15 July 2009

Researching Twelve Millennia of Historic Ornithology an Expansive Endeavour

More than a dozen years ago an interest in particulars for wild birds formerly known to occur hither and yon, spread from beyond what was given in a couple of books on the topic for a state in the middle of the Great Plains. The focus presented continued in an expansive manner, and it has taken a whole bunch of some more years to reach a point where results are beyond what any early expectations or realizations might have been.

When this particular endeavour - using the British spelling appropriate for a perspective requiring a continual look into international sources essential for original North American ornithology - into the first bird history of a continent evolved from a local to a national to a continental consideration in mid-1990s, there was no particular goal other than having a rough approximation of what might be learned with some particular attention to the recorded information. The focus did change on a regular basis, anyway. There were lapses in attention when the last thing to contend with would be to look at and process more historic references and comprehend what birds were recorded therein. But the condition of inattention disappeared, and during the last two years this initiative has been a primary endeavor with a direct, particular emphasis on discovering what could readily be found among the many special chronicles for birdly history.

There is a vast array which has been written, so there is a plethora of records from the original sources that have been discovered, read, reviewed, and then with particular emphasis on details, entered as electronic records, noting each of the associated minutia in a relational database with multiple tables needed to depict and record the distinct components for so many different species of birds. Particular attention has been given to what, when and where, with an essential, proper citation of reference.

[Hummingbird crop design, Stantonwansdike, UK]

This has not been an effort that could rely on what someone else may have interpreted and noted in a summary fashion. A condensed version was not enough. Consider the endless and ongoing history of ornithology and how it might be understood. Some details have been considered to the nth degree, while other more essential aspects may have been ignored.

There is not an authoritative and detailed list which cites the particulars of observations for the early and formative period of the continent's bird history. Each and every specific record had to be determined in an original manner.

The importance of the first English explorers on their ships is a part of the legacy. There isn't a viable list of species for the birds seen at the Jamaica Islands by Hans Sloane in the latter 1680s to review.

Once the perspective was: Why consider the Lewis and Clark material as the task would be a complete drudge of work and how many hours would be needed to determine the particular place and time of the bird notes for this expansive exploration across the Louisiana Purchase of the western U.S. in the early 1800s? The view evolved to something that led to so much time with a big stack of books and map volumes to process the authoritative information. Then it was double-checked and confirmed! Whew, the chore took more than 100 hours, but the result was another expansion of the temporal period being considered for this research into history ornithology for a particular area, which at least did not spread beyond the chosen continent.

A bunch of burgeoning material beyond the first years of 1800, meant more and seemingly more sources to consider - with a forlorn dismay that each one meant more time to consider - since each one required its particular review and understanding of what, where and when. Every source is distinct and uniquely important, though the value varied depending upon what the source did present about birds.

Notations by Prince Maximilian were not adequately conveyed by historians generations ago so each and every detail could be presented in a manner of finality. This bunch of bird records will require more time as the authoritative renditions have not all been published.

Audubon was among the preeminent recorders of ornithological history, and his records have been published here and there, with no known source to document what and where and when.

And there are so many more people to appreciate for their taking the time to write about the birds they saw somewhere.

The time frame for this endeavour burst into the early decades of the century, and continued to reach the 1850 period. Then there was the special consideration of the wonderful Arctic expeditions of the latter 1850s. Then more revealed by searches of what might be found on the web of information available online. The 1860s are important. The 1870s have details which expand any knowledge of what bird species occur on the continent. And the details continue with the profound and expansive reports and studies and individual efforts for the first years of 1880s.

While the ornithological record blossoms in so many ways, any attempt to go beyond the current time period, could be considered a means of mental torture. Bird journals were flourishing. Reports of observations were spreading with a broad and expansive coverage from an unknown number of places across the continent. So many people wrote about the birds with an unlimited vitality in a wide array of publications. Each one has its value and essential place that points to another distinctive presentation of someone's view which is now part of the historic ornithology.

Any task to integrate the sprawl of details could be an endless task, so those details are no aspect for this consideration of bird history for my endeavor.

