Birdwatching

When he was 9 years old, Ernst learned (with the help of brother Otto) the more common birds in the large park of the Residenz in Würzburg. Otto also owned an aquarium and took Ernst along to catch sticklebacks and aquatic insects in the backwaters of the Main River. While Ernst's interests remained strongly centered on natural history from an early age on, his younger brother Hans never developed a serious interest in animals or plants. The parents subscribed to the well-known natural history magazine for amateurs, Kosmos, and also provided them with all the popular volumes by Wilhelm Boelsche and other authors in the Kosmos Library series. Certainly, this reading furthered Ernst's tendencies and he acquired a great speed in flying diagonally across a page for contents rather than looking for literary style (see also p. 33). This way, he consumed most of Karl May's adventure stories and often managed to read an entire 400 to 500-page volume in a single evening. He devoured all the books he could get on Arctic and Antarctic expeditions and on travels to unknown parts of South America, Africa, and Asia. In particular he was fascinated by the travels of the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin to Tibet. He read on different topics including geology, anthropology, and art history. In fact, there was a time at the gymnasium when he thought of studying art history as his life's subject. Ornithology remained strictly a hobby.

At about 14 years of age, he started a "most active ornithological period stimulated, I am embarrassed to admit it, by competition with another student in my class in the Gymnasium, who bragged about his knowledge of birds. That was more than I could endure. However, I was also the friend of a forester's son in Moritzburg, with whom, for instance, I tried to observe a badger. In Dresden, if weather was reasonable, I went birdwatching almost every single day. As soon as I had a bicycle, I also traveled to the Lausitz, to Moritzburg, and to mountainous areas east and south of Dresden. Once I got word that a nightingale was singing about twenty kilometers from Dresden, I immediately got on my bicycle and was more than elated actually to hear the bird singing."

During the winter of 1919-1920, the young birdwatcher checked almost daily on the birds in the Grosse Garten, a large city park. He observed that the Bohemian Waxwings were rather common there feeding on mistletoes in the large Linden trees and he found out which of the old hollow trees was the home of the Tawny Owl. In spring, he checked on the nests of Blackbird Turdus merula and Songthrush T. philomelos using a mirror with a long handle to see the contents of their nests. However, there was nobody to advise him about some constructive research or the literature. His guide was Alwin Voigt's Excursion Book for the Study of Bird Voices. It offered a system of signs representing bird calls and songs. This seemed to him more useful than Bernhard Hoffmann's book (1919) where bird songs and call notes were described in musical symbols. At school, he enjoyed most the biology course and did a lot of reading on biological subject matter. He also took a course in local flowers and learned how to identify them with the help of identification keys. He was a good high school student but judged by his classmate, Karl Baessler, when asked in 1990, there was nothing particular pointing to his later success in science.

In 1920 and 1921, he entered in his notebook 25 detailed bicycle routes that he took around Dresden for birdwatching, carefully noting the distances and times spent (ranging between 23 km in 2 h and 178 km in 10 h).

"I used to be an enthusiastic bicyclist myself while I was a bird student in Germany. The poor bike certainly suffered very much. I used to take it through swamps and over the beach, through woods and over fences. It is really much handier for birding than the automobile, and after a while one gets so good at it that one can ride almost anywhere. Besides it is good exercise" (letter to J. P. Chapin, 1 December 1936).

Fig. 1.5. Ernst Mayr's Germany during the first half of the 20th century

From 6 to 14 September 1925, he rode his bicycle across southern Germany over most of the distance between Hof (Bavaria) in the northeast and Lindau on Lake Constance in the southwest (Fig. 1.5), only occasionally using the train for short hops when the weather was really bad. He wrote a detailed diary in 4 days. On the first evening, he slept in a barn on straw and was on his way again at 4 o'clock in the morning after a cold night:

