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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology

Museum Men

Whatever the travails endured by explorer-collectors in the field, at least they are now remembered with a certain admiration and envy. By contrast, the “museum man,” the taxonomist who labored to make sense of all those birds, is largely forgotten. Such men worked with specimens laced with arsenic, alcohol, and other (Read more…)


Frederick Ducane Godman (1834-1919) & Osbert Salvin (1835-1898)

Biography:The names of Godman and Salvin have been linked from the time they became fast friends as undergraduates at Cambridge. Godman later remarked, “We were more intimately connected than most brothers” (Godman 1918, 5), and in a sense they were part of a family – that of gentleman ornithologists. Both came from wealthy families, both had the (Read More…)

Biologia Centrali-Americana. Aves. [London: Published by the authors, 1879-1904.] 4 volumes: 3 of text, 1 of plates. 4to. (Wood 360; Zimmer 541-42; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Images: In the Neotropics there are antwrens, antvireos, antthrushes, antshrikes, and antpittas. They were given these names by Europeans because of morphological similarities to other, mostly Old World birds. Thus the antshrikes – such as the pair of black-hooded antshrikes (Thamnophilus bridgesi) pictured on the left – have stout, hooked bills like those of shrikes and are similar in body size and plumage. This and the following image, both of exceptional quality, are by J.G. Keulemans, published in Salvin and Godman’s monumental Biologia Centrali-Americana (London, 1879-1904).

Pictured on the right is a Scaled antpitta (Grallaria guatimalensis). Although they resemble them in shape and posture (and ground-dwelling, skulking behavior), New World antpittas are not related to the more brightly colored pittas found in Asia.
The Biologia Centrali-Americana was intended to describe the flora and fauna of Mexico and Central America and in the end contained volumes on archaeology, as well. As with many large undertakings, if Salvin and Godman had known how long it would take and how much money it would consume, they might have thought twice about doing it. When they announced the series in 1879, they predicted it would fill about sixteen volumes, issued as eighty parts. It should have been complete by 1892. Ultimately, the set consisted of sixty-three volumes, with over a thousand plates, and was not finished until 1915. The bird volumes alone required twenty-five years to complete, and by the time the third volume appeared, in 1904, Godman was well aware that the first volume, issued in 1879, was outdated. Not only had many new species been discovered, but the whole basis of taxonomical description had also evolved from binomial to trinomial, to account for and accurately describe subspecies. As one anonymous writer quipped, “The expense of production would have strained the finances of a small state, and would have required a financial vote – not likely to have been granted – of an enlightened empire. Such amounts are privately wasted every year, but seldom contributed to science, especially to such a sober and non-advertising science as zoology” (Zoologist 1898). Salvin died long before the project was completed, and Godman’s interest apparently flagged after the set was published – by 1918 he had turned sales over to the London bookselling firm of Bernard Quaritch, publisher and distributor of many important natural history books. Quaritch’s prospectus noted that the work “was privately issued and was not published in the ordinary manner; it has therefore remained unknown to the general public . . . [Godman] sold to me the remaining sets of his monumental book in order that it should become known to those interested and its sale effected by more commercial methods.” Those methods included reducing the price for the set from £287 to £180, about £10,500 to £6,600 in today’s currency. Still a bit high for “the general public.”


Charles B. Cory (1857-1921)

Biography: Charles B. Cory was born rich and enjoyed his money. Besides having a passionate interest in birds (he was a founding member and later president of the American Ornithologists’ Union), he was an accomplished musician (he wrote an opera), magician, hypnotist, shooter, and golfer (he built himself a private golf course). (Read more…)

Image: Euphonia musica from The Birds of Haiti and San Domingo.

The Birds of Haiti and San Domingo. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1885. Folio. 23 plates, 22 hand colored. (Mengel 559; Wood 300; Zimmer 138; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Cory’s chief interest as an ornithologist was the birds of the West Indies. He made five trips there in the 1880s and continued to employ local hunters to enhance his collection of specimens. Besides the present book, he published Birds of the Bahamas (Boston, 1880; rev. ed., 1890), Birds of the West Indies (Boston, 1889), and a rather grand if pointless coffee table book, The Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World (Boston, 1880-83), a publication no doubt made possible by his personal fortune.


