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Patuxent Wildlife Research Center



The origin and administration of the Cooperative Bird Observer program over the years have been well documented. Nearly all the Biological Survey chiefs who provided funding for the program during the period when it was administered by the Department of Agriculture have been honored by having an office building or a lake named for them at Patuxent. However, little has been written about the cards themselves and the people who have cared for them and used them over the past century. I thought it would be interesting for our wonderful volunteers who are making these records readily available to the public for the first time to read the story these cards would tell if they could talk. Incidentally, the U.S. Government has still another Cooperative Observer program in which I have participated, the network of cooperative observers for the weather bureau, and that program is nearly as old as ours.

Dr. C. Hart Merriam of the newly formed American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) persuaded the United States Congress to establish the Bureau of Economic Ornithology in 1885 and provide funding for the Cooperative Observer program, he administered The bird distribution and migration records came from four sources: private citizens, lighthouse keepers along the Atlantic coast and Great Lakes for which it was a required duty, field notes submitted by Biological Survey employees, and published records in all the American ornithological journals. The journal editors sent us two extra copies of each issue from which we would clip all important bird distribution and migration records, fold them neatly, paste them onto 2x5" cards and stamp each one with the bibliographic citation. The observations from cooperative observers and lighthouse keepers came in on large schedules, one species per line, filled out by hand. These schedules were too wide to fit in a typewriter. Wells W. Cooke, who had started compiling bird migration records from friends in the Mississippi valley in 1881, had been in charge of the program ever since the government established the Bureau and hired him full time. He finally decided the records would be more easily accessible if filed by species and state instead of just by state with the species entered in random sequence, so he discontinued the cumbersome schedule form and began using the 2x5" species cards with which you are so familiar. This meant that he had to transcribe by hand and verify every record that had come in on the old schedules or in field reports–a painstaking task that took place over many years. Finally, in the forties, after all the information that had been received on schedules had been copied, I sent all the original schedules to the national archives.

Professor Cooke ran the program from 1901 until his sudden death from pneumonia in 1916. His daughter, May Thacher Cooke, had been fascinated by her father's work and the excitement of learning new things about bird migration through the migration reports and the ornithological journals that arrived in each day's mail. She was devastated by her father's unexpected death, especially since she had already lost her mother. Somehow, either officially or unofficially, she must have been the person instrumental in keeping the program active for the next four years until Frederic C. Lincoln was hired to be in charge of both the bird banding office and the cooperative migration program. Both Wells and May had also become interested in compiling bird records for the Washington D.C. region; Wells had published D.C. migration summaries in 1908 and 1913, and May updated the D.C. bird list in 1921 and 1929, all in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. When May was moved to Patuxent she expanded the limits of the Washington region to include Patuxent. May's contributions were recognized by the AOU when she was voted their first feminine Elective Member. She continued to work as a biologist until her retirement from Patuxent in 1947. I think of May as an avid record collector rather than a field observer. She never brought binocs to the office and was not easily distracted by a bird flying by the window (as I would be).

Fred Lincoln's office was in Washington, initially in the Agriculture Department under the Biological Survey, then in Interior under Fish and Wildlife Service. When the Patuxent office buildings were built, the Food Habits work, Dr. Lincoln's banding and cooperative migration files, and Hartley Jackson and his mammal distribution files were moved to Patuxent, but Fred and his secretary, Myra Putnam (whose initials, m.a.p., remain on most of the bird distribution maps) retained their Washington office. Ruth Richards arrived at Patuxent to operate the cooperative migration program, freeing May Cooke to spend full time in the banding office reviewing encounter records and selecting interesting ones for publication. Ruth stayed until her retirement, after which I moved Lois Horn, who had had many long years in the banding lab, into the Cooperative Migration position.

Dr. Lincoln, who was Chief of the Section of Distribution and Migration of Birds from 1920 to 1960, issued periodic mimeographed newsletters (Bird Migration Memorandum) to keep the cooperative observers informed. He was a prolific author, writing many books, pamphlets, and popular articles on bird migration and conservation. He was the first to describe the waterfowl flyways. He even found time to coauthor the first major book on Birds of Alaska with Ira Gabrielson. With Myra Putnam's help he constructed large bird distribution maps (U.S., North America and South America) showing selected breeding, winter, and migration records for every species of North American bird. As each record was incorporated on the map, its card was stamped “mapped." These maps were filed for many years in a large, heavy, made-to-order vertical steel cabinet that the clerks named Matilda, and were referred to nearly every day by staff or visitors. For a while I spent my weekends copying the distribution maps onto tiny replicas for reproduction in the Golden Guide so the public could see for the first time the North American range of each species.

