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1 April 2003 Early Southwest Ornithologists, 1528–1900
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Dan L. Fischer. 2001. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona. xxi + 271 pp., 20 black-and-white illustrations, 4 maps. ISBN 0-8165-2149-2 (cloth) $45.00.— Dan Fischer has produced an enjoyable and useful book on what in reality is a large and rather unwieldy subject: the spectacular array of southwestern birds, the naturalists who discovered (and named) them, and the developing human history that brought them all together. The primary focus is on the lives and accomplishments (with regard to southwestern ornithology) of an astoundingly diverse mix of individuals. In all, some 100 southwestern naturalists are treated, and another 100 are included because of affiliation with those on the southwestern frontier. In taking that comprehensive approach, the book may be the first attempt to deal with all the players through all the years, rather than with some subset (e.g. Army doctors, Biological Survey collectors) based on era, location, or profession.

But first, some definitions are in order. “Ornithologist” is broadly interpreted as “naturalist” and, indeed, the latter term is used more frequently throughout the book (and in this review) than the former. Included are all the curious explorers, soldiers, physicians, mining engineers, guano hunters, and other vagabonds as well as scientists (trained or otherwise); in short, it includes just about anyone who showed some interest in birds. “Southwest” is likewise broadly interpreted, to encompass (very roughly) the region lying between the thirty-fifth parallel and the Mexican boundary plus the northern Mexican frontier including Baja California and the offshore islands. In essence, that is a swath of real estate stretching from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California and extending some several hundred miles north and south of the international boundary. Another term for that vast region is “borderlands”, and that term is used—sometimes interchangeably with southwest—throughout the book.

The book is organized into seven, chronologically arranged chapters. It begins with the arrival of Spanish and other European explorers; then proceeds through the earliest American explorations and the ensuing conflict with Mexico; the subsequent exploration of the newly acquired territories and the definition of the new (and sometimes changing) border; through the Indian conflicts and the Civil War; on to the more serious mapping and cataloging of “resources”; and, ultimately, to the maturation of ornithology as a science, including the founding of the American Ornithologists' Union; the assimilation of ecology into bird study; and the developing concerns for the conservation of birds and their habitats.

The clock starts in 1528, with Cabeza de Vaca's wanderings through the region—although in truth, that lost individual provided little of value with regard to birds, and his credibility (after all, he claimed to have seen cities of gold) is somewhat in question. The first written accounts of birds in the region date from the arrival of Coronado in 1540. From that early date, the narrative proceeds through over 350 years of discovery, eventually concluding in the early 1900s, at the dawning of a new century. Through it all, we are introduced to the naturalists, some famous and others not: Thomas Say and William Gambel; Audubon, Townsend, and Nuttall; Cassin and Baird; Cooper, Coues, and Bendire; Couch, Merrill, and Sennett; Edgar Mearns, Frank Stephens, Herbert Brown, and Florence Bailey. The subjects, like the landscape of the region in question, are large, and there is no tidy way to prevent people and events from overlapping in time and geography. Nevertheless, Fischer has done a good job of organizing that unruly material into a coherent narrative.

The book affords good opportunity for readers to become acquainted—or reacquainted—with the people behind those familiar names. (Quick now, what was the relationship of J. J. Abert and J. W. Abert, and who is remembered in the name of a towhee and who in the name of a squirrel?) In fact, the narrative portraits of the naturalists involved make the heart of the book. Given the numbers of characters included, it is understandable that some are portrayed in greater depth than others. Nevertheless, the stories of some of the generally well-known naturalists may reveal unexpected tidbits, whereas stories of others may inspire readers to search further into just who those folks were.

Take for example the self-taught artist–naturalist Andrew Jackson Grayson, whose life was transformed at age 35 upon seeing an exhibition of Audubon's work, and whom Baird came to call the “Audubon of the West.” In pursuit of his dream, Grayson ended up in western Mexico, where he was robbed by bandits and endured shipwrecks and yellow fever, and where his son was murdered on the mean streets of San Blas. Chronically poor, and receiving no assistance from the establishment back home, he gained an audience with the Emperor Maxmilian, who agreed to sponsor his work; unfortunately (for both Grayson and Maxmilian) the Emperor soon thereafter was overthrown and executed, and no funding materialized. Nevertheless, much of Grayson's surviving art is deemed superior to that of Audubon, and his observations of west Mexican birds still ring true.

