Other People’s Bird Books: Jean Hermann and a Halloween Costume

The famous Strasbourg naturalist and collector Jean Hermann was also a dedicated bibliophile. His personal library — eventually the foundation of the library of the Strasbourg Museum of Natural History and now in large part held in the university library of the city — was notable for its completeness and for the care with which he annotated the books, many of them in great and obsessive detail.

Hermann’s copy of the Pomeranian ornithologist Jacob Theodor Klein’s Prodromus is disappointingly clean. A Latin note on the flyleaf, though, reveals his bibliographic sophistication:

the images are missing in the German edition of Reyger, though that is the more authoritative text of the two, so much so that it is worth acquiring both editions.

Among those engravings are some of the most uncanny images in the history of ornithological illustration. This one in particular, depicting the early steps in the dissection of a Bohemian waxwing, strikes me as the inspiration for a fine costume for Halloween.

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Malherbe’s Woodpeckers

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Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Alfred Malherbe, one of those great French amateurs to whom we owe so many collections — and so many pretty books.

Malherbe was born on Mauritius on Bastille Day 1804, but returned with his family to their native Metz, where he was appointed to the bench at the age of 28. His real passion, though, was natural history, and over the last two decades of his life he served as director of the Metz museum and president of the Société d’Histoire naturelle de la Moselle, the eventual heritor of his own extensive collections.

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Malherbe is most famous today — if he is famous at all — for his Monographie des picidées, published in four volumes between 1861 and 1863.

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More than 15 years in the making, the work was greatly lauded on its appearance. Félix Guérin-Méneville greeted the first livraison in the pages of the Revue et magasin de zoologie:

One can find nothing more beautiful than this work by M. Malherbe, and one can confidently state that in the perfection of its execution it exceeds anything that has been produced up to now in France or abroad.

The plates, prepared from paintings by Luc-Joseph Delahaye and others, Guérin-Méneville called “magnificent … of an accuracy and truthfulness in color and form such as one rarely finds in the most luxurious of works.” All of the considerable number of new species described by Malherbe are depicted the size of life.

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Charmingly, and invaluably, Malherbe begins his text volumes with two chapters treating of woodpeckers and people — a subject worthy of an entire book in itself. We learn about Picus and Canente, Picumnus and Pilumnus, and the powerful love philtre known as jynx. Malherbe collects stories of superstition from the Romans to his own nineteenth-century day, accounts of the medical and venatorial use of woodpeckers and their parts, and, naturally, tales of rustic feasts built around the flesh of picids,

which they even claim is delicious…. But having been so curious ourselves as to taste the flesh of French great spotted and green woodpeckers, we share the judgment of Audubon … who affirms that the flesh is detestable, that it tastes strongly of formic acid and is extraordinarily disagreeable….

They may not be tasty, but Malherbe takes a firm stance on woodpecker conservation.

If one considers the terrible ravages committed in orchards, forests, and farms by the innumerable myriads of insects in their terrible swarms, one can ask whether on balance the woodpeckers, far from being harmful, are not rather extremely useful to the owners of forest and field by devouring an immense quantity of larvae, caterpillars, and insects of all kinds every day, particularly when they are feeding young…. Count up the number of fruit trees, especially peaches, that perish from [insect damage], and you will become indulgent of these birds that are the principal destroyers of such insects.

Gone, happily, are the days when there were bounties on the heads of sapsuckers and other woodpeckers — in part, perhaps, thanks to the beautiful work prepared by Alfred Malherbe.

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Other People’s Bird Books: Going to Roost with the Birds

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When I was young, we said of someone retiring early that he was “going to sleep with the chickens.”

In 1784 — antedating even my long-ago childhood — the English botanist and physician James Edward Smith purchased the library and collections of Carl von Linné.

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Most of those materials became, of course, the intellectual foundation of the Linnean Society of London. The Archiater’s personal copy of the 1766 Twelfth Edition of the Systema naturae, though, made its way into the library of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, and thence, by one of those now everyday e-miracles that still leaves me shaking my head in grateful disbelief, to the internet.

 

Like so many copies of the Systema in all its editions, this one is well annotated. Most of the notes are, as expected, bibliographic. But there are a few more substantive manuscript additions; my favorite is this one:

In the Arctic regions, the birds retreat once every twenty-four hours to sleep. In this they serve as a clock for the local inhabitants, whose night thus begins and ends with the roosting of the birds.

Plus ça change….

 

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Looking for Chapman

Mark Twain saw a lot of the outdoors over a long life that took him from the Mississippi to California to Connecticut. As I think back on what I’ve read of Twain, though, nature — Nature — doesn’t play much of a role at all. Landscape, even so dominant a feature as Huckleberry Finn’s river, never seems to be more than narrative convenience or metaphoric convention.

I was surprised, then, to find a notable selection of natural history titles among the books Twain donated to the library in Redding, Connecticut, in the last years of his life.

It turns out that most had been gifts to his daughter Jean.

