Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
There is some confusion concerning the namesake used in the species' vernacular name. The species was first discovered in 1790 in Georgia (probably a migrant or wintering individual) by English ornithologist John Latham. A second and a third specimen were collected by Prince Maximillian von Wied in the early 1830s and by John Bell (accompanying John James Audubon) in 1843 in North Dakota.
Not knowing this sparrow was previously described, Audubon formally described it in 1844 and wrote, "I have named this interesting species after my young friend Doctor Le Conte, son of Major Le Conte, so well known among naturalists, and who is, like his father, much attached to the study of natural history."
Several Le Contes were contemporaries of Audubon, including five who were naturalists. It is generally believed that Audubon named the Le Conte's sparrow after his friend, Dr. John Lawrence Le Conte, a promising naturalist and physician, who later was known for his work in entomology. The Le Conte's thrasher, a desert bird, also commemorates his name. Others have suggested that Audubon named the Le Conte's sparrow after John Lawrence Le Conte's cousin, Dr. John Le Conte (1818-1891, no middle name). John Le Conte earned a degree in medicine and practiced briefly, but soon after dedicated his life to teaching chemistry and physics. Although he had some interest in natural history, this family member did not distinguish himself professionally as a naturalist.