The account of the generally outrageous John Xantus is another fine tale. Xantus seems to have been able to alienate himself from most everyone he contacted, and that picture of him is painted as much in his own words as it is by the words of others. He seems to have developed a dislike for Woodhouse just from reading something Woodhouse had written years earlier. Complaining all the way, he nevertheless discovered new birds and sent important collections back east, while the patient Baird continued to send supplies and see that he was assigned to new outposts, finally to the tip of Baja California (where he complained, and was eventually dismissed). I suspect Xantus was indeed “hypersensitive, jealous, and boastful” as well as “abrasive” and “prideful”; today, we would have made him a Professor.

The list goes on. The account of H. W. Henshaw, 10 years with the Wheeler Survey (before moving up the bureaucratic ladder to Washington, D.C.), will be especially appealing to latter-day field biologists: roughly attired, bearded, and loaded down with collecting gear (including butterfly nets), he could prepare a specimen using a saddled mule for a “table” or sit for hours observing the behavior of birds in life. And consider A. W. Anthony, who enjoyed nothing better than spending nights alone at sea in a rowboat, the better to become acquainted with the lives of seabirds.

Here too are some of the familiar stories, some grown into legend: Bendire, 40 feet up in a cottonwood, popping a Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus) egg into his mouth before descending and fleeing from watching Apaches; the ailing Heermann, stumbling over his own collecting gun and mortally wounding himself; the naming of Virginia's (Vermivora virginiae), Lucy's (V. luciae), and Grace's (Dendroica graciae) warblers; the story of how two sapsucker “species” were eventually recognized as one (when Henshaw took the time to watch a pair of Williamson's [Sphyrapicus thyroideus] at their nest); T. C. Henry inadvertently naming the Crissal Thrasher “dorsalis;” the “arrest” of Coues for disobeying orders forbidding the discharge of firearms (because he just could not resist passing up the opportunity to collect some desirable bird). One story, involving White-throated Swifts (Aeronautes saxatalis) at what is now El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, ties together several individuals across several decades. Woodhouse first noted the bird there in the early 1850s, and proceeded to describe it as a new species based solely on his visual observations (pp. 50-51). Two years later, Kennerly and Mollhausen collected the type specimen in Arizona near the Colorado River, “a deed which Woodhouse failed to do” (pp. 60–61). Some years later, Xantus weighed in, finding in the episode an opportunity to disparage Woodhouse (pp. 103–104). Henshaw, however, while actually observing the swifts in flight at El Morro, understood and explained exactly why Woodhouse had described the birds the way he had (p. 135).

Not surprisingly, interesting trivia abounds. We learn that Cassin had more birds named for him— five—than any other American-born ornithologist (the Scottish-born Wilson tops the list with eight). Of course, we also learn that Cassin requested of Baird that a particularly distinctive finch be given the name cassinii. Audubon, by the way, considered Cassin a “closet” naturalist; Cassin deemed Audubon merely “insufferable”.

The trials and tribulations of those frontier naturalists always seem to make for good reading; that they not only persevered, but continued to gather new information on birds inspires awe. Here is Woodhouse, suffering from malaria in Texas, bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake in New Mexico, and shot in the leg by an Indian's arrow on the Colorado River; such things tend to put current day hardships—like computer crashes—into perspective. Often it seems that most everybody in the southwest was suffering from some sort of fever most of the time. Thomas Say not only suffered ill health while on the Long Expedition, he was robbed of his possessions and (worse) his field notes by both Indians and soldiers. Charles Wright was compelled to walk (because the Army would not let him ride) the 673 miles from San Antonio to El Paso—and in the summer no less.

One is struck by the amazingly short lives, and therefore shorter careers, of some of those naturalists. William Gambel survived only to age 26, when taken by typhoid. Caleb Kennerly, part of the Whipple Expedition and later with Emory's Boundary Survey, was lost in a shipwreck as he was returning east to be married; he was 33. Especially poignant is the fate of Francis Birtwell, who at a mere 21-years-old was on a course to produce an “Ornithology of New Mexico.” Yet, as his bride watched, he accidentally strangled himself in his climbing ropes while investigating an Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) nest.

