By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
In our January 22nd post, Andrea Hall, Field Book Project conservator, discussed a recently accessioned collection from Division of Birds from collector D. B. Burrows. It has proven to be a small but fascinating collection due to the scant information on the collector, the condition of the papers, and type of collecting it documents. After some research in primary and secondary sources, with assistance from Archives reference staff and a close reading of the contents of the collection, I gained fascinating glimpses into the life of the creator and a new understanding of important changes in American management of wildlife during the twentieth century.
When the collection came from Division of Birds, it had very little description beyond a note indicating the name of the creator. After speaking with Natural History Museum staff, we learned that not much was known about the creator or how the collection came to the museum, except that Burrows gave several specimens to the U.S. National Museum in the 1890’s. As I began to create the catalog records, I hoped the collection itself would yield some answers.
Cataloging this collection felt like an unfolding mystery, in some respects. In order to write his biographical abstract, I watched for clues in Burrows’ writing style for important dates, locations, and types of information he recorded. His field notebooks were primarily in chronological order, so I began cataloging them first. I also looked online for any mention of him in publications. Online trails were few, partly due to the fact that we didn’t even know his first name. Luckily D. B. Burrows was mentioned in passing in a few ornithological publications. Unfortunately there were a lot of unrelated results because “burrows” is a common descriptor for bird behavior. In my favor, I found that Burrows had a very consistent style of field note recording that indicated to me he was either a professional or an educated amateur. His style was similar to that of career scientists I’ve cataloged.
Amazingly enough, near the end of one of his last field note books from 1911 – 1919, D. B. Burrows spelled out his first name. I was excited, until I turned the page and found even more explicit detail about the man. The following text as written:
Professor Daniel B. Burrows died in the St. Francis Hospital in Peoria Illinois August 13, 1940 and left only one sister (?) Nettie L. Curry as his sole heir in 1940. She gave his entire collection of birds, eggs, skins, and nests (?). His estate was settled in the county court of Marshall county, Illinois by myself as administrator. The obituary notice of his death was published in the Lacon Home Journal, later we written by myself in “The Oologist” vol. to which is pasted herein following. – R. M. Barnes
I had solid personal details I was able to verify with census information.
I started looking for the publication and found it was published from the 1880’s through the 1930’s, but nothing more. Information I found online appeared to indicate that oology fell out of favor in the early twentieth century, which seems to fit with the publication ending. I was perplexed until discovering a great post by Jennifer Harbster of the Library of Congress, “Oh Oology!” The post discusses the popularity of oology (study of bird eggs) which peaked around the Victorian era. It had less than desirable results for bird populations. The post states “All things considered, this pastime had scientific merit, although sadly, many also thought of it as a mere recreational activity or a lucrative business.”
Inevitably, the unregulated collecting, and hunting began to affect bird populations until laws of the early twentieth century began to address the situation. Several of our collections and collectors, including Alexander Wetmore, focused on the study of bird populations, habits, and so on, and eventually informed the passing of laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Museum staff like Charles Emil Bendire, a curator of the Department of Birds' Eggs at US National Museum and whose papers are at Library of Congress, were strong proponents of careful observation and note taking relating to any egg collection.
These details proved important when I looked up accession records for Burrows’ donations. With the assistance of SIA reference staff, I found that a certain “Bendire” was referenced in the paperwork. This name also came to light when I cataloged the correspondence after it had been conserved by our team member Andrea Hall.. While most of the letters referred to requests, exchanges, purchases, shipping, and cost of specimens, and many used numbers from the American Ornithologist’s Union to specify requests, Bendire’s letters were much more narrative and provided more personal detail. Bendire’s letters made pointed and consistent requests for any observations of bird behavior, vegetation, and environment in vicinity of the eggs and nests collected. One of the first letters found, dated April 29th, 1891, Bendire wrote Burrows asking detailed questions about any observations, ending the letter with a request:
“I have asked you questions enough for one time. It is not necessary that you should write your notes out carefully. Put down anything in pencil on a sheet of a notebook, with the name of the species on top and write on one side of the paper only, and I will put the matter together afterwards.”
Thorough this and other letters, I was able to discover some detail about Burrow’s life and professional associations. However, I still wondered-- what had become of his collection? One of the last folders of correspondence included two letters from 1940 that helped answer my question. R. M. Barnes wrote to U.S. Biological Survey, indicating that Burrows’ heir gave the collection to Barnes who planned to add a portion to his own, housed at the Field Museum in Chicago. He wished to verify that the specimens would not be affected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. R. M. Barnes’ collection is still with the Field Museum according to their website. I assume a portion of his specimens reside there too.
With this information I contacted the Field Museum in Chicago, and learned that R. M. Barnes was “Judge” R. Magoon Barnes, a fellow collector, from Lacon, Illinois, who donated his collection of 40,000 specimens (one of the largest of its kind at the time) to the Field Museum, later becoming Curator of Bird’s eggs. He also published “The Oologist.”
I wasn’t able to answer all of my questions, but tantalizing finds provide breadcrumbs for future researchers. We discovered important connections to other specimen collections, archival papers, and relationship to significant contemporaries. The Field Book Project often brings new collectors, collections, and other details of scientific history into the light where other interested researchers can discover and build on our findings. The D. B. Burrows collection is only the most recent of many that is has been our pleasure to uncover!
Special thanks to Christine Giannoni, Museum Librarian & Head of Library Collections
Gantz Family Collections Center, at the Field Museum for her assistance researching R. M. Barnes.