This particular initiative has still reached a condition beyond any expectations. More than 1000 narrative sources - using a definition of particularly notable sources - have been evaluated for the information presented about the birds during a particular historic time. When this number reached 500 it was amazing and unexpected. When the data-table entries continued to increase, there was a profound realization that this was a distinct and unique focus that was meant to continue the positive results!

After some approximate multitude in hours of work, the information from so many sources has entered and edited, processed and integrated, into the consistent format of a relational database with its constricts that necessitate consistency.

Any artificial barrier to progress has disappeared and was inconsequential. There have been constricts, but eventually this effort continue to move ahead with an effort to adequately determine more ornithological history. Findings available in newly discovered resources with new records of occurrence just could not be ignored.

This is a vitally interesting endeavour into learning more about a grand diversity of memories of birds from a spectrum of places across the continent and its offshore regions. Any map can reveal the vast scene and places where the birds were known in different ways distinct to the proclivities of an observer.

The details are endless and in no manner can be presented in a bunch of brief words. Yet, there are obvious results that might be appreciated in a personal manner, and might mean something to others if they only knew the importance of history for the many distinct birds recognized as occurring in northern America.

The number of narrative sources considered as of the current mid-July 2009 is at 1005 for now, plus details from a few hundred other anthro-sources with faunal studies presenting species based on bone relicts or artifacts.

How many species are known from this array of details beyond being considered as bird history trivia. The number of species is based on a database where each species must be specifically identified, and which for the region being considered - now in mid-July - is 1645 species. Then add in other types of birdly items - artifacts, decoys, bird-motif garments, petroglyphs, etc. - mentioned by a vast community of contributors that took the time to write about birds where they were.

There certainly will be additional species recognized once a bunch of archaic scientific names can get resolved to a equivalent in modern taxonomy. Most challenging are the species from middle American and the islands in the north and east Caribbean Sea.

The number of particular locations which have had to be considered on an individual basis is now beyond 7500, and since this is one the most important details, it has been resolved to a particular county, state or province. This information is one of most vital important, and gives key details to know about the distribution of the species indicated in details of various sorts within any historic references. For real value, each of the sites does need to be geo-coded so it may be integrated with modern details of bird distribution and range.

The reference list totals more than 2274 at this time. Each citation conveys distinct records, of which there are now more than 88,500 in the database, and which can be individually considered and analyzed and presented in a variety of ways based on the information which was determined from the source matter.

Details reveal what birds were extant in America northward from Panama from the early 1880s back to circa 10,000 B.C., or basically ... this bunch of details is 12,000 years of historic ornithology. It certainly conveys so much to appreciate, yet the basic details would reveal so much more with continued emphasis on meta-data and geo-coding and analysis and hopefully a burgeoning understanding. The value is in the details, though the distinctive, artistic aspects provide so many unforgettable perspectives that should never be ignored.

Several lists or data extracts could easily be shown for the records - perhaps a list to show the number of records for each known species; or the number of records for a state or province; maybe the known records which indicate the former distribution for an extinct species such as the Carolina Parakeet or Passenger Pigeon - but these might be boring and changes do occur so quickly that any summaries would be out-of-date and not accurate. This information is dynamic and should be presented in a similar fashion.

Obviously the details of this endeavour present a record based on known observations by so many observers, and it has been an interesting and revealing privilege to be able to know and understand each effort and to present them in a modern manner. Each individual deserves recognition, and that would be one value of a list of sources. But not here and now.

The list of known sources includes more than 100 additional references which have been identified, but where each distinctive record has not yet been considered and analyzed for inclusion into an electronic database, which is essential for integrating each of the contributions which, when combined, are essential for any consideration or understanding of where birds historically occurred in North America.

With some further research, there will be more particulars to be added to the list of species known to historic ornithology for this region. There will be more localities with geographic records of importance from the past but integral to the future of birds.

This untimely project has been a costly endeavour in accurately determining what bird enthusiasts noted during historic times. Yet? Results are the key, and the challenge is to understand and compile a plethora of details on the history of North American ornithology ... something which, previously, has only been partially considered based on current findings!

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