The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds

The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds

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by Daniel Lewis

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Amateurs and professionals studying birds at the end of the nineteenth century were a contentious, passionate group with goals that intersected, collided and occasionally merged in their writings and organizations. Driven by a desire to advance science, as well as by ego, pride, honor, insecurity, religion and other clashing sensibilities, they struggled to absorb

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Amateurs and professionals studying birds at the end of the nineteenth century were a contentious, passionate group with goals that intersected, collided and occasionally merged in their writings and organizations. Driven by a desire to advance science, as well as by ego, pride, honor, insecurity, religion and other clashing sensibilities, they struggled to absorb the implications of evolution after Darwin. In the process, they dramatically reshaped the study of birds.

Daniel Lewis here explores the professionalization of ornithology through one of its key figures: Robert Ridgway, the Smithsonian Institution’s first curator of birds and one of North America’s most important natural scientists. Exploring a world in which the uses of language, classification and accountability between amateurs and professionals played essential roles, Lewis offers a vivid introduction to Ridgway and shows how his work fundamentally influenced the direction of American and international ornithology. He explores the inner workings of the Smithsonian and the role of collectors working in the field and reveals previously unknown details of the ornithological journal The Auk and the untold story of the color dictionaries for which Ridgway is known.

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Editorial Reviews

British Ornithologist's Union - Richard Mearns

"This is a welcome and thoroughly researched contribution to the history of ornithology in North America." —Richard Mearns, British Ornithologist's Union
Environmental History - Julianne Lutz Warren

"Lewis's account draws deeply and meticulously from a vast assortment of primary sources. As a museum curator himself, he insightfully highlights the values of objects—that is, the mortal remains of birds—as vital sources and the history and values of natural history museum. Lewis's voice is enthusiastic, straightforward, and sometimes even playful."—Julianne Lutz Warren, Environmental History
Isis - Frederick R. Davis
The Feathery Tribe introduces an important scientist along with his professional coterie and their struggles to establish ornithology in America . . . Lewis demonstrates the considerable value of scientific biography as historians continue to explore the significance of the field sciences to the history of science.”—Frederick R. Davis, Isis
The Feathery Tribe introduces an important scientist along with his professional coterie and their struggles to establish ornithology in America . . . Lewis demonstrates the considerable value of scientific biography as historians continue to explore the significance of the field sciences to the history of science.”—ISIS
Birdwatch - Martin Collinson

"This book does an excellent job of underlining the lasting value of Ridgway's work and those of his colleagues and rivals, and they form the basis of just about every aspect of modern bird study."—Martin Collinson, Birdwatch
American Ornithologist's Union - William E. Davis

"Lewis weaves the story of Robert Ridgway and his ornithological career expertly through the historical context of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the emergence of modern ornithology. The book is full of interesting historical tidbits. . . This book belongs in every academic and museum library and should appeal to anyone with an interest in the historical roots of modern ornithology." —William E. Davis, American Ornithologist's Union

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Product Details

Yale University Press
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6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

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The Feathery Tribe

Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds


Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18345-0

Chapter One

The Making of a Bird Man

I would not flatter you but I have always thought you had the capacity of acquiring knowledge of the right kind, and now I think the way is opened for you to make your mark in your profession.

Fannie Gunn to her sixteen-year-old nephew Robert Ridgway, March 10, 1867

ROBERT RIDGWAY, who between 1875 and 1925 was one of the best-known ornithologists in the world, is largely forgotten today. Through a series of circumstances related to scientific authority, the use of language, a bond with a senior scientist, access to a network of other like-minded colleagues, and a few lucky breaks, Ridgway began his career under the immensely influential imprimatur of the Smithsonian Institution. Although he was at times painfully shy, the tremendously talented and driven Ridgway held a position that afforded him the credential of full-time employment in a bird-related field. This entitled him to prestigious memberships, publication advantages, almost unlimited access to bird study collections from around the world, and invitations on important field expeditions. These benefits, along with his native abilities, let him wield an outsized influence. Ridgway became a giant in the world of avian systematics, taxonomy, nomenclature, writing, and publishing for nearly half a century. In the course of those efforts, he and his colleagues both worked with and struggled against one another, as well as with and against amateurs, in trying to create a number of standards for ornithological practice. In doing so, they helped to redefine just what constituted a professional scientist.

