Birding around New York City

On many weekends Mayr went out birding in the surroundings of New York City, usually with other members of the Linnaean Society, the local bird club which a group of naturalists had founded in 1878. There he met Charles Urner (18821938) and his New Jersey group and the members of the Bronx County Bird Club (BCBC) some of whom had cars and took him along on their trips, eventually accepting him as a member under the name of "Ernie" (Farrand 1991, Barrow 1998: 193). The major criterion for membership in the BCBC was one had to be born in the Bronx. Therefore Mayr was nominated "honorary member" (as well as Roger T. Peterson, author of the field guides, and William Vogt, later editor of Audubon Magazine). In May 1933 Mayr bought his own car, "a second-hand

Fig. 3.5. Mayr's first car, 1933 (Photograph courtesy of Mrs. S. Harrison)

Ford which I need for my excursions" (Fig. 3.5).6 By that time he had acquired a substantial knowledge of the local bird fauna.

"I am very busy. One evening I count starlings at their roost, the next evening I sit at a Barn Owl nest through half of the night, the third night I don't sleep at all because I leave on a field trip before midnight. It is great fun, if one finds interested young ornithologists who take up all suggestions. I am now secretary of the Linnaean Society which doesn't mean much. It is 'The local Bird Club,' extraordinarily layman-like but those people know their birds. [...] Strangely enough so far there was no interest in breeding biology or in ornithological problems generally, but this may be changed through slow education" (letter to Stresemann, 12 May 1933; transl.).

At that time, he assisted Irv Kassoy in his barn owl study and suggested that electric light, mirror glass on one side of the nest box and a dimmer be installed. This permitted them to follow and photograph the growth of the nestlings. In particular Mayr liked the big census trip (at the height of the spring migration in the middle of May) in which he participated once and which covered most of northern New Jersey

"I arrived around 8 pm at Charlie Urner's house in Elizabeth, and at 9:00 our whole party went to bed (I don't remember how and where we all slept). Shortly after midnight we got up again and left around 1:00. At once we started to record a number of species of owls that had previously been staked out at certain localities. Then on to Troy MeadowsinNew Jersey, the largestfreshwatermarsh in NewJersey,

6 Mayr got quickly used to New York traffic but in July 1935 he was summoned to traffic court for making a wrong turn and fined $2.00.

where we got several species of rails, two bitterns, and other swamp birds. Around 9:30 we had a short coffee break, and checked a list of New Jersey birds to see what we still needed. Horrors, we had no English Sparrows yet, so on to the next town to fill that gap. By early afternoon we reached Brigantane near Atlantic City where we got terns, gulls, skimmers, and a great variety of shore birds. On the way home we added a nighthawk.

When we finally got back to Elizabeth it was nearing midnight. Urner took me to the train station, where I took the train to Manhattan and there I dragged myself to the Broadway subway. I was so tired I fell asleep almost at once. When I woke up we had just left the 125th Station where I should have gotten out, so I got out at 135th St. I now had to make the decision, should I risk taking the next train back to 125th St, where most likely I would fall asleep again, or simply walk back the 10 blocks. I finally decided it was better to walk."

On one of the excursions with Charlie Urner to Barnegat Bay they had parked the car at a parking place and, returning half an hour later, found that the car had been broken into. Among other things, Mayr's suitcase had been stolen with a Leica camera and his hardbound master ornithological notebook in which he had carefully recorded all of his observations since his gymnasium days. He would have spent a lot of money to get it back.

In the spring of 1936 he went with the Kuerzi brothers to the northwest corner of Connecticut where the Berkshires begin (Mayr et al. 1937j):

"I had bragged that I could find the nest of the brown creeper, which the Kuerzi's had heard singing in a little swamp. It was now up to me to establish the first breeding record of the species in Connecticut. They stopped the car on a dirt road near a swamp and pointed in the direction where they had heard the bird singing. I walked in that direction, and about 40 yards in I spotted a dead tree with loose bark. I called back to the Kuerzi's this would be the ideal location for a brown creeper nest. When I looked, sure enough there was the nest. I had simply applied the Schiermann method [p. 46]. Of course, it was enormous luck. I have since repeated the search for brown creeper nests where I have heard them singing, but I have never again found one in the United States."

