Currently viewing the tag: "Ornithology Archives"

Awareness of the CLIR Hidden Collections project has spread throughout the Science Departments. Earlier this year, we received a transfer of film reels from Ornithology that they could no longer access, but were eager to see. The Library applied for and has received a grant of $16,380 from the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) to preserve the Great Gull Island Film Collection.

The three films in this series offer a glimpse into the life work of AMNH Ornithologist, Helen Hays. Great Gull Island and Tern Watch beautifully showcase the Great Gull Island ornithological research station, located east of the North Fork of Long Island, where Helen and her team have conducted research on nesting Common Terns and endangered Roseate Terns for over forty years. Ducks, filmed by Helen as a student in the early 1960s, provides an important historic record of the behavior and mating habits of Ruddy Ducks in the West Pond at the nearby Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Singer, Arthur, “Terns, Gull Island,” AMNH Digital Special Collections, accessed August 20, 2014,

Singer, Arthur, “Terns, Gull Island,” AMNH Digital Special Collections, Item#: 335342.


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1890s Bushnell’s copy book ad. A book of thin onion-skin-like linen paper which you would moisten and apply to a freshly written letter or document. The wet paper would absorb the ink of the original and make a perfect copy of same.

Because of the nature of the thin onion-skin-like linen paper and the age of this type of material, most of the edges are brittle and must be handled with extreme care. In addition, some of the images taken off of typewritten pages have faded. Copies made from impressions on pages written in fountain pen ink have held up better over the years.

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It is one of the most fascinating aspects of working in archives. Sometimes at first glance, the messy file drawer may not look to be that organized but in essence it may be more so than a file drawer that appears to be more organized- what do we mean?

A golden rule for archivists is to follow the principle of provenance or the respect des fonds. This means to maintain the original order in which the records were created and kept. By keeping the files in their original order in which they were created can be more useful in telling something about the creator of the work.

It is a loss for us who would like to know more about what the creator of the work was really thinking when he/she put those notes in with those photographs. To the outside observer, they may not seem at all related, but they are and if someone who separates out these items and the original order is disrupted, some of the story is lost.

Some archivists are now working with the creator of the work while they are still around to ask questions so not to lose out on some small details. Having access to this information cannot be undervalued.

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E.Thomas (Ernest Thomas) Gilliard (1912-1965), an American ornithologist and AMNH museum curator, led or participated in many ornithological expeditions especially in South America and New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea, officially the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, is a country located on the island of New Guinea. It is the second largest island after Greenland.

His first expedition to New Guinea occurred in 1948 when he was an assistant curator in the AMNH Ornithology department. He then went on to make six more trips within the next sixteen years. The results of his observations were published in two volumes; Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds and Handbook of New Guinea Birds, co-authored by Austin Rand, both of which can be found in the AMNH Library’s catalog.

Also in the AMNH library’s catalog, are the published results of one of his expeditions to New Guinea:
1958-1959 Gilliard New Britain Expedition

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Have you Flown a Ford Lately?

The beautiful bird illustrations by Fuertes were used by Ford Motor Company as inspiration for a new line of Lincoln Continentals, modeled on particular birds. Correspondence files with Ford contained comments like: “The Brazilian Oriole (icterus jamacali) is one of the most beautiful of the American Orioles, or hang-nests…. This contrast of orange and black has been unusually well interpreted by Judkins in his Two-Passenger Semi-Collapsible Coupe…an intimate personal car. Illustrations of the bird and the car were featured together in Ford’s marketing material for this new car.

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Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927), world renowned bird artist, was invited by his friend and fellow conservationist, Charles T. Church, an officer of Church & Dwight Co. Inc., to create colorful Bird Cards for their Arm & Hammer brand. These 1.5 x 3 inch cards are the precursors of baseball cards first packed in boxes of baking soda in the 1880s.

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Today in Ornithology we were lucky enough to take a look at some original engraved copper plates and prints of John James Audubon, the 19th-century naturalist and painter who became famous for his depictions of North American birds. Curiously, also found amid the Audubon treasures was a restoration of an Archaeopteryx panel that is believed to have been done by Alexander Seidel, another well-known American painter of birds.

Archaeopteryx was a primitive ancestor of modern-day birds, sometimes referred to by scientists as the very first bird to ever exist, though its place in the evolution of birds has become the focus of some recent debate in the scientific community. In 2009, AMNH’s own Mark Norrell published a paper on the subject, and as recently as July 2011 Nature News featured an article suggesting a new candidate as nature’s first “true” bird. Whatever the ultimate verdict, we certainly enjoyed spending some time admiring the beautiful restoration of the early bird ancestor (and learning how to pronounce its name).

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We continued cataloguing department files, meticulous bibliographic records for citations in published manuscripts, back in the day before “EndNote” and “WordRef.”

We then moved on to the metal cabinets containing the Department of Ornithology’s rare book collection. The books are beautifully cared for, organized alphabetically by author and appropriately housed in archival boxes, where necessary. The hand-colored plates and watercolors are the hidden gems in this archive. We were particularly impressed by the works of Japanese artists K. Koizumi and S. Tsuchioka who published paintings of 1,000 birds or flowers of Japan in 1928. Each page had an overleaf of rice paper with Japanese text explaining the bird specimen, and under the rice paper was a thick page with a gorgeous watercolor. The owls we selected to display here correspond to the (muffled) hoots by archivists when they discovered this collection.

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Today in the Ornithology Department, we came across an artist file containing photographs of some eye-catching illustrations of birds. Through accompanying documentation, we learned that the original drawings were the work of bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

Fuertes (1874-1927) is considered one of the foremost American painters of birds. He graduated from Cornell University in 1897 and was associated with the institution throughout his life. He was among the most widely traveled of bird artists and accompanied many museum expeditions.

The majority of Fuertes’s field studies and paintings of birds are now in the possession of the American Museum of Natural History. The works, made from captured specimens, were invaluable to the study of ornithology because they not only recorded a bird’s appearance in life, but also recorded the color changes that occurred in the bird shortly after death.

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On our first day, we were able to work through ten collections because this is a well-organized archive. The correspondence files we viewed today ranged in date from the mid-1800s to 2002. Mixed among folders of correspondence were photographs, hand drawn maps and bird sketches, field notes, expedition notebooks, and manuscripts. Several file drawers were filled with correspondence and field notes by Lester Short, who wrote the best book on birds Alison ever read, Woodpeckers of the World (1982). The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was thought to be extinct, but Lester Short tracked it down in Cuba. See photo of Lester Short’s iconographic poses of woodpeckers.

Continuing on, we found a card file catalog containing descriptive information on artwork of species of birds, throughout the museum. The card catalog also contained photographs of birds in the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Collection.

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