To understand these dynamics, we need to look to events taking place in the 1840s: most significantly, a dawning understanding about the mutability of species. Brought into the influential climate of drawing rooms, meeting halls, and newspapers through the publication in 1844 of Robert Chambers's Vestiges of Creation, the topic of evolution (or "transmutation," as it was then known) began to enter the public discourse. Read by Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and tens of thousands of others, this clever book untethered the discussion of creation and change in the natural world from the oxcart of biblical scripture and hooked it up instead to the locomotive of the scientific underpinnings of the creation of species. The public's exposure to the subject grew rapidly, and the thinking of scientists almost everywhere was increasingly influenced by the publication in November 1859 of Charles Darwin's opus On the Origin of Species, which was promptly published in America in early 1860, passing through four American printings that year. Darwin's work was much more rigorous than Chambers's book, and in absorbing it, scientists began to take more seriously their suspicions and dawning realizations about geographical variations of species. No longer could they seriously consider birds as immutable, formed into their current precise shapes and colors by God, never to have a feather out of place, so to speak. Museums had long held many multiples in their collections, but their collecting efforts changed after Darwin as it became clearer that long series of the same birds—or similar birds—provided the opportunity to compare hundreds of examples of the same species in a way that would lead ornithologists to a variety of new understandings about birds that, in the words of one scholar, were "caught in the act of evolving."

It was not just the existence of these long series, however, but their availability to researchers from other museums that gave these runs of the same birds their real power. Classification was not a new activity; it had been part of the triad of cataloging, description, and classification of zoological specimens for many decades, even centuries. But evolution began to provide the answer to the "why" of the natural world rather than the "what" of classification, and comparisons began to flourish because evolution provided a rationale for understanding differences and similarities. Bird specimens could be compared for geographic variability, so that, say, two hundred specimens of the same sparrow on the East Coast of the United States, when compared with another hundred specimens of that sparrow at another museum in the Midwest or West, would often readily reveal differences, leading to new subspecies, or even new species. Because Ridgway oversaw the country's largest series of birds, he was in an excellent position to provide these comparative studies, both nationally and internationally. He exchanged series of birds with countless colleagues around the world, and his publications brought discoveries gleaned from these series to a wider audience that was just beginning to absorb their implications.

Growing up in Illinois

Robert Ridgway was born on July 2, 1850, in Mount Carmel, Illinois, then a town of 935 souls, about 240 miles south of Chicago. Some 159 families were counted in the 1850 census, and the town was moderately prosperous from its agricultural production. His parents, David and Henrietta Ridgway (née Reed), were Quakers and in their late twenties when they married in 1849. Henrietta Reed's maternal grandparents had emigrated from Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Mansfield, Ohio, where she and her eight siblings were born, and later from there to Wabash County, Illinois. David Ridgway, born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1819, had come to the Mount Carmel region several years earlier seeking his fortune. Mount Carmel sat on the western side of the Wabash River, the boundary for much of the divide between Illinois and Indiana. The recent construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal—at nearly five hundred miles the longest canal ever built in North America—offered the promise of growth for the region's economy and offered Mount Carmel the potential for greater access to markets farther away. David Ridgway had high hopes for a successful business enterprise in Mount Carmel. He and his brother, William, quickly established a partnership in a drugstore business, and David and Henrietta began raising a large family. The town grew rapidly, and by 1860, the number of families resident in the town had grown by 70 percent.

Robert was the eldest of ten children, six boys and four girls. Precocious in his careful use of language as well as in his artistic ability, young Robbie stood out immediately. The other member of the Ridgway clan to reach national prominence was his second-born brother, John Livzey Ridgway, an accomplished illustrator and artist best known for such popular bird artwork as the bird images on Singer Sewing Machine promotional cards distributed by the thousands in the early twentieth century. Another brother, Joseph, became a taxidermist and was employed by the Iowa State Museum and the Field Museum in Chicago. Although not as talented an artist as his brother John, Robert Ridgway was nevertheless an accomplished illustrator. He followed squarely in the nineteenth-century tradition of the artist-naturalist, and many hundreds of his illustrations appear in his writings, often unattributed, as well as in a range of technical and popular works.

By the relatively scant accounts and correspondence available, Ridgway's childhood was reasonably happy, although his family was very poor throughout most of his early years. Various family members also suffered from health problems, and Robert often took to the outdoors—perhaps as an escape from family stresses, or perhaps simply because of the sheer magnetic pull in that direction for a boy being raised in a spectacular wilderness. His parents also encouraged his outdoor activities; armed with a gun, Robert was safe from most threats, and the gentle rolling terrain of rural southeastern Illinois posed few risks. The combination of a bucolic natural setting and two parents who stimulated an interest in natural history for their son proved to be a happy confluence of factors in Robert's development of an interest in birds. His uncle William was an additional influence, urging Robert to draw birds from life, and his aunt Fannie Gunn also provided crucial encouragement.

