USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Breeding Bird Census Header Graphic

Historical Bird Data from the Bureau of Biological Survey

Several sets of data records exist from the 1880's - 1940's that might interest the ornithologically inclined. These files are outlined below.

Historic Card File on the Distribution and Migration of North American Birds

These data exist in the attic of the Nelson Building at Patuxent, neatly ordered within 60 feet of card cabinets. This system contains 5 million records of occurrence, migration, and nesting data from published sources, and from field reports of Biological Survey employees and a network of amateur ornithologists, 1880-1950. The cards, which are sorted by species, country, and state or province contain clippings from ornithological journals as well as observer reports containing date of arrival, next date recorded, date the species became common, and date species was last seen or heard. Each record includes locality and observer's name.

These data are an almost complete record of bird sightings prior to the 1920's. Many of these records have never made it into published accounts. We are waiting for some heroic figure to come out to Patuxent and begin the long, but rewarding, job of transcribing some of these data to a database.

To arrange a visit or for further information contact Chan Robbins 301-497-5641. Anyone interested in puttting these data into a database can contact Sam Droege at 301-497-5840.

The Famous Lighthouse Surveys

The first systematic bird surveys in North America were those collected by lighthouse keepers. In the late 1800's there was concern that lighthouses were a fatal attraction to migrating birds. Birds, lured into the bright lights, would dash themselves to death on the tower. The American Ornithologist's Union (AOU) decided to look into the situation and asked keepers to write down all the birds that they found dead or that hit the light.

Lighthouse keepers, being regular joes, kept that data, but being rather untrained in ornithological observation and nomenclature, returned results often difficult to interpret. Some keepers claimed that no birds struck the light and also wrote back saying the whole thing was a big waste of their time. Others recorded extensive observerations of sea robins, mother-careys chickens, black sea duckes, bee martins, and other local and often ambiguous names.

Tucked in with the lighthouse data are stored the corresponse of the many private individuals and ornithologists who wrote in to the AOU Committee with reports and observations of birds. These data, and the notes by Bureau bioligists, form the baseline for North American knowledge about the migration, abundance, and distribution of birds.

These data are now safely, but obscurely, stored at the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives. They are contained within 95 boxes and stored in Lot 22. I currently can't seem to find the name or number of the curator. If anyone locates the proper contact please email me Sam Droege so that I can add them to this site. Additional historical links, information, and corrections are welcome.

Stomach Contents

At the turn of the century folks were very concerned about the economic impact of birds on food crops. In fact, the Bureau of Biological Survey was located in the department of Agriculture during its first few years. During that time government scientists systematically went out and collected birds during many different seasons. Those data were recorded onto cards and are now stored in about 10+ filing cabinets in the dank basement of the aging Snowden Building at Patuxent Wildlife ResearchCenter.

For access and more information about these data you can call Matt Perry at 301-497-5622.

Nest Record Card Schemes

Nest Record Cards are used to enter data on the successes and failures of individual bird nests. Much of these data are collected by volunteers and submitted to a central coordinating body. In addition to the central repositories many individual researchers have large collections of nest records.

No one scheme exists for all of North America. Most Canadian provinces collect and maintain their own data. In the U.S. the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has been collecting cards since 1965. The Lab of Ornithology has collected over 300,000 records for the U.S. and Canada and continues to accept new cards and fill data requests. However, the project if not funded and is currently maintained only in the spare time of Labratory ornithologists. The plan is to at some point seek funding for revising and computerizing scheme. At present 20-30 % of the cards are computerized (for the most common species).


Jim Lowe

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
159 Sapsucker Woods Road
Ithaca, NY 14850

In Ontario:

Ross James

Royal Ontario Museum
100 Queen's Park
Toronto, ON. M5S 2C6