A few people have asked me why I didn’t include a bibliography of Stone’s publications in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature. I had many reasons for that decision, one being the availability of such information on the Internet. There are a few ways to find his publications online, but I found the best one so far recently on the German Wikipedia site. It’s not only nearly exhaustive, but also contains links to many of the articles. Many kudos to the German Wiki authors for doing so much work to provide a great reference!
One of the little unsolved ornithological mystery gems I came across in my research for The Fascination of Nature had at its core one of the book’s real “characters”: the never-boring, serial truth-bender Edward “Ned” McIlhenny, heir to the still-extant (and still in the family) Tabasco sauce company. McIlhenny got very chummy with Stone in the 1930s, even paying the expenses of a trip Witmer and Lillie took to McIlhenny’s Louisiana estate in 1935. He was simultaneously sending articles to Stone for publication in The Auk, some of which, as detailed in my book, contained bogus material. McIlenny claimed in a 1937 Auk article that he had trapped and banded a Turkey Vulture x Black Vulture hybrid in Louisiana, and had sent the bird (alive) to Frederick C. Lincoln at the U.S. Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in Washington, D.C. This would be the only known instance of hybridization between the two species — if only it were true.
In Ralph S. Palmer’s excellent (and underappreciated) Handbook of North American Birds (Palmer was editor, and authored some of the accounts), the Turkey Vulture account states that the “hybrid” actually proved to be a Black Vulture with red paint applied to its head! Maybe it looked like this:
The assertion of the hoax was cited simply “E.P. Walker.” The Turkey Vulture account was written by Dr. Jerome Jackson, so I contacted him to get more info on his Walker citation. Dr. Jackson replied that the sentence about the hoax was an editorial insertion by Palmer (who passed away in 2003), and that he knew no more about the Walker citation than I did. He shared that Palmer had a card file (remember them?) for each species, and would sometimes pull info from the cards and insert them into the accounts, with limited documentation.
Some further recent research enabled me to get the picture about as clear as I guess we’re going to get it. According to another 1937 article he wrote, McIlhenny’s “hybrid” ended up at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. “E.P. Walker” is undoubtedly Ernest Pillsbury Walker, who was assistant director at the zoo at that time, and presumably discovered, or heard of, the duplicitous paint job. At some point, Walker must have shared the painted vulture story with Palmer, who diligently added the info to his card file.
Bottom line: if a birder today thinks they’ve found the first-ever hybrid between a Turkey and Black Vulture, because they saw a bird that looked like a Black Vulture with a red head, a simple digital photo won’t do. They’ll have to capture the bird and try a little paint thinner on the head to make sure someone else out there isn’t up to Tabasco Ned’s old tricks.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the star of this website. But for that fortuitous occasion, the Academy of Natural Sciences would have seen their historic bird collection reduced to dust and feathers; modern botanists would give anything to know what was growing in the New Jersey Pine Barrens 100 years ago; and modern birders would think “old Cape May” referred to 1975, right before birds were discovered migrating through Cape May Point. So as we, in our astonishment, contemplate Plants of Southern New Jersey, Bird Studies at Old Cape May, and all the insights, delightful word pictures, mirth and merriment, and the many other ways our lives have been enriched by what the stork (fittingly) delivered to Anne and Frederick Stone a long time ago on this date, let’s pop a cork and thank our lucky stars that the modern Stone Age hits 150 today.
One of the many interesting little stories I stumbled across during research for the Stone bio was the ill-fated Alexander Wilson tablet – a project begun with the best of intentions, but which literally fell by the wayside. J. Lawson Cameron, Philadelphia physician and a member of the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia (a Scottish heritage organization) left in his will the funds for a tablet to be erected at the Academy of Natural Sciences in memory of the pioneering American ornithologist (1766–1813), a hero of Stone’s who is buried in Old Swedes’ Church in Philly:
Cameron was a native of Paisley, the same Scotch town from which Wilson hailed. After Cameron’s death in late 1922, the Academy accepted the Society’s offer of the tablet, to be designed and sculpted by University of Pennsylvania professor R. Tait McKenzie. The tablet was made, and installed by the Academy entrance on May 17, 1923 in a ceremony attended by many people including Stone and American Ornithologists’ Union secretary T.S. Palmer.
