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ROBERT RIDGWAY (1850-1929)


“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 counsel” (Barrow 1998, 20). He had selected the right person to solicit, since Baird encouraged and supported amateur collectors all over the Western Hemisphere. As their correspondence continued, Baird recognized the special talents of the lad from Illinois, and by the time Ridgway was seventeen, Baird had brought him to Washington, given him a crash course in Western birds and the preparation of skins, then dispatched him as naturalist on a government expedition exploring the Sierras and the Great Basin. Ridgway returned from that journey in 1869 and began working with Baird and Thomas Brewer on The History of North American Birds: Land Birds, which was published in 1874, the same year he was formally employed by the Smithsonian. In 1880 he became head of the bird department, a position he held until his death (Wetmore 1931).

From his office in the Smithsonian, Ridgway became a dominant force in American ornithology despite a shyness that kept him away from all but essential travel and meetings. He authored A Manual of North American Birds (1887); coauthored, again with Baird and Brewer, two volumes of Water Birds (1884) to accompany the three volumes of Land Birds; and published another two-volume set, The Ornithology of Illinois, in 1889. He was a founding member (and later president) of the American Ornithologists’ Union and a principal author of its first Check-List of North American Birds (1886). All this in spite of the fact that “matters pertaining to the regular business of the Department of Birds of the Museum take up almost all of my time” (Harris 1928, 47).

Despite the honors he accumulated and the pleasure he took in his work, Ridgway never felt that Washington was home. “Had I realized how many years would pass before my plan [to return to Illinois] could be put into effect, it is probable that my feelings would have been very much like those of a person sentenced to a life-term in prison” (Harris 1928, 28). Late in his career, deep into the labor of writing his monumental Birds of North and Middle America, he made arrangements to do his work from a property he had purchased in the Wabash Valley of downstate Illinois, near his birthplace. There he created Bird Haven, an eighteen acre site that not only protected birds, but also was home to what he conceived of as “a nucleus of an Illinois arboretum” (Ridgway 1929, 3). He lavished attention on the preserve, cheerfully conceding that he spent more money on it than he should; by 1928, the year before his death, he had “about ninety per cent of the kinds of trees, shrubs, and woody vines native to the state” growing on the place, a remarkable feat considering that the land was still under the plow as late as 1870 (ibid., 3).  A lovely creek ran through the property, but that proved the eventual undoing of Ridgway’s labor of love: In 1970 the creek was dammed and much of the forest cut and flooded to create a water and recreation source for the town of Olney.