Digging into the personal writings of a 19th century ornithologist

Tuesday, June 12, 1866 
A.M. pleasant P.M. cloudy. Studied part of P.M. Went to circus in evening & saw a hippopotamus for the first time. Got four warbling vireos before breakfast. The algebra is now rather hard. 
(Diaries of William Brewster). 

As a teen in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the 1860s, William Brewster (1851-1919) woke up early to collect birds before school, practiced taxidermy with friends, and carefully noted the dates when local plants flowered and produce ripened in the family garden.

His early fascination for birds and his observant note-taking laid the groundwork for his career as a prominent amateur ornithologist. He would become the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and a co-founder and president of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

An ongoing project at the Ernst Mayr Library of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology has been the digitization and transcription of Brewster’s diaries, field journals, and correspondences. Some of these journals and diaries are available to read on the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and we are working toward making all his notes and correspondences digitally accessible for study.

Over the course of his life, Brewster saw Massachusetts landscape and ecology change dramatically. Cambridge developed from farmland to urban city, and House Sparrows introduced from Europe decimated the farmers’ beloved Eastern Bluebirds. These kinds of observations about land use and animal presence, as well as his notes on plants and weather, make the Brewster collection a valuable resource for scientists studying ecological change.

Brewster published articles prolifically in scientific publications such as the ornithological journal, the Auk. In his field notes and journals, we can find the stories that lie behind those scientific papers: they document the development of a scientist, professionally and personally. They reveal his relationships with other scientists, document in detail what a typical day’s work looked like, and are sprinkled with amusing observations, beautiful scenes, and personal insights that would not necessarily be documented in a scientific publication.

These three bird stories illustrate the value of records where the scientific and the personal overlap.

Pine Grosbeak: Nature Writing and Scientific Work

For a few days in January of 1893, Cambridge and Boston were abuzz with an unfamiliar sight: hundreds of red and gold birds that drew lots of attention from residents.

Brewster recognized them as Pine Grosbeaks. In the winter, large foraging flocks of Pine Grosbeaks often strip entire trees of their fruits, crushing through pulp and seeds and moving on when the food source has been exhausted.

Brewster observes:

“There were a good many Pine Grosbeaks scattered along the line of ashtrees on the ridge to my left and as I approached Mt. Auburn Street their numbers increased until upon reaching Mr. Hayes’s place I found the trees literally alive with them. 

Soon after I stopped to look at them they began flying from every direction into a large white ash which stands near the foot of the avenue. This tree was loaded with fruit and with snow clinging to the fruit clusters and to every twig. In a few minutes it supported also more than a hundred Grosbeaks which distributed themselves quite evenly over every part from drooping lower to the upright upper branches and began shelling out and swallowing the seeds.

The rejected wings floated down in showers and soon began to give the surface of the snow beneath a light brownish tinge.The snow clinging to the twigs and branches was also quickly dislodged by the movements, of the active, heavy birds and for the first few minutes it was continually flashing out in puffs like steam from a dozen different points at once. The finer particles, sifting slowly down, filled the still air and enveloped the entire tree in a gauzy veil or mist tinted, where the sun-beams pierced it, with rose, salmon and orange, elsewhere of a soft, dead white and of incredible delicacy and beauty, truly a fitting drapery for this winter picture- the hardy Grosbeaks at their morning meal. 

They worked in silence when undisturbed and so very busily that at the end of an hour they had actually eaten or shaken off nearly half the entire crop of seeds. Some men employed in a marble cutter’s shop near the tree were neglecting their tasks to watch and discuss them. One of these men told me that a few Grosbeaks were seen in the tree late yesterday afternoon.” (Cambridge, January 10, 1893.) [Edited with paragraph breaks and punctuation for readability.] 

A sudden, unexpected appearance of a large flock non-resident birds is known in the ornithological world as an irruption. (In recent years in Massachusetts, we’ve often heard the word irruption used to describe an unexpected influx of snowy owls that aren’t our usual residents.) Details on a historical irruption of Pine Grosbeaks may be of value to modern day scientists looking back in time for trends.

But while Brewster often recorded bird sightings as lists or in simple, factual paragraphs, some of the scientific observations are rendered with an artistry that carries them into the genre of nature writing. The image of the tree alive with birds, the rosy quality of light in the snowy air, and the excitement of the marble cutters makes these bird notes especially memorable.

The journal entries for these days form the basis of an article he had published in the Auk two years later, ‘A remarkable flight of Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator)’. While Brewster’s article reads as somewhat more fact-driven, it’s written as a personal narrative that draws heavily on his notes, and it contains a condensed version of the visual description shared above.