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On her early death in 1909, Jean Clemens’s father wrote that

She was a loyal friend to all animals, and she loved them all, birds, beasts, and everything — even snakes — an inheritance from me. She knew all the birds; she was high up in that lore.

And she learned her bird lore the way most people did in the first years of the twentieth century: from the works of Frank Michler Chapman.

Jean Clemens owned Chapman’s Warblers and his 1903 Handbook, two works that remained standards for birders (and ornithologists) for decades.

Chapman, Handbook

Today, however, on Chapman’s 150th birthday, even those of us who remember those books and his many others can forget how prominent this ornithologist, conservationist, and author was in his day. In the first decades of the twentieth century, natural history hobbyists referred to their “Chapman” with the same matter-of-factness with which we today cite our “Sibley” or our “Peterson,” and by 1900, as he would later write,

so many were the requests for lectures … that it was not possible to accept all of them.

Think about it this way: if Frank Chapman had lived into our celebrity-tainted age, it’s easy to predict which bird bloggers would be elbowing their shrill way to a “selfy” with him.

Chapman’s contributions to the culture and development of the American Museum, where he served — and eventually reigned, as “The Chief” — for a full 52 years, are well discussed by, among others, François Vuilleumier, who wrote on the sixtieth anniversary of Chapman’s death

Chapman was a truly remarkable individual, whose full mark on ornithology remains to be documented,

a rewarding task for a young historian with time on her hands.

Meanwhile, in this sesquicentennial year, I’m more interested for the moment by Chapman’s life on this side of the Hudson. Even most New Jersey birders seem to think of him as a New Yorker, but Chapman was born in West Englewood, just back from the Palisades, and he was buried in Englewood’s Brookside Cemetery on his death in November 1945.

Brookside Cemetery, Chapman plot

So what do Frank Chapman’s boyhood haunts look like now?

“I lived,” Chapman wrote in his Autobiography, “in the place of my birth until I reached middle age.”

Chapman, Autobiography, birthplace, Summer 1864

A fine house it was, too, built by Chapman’s wealthy parents a year before his birth. This house, and the one that replaced it after a fire in 1890, occupied an old fruit farm on Teaneck Road at West Englewood Avenue.

Englewood and Teaneck intersection

On forty suburban acres, the family kept horses, pigs, poultry, and cows (and though Chapman neglects to mention it, the staff to care for them). The house and barn and other outbuildings were “the scene of many boyish adventures” for the privileged only child.

ARgonne Park, Teaneck, NJ

If I read the maps correctly, part of the Chapman estate is now part of Argonne Park in Teaneck.

ARgonne Park, Teaneck, NJ

The Chapmans’ neighbor to the south was William Walter Phelps, owner of the largest estate in the area. Phelps served as a congressman and as envoy to Germany and to Austria-Hungary, but his great love was trees. Chapman writes

This estate was posted and became, in effect, a bird sanctuary years before this term was used. Whether as gunner or bird student, this was the hunting-ground of my boyhood.

Chapman, Autobiography, chestnuts in Phelps Woods

The Phelps mansion, too, burnt, in 1889, but was not rebuilt. The ruins were finally demolished in 1925, and Teaneck constructed a new municipal complex on the site of Chapman’s boyhood playground.

West of the Chapman farm,

there were extensive forests penetrated only by wood roads, and a brook where trout could be found. Beyond, on the slopes reaching up to the crest of the hills overlooking the valley of the Hackensack, were fields partly grown with red cedar, bayberry and sweet gum.

The forested lands around the train station, Chapman recalled, were

as good collecting ground as there was in the New York City region. The woods surrounding it stretched for miles north and south, forming a highway for the diurnal journeys of migrating birds.

When Chapman showed those woods to a respected older colleague one June evening, John Burroughs listened to the chorus of veerys and wood thrushes and turned to his companion to say simply,

No wonder you love birds!

Two slender slivers of wooded parkland now flank the railroad station where the Sage of Slabsides disembarked. Neither remnant is especially promising for the birder.

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Chapman himself saw the future.

Sadly I saw the forests fall and the fields erupt flimsy cottages… I had not the heart to witness the rapid dismemberment of haunts on which I had held a “rambler’s lease” so long that they seemed to be mine.

The ornithologist abandoned his boyhood home and moved a couple of miles east into the city of Englewood. There, too, though,

the changes came so rapidly that each week-end found some cherished shrine invaded or destroyed,

and the Chapmans “took refuge in New York City,” with periodic escapes to the Catskills or to Panama. Not until death overtook them — Fanny Embury Chapman first, in September 1944, followed by her husband in November 1945 — did the Chapmans return to Englewood for good.

Brookside Cemetery, Chapman plot

Mark Twain and Jean Clemens had been dead a full generation by then. Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide was almost a dozen years old.

But Frank Chapman even in death remained a powerful force in American conservation and birding. He deserves to be remembered, especially by those of us who live in the state where he first saw the light of day.

Brookside Cemetery, Chapman plot

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