Hildegarde Howard: The Greatest Avian Paleontologist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Hildegarde Howard standing with specimen, 1957. Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

Nearly 100 years ago, a young journalism student at the Southern Branch of the University of California (now UCLA) walked into Ms. Pirie Davidson’s biology classroom (Campbell, 2000, 775). This young woman was not particularly interested in biology and, really, why would she have been? At the time, women were barred from attending any off-site field trips and science was thought to primarily be the work of men. However, it was not long before Hildegarde was captivated by the subject — so much so that she became Ms. Davidson’s lab assistant. Young Hildegarde Howard was soon offered a position as a part-time day laborer sorting fossils for renowned paleontologist Chester Stock at the Museum of Science, History, and Art of Los Angeles County (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) at Rancho La Brea.

Rancho La Brea, or as it is also known, the La Brea Tar Pits, is a group of natural asphalt seeps that have been bubbling up from the ground for tens of thousands of years in what is now the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. Throughout this time, the asphalt has seeped into a layer thick enough to trap animals. The tar would become camouflaged under dirt, debris, or water.  Then, an unsuspecting animal might accidentally happen into the pool and find itself ensnared in an inescapable mess. This attracted scavenger animals like dire wolves or birds of prey, who also became entrapped. The layers of asphalt would again seep up to completely cover the animals and the cycle would continue.

During the early development of Los Angeles, landowners allowed scientists including Stock to dig and do research on fossils at Rancho La Brea. In 1924, the land was donated to the museum. When Hildegarde was through counting her first lot of avian fossils, she had identified over 4,000 individual birds in the pits (Sutton, 1929). The wealth of fossils demonstrated that nearly as many birds met the same fate as mammals in the pits and in much the same way. The pits captured flora and fauna indiscriminately and left a sticky snapshot of the diversity of life over time in Los Angeles. Hildegarde was enraptured. It was at this time that she found her life’s passion in paleontology.

When Hildegarde graduated, she came  back to Los Angeles where her part-time research associate position was waiting for her (Downs, 1980, 7). During her careful work measuring and examining avian fossils, Hildegarde wrote her first published paper on the extinct California turkey, Parapavo californicus, which was a fossil turkey at Rancho La Brea that Hildegarde had labored over (Campbell, 1980a, 11). She described the extinct bird from more than 800 specimens. This abundance of specimens required her to account for osteological (bone) variation within the species and impressed her mentor, who allowed the paper to count as credit towards a master’s degree, which she would finish two years later.

Her dissertation, “The Avifauna of Emeryville Shellmound”, included drawings of fossil birds with clearly labeled osteological features. This was a huge boon to avian osteology, as it was the first time there had been a standardized terminology to use as a point of reference. Howard’s illustration would remain the principal reference until 1979 when Nomina Anatomica Avium was published (Campbell, 1980b, 27).

Hildegarde had remained working at the museum over school breaks while she was completing her advanced degrees (Staff Records, NHMLA). In 1929, Howard received her PhD and became “Dr. Howard”. She returned once again to the museum, this time as a junior clerk tasked with curating the fossils from Rancho La Brea and the research birds that had been collected in the American Southwest.

Photo of fossil bird with labels for display at the Tar Pits. Dr. Howard’s mark-up on the left and the final display copy on the right. Image courtesy of The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

1929 marked the start of the Great Depression in America, and the Museum was not exempt from hard times. Hildegarde’s paychecks took increasingly sharp cuts until there were no paychecks at all for several months. Near the end of the Depression, in 1938, Dr. Howard was officially promoted to senior curator, a position that came with a title change but no pay increase from her previous position as a junior assistant (Staff Records, NHMLA). However, once the depression was over and museum work was beginning to stabilize, America found itself in World War II, and the Los Angeles County Museum once again faced aggressive budget cuts to help support the war effort. Hildegarde remained vigilant and remarkably prolific in her work. Between 1929 and 1939, Dr. Howard had published twenty-four papers on fossil birds in the American Southwest (Campbell, 1980a, 12-15) and in 1942, the prehistoric bird fossils she had assembled were exhibited in the Museum’s Hancock Hall (Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1942).

In 1944, Dr. Howard was promoted to the curator of Avian Paleontology (Campbell, 2000, 777). Hildegarde would serve in that role until 1951, when she would again be promoted to Chief Curator of Science, wherein she would not only continue to publish new work and further her research, but also serve as the leader of the Science Division for the Museum. Jean Delacour, the director of the museum throughout the bulk of Hildegarde’s tenure as Chief of Sciences wrote, “I sincerely believe that no one could have done it better” (Delacour, 1980, 8) and by all accounts museum research thrived under her leadership (Friedmann, 1980, 9).

Just two years later, Dr. Howard became the first woman to receive the Brewster Medal for outstanding research in ornithology by the reputable American Ornithologists Union (Oliver, 1988). By the time of her retirement in 1961, Dr. Howard had described two families, 6 genera, 23 species, and 1 subspecies, published ninety-nine papers of avian fossils, and embraced the technology of Carbon-14 dating to target the age of specimens and Rancho La Brea and help create a timeline of avian extinctions during the late Pleistocene (Howard, 1960).

