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Harry C. Oberholser

Born on June 25, 1870, in Brooklyn, New York, Harry Church Oberholser is regarded as one of the premier American authorities in the field of descriptive ornithology. He entered Columbia University in the late 1880s, but health concerns forced him to leave college at age 20 before finishing his degree. While working in his father’s dry goods store in Wooster, Ohio, he compiled information for his first ornithological paper, published in the Bulletin of the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station in 1896 as “A Preliminary List of the Birds of Wayne County, Ohio.” It is worth noting that this “preliminary list” summarizes observations of 183 species conducted over four years, revealing even at this early stage the encyclopedic, nearly exhaustive attention to detail that would characterize his life’s work.

In 1895, Oberholser was hired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Division of Economic Ornithology (later the United States Bureau of Biological Survey, and finally the United States Fish and Wildlife Service), where he remained employed for 46 years in the various positions of ornithologist, biologist and editor. While working for the Bureau, Oberholser also taught ornithology and zoology courses at several colleges, lectured on birds and conservation, and travelled throughout the United States and Canada for ornithological research. He enrolled at The George Washington University to finish his college education, receiving his B.A. and M.S. in 1914 and his Ph.D. in 1916.

A seemingly tireless worker, Oberholser embraced projects of great scope and ambition. In 1920, he organized the Federal bird banding program. Between 1917 and 1926, Oberholser’s field investigations specialized in migratory waterfowl. He assumed responsibility for directing the U.S. “waterfowl census” in 1928, which served as the basis for the federal management policy of these species. Continuing the program started by Wells W. Cooke, Oberholser also supervised the carding and mapping of North American bird distribution records, data which served as the basis for AOU Check-list bird ranges. Active in the professional community, Oberholser held memberships in 40 U.S. and international scientific and conservation organizations, from the regional District of Columbia and Cleveland Audubon Society chapters to associations in Europe, India and South Africa. These connections allowed him to amass an enormous private library of ornithological monographs, pamphlets and periodicals from across the globe. Much of Oberholser’s personal collection still resides at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the University Library special collections department.

Some of Oberholser’s nearly 900 scientific papers appeared in The Auk, The Condor, The Wilson Bulletin, American Midland Naturalist, Bird-Lore, The Raven, Science, and Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, among other technical and popular journals. Other works include Birds of Mt. Kilimanjaro (1905), Birds of the Anamba Islands (1917) and the state bird book The Bird Life of Louisiana (1938). His writings reflect a special interest in morphological differences among geographical populations and scientific nomenclature. Oberholser was an expert identifier of birds, examining thousands of collected specimens to determine their proper subspecies; bird phenology volunteer transcribers may have seen his initials “HCO” noted on museum specimen identification cards. His reputed prodigious memory for biological variation served him well in naming 11 new families and subfamilies, 99 genera and subgenera, and 560 species and subspecies of birds from many countries. Over the years he compiled and proposed numerous taxonomical changes to the AOU Check-list of

North American Birds. As colleague John W. Aldrich’s 1968 Auk tribute noted, Oberholser’s tendency to split taxonomical hairs (as well as his often unyielding and demanding personality) provoked controversy among his fellow ornithologists on occasion; however, his painstaking technical documentation was generally respected and continues to provide valuable insight into speciation processes.

Oberholser might be best known for his monumental book The Bird Life of Texas, which contains over 1100 pages, including many illustrations, photographs, and distribution maps. He began compiling notes in 1900 while on a field survey to western Texas, and he continued gathering descriptive and taxonomic material literally throughout the rest of his life. When he reached the maximum retirement age of 70 for federal employees, a Presidential order was granted to allow him to continue work on Texas bird taxonomy for one more year. Oberholser left behind 12,000 manuscript pages upon his death, which had to be significantly edited and condensed to a publishable length. The two-volume work was released posthumously in 1974 by the University of Texas Press.

On June 30, 1941, Oberholser finally retired from government service as a Senior Biologist. The same year, he moved to Ohio, only to become the curator of ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History until 1947. His “official” retirement years were devoted to the production of The Bird Life of Texas. Oberholser died in Cleveland at the age of 93 on December 25, 1963, survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Mary. His many technical contributions are fittingly commemorated in the scientific name assigned to the Dusky Flycatcher (Empidonax oberholseri), a bird that is notoriously tricky to differentiate from its closely related species.


Aldrich, John W. "In memoriam: Harry Church Oberholser.” Auk 85, no. 1 (1968): 25-29. (accessed September 20, 2010).

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. “,” (accessed September 14, 2010).

"Harry C. Oberholser, 93; Government Bird Expert." The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), December 27, 1963, (accessed September 21, 2010).

Vess, David. 2008. Guide to Special Collections. (accessed September 20, 2010).

Wikipedia contributors, "American Dusky Flycatcher," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed September 21, 2010).

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