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Isenring, Rebecca S. (ed.) / The passenger pigeon
Vol. 55, No. 2 (Summer 1993)

Mearns, Barbara; Mearns, Richard
McKay of McKay's bunting: a native of Appleton, Wisconsin,   pp. 139-[142] PDF (1.2 MB)


Page 139


McKay of McKay's Bunting: a Native of
Appleton, Wisconsin
The career of naturalist Charles Leslie McKay, a native of
Appleton, is documented.
by Barbara and Richard Mearns
From the summer of 1881 until the
early spring of 1883, Charles Leslie
McKay sent natural history collections
from Alaska to the Smithsonian Insti-
tution in Washington D.C. His base
was Fort Alexander, now Nushagak,
on the north side of Bristol Bay, where
he served in the United States Signal
Corps. Since the keeping of meteoro-
logical records was only a part-time oc-
cupation, signal officers of the more
remote stations were selected by Pro-
fessor Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-
1887) the Secretary of the Smithsonian
Institution, who chose young men with
a good knowledge of natural history
and the ability to collect and prepare
specimens. From McKay, Baird re-
ceived 340 bird specimens, 23 species
of mammals and 123 species of plants,
as well as fishes, minerals and native
artefacts. Among the birds were the
skins of an undescribed bunting from
Nushagak: an adult female shot on 16
November and an adult male taken on
10 December 1882.
In 1884, in the Proceedings of the U.S.
National Museum, Robert Ridgway
published the original description of
this new species, calling it Plectrophenax
hyperboreus, McKay's Snow Bunting-
now McKay's Bunting. Ridgway con-
cluded his paper by noting that "The
vernacular name of this new species is
bestowed in memory of Mr. Charles L.
McKay, who sacrificed his life in the
prosecution of natural history investi-
gations in Alaska, and in whose collec-
tions the new species was first
noticed." McKay had drowned on 19th
April 1883 while crossing Nushagak
Bay in a native one-man canoe during
a storm.
Until recently, McKay remained an
obscure collector, associated only with
Alaska and the Smithsonian Institu-
tion; his date and place of birth and
his activities prior to his service with
the Signal Corps, were unknown to
biohistorians. While researching Au-
dubon to Xantus, The Lives of Those Com-
memorated in North American Bird Names
(Mearns and Mearns 1992) we endea-
voured to learn something about
McKay's origins. Our first attempts
proved to be frustrating; the National
Archives reported that they could not
trace McKay's service record and Alas-
139


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