W. Earl Godfrey was born at Wolfville, Nova Scotia, on 18 March 1910 and died in Ottawa, Ontario, on 8 June 2002. He joined the AOU in 1942, became an Elective Member in 1949, and a Fellow in 1955. He served on the AOU Council from 1961 through 1963, as well as on the program committee, 1958–1961, the special committee on vernacular names, 1960–1962, the Brewster award committee, 1962–1964, and the committee on biography, 1969–1972. He was elected as official Canadian representative to the International Congress of Ornithology in 1962, and Corresponding Member of the British Ornithologists' Union in 1976.
Earl grew up in Wolfville, a small, picturesque Nova Scotia college town, when its population was less than 2,500. Wolfville had already spawned the first federal migratory bird officer for the Maritime provinces, the legendary Robie W. Tufts, and it was destined to provide more National Museum of Canada curators per capita (Austin L. Rand and Earl in ornithology, J. S. Bleakney and F. R. Cook in herpetology) than any other locality in Canada. When Robie Tufts caught Earl and a friend poaching birds with a slingshot, he confiscated the slingshot and replaced it with scientific bird books. That was Earl's introduction to a treasured friendship that, as he later wrote in his memorial of Tufts, “was to grow and endure and become a never-ending source of inspiration, guidance, and freely given help of all kinds over half a century.”
Earl studied biology at Acadia University in Wolfville, earning his Bachelor of Science in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. In 1935, he had a three-month contract to collect birds for the National Museum of Canada in his native Nova Scotia, and he collected for them in western New Brunswick for another 10 weeks in 1939. Robie Tufts, in the role of Earl's surrogate father, arranged for Earl to move to Cleveland as private tutor to the unruly son of Cyrus S. Eaton, a Cleveland industrialist whose roots were in Nova Scotia. In 1939 and 1940, Earl attended graduate school at Western Reserve University, Cleveland, but did not write a thesis and received no degree. From 1942 through 1945, he did war-related work in General Electric's product development laboratory. Through those years Earl had been an unpaid voluntary assistant to Harry C. Oberholser in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. When the war ended, Earl obtained a paid position as assistant ornithologist in the museum. He married Jane Vivian in July 1946.
When Austin Rand left the National Museum of Canada in 1947, Earl took his place as curator of ornithology. He moved his wife and infant daughter, Barbara, to Ottawa, but the marriage ended in 1955. During 17 field seasons he honed his ability to identify each species by sight and sound, meanwhile making extensive collections in successive regions of Canada, particularly where little collecting had been done previously; 10 regional monographs resulted, and 35,000 specimens were acquired for the National Museum under his tenure. Following the example of his mentor, Oberholser, seven of his early papers dealt with systematics, including descriptions of five new subspecies (Carolina Wren, Long-eared Owl, Common Yellowthroat, Boreal Chickadee, and Swainson's Thrush). The other 75 papers and notes he wrote dealt with a wider range of ornithological matters, particularly bird distribution, and included a chapter in Griscom and Sprunt's Warblers of North America, and the major portion of the loon accounts in Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 1. He also reviewed 130 publications and wrote 10 memorials.
His crowning achievement, made possible in part by his extensive field collections, was The Birds of Canada. The first edition appeared in 1966 and the second in 1986, with French editions in 1967 and 1986. Those books, which were illustrated by John Crosby's superb paintings and included Stewart MacDonald's detailed range maps for almost every species, sold nearly 300,000 copies, by far the most successful of the museum's many publications. The second edition contained 595 pages in place of the initial 428, and covered 578 species in place of 518. Now, a first estimate of the number of species breeding in Canada (426) was attempted. As Eric L. Mills has written in the Ottawa Field-Naturalist's “Trail and Landscape,”
"The great virtues of this masterwork are its absolute accuracy, the information-filled conciseness of its species accounts, the beauty of the illustrations… and the little, appreciated notes on identification which make it clear that Godfrey was far more than a museum ornithologist."
Earl shared with us how thrilled he was by Richard E. Webster's article, “Building a birder's library,” in Birding in 1993; Webster wrote that Godfrey's Birds of Canada fitted each of his conceptions of “quality” and was one of the two “best bird book buys” in the entire world.
Earl was generous, unassuming, and infinitely patient. Regardless of pressing duties, he would without exception take any amount of time to help anyone, amateur or professional, who came for help. At times he received and answered over two thousand letters a year. He worked unselfishly for the Canadian Field-Naturalist as an associate editor from 1947 to 1976 and again from 1990 to 2002. He was also an associate editor of Bird-Banding from 1948 to 1955, and a member of Canada's National Research Council Committee on ity-Bird Hazards to Aircraft.
His alma mater, Acadia University, conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1969. In 1986, when the Society of Canadian Ornithologists first instituted the Doris Huestis Speirs Award as the top honor in Canadian ornithology, Earl was the obvious and unanimous choice to be its first recipient. In 1997, the Ontario Field Ornithologists presented him with their first Distinguished Ornithologist Award. The American Birding Association gave him the Ludlow Griscom Award in 2000.
He married Marilyn Legge in September 1970; she died in 1987. After retirement in December 1976, he changed to the unpaid position of Curator Emeritus, and became a Research Associate in 1993. He continued to freely dispense his expertise to his many correspondents and to museum staff, such as M.G. who occupied the office next to him. Diabetes and the consequent poor circulation in his lower extremities eventually led to restriction of such activities. However, he was still bird-watching around Ottawa in the weeks before he was admitted to the hospital in early 2002.
In 1947, C.S.H. had his first contact with Earl, who spent untold hours making innumerable corrections to a young medical student's long manuscript, for eventual publication in Canadian Field-Naturalist. In spite of its typing errors and faulty constructions, Earl did not reject the paper out of hand. Instead, his painstaking assistance was so educational that I was motivated to keep on writing. We kept in touch, by mail and occasionally by telephone, until the week before his death. During a long visit with him in his home in Ottawa early in 2000, Earl cajoled C.S.H. into researching the details of the life of Arthur C. Twomey for a joint memorial, his final publication, 64 years since his first; page proofs for that memorial arrived during the week Earl died.
For nearly 40 years Earl was the ultimate author-on the distribution and taxonomy of Canadian birds. He anticipated that his successor, Henri Ouellet, would write his memorial some day, but as fate would have it, Henri died unexpectedly, so that Earl wrote Henri's memorial instead. Earl Godfrey was a phenomenon—no one will ever again be as knowledgeable about every bird species across all of Canada, nor offer such ungrudging and unselfish assistance.