7 September (transl.): "It had stopped raining but a strong western storm was raging. It was pitch black but the old alley trees marked the way. Konradsreuth was still completely quiet, only some dogs were barking. The clouds rushed very low over the road. However, as a happy promise, the morning star then appeared in a gap between the clouds. Bicycling was heavy going, strong contrary wind and bottomless [muddy and unpaved] roads, in addition they went continuously up and down. The landscape was very pretty, mountain meadows, and spruce forests. When I stood on top of a hill drawing breath, the moon broke through the rushing clouds, a wonderful setting. Dawn commenced a quarter off five o'clock and at six o'clock I was in Münchberg. [...] A freezing wind-Fichtel Mountains-in addition the fear that it might start raining again. Finally I reached Gefrees. From there on the riding became easier. To the left one might have had a nice view toward the 'Schneeberg' but everything was cloud covered. Finally, the descent began toward Berneck, a long-missed pleasure, I even had to use my backpedaling brake. I was very delighted with Berneck and its environs. To continue toward Bayreuth would not have been difficult, if I hadn't been completely exhausted. So I put up just before the last ascent, drank half a liter of milk and ate several slices of bread. Meanwhile it started to rain. When it stopped after an hour, I rode via Bindlach to Bayreuth. Because it rained again I decided to take the train to Pegnitz. [.] There it cleared up. I jumped on my bike and rode over deeply muddy roads through the romantic 'Switzerland' of upper Franconia to Pottenstein. When I got there it poured again for a change and I had to look for cover. The land lady asked me: 'Where are you headed?' 'For Lindau.' 'Oh, there I know the hospital doctor, Dr. Mayr. Yes, I was employed by his son in Heidelberg,' etc. She was Elisa Radl, the former housekeeper of Uncle Hermann. We were both quite surprised. Over even more deeply muddy roads I reached Muggendorf where I stayed overnight.

8 September. At 8 o'clock in the morning I continued and reached Forchheim riding along the less interesting lower valley of the Wisent River passing through Streitberg and Ebermannstadt. The road defied any description; on occasion the mud was so deep that bicycling was impossible." From Forchheim he took the train south to Neumarkt (via Nürnberg) "and then had a wonderful ride downhill with back wind along the Danube-Main canal. I was enthused with Berching where Fritz Gösswein3 was born and reached the Altmühl Valley at Beilngries." Following the Altmühl upstream to the village of Arnsberg he turned southward up onto the plateau where Böhmfeld is located arriving after dark: "I had a strange feeling when I entered the birthplace of my great-grandfather.4" On the following day (9 September) Ernst checked the church books and found the data he was looking for. On 11 and 12 September he stayed in Unterthingau near Kempten (Allgäu) where his other great-grandfather J.E. Mayr was born and where he certainly also checked the church records. These activities were part of the genealogical research that the Mayr brothers conducted during the 1920s (see p. 11, footnote). Regarding the continuation of Ernst's trip from Ingolstadt to Lindau via Augsburg

3 F. Gösswein was Ernst Mayr's classmate and friend at the gymnasium in Munich for three and a half years. They lost contact when the Mayrs moved to Dresden in 1917. His father was a blue collar worker (running a locomotive engine) and Fritz was living proof that the saying, children of blue collar workers were not accepted at the humanistic gymnasium, was wrong.

4 Bonifazius Müller (1805-1860), father of Wilhelmine Müller (p. 8), was Royal Bavarian District Physician in Lindau at least from 1837 until his death.

Fig. 1.6. Ernst Mayr (on right) on a field trip with members of the Saxony Ornithologists' Association, April 1925. From left to right: R. Köhler, E. Dittmann, P. Bernhardt, H. Förster, E. Mayr. (Photograph courtesy of E. Mayr.)

and Kaufbeuren only a list of expenses is preserved but no detailed diary. In early October he was back in Berlin, where the German Ornithological Society celebrated its 75th anniversary (p. 22, footnote). The Mayr brothers also covered long distances on foot; 35-40 km a day was the average, but occasionally they walked up to 50 km (see also p. 50).

