Archive for March, 2013

I was thrilled to be invited by the Alumni Office to speak about the Watkinson’s collections related to natural history at an alumni event in New York.  The New York Historical Society has mounted the first of three exhibitions of Audubon’s original paintings, most of which were used as the basis for producing the 435 aquatint engravings for his famous Birds of America (completed in 1838).

Over 40 alumni of Trinity College came out last week on a crisp evening to take a tour of the four large galleries which hold over 160 pieces of art, manuscript letters, and various small artifacts which comprise “Part I” of the exhibition.  You can hear the recent NPR story on Audubon, which mentions the exhibition.

Also joining us was professor Tom Wickman, who has structured a history course around our Enders ornithology collection.  We are team-teaching this course in the library, and were delighted that one of our students (and her parents) also made it to the event.

The Society’s docents did an excellent job taking our two groups through the exhibition, explaining in broad strokes the very interesting life that Audubon led, which culminated in the production of his famous (and famously big) book.  After the tour, I spoke about our amazing copy of the Birds of America, the plates of which were selected and hand-colored by the engraver himself (Robert Havell, Jr.), and passed from his hands in 1878 to a book firm and then to a Trinity alum, Dr. Gurdon Russell (class of 1834).  Dr. Russel owned the set for over 20 years before giving it to Trinity College in 1900, where it has been kept safe and made available to students ans scholars for over a century.

I concluded my remarks by emphasizing the use to which we put these collections throughout the school year, through presentations, events, and initiatives like our unique Creative Fellowship Program.  We all had a great time, and I hope the alums will remember to visit the Watkinson when their classes return to campus for a visit to see the Audubon, which is on permanent display.

“I obtained the bird represented in this plate opposite Cincinnati, in the State of Kentucky, in the year 1820, whilst in the company of Mr. ROBERT BEST, then Curator of the Western Museum. It was on the ground, amongst tall grass, and exhibited the usual habits of its tribe. Perceiving it to be different from any which I had seen, I immediately shot it, and the same day made an accurate drawing of it.

In naming it after the Rev. Professor HENSLOW of Cambridge, a gentleman so well known to the scientific world, my object has been to manifest my gratitude for the many kind attentions which he has shewn towards me. Its history and habits are unknown.  In appearance it differs so little from the Buntings, that, for the present, I shall refer to that genus.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 358 [excerpted].

“This species does not breed in the United States, or if it does, must spend the summer in some of the most remote north-western districts, so that I have not been able to discover its principal abode. It merely passes through the better known portions of the Union, where it remains for a very short time. There is something so very uncommon in its appearance in different States, that I cannot refrain from briefly mentioning it. It is sometimes found in Pennsylvania, or the State of New York, as well as in New Jersey, as early as the beginning of April, but is only seen there for a few days. I have shot some individuals at such times, when I observed them employed in searching for insects and larvae along the fences bordering our fields. At other times I have shot them late in June, in the State of Louisiana, when the cotton-plant was covered with blossoms, amongst which they were busily searching for food. The Bay-breasted Warbler, however, has so far eluded my inquiries, that I am unable to give any further account of its habits.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 358 [excerpted].

“In the spring of 1815, I for the first time saw a few individuals of this species at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, a hundred and twenty miles below the Falls of that river. It was an excessively cold morning, and nearly all were killed by the severity of the weather. I drew up a description at the time, naming the species Hirundo republicans, the Republican Swallow, in allusion to the mode in which the individuals belonging to it associate, for the purpose of forming their nests and rearing their young. Unfortunately, through the carelessness of my assistant, the specimens were lost, and I despaired for years of meeting with others.

In the year 1819, my hopes were revived by Mr. ROBERT BEST, curator of the Western Museum at Cincinnati, who informed me that a strange species of bird had made its appearance in the neighbourhood, building nests in clusters, affixed to the walls. In consequence of this information, I immediately crossed the Ohio to Newport, in Kentucky, where he had seen many nests the preceding season; and no sooner were we landed than the chirruping of my long-lost little strangers saluted my ear. Numbers of them were busily engaged in repairing the damage done to their nests by the storms of the preceding winter.

Major OLDHAM of the United States Army, then commandant of the garrison, politely offered us the means of examining the settlement of these birds, attached to the walls of the building under his charge. He informed us, that, in 1815, he first saw a few of them working against the wall of the house, immediately under the eaves and cornice; that their work was carried on rapidly and peaceably, and that as soon as the young were able to travel, they all departed. Since that period, they had returned every spring, and then amounted to several hundreds. They usually appeared about the 10th of April, and immediately began their work, which was at that moment, it being then the 20th of that month, going on in a regular manner, against the walls of the arsenal. They had about fifty nests quite finished, and others in progress.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 353 [excerpted].


Mapping the Middle East

   Posted by: rring    in Classes, Uncategorized

Several days ago we hosted professor Zayde Antrim’s “Mapping the Middle East” class.  The students pick a historical atlas and answer a questionnaire about aspects of what they see.  Here is the course description:

“This course approaches the history of the Middle East through maps. It will look at the many different ways maps have told the story of the territory we now call the Middle East and the many different points of view that have defined it as a geographical entity. Readings will analyze maps as social constructions and will place mapmaking and map-use in a historical context. We will relate maps to questions of empire, colonialism, war and peace, nationalism, and environmental change.”

“If the name of Starling has been given to this well-known species, with the view of assimilating it to the European bird of that name, it can only have been on account of the numbers of individuals that associate together, for in every other respect it is as distinct from the true Starlings as a Common Crow. But without speaking particularly of generic or specific affinities, I shall here content myself with giving you, kind reader, an account of the habits of this bird.

The Marsh Blackbird is so well known as being a bird of the most nefarious propensities, that in the United States one can hardly mention its name, without hearing such an account of its pilferings as might induce the young student of nature to conceive that it had been created for the purpose of annoying the farmer. That it destroys an astonishing quantity of corn, rice, and other kinds of grain, cannot be denied; but that before it commences its ravages, it has proved highly serviceable to the crops, is equally certain.

As soon as spring makes its appearance, almost all the Redwings leave the Southern States, in small detached and straggling flocks, the males leading the way in full song, as if to invite the females to follow. Prodigious numbers make their appearance in the Eastern Districts, as winter recedes, and are often seen while piles of drifted snow still remain along the roads, under shelter of the fences. They frequently alight on trees of moderate size, spread their tail, swell out their plumage, and utter their clear and not unmusical notes, particularly in the early morning, before their departure from the neighbourhood of the places in which they have roosted; for their migrations, you must know, are performed entirely during the day.

Their food at this season is almost exclusively composed of grubs, worms, caterpillars, and different sorts of coleopterous insects, which they procure by searching with great industry, in the meadows, the orchards, or the newly ploughed fields, walking with a graceful step, but much quicker than either of their relatives, the Purple Grakle or the Boat-tail of the Southern States. The millions of insects which the Redwings destroy at this early season, are, in my opinion, a full equivalent for the corn which they eat at another period; and for this reason, the farmers do not molest them in spring, when they resort to the fields in immense numbers. They then follow the ploughman, in company with the Crow Blackbird, and as if aware of the benefit which they are conferring, do not seem to regard him with apprehension.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 348-349 [excerpted].