W.H. Hudson (1841-1928)

Biography: W.H. Hudson would not have called himself an ornithologist. Indeed, he had little affection for those who studied dead birds and contempt for those who displayed them. “I shall never forget the first sight I had of the late Mr. Gould’s collection of Hummingbirds,” Hudson wrote, “. . . shown to me by the naturalist himself, who evidently took (Read more…)

Image: Chaetocercus burmeister from Argentine Ornithology.

Argentine Ornithology. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Birds of the Argentine Republic. London: R.H. Porter, 1888-1889. 2 volumes. Large 8vo. Limited to 200 copies signed by both authors. (Wood 558; Zimmer 562; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

This was Hudson’s first significant publication about birds. Philip Lutley Sclater did the scientific descriptions, while Hudson provided notes on the birds’ habits, based on his observations in Argentina. Despite the fact that Sclater published Hudson’s letters in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society and helped him become a naturalized British citizen, Hudson did not much care for him, finding him humorless and too focused on taxonomy. “This book was always a sore subject with Hudson,” wrote Morley Roberts. “Judging from his description this eminent professor [Sclater] lacked charm, to say the least of it, but balanced the lack by a keen regard for royalties somewhat repugnant to a much poorer collaborator” (Roberts 1924, 124). When Hudson republished this work in 1920, as Birds of La Plata, he unceremoniously dumped all of Sclater’s work, saying accurately if rather ungraciously, “The original work (Argentine Ornithology) was . . . out of date as soon as published, and the only interest it still retains for readers is in the accounts of the birds’ habits contributed by me” (Hudson 1920, v).


Robert Ridgway (1850-1929)

Biography: “I am a poor boy,” wrote fifteen-year-old Robert Ridgway to Spencer Baird, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian and the country’s leading ornithologist. Ridgway needed assistance with his own budding ornithological interests: “My parents do not fully understand my views and motives . . . To you therefore, – as my only friend except my parents, do I go for (Read more…)

The Birds of North and Middle America. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Higher Groups, Genera, Species, and Subspecies of Birds Known to Occur in North America, from the Arctic Lands to the Isthmus of Panama, the West Indies and Other Islands of the Caribbean Sea, and the Galapagos Archipelago. Bulletin of the United States Museum, no. 50. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901-1950. 11 volumes. 8vo. (Wood 538; Zimmer 525; Rare Book Collection, LSU.)

This was the first attempt at a comprehensive catalogue of the birds of this region, which includes that portion of the Neotropics north of South America. It contains a mind-numbing amount of descriptive detail, and although the first volume was published in 1901, Ridgway stated in his introduction that he had been working on it full time since 1894, and intermittently for nearly twenty years. He was one of the indefatigable men who, with immense labor and exactness, rendered comprehensible the confusion that prevailed regarding the correct naming of species. “The synonymies of this work,” he complained in the preface to volume 1 (p. xi), “have proven by far the most laborious part of its preparation . . . Anyone who has had occasion to verify citations must know that the amount of inaccuracy and misrepresentation in current synonymies, even the most authoritative and elaborate, is simply astounding. They abound with names which do not even exist in the works cited, with those which do not correspond with the originals in orthography, and others which have no meaning or use whatever, being evidently culled from indices without reference to what their status may be on the pages indicated.” Unfortunately, the work was never finished. Ridgway died after completing the first eight parts; three more parts were completed by Herbert Friedmann; but parts 12 and 13, described in part 11 as “in preparation,” were never published, no doubt because of the enormous changes in classification that had taken place since the first volume appeared, half a century earlier. Nevertheless, these volumes are still used by ornithologists and are among the most frequently cited ornithological works from the first part of the twentieth century.

Color Standards and Color Nomenclature. With Fifty-three Colored Plates and Eleven Hundred and Fifteen Named Colors. Washington, D.C.: Published by the author, 1912. 8vo. (Rare Book Collection, LSU.)

