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Patuxent Wildlife Research Center


Theodore Sherman Palmer

Theodore Sherman Palmer was born at Oakland, California to Henry Austin and Jane Oliver Day Palmer on January 26, 1868. In 1886 they moved to Pomona, California, where Henry started a bank. He wished his firstborn, Theodore, would follow in his footsteps with a business career. Though Theodore did make an effort to please his father, working on vacations and after graduation, his other interests soon took hold.

In 1888, Palmer entered the University of California, from which he graduated in 1889. While in college, Palmer became interested in the altitudinal distribution of the flora and fauna of California mountains. At the time, this was exactly the same field of interest being investigated by C. Hart Merriam, Chief of the Division of Ornithology and Mammology of the United States Department of Agriculture. Not surprisingly, the two came together and Palmer, a recent baccalaureate, was appointed Field Agent of that organization in 1889.

Dr. Merriam had planned an expedition to study the biology of Death Valley and adjacent territory in southern California. Though he took part in its early phases, Merriam had to leave in request of President Benjamin Harrison to act on the Bering Sea Commission to study fur seals and decide management strategies for the species. Instead, Palmer, one of the youngest members of the group, was made leader of the expedition. Though the reporting from that expedition was disconnected and never completed, the reports resulting from it went to creating an exhibit at The World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In Palmer's early years in Washington, he took the opportunity to futher his education, receiving a M.D. from Georgetown University, though he never practiced medicine and appeared to have no intention of doing so.

Palmer worked on a variety of scientific projects, describing with E.W. Nelson, five new birds from Mexico in 1894 and contributing some short notes on bird nomenclature and distribution to 'The Auk.' Palmer also compiled the bulkiest of the survey's publications 'The North American Faunas,' no. 23, of almost one thousand pages. This was the "Index Generum Mammalium," which appeared in 1904. But, his interests led him away from the established lines of the Survey's program and into the field of legislation affecting wildlife.

It was his unique ability for compiling and summarizing information that allowed him to prepare an unprecedented number of publications, such as: "Extermination of noxious animals by bounties" (1897); "The danger of introducing noxious animals and birds" (1899); "Hunting licenses: Their history, object, and limitations" (1904); "Private game preserves and their future in the United States" (1910); "Chronology and index of the more important events in American game protection, 1776-1911" (1912), "Bird day in schools" (1896); "Legislation for the protection of birds other than game birds" (1900); "Laws regulating the transportation and sale of game" (1900); "A review of economic ornithology in the United States" (1900); "Some benefits the farmer may derive from game protection" (1905); and "Game as a national resource" (1922).

Several of these publications were trailblazers including the 1889 paper on introductions which lead to the Lacey Act of 1900. The Lacey Act regulated the importation of noxious animals and prohibited the transportation in interstate commerce of game killed in violation of local laws. "Bird day in schools" was a precursor to the Audubon Society activities. The campaign to protect non-game birds required significant travel, first by Dutcher and Palmer and later by Palmer and Pearson. But through this work, not only was the protection of songbirds and the organization of local Audubon societies advanced, but efforts were made to enforce protective laws, establishing state warden systems and game commissions, and conservation departments.

Although working to create nationwide legislation, Palmer did not forget his hometown of Washington, D.C., where he founded the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia in 1897 and served as president from 1924 to 1941. The Association offered bird classes for teachers in D.C. schools and organized spring bird trips for anyone interested. Palmer directed the indoor programs and W.W. Cooke directed the outdoor programs.

Among Palmer's extensive array of contributions to ornithology and conservation, he also wrote the preliminary draft of the treaty for protection of birds migrating between Canada and the United States (1916); and was Chairman of the Committee [other members: A.K. Fisher; W.W. Cooke] which prepared the first regulations under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918).

Lastly, of significant importance to Palmers contributions, was his work with Frank M. Chapman and William Dutcher to establish the first of Federal sanctuaries-- Pelican Island, Florida. The sanctuary was established to protect colonies of gulls and terns from being slaughtered by fisherman. By Executive Order (March 14, 1903), President Theodore Roosevelt, set apart the island "for the use of the Department of Agriculture as a preserve and breeding-grounds for native birds." This act later lead to fifteen additional reservations for the protection of birds under Executive Order and the beginning of the Federal Wildlife Refuge Program.

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