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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology

Life Histories

The life histories of their targets were seldom of concern to the men who pursued specimens for museums, except as such knowledge aided in locating the birds for collecting. After all, one did not make one’s name or one’s living by reporting on behavior; indeed, stopping to observe a bird’s habits might result in unwelcome knowledge as the bird (Read More…)


François Haverschmidt (1906-1987)

Biography: Suriname, the smallest nation in South America, remains to this day one of the more exotic destinations in the Neotropics. A former Dutch colony, with Dutch as the official language, it includes a large community descended from African slaves, as well as people from Dutch-controlled regions of Indonesia and India who were brought in as laborers after (Read More…)

Image: Plate 19 from Birds of Surinam.

Birds of Surinam. Illustrated by Paul Barruel. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1968. 4to. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Haverschmidt was preceded in his work on Suriname’s birds by Frederik Paul and Arthur Philip Penard, who self-published their two-volume De Vogels van Guyana in Paramaribo between 1908 and 1910. What little we know of the Penard brothers is contained in an article about them by Haverschmidt, published in The Auk in 1949 (vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 56-60). They both suffered from childhood from a debilitating disease (probably leprosy, to judge from the fact that they were kept in seclusion) and relied on a network of local collectors to provide them with specimens. This circumstance accounts for the most significant drawback to their work, the unreliability of records of distribution. Both were remarkably young to undertake such a large project: Frederic was twenty, Arthur sixteen, when they began forming the collections, and they were apparently almost entirely self-taught. Haverschmidt’s work did not suffer from these drawbacks: He was already an accomplished ornithologist when he arrived in Suriname, and he was able to do his own fieldwork. Although he laments that “all my ornithological work could be done only in spare time during a busy life in a sphere far removed from ornithology” (p. vii), he personally collected the nearly 8,700 specimens that form the basis for most of the book’s descriptions.


William Phelps, Sr. (1875-1965) & William Phelps, Jr.(1902-1988)

Biography: It is an obvious and sad fact that the major repositories of Neotropical bird specimens are not found in the Neotropics – they are in North America and Europe. One great exception is the Colección Ornitológica Phelps in Caracas, where the personal passions of a father and son have created a center for the study of Venezuelan birds that is preeminent (Read more…)

Lista de las Aves de Venezuela con su Distribucion. Parte 2, Passeriformes. Boletin de la Sociedad Venezolana de Ciencias Naturales, tomo 12, no. 75, enero 1950. [and] Parte 1, No Passeriformes. Boletin de la Sociedad Venezolana de Ciencias Naturales, tomo 19, no. 90, mayo 1958. 2 volumes. 8vo, printed wrappers. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

This was the first comprehensive description of the birds of Venezuela, made possible by the numerous expeditions of the Phelps family. Like many multivolume projects involving systematics, it appeared in an unusual order (part 2 before part 1) and took longer than expected to complete: A review of part 2, published in 1950, says that part 1 was expected in 1951. It actually appeared in 1958, by which time a revised edition of part 2 was already in the works. In 1978 Billy Phelps, along with Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, went a step further, writing (as well as financing) A Guide to the Birds of Venezuela. This was a first in many respects: It was among the first comprehensive field guides to a South American country; one of the first field guides published by Princeton University Press, which has gone on to be among the world’s leading publishers of field guides; and it represents Guy Tudor’s major entrance into the field of ornithological illustration (R. Ridgely, pers. comm., 2010).


Alexander Skutch (1904-2004)

Biography: A decade after earning a PhD in botany from Johns Hopkins in 1928, Skutch switched “from foliage to feathers” (Stiles 2005) and moved to Costa Rica with a singular purpose: to describe the life histories of Central American birds, about whose habits almost nothing was known. He bought a farm in 1941 and lived there for the rest of his life. (Read More…)