Given the large number of dates, localities, and individuals, I found surprisingly few errors. Rarely, years are confused—for example, 1887 for 1787 (p. 8) and 1954 for 1854 (p. 66). The Gadsden Treaty is sometimes attributed to 1853 and at other times to 1854. If Captain French resigned in “1856” to join the Confederate Army he was certainly ahead of the times (p. 33). I believe Acoma Pueblo and the Continental Divide are east—not west—of El Morro (p. 51). I suspect Henry's first publication on New Mexico birds, which ran to 11 pages and contained numerous annotations, was in fact less “sketchy” than his 5-page second effort (p. 70). Abbott was Frazar's middle name, not first (p. 150). The discovery of Worthen's Sparrow (Spizella wortheni) in New Mexico is noted (p. 170) but the equally novel occurrence of Bumblebee Hummingbird (Atthis ellioti) in Arizona in 1896 is overlooked. Also, I was unsure of the value of the 33-page (but unpaginated) appendix, which provides an alphabetical listing of birds “relevant to the southwest,” including first observer, first collector, and describer for each species.

The 20 black-and-white illustrations perhaps are fewer than some would like (only 11 of the naturalists are pictured), but they serve to complement the work. The very fine renditions of LeConte's Thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei) by Baird and Gray Hawk (Asturina nitida) by Ridgway remind us those were men of many talents. The photograph of F. C. Willard, literally out on a limb while investigating a Buff-breasted Flycatcher (Empidonax fulvifrons) nest, is memorable. The four maps, although small in scale, serve to orient the reader to the geography and scenes of major activity. They may even help in locating some of the seemingly endless proliferation of “forts” and “camps.”

A bibliography of almost 500 references is included. Although the list is eclectic rather than exhaustive, it is an important resource, and will direct readers to much of the primary literature, such as the railroad survey reports, the boundary survey reports, and other important documents. Also included are titles such as Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez, wherein Steinbeck muses that Xantus may not have had it so bad at Cabo San Lucas after all, judging from the abundance of illegitimate offspring he apparently left behind. Given the discussion of the discovery of the Masked Bobwhite (Culinus virginianus ridgwayi) (p. 174), I was surprised to see omitted from the references Herbert Brown's 1884 “[Bobwhite] in Arizona” which had been quickly followed by none other than Ridgway's countering paper “[Bobwhite] not in Arizona” (the distinctive subspecies was soon verified, and named for Ridgway). The book concludes with a thorough index that provides a helpful tool to guide readers through the maze of years, birds, naturalists, and localities.

In a brief epilog, Fischer touches on that hot-button issue—the collection of bird specimens, which really could not be avoided in a book of this nature. As with other issues that tend to be more emotional than rational, the issue is discussed but not resolved. Fischer provides Vernon Bailey's eloquent defense of collecting (p. 200), but also suggests that new techniques and approaches may largely eliminate the need for collecting. Of course, one is left to wonder if that flock of Scarlet Ibises (Eudocimus ruber), reported in Arizona by Herbert Brown (p. 174), represents an important distributional record or instead one more properly placed in the realm of Cabeza de Vaca's cities of gold; a specimen would have ended debate.

Overall, the book provides a satisfying introduction to, and overview of, the history of the discovery of birds in the borderlands, the times (both good and bad) of the curious naturalists who discovered them, and the overall human history (political and otherwise) of the region in question. I suspect there is enough here to interest the general reader, and adequate references to guide those with sufficient curiosity to more in-depth accounts of specific persons or events. It would be a useful addition to university, public, or private libraries.

Finally, a significant thread running through the book is the importance of individuals of one generation, who mentor and inspire individuals of the next. From Audubon to Baird, from Baird to seem-ingly everyone, and from those taught by Baird to the even larger next generation, those personal contacts from generation to generation tend to stand out as something special. It is fitting that Fischer acknowledges in the Preface the patient and kind attention bestowed upon him by his mentor, who instilled in him “a conscious awareness and lifelong enjoyment of birds.”

Sartor O. Williams "Early Southwest Ornithologists, 1528–1900," The Auk 120(2), 568-571, (1 April 2003). https://doi.org/10.1642/0004-8038(2003)120[0568:ESO]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 April 2003
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