It seems to be fairly normal at that time for published scientific work to include personal narrative and assertions which we would edit out today. But letters between Brewster and ornithologist friends reveal that they critiqued each other’s work not only on the reliability of their data but also on the style of their prose. Brewster’s scientific journals suggest that personal note-taking was a crucial opportunity to practise the art of writing, and digging into these journal entries allows us a glimpse into a scientist’s thinking and writing process.

American Robin: Personal Musings and Anthropomorphization

Brewster carefully documented wild encounters with blow-by-blow details about animals’ behavior. Beyond behavioral data, his personal writings also include his interpretations of animal ‘personalities’ that reveal both his scientific perspective on animal cognition, and his personal feelings about interactions with animals.

Take for example this short but resonant excerpt from a letter penned to a friend:

“It is sunset and as I sit in my study in the Museum a Robin is singing in an elm in the garden. What a hopeful, earnest strain! It always cheers and encourages me. Our Robin must have a brave heart and a pure conscience.” (William Brewster, March 26, 1893. Cambridge, Mass. in correspondence to his friend, ornithologist Frank Michler Chapman.) 

His comment on the “brave heart and a pure conscience” certainly isn’t a piece of scientific data (it’s anthropomorphization, an interpretation of animal behaviors using the logic of human emotions) –but it unearths a very human part of the story to consider how a natural scientist reacted emotionally to his subjects in daily life.

Toucan: Perspectives on Scientific Collecting

If you’ve ever browsed the galleries at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, then you’ve passed by Brewster’s life’s work. After working as an animal specimen curator for the museum for many years, he also bequeathed his personal collection of birds and other animals to the museum.

Taxidermy collections like Brewsters’ are the foundation of zoology and are invaluable for scientific researchers today. For example, scientists can analyse DNA samples from historic specimens to track evolutionary changes, and look for traces of environmental chemicals such as pesticides to learn more about their ecological impact. (These are just two of many ways that collections can be used for beneficial research–to learn more, read ‘Natural history collections – why are they relevant?’ on The Guardian, or visit the page ‘Why Collections Matter?’ on the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections’ website.)

While Brewster strongly advocated for the importance of scientific collecting, his journals also illustrate changes in his collecting practices over time, including the adoption of complementary methods like photography.

In March 1886, just a month after the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds had organized, Brewster wrote three letters to an ornithologist friend, describing an early attempt to pass bird protection legislation in Massachusetts. Brewster advocated in court for a bill that would ban the hunting of birds for decorative use on women’s hats, but allow scientific collection by permit-holders.

In one of these letters, he scoffs at the idea of only studying birds observationally:

“One of these [Fish & Game Commissioners]… announced at the beginning that he considered Science a humbug and that the best was to study bird was with an opera glass!” (Cambridge, March 7, 1886. Letter to George Sennet.) 

However, his journals reveal that around the 1890s he seems to have developed some mindfulness of how damaging over-hunting could be for animal populations. Around this time he began to collect birds more sparingly and took up the challenge of wildlife photography in the field.

An interesting example of this shift in his attitude occurred during an 1894 collecting trip to the tropics:

“I started out early this morning with the express intention of shooting a toucan. Rather curiously I had at once an opportunity which I did not improve and shortly afterwards a experience which is probably rare for Mr. Chapman [Frank Chapman] has seen nothing of the kind, nor has Mr. Carr either for that matter. 

It all happened in this [way]. I went first to the ajoupa to get my collecting basket and while there heard a toucan calling apparently at a considerable distance. I started in the direction of the sound but I had gone scarce twenty yards when I became conscious that it came from nearly over head. 

Looking up I at once saw the beautiful great bird sitting in the top of a bois immortel its breast turned towards the rising sun which brought out the brilliant colouring of the plumage, the shining black of the large bill and the blue of the bare skin about the eyes with the greatest distinctness. 

Here was my chance for the bird was not thirty yards off but I simply stood and stared at him with speechless wonder and admiration until he finally flew, when the dense cacao foliage prevented my getting a shot. 

Clearly a case of Toucan “fever” but I did not regret the episode.” (Trinidad, March 20, 1894.) [Edited with paragraph breaks and punctuation for readability.] 

* * *

The Brewster collection, and other field journals and notes, contain a wealth of information beyond useful scientific data. They reveal scientific paradigms, study methods and reasoning; information about working relationships between scientists; and historical and biographical information, including personal thoughts and feelings. Some sections can be fairly dry, but some make for pretty good reading.

If you’ve enjoyed these excerpts, an ongoing blog post series on Mayr Library blog highlights interesting tidbits from Brewster’s writing as we continue to digitize and transcribe the collection.

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Written by

Elizabeth Meyer joined the Ernst Mayr Library at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology as a project assistant in 2015. She digitizes and transcribes library materials for BHL, including the archival collection of American ornithologist William Brewster (1851-1919). With her background in biology, she enjoys promoting access to scientific information and writing blog posts to connect people to BHL.