American Birding Podcast



Transforming American Ornithology

A review by Frederick Davis

The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds, by Daniel Lewis

Yale University Press, 2012

346 pages, $45.00—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13676

Quick: Who is the most significant figure in the history of American ornithology between Audubon and Mayr?

Hint: Who else achieved such status as to be instantly recognized by just a single name?

Time’s up.

Thankfully, there is no definitive answer to this rhetorical—and deeply flawed—question, but Daniel Lewis makes a remarkably convincing case for the Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway.

To call Lewis’s Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds a biography would miss the point. Though Lewis does reveal a great deal about Ridgway’s life, from his birth in 1850 to his death almost 80 years later, this important study is, as its subtitle suggests, a  prosopography, an investigation of a culture and a community, that “feathery tribe” of American ornithologists including Joel Asaph Allen, Elliott Coues, and William Brewster, who, collectively, refined the study of birds as a key component of the modern life sciences while simultaneously establishing the place of birds in nature study.

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 6.42.09 PMA childhood in rural Illinois provided Ridgway with a talent for shooting and the ability to apply himself to unpleasant tasks. The first of ten children, the young man cheerfully bore the brunt of family chores. At the precocious age of thirteen, he sent a letter about the birds he had seen to the U.S. Patent Office, which in those days maintained a bird collection; that letter eventually found its way to Spencer Fullerton Baird, the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Baird replied, urging the nascent naturalist to learn scientific names. Thus began a productive correspondence, one that led Ridgway to his first job and ultimately determined the course of his entire career.

With Baird’s recommendation, the seventeen-year-old Ridgway joined the Fortieth Parallel Survey as a zoologist. The job was a dream come true, and in the two years he accompanied the expedition, Ridgway confronted with remarkable aplomb lightning strikes, mosquito swarms, fevers, diarrhea, delirium, hostile Indians, thefts, and desertions.

Ridgway returned to the Smithsonian with nearly 1,500 specimens. Moreover, he had developed valuable skills as a “birdman,” skills he put to good use at the museum. In his first few years, the still young ornithologist wrote an extensive account of the discoveries made by the Fortieth Parallel Survey, and he began the long work of unraveling the relationships among the birds of North America. Ridgway was just one of the numerous young “Bairdians,” but when the great Nestor of American ornithologists died in 1887, it was Ridgway who would deliver the memorial address.

rawing on his expanding network of amateur and professional collectors, Ridgway strove to expand the Smithsonian’s bird holdings, eventually donating his own collection at a time when others were selling theirs. That generous act is all the more surprising given how the Ridgway family struggled on his meager Smithsonian salary. Preparing illustrations served as a source of additional
income, though payment for those contributions varied wildly. Ridgway also worked as a colorist, relying on
his extensive knowledge of avian structure and plumage. Unfortunately, The Feathery Tribe reproduces only one of Ridgway’s many bird portraits.

Museum duties and professional interactions more than filled Ridgway’s days, and they play a central role in The Feathery Tribe, but Lewis also portrays other, more personal aspects of Ridgway’s life, including his magnanimous accommodation of requests and visits from the
public, disruptions that less generous men might not have tolerated.

The founding of the Nuttall Ornithological Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, coincided with the birth of other professional societies in the late nineteenth century. Lewis’s account of the early days of the club—the first professional organization devoted entirely to ornithology—reveals much about its founders and board, most of whom were, naturally, members of “the feathery tribe.”

The original leaders, especially Allen and Coues, envisioned the Nuttall Club as a springboard to scientific and professional careers rather than as a haven for “bird lovers” or other amateurs. Ridgway, neither a board member nor a New England resident, labored away in the Smithsonian collections writing for the club’s Bulletin; indeed, the first issue, published in April 1876, featured Ridgway’s frontispiece illustration of the newly discovered Brewster’s Warbler, along with a formal description provided by William Brewster himself.

From their base in the Nuttall Club, Coues and Allen took the lead in establishing the American Ornithologists’ Union. In 1882, Ridgway
and Coues served as the AOU’s inaugural vice presidents, with Allen as president.

Through Ridgway’s papers and correspondence, Lewis offers tantalizing hints about the lives and work of contemporary collectors, who worked on the “front line of discovery” but receive limited attention today in historical accounts. In their reports to Ridgway, collectors described both the wonders of underexplored regions and the challenges of shooting and skinning up to fifty birds a day, efforts that, as Lewis points out, produced the valuable series of specimens that ornithologists needed to study variation between individuals and across regions. Such studies, by Ridgway, Allen, and Coues in particular, drove the development of the modern subspecies concept in ornithology.

While the ornithologists exulted in the realization of their collective ambitions, they also shared some surprising concerns. To an individual, the feathery tribe seems to have suffered symptoms of what might today be called depression; Lewis offers the intriguing suggestion that those complaints, which increased in late spring and summer, when the largest numbers of specimens were prepared, indicate chronic poisoning by the arsenic used in putting up skins. A telling photo of Ridgway clearly shows the blackened fingernails associated with arsenic poisoning.

Ridgway published widely over his long career, in both scientific and popular periodicals, and illustrated many other publications, often without credit. In describing new species, he commemorated friends and collectors in scientific names, a favor often returned.

Ridgway synthesized his artistic skill and his scientific eye in his Color Standards and Color Nomenclature of 1912. Lewis argues that in devising color standards, Ridgway stepped beyond his own professional authority—but his system and some of his names have outlived him and are still used today.

The Birds of North and Middle America, published as Bulletin of the United States National Museum No50, was Ridgway’s magnum opus. A monumental project to write a technical description for every species and subspecies in the region, including the West Indies and the Galápagos, this work absorbed much of Ridgway’s professional effort from 1894 to his death in 1929. Lewis argues that North and Middle America reveals that Ridgway had lost touch with trends in the biological sciences: the work is far more “Linnaean than Darwinian.” At the same time, the arcane descriptions alienated amateur naturalists, who found them far removed from the living birds they sought. Yet Lewis suggests that the precision of Ridgway’s language, though increasingly obscure to amateurs, made possible the evolution of scientific thought.

Readers of Birding will appreciate Lewis’s analysis of early efforts to produce definitive checklists to North American birds while at the same time trying to stay current with constant nomenclatural change. Plus ça change…. Ridgway produced several checklists himself, but it
was the pugnacious Coues who positioned himself at the center of such debates with his own Check Lists and the five editions of his Key to North American Birds.

The Feathery Tribe captures well how Robert Ridgway and a coterie of ornithologists established ornithology as a scientific study, open to amateurs and professionals alike, while striving to eke out a living and define their own professional identities. By placing Ridgway’s life and work at the Smithsonian at the center of his book, Daniel Lewis reveals how a few dedicated ornithologists refined and transformed the study of birds in America.

Frederick R. Davis is Associate Professor of History at Florida State University, where he teaches the history of science and medicine and environmental history. His The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology was published in 2007 by Oxford University Press. Davis is an avid and lifelong birder.

Recommended citation:

Davis, F. 2013. Transforming American Ornithology [a review of The Feathery Tribe, by Daniel Lewis]. Birding 45(4):65.