Life Histories of Central American Birds. Illustrated with Drawings by Don R. Eckelberry. Berkeley: Cooper Ornithological Society, 1954, 1960, 1969. 3 volumes. Large 8vo. First editions. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Writing of Skutch’s style would have a hard time getting published today, because as well as being scientific, and statistical when necessary, it is personal, anecdotal, and engaging. To take a random example: He devotes fourteen pages to Tangara nigrocincta, the golden-masked tanager (“golden” has since been dropped from the name), including sections on food, voice, roosting, nesting, eggs, incubation, care of newly hatched nestlings, care of older nestlings, later broods, plumage changes, and enemies. His notes cover a period of eleven years; his conclusions on incubation came after multiple sessions of observation lasting as long as ten hours. On the tanager’s voice: “The Golden-masked tanager would have been seized upon with delight by theorists of a past century who believed that birds lavishly endowed with bright colors had poor songs; for this elegant tanager appears to have no song at all” (p. 201). On its enemies: “Early one afternoon the parent Golden-masked Tanagers were attending their two-week-old nestlings in the calabash tree fifty feet in front of me. Suddenly a Swallow-tailed Kite, that had been soaring about high overhead, swooped down and carried off the nest along with the two nestlings. A Neotropic Kingbird darted angrily at the kite the moment it seized the nest, but was not able to distract the kite. Rising high in the air, the hawk soared around on set wings, holding the nest in its talons; it bent its head down to extract a small object that was doubtless a nestling. Then it dropped the nest, which drifted slowly earthward.” He then describes the pathetic aftermath: “When, a few minutes later, the parent tanagers returned together with food in their bills, they found only a bare, mossy crotch where their nest had been. Then they hunted over the neighboring branches and forks, as though they hoped to find their nestlings in some other spot. Over a period of an hour, they returned again and again with food in their bills and searched in the neighborhood of the vanished nest” (p. 211).


Eugene Eisenmann (1906-1981)

Biography: Eisenmann did not write much, but his name appears in many books: The Imperative Call, by Alexander Skutch, is dedicated to him, as are Robert Ridgely’s Birds of Panama and Birds of South America, volume 1. After Eisenmann’s death, in 1981, the sixth edition of the AOU Check-list was dedicated to him, and in 1985, an entire volume of essays on Neotropical (Read More…)

The Species of Middle American Birds. A list of all species recorded from Mexico to Panama, with suggested English names, outlines of range, and distributional bibliography. New York: Transactions of the Linnaean Society, vol. 7, April 1955. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Eisenmann was chair of the AOU Check-list Committee, not a small achievement for a Panamanian lawyer with no formal ornithological training. Names (especially English names) were important to him, and this was his attempt to create a list “by which each species could be designated throughout its range, without regard to locality or the subspecies involved” (p. 1). He wanted to “lay a foundation, before it is too late, for some measure of uniformity” (p. 2). He also recognized that “not all our selections will please everyone. In fact they do not please all our little committee” (p. 3). Little has changed since: Today there is a “little committee” of ten members, the South American Classification Committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union, that reviews proposals for name changes to South American birds. Although highly technical, the commentary on the proposals at the SACC website is lively, and it appears that as many name changes are rejected as accepted.


Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee (1901-1984)

Biography: Barons and counts were something of a staple in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural science, and in the early twentieth century Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, was without peer as a collector of zoological specimens from all over the world. After that, however, the dwindling nobility of Europe seems to have lost what interest they had in (Read More…)

The Birds of Colombia and Adjacent Areas of South and Central America. Narberth, Pa.: Livingston Publishing Co. [for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1964.] 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

A work that marks a significant divide in publications devoted to Neotropical birds. Before, most publications devoted to the region were unillustrated lists of species. This is among the first books to include illustrations, and to be serviceable as a field guide. Although he did a fair amount of traveling and collecting, Meyer de Schauensee remained at his core a museum man – in the research for The Birds of Colombia, he never visited Colombia. Instead, he employed collectors in Colombia to gather the needed specimens for the Academy of Natural Sciences, allowing him to describe the birds from Philadelphia.

Image: White-headed Marsh Tyrant from A Guide to the Birds of South America.

A Guide to the Birds of South America. Wynnewood, Pa.: Livingston Publishing Co., for The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, [1970]. 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

“This book became famous to the growing legion of ornithologists and then birders who started traveling in South America in the 1970s. I count myself as one of them. It was always ‘the blue book’ and though it had errors and was written by a museum man with almost no experience with Neotropical birds alive, it was invaluable: Now finally we had something we could use, with care, in the field” (R. Ridgely, pers. comm., 2010).


