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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology

Collecting by Museums

Before the twentieth century governments and aristocrats were the sponsors of most expeditions to the Neotropics, the materials collected going to museums to be described, preserved, and displayed. The museums themselves were passive, having little say in where expeditions went or what they collected. (Read More…)


George K. Cherrie (1865-1942)

Biography: Born and raised in Iowa, Cherrie had a fairly typical Midwestern upbringing, full of work and religion. He studied mechanical engineering, but, finding the subject and the resulting employment uncongenial, he moved to Rochester, New York, where he learned the basics of taxonomy and taxidermy at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. (Read More…)

A Contribution to the Ornithology of the Orinoco Region. The Museum of The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, Science Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 6. Brooklyn: Published for the Brooklyn Museum, 1916. 8vo. (Mengel 519; Wood 288; Middleton Library, LSU.)

This publication documents the rate at which new information was being received about the avifauna of South America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Cherrie, who was unusual for his time in that he was able to do descriptive work on the specimens he collected, states in his introduction that publication had been delayed five or six years because of the death of the curator of birds at the Brooklyn Museum, who had been editing the piece. He continues, “The old proof sheets have been placed in the writer’s hands, and recently published investigations of various students of tropical American ornithology have made considerable revision necessary. The paper, therefore, is not as complete as might be desired, nor does it represent the most recent views on classification” (p. 133). Cherrie’s attempt to deflect criticism was not entirely successful. Carl Hellmayr, who could be rather severe, remarked in 1921 that “reading such diagnoses as those given by Cherrie or Chubb [the Englishman Charles Chubb] one is forced to the conclusion that the authors are not conversant either with the existing literature or with the subject about which they are writing” (Hellmayr 1921, 173). It is doubtless a good thing Hellmayr never encountered Cherrie in a bar in the tropics.


Leo E. Miller (1887-1952)

Biography: Besides his place of birth (Huntingburg, Indiana) nothing much is known about the life of Leo Miller before he arrived at Buenaventura, Colombia, in March 1911, the youngest member of a trio that included Frank Chapman and Louis Agassiz Fuertes. His subsequent work in Colombia impressed Chapman: “Miller, a novice on our first expedition, showed (Read More…)

Image: Cock of the Rock from In the Wilds of South America.

In the Wilds of South America. Six Years of Exploration in Colombia, Venezuela, British Guiana, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918. 8vo. (Wood 465; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Miller had his share of close calls with various forms of wildlife, becoming so casual about it all that he could write nonchalantly of a night spent on a riverside ledge of rock where “the men set the dry vegetation in back of the camp afire in order to keep away jaguars, and built a fence of brands along the outer edge of the rock to frighten off the crocodiles.” He also describes in passing persecutions from all manner of troublesome creatures such as mosquitoes and fleas, and the illnesses that inevitably accompanied them. About the people of South America he had mostly nice things to say, extolling their honesty and hospitality to strangers. All of this is common enough stuff in books of this type; what distinguishes Miller’s account is that he devoted a good portion of his text to actually describing the bird life. He made excellent use of his camera outfit, too; the photographs in the book give a good sense of his travels and include images of his adventures as a valued member of the famous Roosevelt-Rondon expedition on the River of Doubt.


Emilie Snethlage (1868-1929)

Biography: Snethlage did things women rarely did at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was among the first women in Germany to earn a PhD; the only woman scientist in South America to head a significant museum; and the only woman in Brazil devoted to field ornithology, an occupation difficult enough for a man and “deprecated by the old systematists (Read More…)

Image: Plate from Catalogo das Aves Amazonicas.

