History and birds come together: "Spring Migration Notes" from 1920 and its famous authors

This little booklet has so much history, it's hard to know even where to begin. Let's start with the fact that the first author, James D. Watson, is the father of one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, also named James D. Watson, who along with Francis Crick is credited with the discovery of the structure of DNA. But that's the least of it. The third author is even more intriguing. A budding young ornithologist, just 15 years old at the time the booklet was published, Nathan Leopold would spend the bulk of his adult life in prison for the murder of Bobby Franks, one of the most famous crimes of the 20th century.

The Field Museum's copy of Spring Migration Notes of The Chicago Area, published in 1920, is now stored in the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room. Because of its historical value, it was recently added to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, including the type-written, hand-signed letter on page 4 from young Nathan Leopold to Ruthven Deane, a leading ornithologist of his time and a resident of Chicago, who eventually donated part of his collection of specimens to the Field Museum (as Leopold did when he went to jail). The cover of this copy even says "Compliments of the authors," presumably written by Leopold.

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The typed, hand-signed letter, from Nathan Leopold to Ruthven Deane, that can be found in the booklet.

Then there's the actual information that the booklet contains, a priceless indication of what the birdlife of Chicago was like in the early part of the 20th century. At the time, many wetland birds that are now rare or altogether gone as breeding birds were still common, an indication of the destruction of wetlands in the Chicago area over the last century.  This includes birds like Black Tern (about which the authors say "Breeds commonly"), King Rail ("Common summer resident"), and Wilson's Phalarope ("Nests in the Calumet region"). On the other hand, grassland birds were already declining, with many formerly common birds becoming rare. For example, Greater Prairie-Chicken was "A formerly abundant permanent resident; now rather rare," Northern Bobwhite was "A formerly very common permanent resident, but now rather rare," and Loggerhead Shrike, which then was known as Migrant Shrike, was a "Fairly common summer resident." These days you have to go hundreds of miles from Chicago to find Loggerhead Shrike or a prairie-chicken.

There's a lot of interesting information in the booklet, including spring arrival dates for every species each year from 1913-1920. I also love the English name the authors use for the bird we now call Snow Bunting (see page 11, bird number 534).

Special thanks to Field Museum Librarian Christine Giannoni for getting this wonderful document scanned.