Portrait of Hildegarde Howard, 1951. Image courtesy of The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

Never one to slow down, Dr. Howard stayed on as an emeritus curator and continued her research. As California continued to rapidly develop, marine Miocene and Pliocene strata was exposed. Hildegard was free of administrative distractions and could devote herself full time to both the fossil birds of the American southwest and Tertiary marine birds of Southern California. She said of retirement, “When your life’s work is a hobby, you don’t need other hobbies” (Loper, 1980).

Retirement proved to be a fertile time for research and writing. Dr, Howard became a Guggenheim fellow (“Up Close”, 1989) and contributed titles such as “A Comparison of Avian Assemblages from Individual Pits at Rancho la Brea“, “Fossil Birds from the Anza-Borrego Desert“, and “Tertiary Birds from Laguna Hills, Orange County, California.” In total, after retirement, Dr. Howard would go on to write over forty more papers, describe another family, 7 genera, 34 species, and another subspecies (Campbell, 1980a, 11-15). These statistics would be remarkable as one’s career accomplishments. As post career statistics, these figures are a testament to Dr. Howards true passion for her field.

Little is known about Dr. Howard’s personal life. She was a very private person who shied away from the spotlight and publicly shared little of herself beyond her ardor for avian paleontology. Of the little that is known, one certainty is that she met the love of her life, Henry Anson Wylde, on that first fateful day sorting fossils (Downs, 1980, 7). He was also a day laborer who would go on to become the Chief of Museum Exhibits. They married in 1930 and remained together until his passing in 1984. It is also known that after retirement, Hildegarde also published in another medium: poetry (Howard, 1972). However, her mind never strayed far from birds, even in her private musings.

Howard’s poem on Mimus polyglottos, the northern mockingbird. Courtesy of The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

Dr. Hildegarde Howard led an extraordinary life and remains highly regarded as one of the foremost experts in her field. She published her last paper, “Middle Miocene Marine Birds from the Foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, Orange County, California“, in 1984 when she was 83 years young. Dr. Howard passed away on February 28, 1998, but her contributions and legacy as a pioneer in the field of avian paleontology will not be forgotten.

Hildegard Howard measures specimens from the Rancho La Brea Collection. Image courtesy of The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.


Campbell Jr., Kenneth. September 15, 1980a. “The Contributions of Hildegarde Howard.”  Contributions in Science, Papers in Avian Paleontology Honoring Dr. Hildegarde Howard, No 330, pp. 11–15.

Campbell Jr., Kenneth. September 15, 1980b. “Illustrations of Avian Osteology Taken from The Avifauna of Emeryville Shellmound.”  Contributions in Science, Papers in Avian Paleontology Honoring Dr. Hildegarde Howard,No 330, pp. 27.

Campbell Jr., Kenneth. 2000c. “In Memoriam, Hildegarde Howard 1901-1998.” The Auk, vol.117, no.3, 775-779.

Delacour, Jean. September 15, 1980. “A Tribute to Dr.Hildegarde Howard.”  Contributions in Science, No 330, pp. 8.

Downs, Theodore. September 15, 1980. “Appreciations: Hildegarde Howard.” Contributions in Science, No 330, 7-8.

Friedmann, Herbert. September 15, 1980. “Hildegarde Howard and the Museum: Fifty years.”  Contributions in Science, No 330, pp. 9.

Howard, Hildegarde. 11 Mar 1960. “The Significance of Carbon-14 Dates for Rancho La Brea”  Science, Vol. 131, Issue 3402, pp. 712-714, DOI: 10.1126/science.131.3402.712.

Howard, Hildegarde. 1972-1976. “Poetry.” Box 38, folder 2, Hildegarde Howard papers, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

Loper, Mary Lou. 25 Nov 1980. “Dedicating a Lifetime to Fossils: FOSSILS: A Lifetime Dedicated to Science” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); f1. Accessed 18 March 2019.

Oliver, Myrna. 04 Mar 1998.“Obituaries; Hildegarde Howard; Avian Paleontologist, Curator.” Los Angeles Times [Home Edition], pp. 18. Accessed 7 March 2019.

“Prehistoric Birds Will Be Displayed: Museum Experts Have Taken Bones From Pits.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif] 24 May 1942: A8. Accessed March 7, 2019.

“Staff Records”, 1911- 1986. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

Sutton, Ransome. Nov. 10,1929. “Tar Tripped Birds Tallied: Bones of More Than 4000, Many Now Extinct, Trapped in Asphalt, Identified by Scientist.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995). ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times, C7, accessed 4 March, 2019.

“Up Close: HIldegarde Howard Wylde. An intimate look at one of south Orange County’s interesting personalities.” Orange County Register [ZONE 7 Edition]; Santa Ana, Calif. 08 June 1989: pp. 09.

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Yolanda Bustos is the Museum Archivist and Library Resources Manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. In this capacity, she manages the archives, special collections, and research library for NHMLA and The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. She responsible for retaining and providing access to the analog and digital institutional memory of the museums.