Catalogo das Aves Amazonicas, contendo todas as especies descriptas e mencionadas até 1913. Boletim do Museu Goeldi (Museu Paraense) de Historia Natural e Ethnographia, tomo 8, 1911-1912. Pará: Edição do Museu Goeldi, 1914. Large 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Snethlage was thirty-two before she became serious about science, but by age thirty-six, in 1904, she had earned a doctorate, and in 1905 she took a position at the natural history museum at Belém founded by Emilio Goeldi. The museum, later named for its founder, was an important center for Brazilian zoological studies. Goeldi, for reasons of health, resigned shortly after Snethlage arrived, and returned to Switzerland. Snethlage became director of the museum in 1914 and served in that position until 1921, when the museum was forced to close for a time due to the collapse of the rubber boom. After leaving the museum, she increasingly focused on fieldwork, journeying all over Brazil in quest of insights into zoogeography, her particular interest. In the process she described about sixty new species and subspecies of birds, an impressive number for the twentieth century (Sick 1993).


William Beebe (1877-1962)

Biography: William Beebe was a prolific and popular author; he published twenty-four books and some 825 articles (Berra 1977). The early writings focused on birds, culminating with the publication of his Monograph of the Pheasants, a four-volume opus published between 1918 and 1922 that is regarded as one of the great bird books of the twentieth century. (Read More…)

Two Bird-Lovers in Mexico. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1905. 8vo, pictorial cloth. (Mengel 200; Middleton Library, LSU.)

William Beebe’s first book, a charming if rather old-fashioned travelogue describing his honeymoon trip in 1902-03. There is a lot about Mexican birds, but the most interesting and best-written chapter may well be the last: “How We Did It,” by Blair Beebe, his bride. It consists of counsel for women going on a wilderness camping trip (the Beebes were not staying in fancy hotels), practical advice offered in an amusing way. She continued to travel with her husband, going various places in South America and accompanying him on the trip to Asia that resulted in his famous Monograph of the Pheasants. It would be nice to report that the Beebes lived happily ever after, but in fact they divorced, none too amicably, in 1913. Beebe is said to have erased her existence from his books, a claim that involves too much work to verify. In any case, this seems not to have much disturbed Blair: She remarried the day after her hasty Nevada divorce was final and went on to publish books under her new name, Blair Niles, including travel books about Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Haiti.

“Studies of a Tropical Jungle: One Quarter of a Square Mile of Jungle at Kartabo, British Guiana.” Zoologica, vol. 6, no. 1, 1925.

A seminal work that brought into focus the richness of a small area of tropical jungle. A mere 2,000 x 4,000 feet was studied intensively for thirty-six months by a team of thirty-three workers, beginning in 1916, and resulted in 150 published articles, plus “life history notes on 73 species of mammals, 464 species of birds, 130 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 150 species of fish” (p. 1). Beebe’s focus then became even tighter; pages 44-46 are devoted to “One Hour of Jungle Life,” in which he tries to dispel the notion that jungle life is uncommon: “The dearth of life and silence in the tropical jungle is emphasized and reiterated in book after book of travel, and as long as the observer is actually traveling, he will indeed see little more than the few frightened creatures which rush from his path.” In his hour of stillness in one spot, Beebe recorded 536 living creatures, including 128 birds.


Carl Eduard Hellmayr (1878-1944)

Biography: For all his contributions to Neotropical ornithology, it is remarkable that Hellmayr never visited South or Central America. Indeed, apart from a decade spent in Chicago, he lived most of his life in the snow-covered Alps. Born near Vienna, Hellmayr received his earliest education at Stift Seitenstetten, a rural monastery surrounded by forests and (Read More…)

“Revision der Spix’schen Typen brasilianischer Vögel” . . . Munich: K.B. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Kommission des G. Franz’schen Verlags (J. Roth), 1905. 4to.

This work represents the beginning of the struggle to untangle the diverse and confusing nineteenth-century sources for the classification of Neotropical birds, and it is particularly notable for the emphasis it places on the type specimens for new species. The crucial importance of this work is made clear by François Vuilleumier (2003, 580): “Despite the tremendous field and museum activity, real progress in the understanding of many aspects of Neotropical avifauna was not forthcoming at the rate one could have expected, given the rate of discoveries and publications. I think that advances in Neotropical ornithology in the early years of the twentieth century were slowed down, not by lack of exploration, lack of specimens, or lack of ability on the part of the authors, but by the absence of a unified nomenclature . . . The true significance of Hellmayr’s work is often underrated.”

