WILLIAM PHELPS, SR. (1875-1965)
WILLIAM PHELPS, JR. (1902-1988)
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 in its specialty, “probably the finest single-country collection of bird specimens in the world” (Restall 2007, 42). William Phelps, Sr., was already keen on birds as a Harvard undergraduate, having joined the Nuttall Ornithological Club and the American Ornithologists’ Union. His first published work, based on an 1896 trip to Venezuela, appeared in The Auk in 1897. He went to live in Venezuela shortly after graduating, establishing a coffee business that did very well – though not well enough to realize his fantasy, as described to Robert Cushman Murphy, who wrote, “I have heard him say that, with youthful enthusiasm, he had visions of building within four years a competence [fortune] that would allow him to retire and devote the rest of his life to study of the avifauna of Venezuela. To this he would add that the realization of his hopes worked out exactly as planned – except that it took him forty years instead of four” (R. Murphy 1970, 420). Even while focused on his rapidly diversifying business interests (which included the first radio and television stations in Venezuela), Phelps did a lot with birds, financing and (when he could) participating in expeditions all over Venezuela. When he retired, at the age of sixty-three, he devoted himself full time to the Phelps Foundation, established to use the money earned in his business enterprises to support avian research. Through the foundation he eventually sponsored over one hundred expeditions to every corner of the country.
Many of those expeditions were led by his son, Billy Phelps, who had a particular interest in the birds of southeastern Venezuela – the region that includes the tepuis, the fabled tabletop mountains. He made fifteen trips to that remote region, culminating in the publication, with Ernst Mayr, of “The Origin of the Bird Fauna of the Southern Venezuelan Highlands” (Vuilleumier 1990). Billy Phelps was an integral part of the development of the Phelps Foundation collection, as was his wife, Kathy, who accompanied him on many of his expeditions and took over the affairs of the collection after her husband’s death. “The Colección Phelps remains today at the center of Venezuelan ornithology,” writes Steve Hilty in his Birds of Venezuela. “It serves as an invaluable resource for students and professionals, as well as a meeting place and focal point for current ornithological research and conservation efforts” (Hilty 2003, 42).