Initially, the bulk of Ridgway's interest in birds was stimulated by his time hunting. Even the poorest families owned at least one rifle, used for a variety of purposes ranging from obtaining food to keeping pest animals at bay to self-defense. Although he was a bookish young man from the start, the role of the rifle in ornithology—the study of birds being largely initiated by sighting carefully down the barrel of a gun—played an important if somewhat awkward role in Robert's youthful endeavors, as it did for virtually all naturalists of his era. His father's only recreation was hunting and walking in the woods (activities prohibited on Sundays, which were free of hunting or other chores due to the family's strict observance of the Sabbath). Father and son would spend a great deal of time together at both of these outdoor activities, sometimes going out at 3:00 a.m. to hunt wild turkeys. By several accounts young Robert was neither an expert shot nor initially comfortable around a rifle. He would often tamp down the charge into his father's gun with a metal rod, and the rod would jam inextricably into the barrel. The only solution would be to point the gun skyward, fire the gun to unclog it, and then track down the rod in order to try again. "Recollections of these difficulties bring to mind many incidents connected with my early shooting experience," he noted wryly near the end of his life.

One afternoon, alone in the woods with his father's single-barreled shotgun, Ridgway heard a Barred Owl in the distance. A good mimic, Ridgway hooted back, and the owl shortly appeared in a nearby tree, landing amid a dozen Blue Jays. He aimed and fired, but to his dismay, the percussion cap went off without firing the shell, and the owl flew away, accompanied by most of the jays. He removed the gun from his shoulder, it suddenly fired belatedly of its own accord, and a single jay fell from the tree.

These sorts of vaudeville acts in the wilderness, if they were ever made known to his father, would probably have been disappointing, because his father seemed to have high hopes for a rigorous physical life for young Robert. When he finally got his own gun, it was a touching present from his father, shrewdly economical and imbued with a history of its own. In the summer of 1858 the steamboat Kate Sarchet sank in the Wabash River, and when salvagers rescued her cargo, it included a rifle. David Ridgway bought the badly rusted weapon for a fraction of a dollar, had the barrel shortened and the gun cleaned, derusted, rebored, outfitted with new hardware, and finished with a new wooden stock of wild cherry. Along with the gift of the gun came a powder horn, a leather shot belt, and other requisite accessories.

Although he would occasionally forget parts of the setup, such as the percussion caps, on his outings, young Ridgway was delighted with his new gun and eventually became more proficient. Hunting played an important role in his life as a budding ornithologist because at the time, the field guide as we know it today did not exist. The lack of portable and comprehensive printed guides was not the only restriction for naturalists interested in studying birds in Ridgway's youth and, indeed, for much of his career: the Galilean-style binoculars of the era were heavy and relatively low powered. The best-quality field glasses typically had a magnification of up to five power, half of that generally in use today, and because of their design, especially at higher magnifications, had a restricted field of view and let in relatively little light. Nor had the camera advanced suitably for photographing fast-moving objects in black and white, let alone color, out of doors. So the gun ruled supreme as the natural tool for studying birds in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. It also allowed for much more leisurely hands-on examination of specimens, leaving future ornithologists with a three-dimensional record of the bird. Ridgway's visual skills were exceptional, and he quickly became adept at identifying birds on the wing. His keen eyesight would also later serve him well as a taxonomist. Successful taxonomic work requires excellent visual pattern recognition and analysis skills, especially in an era before one could easily photograph a specimen at one institution and compare that photo with another similar bird.

Robert mixed his own gunpowder in his father's store, and because he had already begun to draw and paint birds, he made his own paints as well. As a pharmacist's son, he was comfortable grinding his own pigments and mixing watercolors. Although frustrated with the quality of those paints and, to his embarrassment, sometimes forced to use toy paint, these pharmaceutical skills served him well in his later work on his books on color standards. He also collected and drew birds' nests, eggs, leaves, and anything else that seemed interesting from around the woods of his hometown. Mount Carmel in the early and mid-1860s was a far wilder place than it would be only twenty years later, before corn and other crops led to the destruction of thousands of acres of old-growth forest. The deep woods and larger expanses of land meant that Ridgway could see many species in different habitats, and this richness meant that he had a great deal to say and ask of Spencer Fullerton Baird of the Smithsonian Institution, with whom he would enter into written conversation for three years before the two met in person.