Catalogue of Birds of the Americas. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1918-1949. 11 parts in 15 volumes. 8vo, printed wrappers. (Mengel 571; Wood 300-01; Middleton Library, LSU.)

Although begun by Charles Cory and completed by Boardman Conover, this set is universally referred to as “Hellmayr.” The single most important source for the taxonomic descriptions of Neotropical birds, it organizes the chaos that came before it and forms the base on which subsequent work has been done. The degree of detail involved in this kind of taxonomic work is daunting. It is perhaps suggested by the following quotation from a review published in The Auk in 1937, referring to volume 9 of the catalogue, which includes the tanagers: “In the introduction Dr. Hellmayr states: ‘The rejection of Brissonian genera, in consequence of a vote passed by the International Zoological Congress of Padua, entails only one nomenclatorial change: namely, the substitution of Calospiza for Tangara.’ Dr. Hellmayr, however, is mistaken in the action of the Padua Congress. It is true that a resolution calling for the rejection of generic names of binary authors was passed by that body, but this resolution was not then effective and was tabled at the Lisbon Congress, hence Brissonian generic names are still valid. But even if they were not, Calospiza G. R. Gray, 1840, is not the first available name to replace Tangara Brisson, 1760, for Calliste Boie, 1826, has the same type as Calospiza and is not preoccupied by Callista Poli, 1791 (Mollusca), under the International Code.” All this for the name of one genus, albeit an important one. The same scrutiny could be applied to every species, and Hellmayr had over 3,500 to describe and “nomenclatorially” regularize.


M. A. Carriker, Jr. (1879-1965)

Biography: Most American museum collectors went to South America for a few years and then returned home to pursue more conventional livelihoods. Meb Carriker went to Colombia in 1911 and stayed there for most of the rest of his life. He had already spent time in Costa Rica between 1902 and 1907 (Read More…)

Image: Pyrrhura viridicata from The Birds of the Santa Marta Region of Colombia.

The Birds of the Santa Marta Region of Colombia: A Study in Altitudinal Distribution. [Pittsburgh:] Annals of the Carnegie Museum, vol. 14, 1922. 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Carriker worked out a congenial arrangement with W. E. Clyde Todd, curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He collected in Colombia, then shipped the specimens to Todd, who could not travel in the tropics because of health problems. They spent ten years intensively studying the birds of a restricted area, with a view to making a book that would be complementary to Chapman’s 1917 work on the birds of Colombia. According to Witmer Stone (Stone 1923, 344), Chapman deliberately excluded the Santa Marta region from his general survey of Colombian bird life in anticipation of the publication of this more closely focused study, which came to much the same conclusions he did regarding elevational distribution.


Elsie M. B. Naumburg (1880-1953)

Biography: Because of her gender, Elsie Naumburg was an unlikely systematist, and her modest background made her an even more unlikely benefactress for the American Museum of Natural History. Geoffrey Hellman, who wrote profiles of many New York institutions for The New Yorker, tells her story: “In 1917, Mrs. Elsie M. B. Reichenberger (Read More…)

The Birds of Matto Grosso, Brazil. A Report on the Birds Secured by the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition. With Field Notes by George K. Cherrie. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 60. New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1930. 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

