Cabanis was born in Berlin. He studied at the University of Berlin from 1835 to 1839, and then travelled to North America, returning in 1841 with a large natural history collection. He was assistant and later director of the Berlin University Museum, taking over from Martin Lichtenstein. He founded the Journal für Ornithologie in 1853, editing it for the next forty-one years, when he was succeeded by his son-in-law Anton Reichenow.
A number of birds are named after him, including Cabanis' Bunting Emberiza cabanisi, Cabanis' Spinetail Synallaxis cabanisi, Azure-rumped Tanager Tangara cabanisi, Cabanis' Greenbul Phyllastrephus cabanisi, and Cabanis's Ground-Sparrow Melozone [biarcautum] cabanisi .
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