While he stayed at the "Trout Valley Farm" in the western foothills of the Catskill Mountains in May 1934, Mayr took notes on the breeding birds. He had found the nests of 22 species (Mayr 1935f).

In retrospect Mayr fondly remembered the field trips with other young ornithologists: "In those early years in New York when I was a stranger in a big city, it was the companionship and later friendship which I was offered in the Linnaean Society that was the most important thing in my life" (1999j: 3).

After his kidney operation in April 1934 (see p. 301), he "received about 100 letters and postcards and my local friends literally had to line up at the hospital door because only a limited number of visitors were permitted in. This gave me the comforting feeling that I have made true friends here" (letter to Stresemann, 4 May 1934; transl.).

The intellectual level of the Linnaean Society meetings was poor, just records, rarities, life lists, arrival and departure dates. In comparison, the German Ornitho logical Society under E. Stresemann was "far more scientific, far more interested in life histories and breeding bird species, as well as in reports on important recent literature. Most members of the German society were amateurs like those of the Linnaean Society, but somehow a very different tradition had become established" (Mayr 1999j: 3).

The activities of birdwatchers in the New York area and beyond had been influenced by Ludlow Griscom (1890-1959), an assistant curator at the AMNH. He dominated the meetings of the Linnaean Society (until he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1927) and was the acknowledged leader in field identification of birds. He inspired R. T. Peterson to prepare his first field guide which appeared in 1934. Griscom introduced the game of correctly identifying a maximum number of bird species in a minimum of time based on a thorough knowledge of the diagnostic differences of all similar species of birds. Millions of people enjoy it. However, as Mayr (1995k) pointed out, "Griscomites hardly ever make any contributions to the serious study of birds. [...] List-chasing a la Griscom does not produce amateur naturalists of the tradition of Selous and Howard." The one thing "birders" in the Griscom-tradition never do is to watch a bird carefully and describe its behavior.7 This was precisely what Ernst Mayr now asked the birdwatchers to do. He wanted to lift their hobby of birding above the level of list-chasing.

He arranged an Ornithological Seminar alternating with the formal Linnaean Society meetings and similar to Stresemann's "Fachsitzungen" where Mayr had participated in Berlin. At first, he himself reviewed "Some problems of bird migration" and other topics from the "biological" bird literature like papers by G. Schiermann and K. Lorenz, an article by himself on B. Altum and the territory theory and others by Eliot Howard and Edmund Selous: "The ornithological seminar appears to be quite successful. There were 17 people present the first time, and 22 the second time. The meeting is on the first Tuesday every month" (letter to F. Chapman, 13 March 1933). Attendance later decreased to a core group of 8-10 young birdwatchers. "Everybody should have a problem to work on," Mayr used to say, which meant that each one should work on a research topic that is on a gap in scientific knowledge that they as bird students should attempt to fill.

"Once a pattern had been established, I asked members of our Ornithological Seminar to review short papers from the American literature and very much encouraged them, eventually, to adopt themselves a 'problem' and try to solve it by field work. Dick Kuerzi undertook a life history of Tree Swallow on a colony he himself had founded [Proc. Linn. Soc. New York 53:1-52, 1941]. Irv Kassoy did a superb study on nesting Barn Owls [never published]. Bill Vogt did a life history of the Willet nesting in New Jersey [Proc. Linn. Soc. New York 49:8-42, 1938], Dick Herbert did a census of occupied Peregrine Falcon eyries in New Jersey and southern New York state [Auk 82:62-94,1965], and Jack Kuerzi a faunistic survey of the rarer breeding birds of Connecticut [on which he published several short

7 After Mayr had moved from New York to Cambridge (Massachusetts) he wrote to Strese-mann (Berlin): "Ornithologically, the Boston region was quite deteriorated, particularly under Griscom's unfortunate influence. 'List-chasing' had become the main activity" (4 January 1958).

reports]. Joe Hickey did a careful census, a la Schiermann [p. 46] of a plot in Westchester County. Bill Vogt, when he became editor of Bird-Lore (later Audubon Magazine) was so enthusiastic about Hickey's breeding bird census that he introduced breeding bird censuses in his magazine as a counterpart to the winterly Christmas censuses.