In all the years when the file was actively growing, a steady stream of visitors from all over the continent came to look up records for individual species or for all species for a certain state, province, or region. From the earliest days of the program the records were the chief source of information for the various editions of the A.O.U. Check-list of North American Birds. I know how crucial these files were in about 1915 and 1916 for defining which species were to be protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada, because I had to go through them equally critically when drafting the Soviet treaty in 1976. From 1918 to 1968 the cards were used successively by Wells Cooke, May Cooke, Fred Lincoln and me in assembling the spring and fall migration dates for Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds. Those visitors I especially remember, who would stay for a week or a month or a year at a time to use the cards, included Theed Pierce from British Columbia, Clyde Todd from the Pittsburgh Museum who was studying Labrador records from early explorers, Joe Hickey who was examining all North American records for the Peregrine Falcon, and Fish and Wildlife Service biologists including Harold Peters, Harry Oberholser, and Tom Burleigh. After Dr. Lincoln's death I continued his tradition of attending AOU meetings and other regional and state gatherings to talk about our migration and breeding bird programs and thank our cooperators for their participation. My friends in the Atlanta regional office could not understand why I did not check in with them every time I did field work in their region, but I preferred to schedule my itinerary to include visits with our long-term cooperators.

Nelson Lab, the only Patuxent building with a weathervane, is located at the top of the hill on the main campus with a commanding view of the Patuxent valley. This was the home of the Bird and Mammal Lab with the bird distribution and migration files and the banding offices on the main floor and Hartley Jackson and his mammal files together with banding records, tabulating machines, and topo maps in the basement. I had mounted an old navy radar outside my office window, hoping to study nocturnal migration, but it turned out not to be suitable for that purpose; I could not detect anything smaller than the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. In my seventy years at Patuxent nobody has ever asked me why Nelson Lab is missing a window on the main floor on the side facing the parking lot. Now I can tell. That marks the site of the former secret fur closet that was stuffed with valuable confiscated furs that were used by scientists to help identify contents of mammal and raptor stomachs in the food habits program. Seventy years ago when the Congress discontinued funding for the food habits work, the furs were removed. Then the secret closet was dismantled, and no trace remains today–except the missing window.

I should mention that a few other bird migration programs date back to the 1800s. For many years Earl Godfrey at the Canadian National Museum of Natural Science in Ottawa was in charge of the Canadian program and he maintained a complete set of species maps showing bird distribution throughout Canada. Frank Kirkwood in Baltimore County gathered thousands of migration and nesting records from bird and egg collecting friends, mostly in Baltimore and neighboring Maryland jurisdictions, copied them onto blank 2x5 slips and stored them by species in a big collection of cigar boxes. He was most active from the 1880s to World War 1, but had some records into the 1930s.

As one of the editors of Audubon Field Notes and American Birds, I had been increasingly aware of the duplication of their bird reporting program and ours. We had the advantage of continuity of fixed field effort and completeness of acquiring information from technical journals, but Audubon had the advantage of publishing up-to-date observations. The breaking point finally arrived when the Fish and Wildlife Service approved my plan for a North American Breeding Bird Survey. I could proceed with the continental survey as long as it did not cost the Fish and Wildlife Service any money! I had free mail service (at that time), free telephone service, a computer programmer by the name of John McDaniel, a complete set of topographic maps for all the United States, an experienced mappist, Ceil Nalley, for drawing the random routes, and a full-time secretary, Romell Decker, in addition to Lois Horn from the banding office. So the decision was to terminate adding records to the Cooperative Observer file at the close of 1970, to carefully safeguard all the old records until funding and volunteers could be found to digitize the file, and proceed with a new cooperative program, the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

When Gabrielson Lab was built to house the Migratory Bird Populations Station, the entire bird banding lab as well as its extensive files and all our migration files, bird books, and journals were moved down there. Then after a few years when the size of the lecture room was expanded, our bird library was merged with the main Patuxent library, and the long double line of migration files was moved to the unheated attic of Nelson Lab. That was fine until the building inspectors determined that we had way too much weight in the attic and declared that we much take everything out of the attic immediately. I had to send some old waterfowl winter inventory cards to Washington, discard my entire collection of daily weather maps and upper air charts, and find homes for numerous bird journals. Space for the migration cards and topo maps and some of the old banding records was rented in a cold, dark commercial site in Laurel. Each time the cards were moved from one building to another we had to tie then in small packages, several in each drawer, to prevent them from being shaken out of sort during the move. Finally, Sam Droege found space for the migration cards at his office in Beltsville, and you probably know the rest of the history better than I do.

Very fortunately, the government administrators over the years have all recognized the long-term value of the bird distribution and migration records and have appreciated the effort and expertise of the citizens that made the program possible. The completeness of the published records and the continuity of the data gathering are remarkable. The great majority of the records came from folks who recorded daily observations from the same site, year after year, so most birds were encountered the day they arrived instead of the next weekend. As changes in the planet's weather accelerate, as human populations continue to increase and the effects of man on the environment (e.g., introduction of cats, exotics, diseases, windows, tall buildings, transmission towers, wind turbines and obstructions not yet dreamed of) continue to increase, there will be greater and greater need for the information on bird populations that your efforts are providing. I add my personal thanks to each volunteer. I wish I could show each of you a live Bachman's Warbler, but that is no longer possible.

Chandler S. Robbins, March 2014

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