The 1913 Roosevelt-Rondon expedition down the Rio da Dúvida – River of Doubt – is famous in the annals of South American exploration. Financed by Theodore Roosevelt and organized by the American Museum of Natural History, it was a trip of grueling hardships that nearly killed the ex-president. It featured a serious shortage of food, rapids that destroyed canoes and claimed a life, a murder, and a camp dog found dying with two Indian arrows in his side, not to mention disease and a plague of insects. Amazingly, George Cherrie, the expedition’s naturalist (and, with Cândido Rondon, the toughest and most seasoned traveler in the group), collected birds during the entire journey. When three days were required to hew new canoes from huge trees, Cherrie was out hunting, for food and for specimens. According to the daily log published in Cherrie’s narrative, which forms the first part of this work, he collected specimens on twenty of thirty-two days on the Rio da Dúvida (subsequently renamed the Rio Roosevelt). At one point, when the travelers were jettisoning all but the most essential equipment, he considered abandoning his box of specimens – but decided against it. Cherrie returned to the area in 1916 to collect more specimens, turning over the systematic description of his collections to Naumburg, who was then his assistant. She worked carefully on the descriptions, going to Europe every year to study collections there, spending the spring and summer of 1922 consulting with Carl Hellmayr in Munich, his expertise “enabling her to solve many difficult problems” (p. 3). Witmer Stone responded favorably in his 1931 review in The Auk: “Her work has been admirably done; not only is it a report on the collections obtained by the expedition and Mr. Cherrie but also of the other Matto Grosso material in the American Museum and in various European museums which she has visited in the course of her study . . . We have therefore a list of the 658 species and subspecies of Matto Grosso birds with detailed ranges of each as well as annotations by Mr. Cherrie” (Stone 1931, 135). He concludes the review with an interesting aside: “The reviewer is reminded of his enthusiasm upon receiving, from the late Dr. J. A. Allen, the successive parts of his ‘Birds of Chapada, Matto Grosso’, published in 1891-1893, and a comparison of this classic paper with Mrs. Naumburg’s volume illustrates in a most striking way the developments in methods of exploration and collecting during the forty years that have intervened, as well as the enormous advance in ornithological knowledge in America” (Stone 1931, 136).


Robert Cushman Murphy (1887-1973)

Biography: By any standard Bob Murphy was an accomplished scientist. In 1912, newly married and with a degree from Brown, he went on his first expedition – a year spent as seaman (but actually naturalist) on one of the last whaling ships under sail, the Daisy. That voyage, which included his introduction to the amazing bird life of South Georgia Island, sparked (Read More…)

Image: Chincha Islands, from Oceanic Birds of South America.

Oceanic Birds of South America. A Study of Species of the Related Coasts and Seas, including the American Quadrant of Antarctica . . . New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1936. 2 volumes. Large 8vo. (Anker 352; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

On page 1 of Murphy’s magnum opus he explains what drew him to devote eighteen years of his life to the project: “Collections of South American birds are among the oldest still preserved in natural history museums. Without exception, however, such historic series are chiefly made up of species inhabiting the land areas or the inland waters of the continent.” The reason for that is simple enough: Pelagic birds are hard to get at and even harder to collect. Murphy secured the services of Rollo Beck, who (with his wife) spent five years (1912-17) collecting in South American waters. The carefully documented series of specimens collected by Beck (along with additional examples collected by Murphy himself on three expeditions) form the basis for the species accounts that make up the bulk of these volumes. However, Murphy went beyond just describing the birds: The first three hundred pages of his work are devoted to describing the geography of land and sea that makes the bird life possible and affects it at all times. There is also a 212-page “Ornithological Circumnavigation of South America” that opens on this promising note: “The journey upon which we are embarking has never been undertaken. I propose to skirt the continental coast line, with full disregard of distance, time and circumstance. Neither weather nor current need retard us; no island of the surrounding seas shall be too remote for us to reach within a twinkling; moreover, we may view these successive projects, as preference dictates, either through the eyes of today or those of generations long departed . . . Let us in the main travel fast, halting only to picture a series of well-chosen localities along the ocean front, and at islands offshore. At each such station we may select the time of year best suited to our purpose of observing the bird life or the periodic natural phenomena concerned with the distribution of birds” (p. 110). No mosquitoes, either: a wonderful voyage indeed for the armchair naturalist.


