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FRANCISCO HERNÁNDEZ (1514-1587)


Although his focus was on medical botany, Hernández was encyclopedic in his interests, and he did not ignore the wonderful array of exotic birds encountered on five journeys from Mexico City that took himwest and south along the Pacific coast, over to Oaxaca, and northwest as far as Guanajuato. He described 229 species, with names in the native Nahuatl language, some of which, like motmot, survive to this day. Because they are not accompanied by illustrations, most of the bird descriptions are inadequate to identify the species, and the later use of some of Hernández’s Nahuatl names, like hoatzin, for birds that are not found anywhere near Mexico, can cause confusion for a modern reader. Nonetheless, “for more than 200 years Hernandez remained the only authority on Mexican animals, because the Spaniards tried anxiously to prevent more exact reports on the natural resources of their colonies from becoming public knowledge. Therefore, his descriptions were copied again and again in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century ornithological literature . . . The barriers did not fall until Mexico became independent in 1821” (Stresemann 1975, 32).