TOWNSEND, Charles Haskins

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TOWNSEND, Charles Haskins (1859-1944), Pennsylvania-born naturalist who received an appointment from Spencer Baird as Assistant in the U. S. Fish Commission in 1883. For the next two decades Townsend, who was particularly interested in ornithology and marine mammals, served in various capacities and collected in many remote places. In 1884 he made an extensive cruise along the Pacific coast of Lower California searching for specimens of the Northern elephant seal. Townsend was naturalist on the steamer Corwin in 1885 on an Arctic expedition; and naturalist aboard the steamer Albatross from 1886 to 1896. In the winter of 1899 Townsend visited the islands of both Upper and Lower California.

Townsend collected birds on five of the California islands: San Clemente Island (May 8, 1888 and January 25, 1889: 33 specimens); Santa Rosa Island (January 7, 1889: 13 specimens); San Nicolas Island (January 25, 1889: 4 specimens); Santa Cruz Island (February 6-7: 19 specimens), and Santa Barbara Island (February 13, 1889: 8 specimens).

Townsend described several new species and subspecies, including Santa Barbara Island song sparrow and Island horned lark, San Clemente Song Sparrow and Dusky Warbler. Townsend was also devoted to the fur seal problem and served as a member of the Fur Seal Commission in 1896-1897. Again in 1911 he investigated locations of elephant seals aboard the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries' ship, Albatross. Townsend’s shearwater (Puffinus auricularis) is named in his honor. He died on January 28, 1944 at Coral Gables, Florida.


» Townsend, Charles H. 1890. Scientific Results on Explorations by the U.S. Fish Commission Steamer Albatross. No. XIV. Birds from the coasts of western North America and adjacent islands, collected in 1888-89, with descriptions of new species. Proc. U.S. Natl. Mus., (131-142)


» Townsend, Charles H. The Northern Elephant Seal and the Guadalupe Fur Seal in Natural History XXIV:5 (619-621) September-October 1924


» Townsend, Charles H. Old Times with the Birds: Autobiographical in Condor 29:5 (224-232) September-October 1927; Williams, Woodbridge Jumbo of the deep [San Miguel Island elephant seals] in Natural History 48:3 (144-49) October 1941. [CAS portrait]


Island Collections~

Santa Rosa Island

1/7/1889 NMNH birds

1/7/1889 NMNH mammals (foxes)

4/8/1890 AMNH birds; CMNH birds

12/15/1891 NMNH mammals (fox)


Santa Cruz Island

2/6,7/1889 NMNH birds

4/14/1911 CAS herps


San Nicolas Island

1/25/1889 NMNH birds


Santa Barbara Island

2/13/1889 NMNH birds


San Clemente Island

5/8/1888 NMNH birds; herps

1/25/1889 NMNH birds

1/25/1889 NMNH mammals (fox)


In the News~

June 21, 1883 [SBDP]: “Voyage of the King. The sloop Ocean King, Captain A. Larco commanding, has returned from a pleasure trip well worth special mention. The vessel was chartered by a party of the citizens of Ventura and was provisioned for a seventeen days cruise. Captain Larco had prepared his boat in nice shape so that ample sleeping accommodations could be obtained. An extract from the log of the King shows that she left Ventura June 13th and arrived at Anacapa on the same day, and sailed on to Santa Cruz Island arriving there at 10 next morning. After two days devoted to fishing and rambling on Anacapa and Santa Cruz, the excursion set sail for Santa Catalina Island, arriving there at 9 A.M. June 16th… The excursionists included F. W. Baker, Sr., L. C. Holloway, James Wolfson, W. E. Shepperd, C. H. Townsend, J. G. Jessup, J. B. Wagner, Ed. M. Sheridan, Frank C. Hatch of New York, and Ernest C. Wagner…”


March 22, 1885 [NYT]: “Mr. Van Dorous, a veteran whaler, called at the Chronicle office yesterday and exhibited the preserved head of an enormous sea elephant captured by him some weeks ago on the Lower California coast…Van Dorous was mate on the Laura for the past four months cruising in southern waters in the interest of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington… Mr. Townsend, a taxidermist connected with the Smithsonian Institution, was on the Laura, and he secured many valuable specimens of fish, flesh and fowl…”


February 5, 1889 [SBDI]: “The National City Record, of San Diego County, gives the following description of the Albatross and her work: The Albatross is commanded by Captain Tanner, and is in service of the United States Fish Commission. She will make a trip to the Santa Barbara Islands, and other large islands here. This trip will occupy about a month, when she will return here for coal, then go south and explore the waters of the Gulf of California… Professor Gilbert is in charge of the scientific department, and is ably assisted by Professor Townsend… The Albatross is lighted by electricity, and has all the modern appliances for comfort and accuracy.”


November 7, 1894 [LAT/SB]: “California sea elephant, the largest of the seal species, is almost extinct… In 1884 C. H. Townsend visited Santa Barbara Island for the express purpose of preserving for the National Museum, the skins and skeletons of what were supposed to be the last survivors of the species, then about to be killed by a seal-hunter for their oil. The result was that at the eleventh hour a number of very valuable skins and skeletons were saved for the zoological museums of the world…”


March 7, 1911 [LAT]: San Diego. Returning today from a six day cruise as far as the Guadalupe Island, the scientific expedition of the Smithsonian Institution brought on the Albatross six rare specimens of southern waters known as sea elephants. Dr. C. H. Townsend, in charge of the expedition, states that the specimens in New York are worth at least $20,000… Dr. Townsend states that it is his intention to ship the young sea elephants to New York…


March 14, 1911 [NYT]: “First sea elephants here. There arrived here yesterday at the Aquarium six young and lively sea elephants, the first of their kind to be exhibited in the big building on Battery. They came all the way from San Diego, California in crates, a six day journey, during which they had nothing to eat and nothing to drink. They stood the trip well, and when placed in the big tank in the Aquarium, raced around their new home, to the great delight of a large crowd of children and grown-ups… These sea elephants were captured by the expedition sent out by the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society, headed by Dr. Charles H. Townsend…”


April 24, 1911 [NYT]: Dr. Charles H. Townsend, who has been exploring the country around Cape St. Lucas in Lower California, sent yesterday to the Bronx Zoo, two baskets aroused considerable interest. One contained fifty assorted specimens of wonderful blued lizards, including a slim fawn-colored reptile that utters a mournful cry when its tail is pulled. The second basket contained an assortment of squirming snakes, including a red rattler…”


June 11, 1911 [WP]: “U.S.S. Albatross makes a voyage into Gulf of California. The United States steamer, Albatross, with a corps of scientific men on board, has just completed an unusually interesting expedition down the southern California peninsula, and back to San Francisco. The party, in addition to the chief, Dr. C. H. Townsend, acting director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, included Dr. J. N. Rose of the National Museum in Washington, botanist… Several elephant seals were killed at Guadalupe Island and put in brine, while six of the younger animals were captured alive…”