Birds - History

In 1893, the private collection of 19,000 specimens of Charles. B. Cory established the ornithological research collections and Cory was named Curator of Ornithology (for life) without residence obligations.  Initially this association was a very casual one for Cory.  He augmented his collection and occasionally visited Chicago, but assistant curators at The Field Museum provided curatorial services, and during this early period, D. G. Elliott was the curator in residence who held responsibility for the bird collection.  Initially Elliott was head of the "Department of Zoology, except Ornithology," a department designation resulting from the acquisition of Cory's collection.  Various Assistant Curators in Ornithology actually cared for the collection at this time.  These individuals included George K. Cherrie (from 1894 to 1897), W. A. Bryan (1898), and Ned Dearborn (1904-1908).  In 1906, Cory lost his personal fortune and his relationship with The Field Museum changed from absentee curator to a salaried Curator of Zoology (the Department of Ornithology became part of the Department of Zoology).  While at the museum, Cory producedThe Birds of Illinois and Wisconsin(1909) and began the series Catalogue of Birds of the Americas and the Adjacent Islands in Field Museum of Natural History, completing the first two volumes on his own (Cory 1918, 1919).  At his death he left manuscripts for three additional volumes, which were completed by C. E. Hellmayr (Cory and Hellmayr 1924, 1925, 1927).

John Todd Zimmer (1889-1957), Curator of Birds from 1922 to 1930, produced Catalogue of the Ayer Ornithological Library (1926) while at Field Museum.  Zimmer participated in the Conover-Everard African Expedition and the Marshall Field Peruvian Expedition before going on to be a curator at the American Museum of Natural History.

Carl Eduard Hellmayr (1878-1944) obtained his expertise in Neotropical birds in the museums of Europe (Haffer 1994).  After Cory's death, Hellmayr was engaged to complete the Catalogue of the Birds of the Americas and served as Field Museum curator from 1922 to 1931.

(Henry) Boardman Conover (1892-1950) was associated with Field Museum from 1920 until his death.  In 1919, Conover made acquaintance with W.H. Osgood, an Assistant Curator of Mammalogy and Ornithology at the Field Museum.  Under Osgood's guidance, Conover turned his interest in wildlife and hunting turned toward scientific activities.  Conover participated in his first museum expedition, to Venezuela, in 1920.  Inspired by this trip, he abandoned business and began a full time avocation as ornithologist.  Conover participated in additional expeditions for Field Museum:  Argentina (1922), Brazil (1923), Alaska (1924), and Mexico (1925).  In 1926, Conover and R. H. Everard financed an expedition to east Africa.  Conover's private collection of "game" birds (defined by him to include Tinamiformes, Anseriformes, Galliformes, Gruiformes, Charadriiformes, and Columbiformes), begun in 1920, was housed at The Field Museum.  As a result of his collecting efforts, augmented by hired collectors, personally sponsored expeditions, and exchange, Conover's collection reached 18,000 specimens and included 30 types.

Wolfrid Rudyerd Boulton (1901-1983) served as Curator of Birds from 1931 to 1946.  Boulton's professional experience included work at the American Museum of Natural History and Carnegie Museum where he participated in several African expeditions (Masterson 1983).  While curator he took part is several expeditions, returning to Africa and traveling to the West Indies and Galapagos Islands.  Besides building The Field Museum's collections, Boulton was instrumental in developing a hall of birds for public display  (a display that remained intact until its re-design in 1992).

World War II resulted in a leave of absence for many staff.  During 1943 to 1945, volunteer Ellen Thorne Smith (1904-1977) was the only person working in the Bird Division.  Smith provided many years (1936-1977) of volunteer work with the Bird Division and was founder of Field Museum's Women's Board, a group active in fund raising for the museum (Traylor and Webber 1977).  A major renovation and expansion of research and collection space was financed by a contribution honoring Smith.

Emmet R. Blake (1908-1997) came to The Field Museum in 1935.  He had previously participated in a National Geographic Society boundary survey team for Brazil (1930), and expeditions to Venezuela (1932), Guatemala (1933-1934), and British Honduras (Belize; 1935).  As curator he made trips to British Guiana (Guyana), Brazil (1937), and Peru (1958).  While at Field Museum, Blake produced Birds of Mexico: a Guide for Field Identification (1953) based on his field experience in Mexico and museum collections.  Blake served as Curator, excepting war service, until 1973 and continued working as Curator Emeritus until several years before his death.  During this time, he published the first volume of the Manual of Neotropical Birds.

Austin Loomer Rand (1905-1982) served as Curator from 1947 to 1955 and then Chief Curator of Zoology until 1970.  Rand served as a bridge from an era when primary interests were in subspecies descriptions and faunal lists to a time when evolutionary patterns, behavior and ecology took center stage.  Of the 103 papers representing his Field Museum tenure, 52 were systematic or faunal, and 51 were on glaciation and speciation, altitudinal variation, enemy recognition, and other behavioral and ecological subjects.