Maria Koepcke (1924-1971)

Biography: Koepcke’s contributions as an ornithologist were cut short by her death in a Peruvian plane crash and overshadowed by the remarkable story of her seventeen-year-old daughter, also on the plane. The girl fell from the sky, strapped in her seat, from over 10,000 feet, but survived the fall, protected by the seat and the dense rainforest canopy. (Read More…)

Las Aves del Departamento de Lima. Lima: Editado por Dr. Maria Koepcke, 1964. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Koepcke specialized in the birds of the Pacific slope of the Andes, and this charming little book, the first field guide to any part of Peru, covers an area from the Pacific shore to the base of the Andes. It is enhanced by drawings by Koepcke for each of the 313 species described, and has been noted as the first book on Peruvian birds “to promote its avifauna at the popular level” (Soffer 2010).


Helmut Sick (1910-1991)

Biography: After earning his doctorate under Erwin Stresemann, Sick went to Brazil, in 1939. He spent three years studying birds before being forced to turn his attention to fleas, lice, and termites, “the miserable companions of . . . solitude” (Sick 1993, [ix]), when he was incarcerated, along with other German citizens, after Brazil declared war on Germany in (Read More…)

Birds in Brazil. A Natural History. Translated from the Portuguese by William Belton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1993]. 4to. First edition in English. First published in 1984 as Ornitologia Brasileira – Uma Introdução. The English edition, however, contains Sick’s numerous revisions to the text and other revisions introduced by the translator. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

As Sick himself generously pointed out, his work was constructed on the foundation laid by Olivério Pinto (1896-1981), “the grand old man of Brazilian ornithology,” whose Catálogo das Aves do Brasil, published between 1938 and 1944, “is the starting point for any systematic ornithological work in this country” (Sick 1993, 39).

The publication of Birds in Brazil, Sick’s magnum opus, was also a landmark event in Brazilian ornithology, so it is probably best to let Brazilians describe its impact: “Sick’s book constituted a watershed because, more than an ornithology textbook, it was a comprehensive treatment of Brazil’s avifauna, with a wealth of new information and a high literary quality that unchained a tide of interest by specialists and laymen. Both young students and other nature enthusiasts met for lectures and field trips, with an authoritative textbook, providing the principal ingredients for the dissemination of knowledge beyond the few Brazilian ornithologists working in museums. The investigation of Brazil’s avifauna had been in the hands of very few professionals and even fewer amateurs until the advent of Sick’s book” (Pacheco and Fonseca 2001).


Ted Parker (1953-1993)

Biography: Ted Parker was renowned even during his short lifetime as “the most gifted field ornithologist of the 20th century” (Robbins, Graves, and Remsen 1997, 1). With a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder hanging from his shoulder, he spent about six months of the year in the field for nineteen years, sometimes on his own, sometimes guiding birders for (Read More…)

Birds of Peru. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

In order to pursue his passion for Neotropical birds Parker neglected academic credentials – he barely finished an undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona – but that did not stop him from publishing many articles in technical journals, many coauthored with colleagues at LSU. This long-awaited field guide to Peru was a large project Parker was involved with from the beginning, when John O’Neill invited him to work on it in the mid-1970s. In the end, Parker did not live to see publication of the book, and it proved to be a project large enough to require several authors (besides Parker, they were Thomas S. Schulenberg, Douglas F. Stotz, Daniel F. Lane, and John P. O’Neill). There were also thirteen illustrators.


Miguel Alvarez del Toro (1917-1996)

Biography: Miguel Alvarez del Toro was “one of the last of the all around naturalists and the first of Mexico’s modern conservationists” (Cuarón 1997). For most of his adult life Don Miguel, as he was known, lived in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. He was singularly devoted to the fauna of the region. (Read More…)

Las Aves de Chiapas. Tuxtla Gutiérrez: Publicado por el Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas, 1971. 4to. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Remarkably, Álvarez del Toro not only wrote the text but also provided the paintings for all but five of the eighty-two color plates.

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