A few weeks after the event, someone noticed that the death year for Wilson on the tablet was mistakenly recorded as 1833 instead of 1813. The birth and death years were written in Roman numerals, presumably for artistic effect, and someone added two too many X’s to the latter − graciously giving Wilson an extra 20 years on his life, but too late for him to cash them in.
Stone had – along with everyone else – overlooked the incorrect date; when he heard of it, he asked Palmer, “Where were our eyes? The sculptor killed Alexander Wilson in 1833 instead of 1813!!” I think the photo offers a hint about the mix-up: note the overlapping “D” and “C” in the death date, as if the sculptor ran out of room and had to squeeze the numerals together. I can almost hear him saying, “The dates were perfectly spaced when I laid the thing out. What happened?” Well, what happened was that somewhere between design and sculpting you got the date mixed up and added two X’s to the numeral, so the only way to squeeze it in was to overlap the D & C. The correct date would have two less X’s and would fit the space perfectly, just like you designed it.
Alex and alas, Academy records indicate that by the late 1950s, the tablet was being stored under a stairwell; when I last saw it in 2013, the thick, heavy slab was leaning against a wall in the ornithology department, and visitors who notice it there are doubtless unaware of the sad tale of admirable commemorative intent and Roman numeral bedevilment that it represents. Maybe if McKenzie had just stuck with Arabic numerals???
Spring migration is really ratcheting up at this time of year. Witmer Stone was always interested in bird migration, and, as I described in The Fascination of Nature, he once took advantage of a unique opportunity to observe nocturnal migrants in action. Many birds migrate at night; it’s thought that the associated cooler temperatures and lower turbulence facilitate body temperature regulation and make for smoother flying conditions. Nocturnal migrants can be heard calling on spring and autumn nights as they pass overhead, and can be spotted with a scope trained on the moon, but on March 27, 1906, a huge fire at a Philadelphia lumberyard lit up the sky so brilliantly that migrating birds could be seen flying in the glow of the conflagration. Stone wrote all about it in The Auk, and if you want to read about the remarkable event, with some wonderfully descriptive writing that foreshadows Bird Studies at Old Cape May, click here.
Stone, like hundreds of others, went to see the fire (a 3.5 mile walk round-trip from his Regent Street home), but soon noticed the migrants. When the flight was heaviest, he estimated that 200 birds were in view at any moment, and some that were flying too low actually caught fire and went down in flames. A Sharp-shinned Hawk soared around overhead, attracted by the commotion.
The venerable ornithologist William Brewster wrote to Stone that his Auk effort was “one of the most interesting and best written articles on birds that I have ever read.” Stone was undoubtedly thrilled to receive the commendatory letter from an elder ornithologist for whom he had boundless respect, but it probably took him as much work as it took me to decipher Brewster’s illegible scrawl (and now you can see one of the reasons it can take someone five years to write a book about a dead birdwatcher):
Stone didn’t mention the name of the lumberyard, saying only that it was located in West Philly, near Bartram’s Garden. That set off a few bells in my head, because that was the approximate location of the McIlvain’s lumberyard, where my maternal grandfather worked for decades. When he died, I inherited a book published by the company in 1947 to celebrate 250 years in business, Philadelphia Hardwood, 1798-1948: The Story of the McIlvains of Philadelphia and the Business They Founded. I looked in the book, and there it was: an account of the 1906 fire that burned the place to the ground. The passage even included an image of a newspaper cover from the next day:
Here’s my Grandfather Irwin (on the right) working at McIlvain’s:
I’m sure my grandfather heard about the big fire that happened not too long before he started working at McIlvain’s. Little did he suspect the interest it would hold some day for that crazy grandson of his – the nutty one who was always running around looking at birds.