Ridgway spent twenty-five years on this project, calling it “the hardest and most difficult work I ever did” (Harris 1928, 44). It was no picnic for the printers, either: They underestimated costs by thousands of dollars and delivered the books in three years instead of the promised six months. In a letter Ridgway explained why: “It is all hand work; that is to say, each separate color was mixed in one ‘batch’ (enough for the 5000 copies), then large sheets of paper were evenly coated by hand with this one mixture, and these sheets afterward cut into the small pieces which represent the colors on the plates. In this way, only, can absolute uniformity of different copies be guaranteed . . .” (ibid.). Comparison of the original edition with modern attempts to reprint it show that he was right and help explain the continued high price for a first printing, which is still the authority cited for describing the colors of new bird taxa.


Frank M. Chapman (1864-1945)

Biography: Frank M. Chapman left a promising banking career to study birds, at a time (1886) when there were fewer than a dozen paying jobs for an ornithologist in America. On his own he traveled to Florida, a place “of abundant promise for the naturalist” (Chapman 1933, 42), where he encountered pumas, black bear (devouring sea turtle eggs), and three now (Read more…)

The Distribution of Bird-Life in Colombia. A Contribution to a Biological Survey of South America. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 36. New York: Published by Order of the Trustees, 1917. 8vo. Numerous maps, photographs, and 4 color plates of birds by L. A. Fuertes. (Anker 96; Mengel 503; Wood 286; Middleton Library, LSU.)

The Distribution of Bird-Life in Ecuador. A Contribution to a Study of the Origin of Andean Bird-Life. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 55. New York: Published by Order of the Trustees, 1926. 8vo. Numerous maps, photographs, and 4 color plates of birds by L. A. Fuertes. (Anker 97; Mengel 507; Middleton Library, LSU.)

These two books are among the most important ever published in the field of Neotropical ornithology. They represent a pivot point in the study of birds, a move away from the focus on collecting and classification toward an understanding of the ways geography and habitat influence distribution and speciation – that is, biogeography. “To determine the boundaries of zones and faunas as they are manifested by birds and mammals is our first aim,” Chapman said in the introduction to his work on Colombian birds (pp. 4-5), “and in the course of this work we trust that our study of purely local conditions will at times so closely connect cause and effect, that we may throw some light on the laws governing the origin of species and the distribution of life.” He was particularly concerned to describe the effect of elevational zones on distribution along the Andes. As he noted, “Climatically, we travel about 1000 times faster vertically than horizontally,” with the result that “under certain circumstances I have passed, on foot, from one zone to another and experienced an almost complete change in bird-life within five minutes” (Chapman 1933, 206). His influence has been pervasive. His publications are still cited frequently in current publications (rare for texts that are approaching one hundred years old), and it has been said that “all students who today investigate the biogeography of Andean birds follow in Chapman’s footsteps, whether they recognize it or not” (Vuilleumier 2005, 397). Amazingly, given what he accomplished, his footsteps did not fall on South American soil until he was forty-eight years old.

Image: “Rosy” from Life in an Air Castle.

Life in an Air Castle. Nature Studies in the Tropics. Illustrated with Drawings by Francis L. Jaques, and from Photographs by the Author. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1938. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Although Chapman lived a fairly public life, he loved solitude. So in 1925 he built his “Tropical Air Castle” on Barro Colorado, the island formed in Lake Gatun when the Panama Canal was completed. It was a small home, perched high in a small clearing in the trees, with the “balcony” extending into the edge of the forest. Chapman spent most winters from 1925 to 1936 studying the wildlife on the island, which was (and remains) an important center for studies of tropical biology. He tricked out his tree house in ways a birder will understand: Having endured enough of “warbler neck,” he relaxed in a reclining chair with a custommade tripod and a mount for his 24x binoculars. Special creatures were encountered year after year and had nicknames. One was “the Composer,” an especially sweet-singing black-bellied wren. Another was a coatimundi, nicknamed “José,” who for several years fascinated Chapman with his skill in robbing the feeders of bananas intended for birds.

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