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Patuxent Wildlife Research Center


Aldo Leopold

It is exciting to see the name of Aldo Leopold, one of this country’s foremost conservationists and most inspiring environmental writers, come up occasionally on observer cards being transcribed for the North American Bird Phenology Program. Leopold is probably one of the most famous names we will see among the over 3000 participants in NABPP, but it is not at all surprising to find him included. He and his family practiced the “sport and recreation” of phenology at their rural Wisconsin cabin, keeping records of the first spring flowers and of migrating birds, and Leopold’s writings encouraged scientists, farmers, and game managers to enhance their ecological perception through phenology, the study of nature’s timing.

Rand Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, on January 11, 1887, to a family of prosperous German immigrants and nature lovers. He learned fishing, hunting, and sportsmanship from his father. In 1903, the same year that President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir met in Yosemite, the Leopold family vacationed in Estes Park and Yellowstone National Park. Since his childhood, using his grandmother’s opera glasses for observations, Aldo had studied birds and on this trip west, he brought his ornithology journal along to record the 40 new bird species he saw. He enjoyed drawing birds, and soon acquired the habit of using a camera to record them and their habitats.

Leopold completed a master’s degree in forestry at Yale, passed his civil service exams, and in 1909 was assigned to the Apache National Forest in Arizona Territory. Forest Assistant Leopold and his team of “timber cruisers” had a rough but adventurous life of surveying and fire fighting. Later assignments in northern New Mexico and Arizona in national forest lands spanning 20 million acres gave Leopold ample opportunity to study overgrazing, poor logging practices, and soil erosion and to experience varied environments of mountain, desert, plateau, and river valley. It was during this period that he began writing, publishing, and lecturing. Leopold eventually authored over 500 publications and left a legacy of many unpublished journals, letters, and field notes.

In 1933 the University of Wisconsin hired Leopold to head a graduate program in game management. A year later, he was part of the group founding the Wilderness Society “to organize an aggressive society for the preservation of wilderness.” While raising his family in Madison, Leopold taught classes at the university and was one of the first to encourage female graduate students to get involved in ecology studies. He continued travels to Germany to study forests and south to the deserts of Chihuahua from which he gained a new understanding of “unspoiled wilderness and healthy biotas.” He delivered a series of university radio talks on topics like “Plant Evergreens for Bird Shelters” and worked on a manuscript of reflections he gathered from years spent near Baraboo, Wisconsin, where the family’s “shack” was their “week-end refuge from too much modernity.” This book, which he titled “Great Possessions,” was published shortly after his death as A Sand County Almanac.

By my count, Leopold included references to 65 different birds in his Sand County Almanac. The book, which has sold over one million copies, begins and ends with the chickadee and in between presents vivid observations on birds, animals, plants, people, and their shared environment gathered from a lifetime of noticing the little things. Who can forget the July chapter in which the author vividly identifies 16 different bird songs heard from 3:30 a.m. until sunrise? And one of Leopold’s most often-quoted lines appears in the introduction to this book where he wrote, “the opportunity to see geese is more than important than television.”

Aldo Leopold died at his Sand County property on April 21, 1948. We are fortunate that his archives, amounting to almost 28 linear feet, are now digitally preserved and available through the University of Wisconsin. Through them we can see his handwriting, read unpublished journals and correspondence, and look at portraits of him at various points in his life. It is particularly moving to see family snapshots of Leopold’s beloved wife and children, homes, dogs (Spud, Flip, Flick, Gus), pet crows, tree planting at the “shack,” and the many study projects with his students the “wildlifers.”


The Aldo Leopold Archives can be viewed and studied at:

Marybeth Lorbiecki. Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire, an illustrated biography. Helena, Montana: Falcon Publishing Company, 1996.

Julianne Lutz Newton. Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey: Rediscovering the author of A Sand County Almanac. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006.

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