: Zenaida, the genus of dove that includes our Mourning Dove. The genus was named for Bonaparte's cousin, wife, and mother of his eleven children: Zenaide Laetitia Julie Bonaparte. She was living in New Jersey with her exiled father, Joseph, when she accepted the arranged marriage with cousin Charles. It was for Zenaide that he first came to the U. S.
Bonaparte's final great work was going to be a complete catalog of all known bird species. His first volume appeared in 1850, but he died before the work neared completion.
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