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Patuxent Wildlife Research Center


Alfred O. Gross

Alfred O. Gross was born April 8, 1883 on a farm at Atwood, IL, the son of German immigrants.  As a teenager, he showed an early interest in natural history, collecting and mounting specimens of birds and mammals, insects, snakes, frogs, etc., found around his home.  Hating farmwork, he took and passed an examination given by the University of Illinois Academy, and matriculated to Urbana, where he spent most of his time in the Natural History Museum and the Taxidermist's quarters.  Alfred's skill at taxidermy brought him to the attention of Dr. Frank Smith, Professor of Zoology, who allowed him to attend zoology lectures (avoiding tuition fees) and invited him each weekend to study the birds at Crystal Lake Park in Urbana.

While a junior at the University, Gross was selected by Prof. Stephen A. Forbes, Director of the Illinois Natural History Laboratory, to conduct the first ever "Illinois Statistical Ornithological Survey".   Beginning in 1906, and continuing through 1907, Gross and his assistant, Howard Ray, walked more than 3000 miles, usually in straight lines through all sorts of habitat, making the census.  According to the Illinois Natural History Survey website, "this was the first extensive statistical analysis of bird populations in this country".  The census has been repeated twice: on the 50th and 100th anniversaries of Gross's census.

Gross completed his Ph. D. at Harvard, and accepted a position as Professor of Zoology at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME, where he spent the rest of his life.  His lifelong research was field ornithology, compiling detailed life histories of many species both in North America and the Neotropics.  He wrote over 20 species accounts for Bent's "Life Histories of North American Birds", but today he is best known for his work on the Heath Hen, documenting its decline and extinction on the island of Martha's Vineyard (cf. Cokinos, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers").   Alfred Gross died May 9, 1970, in Greenwich, CT.

Gross's contribution to the North American Bird Phenology Project appears to be confined to his years at Urbana, birding with Dr. Smith.  As my grandfather, he nurtured my early interest in birds.  I vividly remember him stamping his foot with excitement at seeing a singing Common Yellowthroat chased by a Sharp-shinned Hawk on one of our bird walks together.   I have a dimmer recollection of finding a pile of blank NA Phenology cards in his office one day, sometime in the early 1960s.  When I asked about them, he replied rather disgustedly, "oh, that's a project where they ask people to send in lots of data, but they have no way of analyzing it!"  I have enjoyed finding the occasional card from "Smith & Gross" while transcribing, even if it proves him wrong!

Contributed by:

Winthrop Alfred Gross

Portland, OR

For more information on Alfred O. Gross please visit: Bowdoin College


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