Melvin A. Traylor, Jr., (1915- 2008) began his association with Field Museum as a volunteer collector in Mexico during 1937 and 1939. Except for war service, Traylor continued to work as an expedition collector and unpaid associate until 1952. In 1956, a curatorial position became available, and Traylor returned to The Field Museum.  Traylor joined Harry Hoogstraal in an expedition to Egypt and the Sudan (1959).  He travelled again to Africa (1961), visiting Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Botswana (Bechuanaland).  His last expedition was to the Sudan (1977).  He served as Curator until 1980 (including three years as Chairman of Zoology).  Traylor described many new taxa and his publications include contributions to Peters’ Checklist of the Birds of the World(Tyrannidae and African Sylviidae) and monographs on the birds of Angola and the birds of Szechwan.  Traylor continued coming into the museum as Curator Emeritus until shortly before his death.

John Weaver Fitzpatrick served as Curator from 1978 to 1989.  Fitzpatrick's research interests include the systematics, evolution, and adaptive radiation of tyrannic flycatchers (e.g., Fitzpatrick 1985) and the distribution of birds in the Andes.  Expeditions he led to Peru discovered six new species of birds.  In 1980, Fitzpatrick negotiated the transfer of Princeton University's bird collection (11,500 specimens) to The Field Museum to insure continued curatorial care.  This was followed by transfer of Northern Illinois University holdings in 1988, and G. E. Woolfenden's collection in 1990.  Fitzpatrick was the first Curator of Birds to become involved in graduate programs with nearby Chicago universities.

David Willard, came to The Field Museum with a doctorate from Princeton in 1978 to serve as the Division's first Collection Manager.  In addition to collection maintenance, he has participated in expeditions to Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela (Willard et al. 1991), Uganda, the Philippines, Marshall Islands, Central African Republic, Madagascar, and Malawi.  He instituted a salvage program of window-killed birds that has resulted in about 4000 local specimens being added per year to the collection since 1978.  Catalog computerization took place under Willard's direct supervision.

Scott M. Lanyon began his curatorship at Field Museum in 1985.  His use of biochemical techniques required that he develop a laboratory, now called the Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution, which is now used by researchers in all museum departments, by many local and international graduate students, and by Field Museum associates.  In conjunction with his research, he began a tissue collection that now contains over 60000 samples of about 2600 species   Lanyon's field work took him to Peru, Bolivia, Brazil (from where he described a new species), the West Indies and the Marshall Islands.  Lanyon initiated the effort to computerize the Bird Collection catalog and expanded the Bird Division's involvement with graduate programs at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Scott left the museum to become Director of the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum in 1995.

Andrew Townsend Peterson began his curatorship with The Field Museum in 1992.  Before leaving for the University of Kansas two years later, he initiated research programs in Mexico.

Shannon Hackett and John Bates were hired as Assistant Curators in 1995; they had previously been post-doctoral fellows at the American Museum of Natural History.  Hackett led an NSF-funded Tree of Life project, Early Bird, that resulted in the most extensive genomic sequence data set ever gathered to understand the major relationships of birds.  Bates and his students have gathered DNA sequence data on numerous groups of South American and African birds to better understand their evolutionary history and to apply these data to conservation issues.  Both have been active in graduate training at Chicago area universities, and they have advised a number of international graduate students and participated in international training programs.  Hackett spear-headed expansion of Pritzker Laboratory to include the DNA Discovery Center, a public exhibit of the Pritzker Lab.  With NSF support, the division moved the much-expanded frozen tissue collection into a liquid nitrogen storage facility.  The Alcohol collection moved into the new Collections Resource Center.  The division continues active salvage (Chicago region, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Florida) and international field work programs in the following countries over the last 20 years: Uganda, Central African Republic, Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Mozambique, Gabon, Ghana, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Philippines and Bhutan.  Most recent collections also have included extensive sampling for avian parasites and pathogens.  Post-doctoral Fellow Jason Weckstein, who worked with both Bates and Hackett, is now Assistant Curator of Birds at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and Drexel University.  Sushma Reddy, a professor at Loyola Univeristy, is a long-time resident Research Associate as is Roosevelt University Professor Norbert Cordeiro and Peter Lowther.  Former resident Bird Division students include A. T. Peterson (University of Kansas),  Keith Barker (University of Minnesota), John Harshman, Amy Driskell (National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution), Jose "Pepe" Tello (Long Island University), Ana Carnaval (City College of New York), Lucinda Lawson (University of Cincinnati) Aaron Savit, (Peruvian National University  – Amazonas), Nick Block (Stonehill College), Trina Roberts (University of Iowa Museum), Rauri Bowie (Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California of Berkeley) and Ben Winger (University of Michigan).  Dylan Maddux is a resident Scientific Affiliate studying birds in the Pritzker Molecular Lab,.  Current students include: Shane DuBay, Natalia Pliand, Nick Crouch, João Capurucho, Heather Skeen, Valentina Gomez and Jacob Cooper.

This historical review is modified from an original article by Peter Lowther.