As the firstborn child, Robert bore the brunt of chores until his siblings grew old enough to help. Each Saturday he cut Sunday's firewood, a task he performed as quickly as possible to leave time for hunting in the afternoon. The household's Sabbath restrictions even prohibited whistling. This one stricture may have been enforced for more than the sanctity of not laboring on Sunday. Ridgway was apparently an annoyingly enthusiastic lifelong whistler, and colleague Elliott Coues would later reproach him for whistling when the two shared an office. "You're quite a whistler, aren't you?" Coues asked him one day, as Ridgway recounted later. "Feeling somewhat flattered, I replied, 'well, I can whistle sometimes,' but my vanity was crushed when he answered, 'how much will you take to stop!'" For ornithologists of the era, whistling must have gone hand in hand with their work, naturally enough, as they often had to rely on that tool to call birds within shooting or viewing range, and still do.

Music was not a major theme in the Ridgway household generally; his uncle William disapproved of it, and his mother, while not minding "dancing to good music," noted while writing to her twelve-year-old son that "it is the associations that makes the harm." His interest in music came early, however, and at age nine or ten, Robert served as a drummer in a small three-person band formed with two cousins, playing patriotic songs while marching at recruitment events for the Northern cause at the dawn of the Civil War. This activity generated a well-known photograph of Ridgway, taken by his sister Fannie and widely published during and after his lifetime, in his uniform, "frown and all," as he described it in later life.

His musical talents (or lack thereof) aside, Ridgway's relationship with his parents appears to have been good. He described his mother as "firm in her discipline but very affectionate." Judging from her regular letters to him while he was away on the government-sponsored Fortieth Parallel Survey expedition in 1867 and 1868, however, she was needy and insecure, and she often treated him like a peer, even at a young age. Perhaps this made him grow up more quickly, but it was difficult for him to have less time to be a son.

The family suffered a number of setbacks during Robert's teenage years. David Ridgway, a pharmacist, prospered well enough in the first few years of his business practice in Mount Carmel that he built the first modern business building in the town, a three-story brick-and-iron building that housed his drugstore. But the elder Ridgway, a soft touch, advanced credit and did not press the collection of accounts vigorously enough, and the store suffered heavy financial losses. To add to his woes, the uninsured building was destroyed by fire and upon being rebuilt (well after Robert had left town and was working at the Smithsonian) was partially demolished by a tornado. Fifteen people died in the storm, and more than a hundred businesses and residences were destroyed—a tremendous blow to the town. This tornado also destroyed the Ridgway family residence, along with most of the family's possessions. Seven members of the family were at home at the time. Miraculously, although a surviving photograph shows the house reduced to rubble and one sister suffered minor injuries, no one was seriously hurt. Shaken by these reverses, the family moved to Wheatland, Indiana, about forty miles to the northeast, buying a farm from the sale of the remnants of the pharmacy business and the land on which their house had stood.

Despite the family's struggles, Robert continued his field studies and his interest in birds and natural history. At the precocious age of thirteen, at the urging of the mother of his good friend Lucien Turner, he wrote to US Commissioner of Patents David P. Holloway (having accidentally written to the previous commissioner, William D. Bishop, who served for less than a year between 1859 and 1860—Ridgway must have been operating on outdated information). In his letter, he asked for help identifying a bird he'd seen around Mount Carmel. Although the Patent Office had once owned an extensive natural history collection, the National Museum held most of those collections by the time of Ridgway's letter. Holloway didn't know "a hawk from a handsaw," so he sent the letter along to his colleague Spencer Fullerton Baird, then the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Baird was one of the country's most eminent authorities on natural history, having donated to the museum his substantial collection of bird specimens (many of them from John James Audubon) and having focused most of his scientific life on birds. More than virtually anyone else in midcentury America, Baird promoted natural history as a science. He wrote some of the earliest monographs on the distribution of North American birds. His mentorship and support of young scientists created a ripple effect, laden with the authority of America's national science museum. Baird assumed duties as assistant secretary at the Smithsonian as a young man of twenty-six in 1850, serving in the second-highest post for more than a quarter-century, to 1878, and then as secretary until his death in 1887. His boyhood desire to identify birds and his subsequent writing to Audubon for more information closely mirrored Ridgway's approach, which no doubt struck a chord with him.


Excerpted from The Feathery Tribe by DANIEL LEWIS Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Daniel Lewis is the Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology and the Chief Curator of Manuscripts at The Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. He lives in Pasadena.

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The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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