John T. Zimmer (1889-1957)

Biography: John T. Zimmer was sufficiently introverted that even those who worked with him for years at the American Museum of Natural History could report little about his life, apart from his professional activities. “The general impression he created at the museum,” his eulogists wrote, “particularly after the loss of his wife [in 1945], was (Read More…)

Studies of Peruvian Birds, Nos. 1-66. American Museum Novitates. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1931-1955. 66 volumes, together approximately 1,650 pages. 8vo, printed wrappers. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

To understand the need for these detailed systematic treatments of Peruvian birds one needs to read Zimmer’s introduction to his report on the birds of the Marshall Field Peruvian Expedition, published in 1930: “The systematic arrangements in the following pages may seem somewhat confused inasmuch as I have not followed any single author. There is no check list of neotropical birds which is both complete and strictly modern. Consequently I have largely followed Wetmore . . . for the sequence of orders and families; Simon . . . for the genera of hummingbirds; Hellmayr . . . for the Mesomyodian (or Tyrannine) Passeriformes; Berlepsch. . . for the Tanagers (excluding certain genera which I think belong to the Finches); and Brabourne and Chubb . . . when better authority is not available” (Zimmer 1930, 240). Stresemann called this series “the classic achievement in the study of subspecies of South American birds,” but Frank Chapman is said to have been disappointed that Zimmer did not synthesize his material on Peru into a monograph, like Chapman’s own on Ecuador and Colombia. Synthesis, however, was apparently not something Zimmer was interested in. He stayed focused on the details, but with such skill and discernment that his papers are still cited frequently in the literature.

Image: Drawing from Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library.

Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1926. 2 volumes. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

In the electronic era, book collecting has come to seem a quaint pastime, but at the beginning of the twentieth century more than a few accounts of the first purchase of a book had about them the atmosphere of a first kiss, and the ongoing life of the collection was often depicted as a love affair with the printed word. Edward Ayer became a great collector of books and benefactor of libraries, helping to found the Newberry Library and later donating his wonderful collection of ornithological books to the Field Museum. His first book purchase was a five-volume set of Prescott’s histories of Mexico and Peru, from a bookshop in Chicago. His description of their acquisition, written on the flyleaves at a later date, is a classic of the genre: “I asked the price and to my astonishment was told $17.50. I said ‘What!’ – and remarked I didn’t suppose such books were worth more than fifty cents a volume. I was being served by one of the proprietors, and I finally said, ‘My name is Edward Ayer, I live at Harvard [Illinois], I have been on the plains and in the war four years. I returned a month since. My father has given me an interest in a store. I have $3.50 I can spare now. If you will let me have volume one I will give to you the $3.50 I have and every month when I come in will take and pay for another volume.’ He said (bless him), ‘Young man, you give me the $3.50 you have and take the whole set home with you now.’ My return home was a triumphal procession. I was certainly the happiest boy in the world, and of course, only touched the earth in high places” (Ayer 1950). John T. Zimmer did justice to the Ayer gift by bringing to this catalogue the same meticulous attention to detail that characterized his later taxonomic publications. There are full collations for every book, with variants noted, and annotations on the contents that he was uniquely qualified to write. After over seventy-five years, it remains the single best bibliographical source for early ornithological literature.


Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978)

Biography: Late in his long life Wetmore was fond of describing what he called “my zoo,” the more than fifty new genera, species, and subspecies of recent and fossil birds (along with assorted insects, mammals,and mollusks) that were given his name by his professional colleagues (Ripley and Steed 1987, 608). (Read More…)

The Birds of the Republic of Panama. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 150 [parts 1-4]. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1965-1984. 4 volumes. 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Between 1946 and 1966 Wetmore spent three months of each year in Panama, collecting specimens and making observations for the great work of his later years (he was sixty when the first volume was published). His camp demeanor was a reflection of his personality: “Wetmore was quite meticulous in everything he did, and he expected the same of his colleagues. In the field he always wore a khaki uniform, complete with khaki tie. His friend Perrygo recalled that Wetmore expected the camp kit to be laid out with geometric precision, so much so that Wetmore preferred doing it himself. Perhaps his concern for order and efficiency helped make Wetmore the crack shot that he was. Once, in dense cover, Wetmore and Perrygo sighted a bird they wanted for a specimen. The shot seemed doubtful to Perrygo and he called to Wetmore, ‘Did you hit him?,’ to which Wetmore replied ‘I shot didn’t I?’” (Ripley and Steed 1987, 609).

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