Shortly after it had been founded in April 1922, Ernst, while still a high school student, joined the Saxony Ornithologists' Association (Verein Sächsischer Or-nithologen) and attended its annual meetings (Fig. 1.6). The majority of these local ornithologists pursued special aspects of the bird fauna and none of them was the kind of list chasers ("twitchers") like the birders of New York whom Mayr would meet 10 years later. Once he had bicycled a long distance to participate in an annual meeting because he could not afford the train fare. When the weather turned bad a kind dentist from Chemnitz (Johannes Keller) paid the train fare for him and his bicycle back to Dresden. Another member, Paul Bernhardt was specialized on the birds of the lakes at Moritzburg; W. Salzmann, the society's secretary, made faunistic observations around Leipzig; H. Foerster studied the Peregrine Fal-

Fig. 1.7. "The lovable eccentric"—Rudolf Zimmermann; photograph taken in 1942 (Archive, Museum of Natural History Berlin, Orn. 158,1)

con, E. Dittmann and R. Köhler observed other birds near Dresden. At one of the meetings, Mayr was introduced to Rudolf Zimmermann (1878-1943), editor of the association's publication. With him, our young ornithologist learned more than from anyone else, particularly that one had to know the relevant literature and that one had to ask biological questions. Through Zimmermann, Mayr also met the dean of the Saxon ornithologists, Richard Heyder (1884-1984) in Oederan whom he visited for the last time in 1973. Their correspondence ended when Heyder died about 6 months before his 100th birthday. Ernst Mayr wrote very personal reminiscences of Rudolf Zimmermann (Fig. 1.7):

"He was my chief ornithological mentor during my high school days, and furthermore, one of the most extraordinary, lovable eccentric people one can imagine. He lived in Dresden in a one-room apartment largely filled with books and periodicals. He had no kitchen, only an alcohol burner on which he made his simple meals if he happened to have enough money to buy some food stuff. If not, he simply smoked cigars. He had a long, dark brown beard and was always dressed for the outdoors. I believe just about all of his income came from writing popular nature articles for various magazines and from his nature photography. He was a very good photographer, even in the technical matters of developing his films or plates.

Zimmermann never had any formal education. I presume that he finished some kind of a high school, but that was all. Everything he knew (and he had an enormous amount of knowledge) was acquired by reading. Why he engaged in all that is quite a puzzle to me. He was, of course, a bachelor; perhaps his speech defect—particularly when a little excited he stammered badly—contributed to his solitude. This was, of course, the reason why he couldn't earn his living as a teacher or lecturer.

I often visited him in his room because he had so many interesting books and could tell so many interesting stories about birds and their lives. He never ceased emphasizing how important it was to study the living bird, that one needed patience, that one should sit by a nest or watch a displaying bird by the hour and only thus could one get the exact details of what was going on. Most importantly, he took me along on some of his excursions to the Lausitz region [east of Dresden] with its innumerable ponds and marvelous bird life. Here he showed me how to find the nests of all sorts of birds, and determined which ones were apt to be parasitized by the cuckoo. He had a splendid knowledge of its habits, and he could tell the cuckoo egg from the own eggs of the birds, etc. One of his weaknesses, however, was that he did not carefully record everything he saw; so much of his immense knowledge of bird life died with him. He was just as much the opposite of the American birdwatcher as one could possibly think. He was not concerned with records and rarities but with the living bird and its behavior.

I remember on one of the trips we came to a fish pond that had just been emptied in order to catch all the carp that were in the pond. However, in one of the drainage ditches Zimmermann spotted a carp that had been forgotten. He picked it up and put it somewhere, presumably in his pocket. After much more birding, we finally caught the last train back to Dresden. It was too late for me to go home, I think it was about midnight, so I went to Zimmermann's room. There he cooked the carp on the alcohol burner and we had a delicious meal at about 1:00 am. Then I laid down on the floor and slept soundly until about 6:00 am. I said goodbye to Zimmermann and walked to my own home, where my mother was rather astonished when I appeared ringing the bell at 7:00 am.

The lessons Zimmermann taught me at my most impressionable age have stayed with me all my life. Alas, in New Guinea, the collecting of birds took so much of my time that there was no opportunity, really, for making good life history observations.

As I have mentioned already, Zimmermann had a splendid library. It included such rarities as the major book by Pernau [1720]. Alas, I am told, that all this, including a valuable series of periodicals, was destroyed during the infamous Dresden bombing [in February 1945].

Zimmermann died in his 60s from cancer of the throat, which I attribute to his life-long smoking cigars."5

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