The reviews of literature as well as the problems they undertook were eye openers to these young birdwatchers who had had no academic training. Hickey indeed was so impressed by the possibilities that he quit his job at Consolidated Edison and went back to College, eventually becoming a professor of wildlife studies at the University of Wisconsin. He also wrote an excellent Guide to Bird Watching, 1943 (to a considerable extent based on the literature we had reviewed in our seminar) and eventually was one of the most important voices in the fight against DDT and other pesticides." Like Stresemann in Berlin, Mayr was convinced that with proper guidance, serious birdwatchers could make important contributions to science (see also Barrow 1998:194).

In his report for 1932-1933, the Secretary of the Linnaean Society, William Vogt, stated: "Perhaps the most noteworthy event in the year's history of the Society was the establishment, under the leadership of Dr. Ernst Mayr, of a monthly seminar for the abstracting and discussion of current papers concerned with field ornithology. The formation of the seminar evoked a gratifying reception from the Society's members and it offers an obviously welcome opportunity for more technical discussions than are desirable or feasible in the regular meetings." These seminars continued at least until 1938 (LeCroy 2005).

As editor from 1934 to 1941, Mayr upgraded the publications of the Linnaean Society, opening the Proceedings and the Transactions for large contributions. Charles Urner was the publisher of a journal in dairy and egg trade knowing nothing about science. Nevertheless, he was willing to supervise the printing of the Society's publications and taught Mayr all the tricks of editing and publishing. Mayr first persuaded Margaret Morse Nice (1883-1974) to write a two-volume monograph (1937,1942) on the life history of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). Volume 1 is dedicated "To my friend Ernst Mayr." He had done a lot of editing on this manuscript of population studies. Numerous letters were exchanged between him and Mrs. Nice. He also mediated her meeting with Erwin Stresemann during her visit to Europe in 1932. When Niko Tinbergen (1907-1988) visited New York in 1938, Mayr solicited a manuscript from him on his observations of Greenland birds, especially the Snow Bunting in spring (published in the Transactions in 1939). Mayr provided valuable criticism on the manuscript and on some of his views of animal behavior also suggesting that Tinbergen expand his interest into the genetics of behavior.8 At first the council of the Linnaean Society felt that this type of publications would not be read by the old-time birdwatchers. However,

8 Tinbergenstayedagain with theMayrs forawhilewhenhelecturedatvarious universities in the United States in late 1946-early 1947, a trip Mayr had organized. The latter suggested that Tinbergen put into book form the manuscript for the six lectures he gave at Columbia University (New York). It was published later under the title The Study of Instinct (1951).

Charles Urner as well as Mayr's young friends of the Bronx County Bird Club (Joe Hickey, Jack Kuerzi, William Vogt, Irving Kassoy, and others) backed his proposal leading to the approval for publication by the council.

"The council thought that for this more general publication [by M. M. Nice] maybe we should print 200 copies, or perhaps even 250. Everyone thought I was totally mad when I insisted that we print 1,000 copies. Hindsight tells me that I was probably not too diplomatic in getting my way, but Charlie Urner printed 1,000 copies, even though he thought we would probably get stuck with an unsold supply of about 750 copies. Much to everyone's surprise, even my own, it took relatively few years before the whole edition was sold out, the Society not having lost its shirt, but actually making a profit" (Mayr 1999j).

As Mayr had predicted, these monographs became vast successes and eventually sold out. The song sparrow monograph even had to be reprinted many years later (Dover Publ., Inc., New York, 1964). This editorial training proved invaluable for Mayr when he founded the journal Evolution in 1946 (p. 238). Mayr's encouragement of amateurs in New York to undertake serious biological studies of local birds and of Mrs. Margaret M. Nice to write her monographic population study of the Song Sparrow was a major influence on American ornithology during the 1930s.

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