The American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) has occasionally, at the time of its annual meeting, published a short satirical parody of The Auk titled The Auklet. It’s done simply to lend a bit of levity to the otherwise dry proceedings. Joseph Grinnell described the number produced for the 1924 AOU meeting held, for the first time, in Pittsburgh, saying that it “holds up for good-natured ridicule various persons, institutions and ornithological movements, past and present…It is altogether impartial and…so far as known to the present writer, no one has ever taken offense at any thrust received.” The Pittsburgh meeting probably needed some good-natured fun: one attendee referred to the place as “a God-forsaken hole”; Witmer Stone was a little gentler, calling it “the Smoky City,” which seems like an understatement based on this photo from about that time:
Stone came in for his share of ribbing in The Auklet, mostly about his supposed girl-watching on the Cape May beaches. A fellow ornithologist once kidded Stone with “Yes, you have been very remiss, watching these Cape May bathing beauties all summer and not telling us about them; almost as silent as George Ord and Alexander Wilson, and other former Cape May visitors.” Here are Stone and T.S. Palmer taking their licks in the 1926 Auklet:
Ten years later, Stone was still getting it about pretending to be engaged in ornithology on the Cape May beaches while actually training his binoculars on the “surf-birds” (“W. Pebble” is an obvious play on “W. Stone”):
Maybe no one had “taken offense at any thrust received” when Grinnell wrote in 1924, but by the early 1930s some members who’d had their feathers ruffled by some thrusts wanted to discontinue The Auklet, and there were grumblings to that effect. Stone had no reservations about letting the effort expire, but mainly due to what he felt was a falling off in the quality of the humor. The Auklet has been seen sporadically since then, however, and it still makes infrequent appearances at the annual AOU meetings.
Another example of “writing like they used to,” found in one of the books from Witmer Stone’s personal library, is a passage in H.E. Parkhurst’s 1897 book Song Birds and Water Fowl. In the chapter “At the Water’s Edge,” Parkhurst recommends watching the antics of gulls (like the Iceland Gull above) on a winter day at the beach: “The spectator can no more tire of watching the graceful and gigantic scrolls that they inscribe upon the air, or their languishing passage over the sea, than he can weary of the ocean’s ceaseless roll, whose deep incessant undertones are an apt accompaniment for these noble airy beings in their diverting and untiring exhibitions; beings formed, as one might imagine, from the waves’ foamy crests, mysteriously winged and vitalized – the offspring of the sea, and mantled by the sky.”
It seems we don’t even think like that anymore, let alone write like that. A description of gulls that includes the musing that they seem to have sprang to life, miraculously animated, from the wave crests and mists over which they fly? Don’t look for any such sentiments in the next article you read about somebody’s “Big Year,” or in any social media gushings about the latest vagrant being ogled by the twitching masses.
Birders are familiar with the sight of a perched Great Horned Owl being mobbed by a flock of crows. If the owl sits tight, the crows eventually tire of screaming invective and, one at a time, drift off to find mischief elsewhere. However, if for some reason the owl flies – for example, if a curious birdwatcher stumbles onto the scene trying to find out what all the fuss is about and gets too close for the owl’s comfort – the crows immediately renew their attack with full-throated vehemence. Once the owl lands, if it sits placidly again, the crows gradually move off. That’s my dry, factual description of the commonly encountered event.
I found a much more interesting rendition of it in one of the old books from Witmer Stone’s personal library. Perley Milton (“P.M.”) Silloway, in his 1897 book Sketches of Some Common Birds, described the crows mobbing a hapless owl, then wrote, “At length, having exhausted the corvine vocabulary of epithets and scurrility, and being tired of deriding that which, like Diogenes, would not be derided, one by one the crows would abandon the siege and seek less stoical victims, or less monotonous amusement.” You can look through all the latest bird-related books, listservs, and social media posts you want, and you’ll never come across a sentence containing the likes of “corvine vocabulary of epithets,” or “scurrility,” or a reference to a Greek philosopher who was an influence on the early Stoics.
Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature is a book full of interesting (and decided) characters – none more so than Brooklyn-born Roy Curtiss, who, when he was only 11 years old, was described by AMNH ornithologist Frank Chapman as “the most remarkable human phenomenon who has ever entered our gates.” As I wrote in Fascination, “The enigmatic Curtiss was precocious, if he was anything: he was reportedly reading and writing at age three, attended his first AOU meeting when he was nine, and taught himself Latin in order to read Linnaeus’s original writings in that language.”
Chapman’s “phenomenon” comment was in reply to a query from Stone, after Curtiss had sent Stone several rambling letters with his opinions on the state on American ornithological taxonomy. Stone, who correctly suspected he was dealing with a child with limited knowledge about the subject, told Chapman that Curtiss proposed “overturning the names of nearly all our birds.”
Stone was also unimpressed with Curtiss’s privately published book (at age 13) on the fauna of New England, declining to review it in The Auk, but he must have been impressed (or possibly– and typically – “astonished”) by the title: An Account of the Natural History of New England and of Nova Scotia and Lower Canada of the Islands of the Coasts Between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of New York; of the Mountains Wherein the Hudson Rises; and All Eastward As Far As the Bay of Massachusetts; In So Far As It Applies to Beasts, Birds, Reptiles, Whales, Fresh and Salt Water Fish and Shellfish, Worms, Insects and Pests. Well, that about covers it.
Neal Evenhuis of the Hawaii Biological Survey wrote an outstanding, well-researched biographical article on Curtiss starting on p. 13 here. The article contains the photo accompanying this post of a young Curtiss, looking intently serious about something. If he was contemplating all the future natural history discoveries he was going to make, they were not forthcoming. After such a promising beginning, Curtiss, who was born into wealth, spent his life traveling the world and contributing little of importance to the natural sciences.
My “Christ among the doctors” comment in the book about Curtiss’s early days, when his elders were amazed at his scientific interest, references the account in Luke‘s gospel where the 12-year-old Jesus amazed the elders in the temple at Jerusalem with his knowledge of the Scriptures. Over the years, several artists have depicted the Biblical incident (often referred to as “Christ Among the Doctors”), including 16th-century Italian painter Paolo Veronese:
We all splurge a little sometimes on something that has a value to us beyond that of a strictly pecuniary consideration. I did that recently and am now the happy (if slightly more impoverished) owner of 10 books that used to be part of Witmer Stone’s private library. The tale of Stone’s library is a woeful one. It reportedly consisted of 2,500 books, hundreds of journal sets, and thousands of author offprints (or “separata”). Here is a 1938 newspaper photo of Stone at his Germantown home in front of a portion of his library (with shelves built by him), reading Bird Studies at Old Cape May:
After Stone died, his widow, Lillie, wanted to sell the library intact. It was eventually purchased by the Reading Public Museum (RPM), whose director, Earl L Poole, was an old friend of Stone’s. Reading philanthropist Henry Janssen supplied the funds for the purchase. Unfortunately, after Poole and Janssen were no longer around, a later administration, with no appreciation for some of the treasures in its care, deaccessioned Stone’s library over the years and sold it off piecemeal in what were, essentially, annual flea markets. Stone’s library has been scattered to the four winds, but turns up in bits and pieces at booksellers. Here is one of the RPM bookplates:
Some of them were owned by Julia Stockton Robins, who was very active in both the Pennsylvania Audubon Society and the Spencer F. Baird Ornithological Club (a Philadelphia women’s birding club). When she died in 1906, her books apparently went to Stone. Robins, like Stone, is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, and knowing how much work she did with him, and how highly he regarded her, it’s neat to see their two signatures together:
John Dryden Kuser’s turbulent life story is featured in The Fascination of Nature, and his The Way to Study Birds (illustrated by the great Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as are – to my delight – some of the other books) was also in the lot:
It is a crying shame that Stone’s library, which was thoughtfully purchased and preserved by Poole, Janssen, and the RPM, met with the fate that it did. I now have a little slice of it, and I can feel Witmer standing in the spirit at my elbow as I sit and peruse the very same books that he did as he sat in the den of his Germantown home.