09 August 2009

Emmons' Appearance Calendar of Early-1830s a First for Bird Phenology

An article extended along a bit more than half-a-page in a journal of 1834 is presented some dates when the first dates for bluebirds in the spring. A doctor about Williamston, noted when there were the first robins. The notes are some of the first to present a comparative dates for spring arrivals of other birds in the neighborhood. of arrival for spring birds. Based on the particulars, it is a premier notable in the history of bird phenology.

Dr. Ebenezer Emmons listed his findings from Williamston, Massachusetts, according to their scientific name of the era - and most importantly, carefully noting arrival dates for 1831-1833 on his scene. The observations were made while he was not practicing medicine, or giving attention to the duties of married life, with Maria his spouse since 1818. The doctor was 32 in 1831.

On his list were the following 23 species, shown in the sequence as originally presented in the American Journal of Science and Arts:

[Emmons bird calendar article]
Eastern Bluebird; noted as the earliest arrival
American Robin; arrived just after the bluebird
Eastern Meadowlark
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Common Nighthawk
Eastern Phoebe
Red-winged Blackbird
Cedar Waxwing
Passenger Pigeon
American Woodcock
Northern Flicker
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Eastern Kingbird
Chimney Swift
Gray Catbird
American Goldfinch
Scarlet Tanager
Baltimore Oriole

This article was simply a basic list of occurence, but more importantly, a comparison of when the species arrived during the spring months for three different years. It had no particular significance in bird phenology at the time, but is now apparent as an article that well represents the presentation of phenology details for spring birds.

Time is of particular significance as it conveys a chronology of arrival or occurrence, and the doctor's article of less than 40 lines, is an original source for arrival dates that so obviously convey a phenology for the noted species.

The accomplished Dr. Emmons - elected Professor of Natural History at Williams College (his collegiate alma mater) in 1833 - when he also had published his manuscript of the birds known to have occurred in Massachusetts. It was the first, formal list of species for the state, correctly denoting 160 species as published in an official state government report.

The list was carefully written in a "small and cramped hand" in ink, according to the original manuscript used by Edward Hitchcock for publication purposes. It was subsequently sent to the celebrated John James Audubon, care of Dr. George Parkman, at Boston. The doctor was obviously meticulous in its preparation.

"Sir. - I have done the best I can with the Catalogue. It is much more satisfactory to myself in the 1st Sub-Class. In the 2d I have been obligated to obtain my information mostly in Museums, &c. But in general it is, I think, accurate. I might have added a few more species, but I choose rather to omit some than commit the opposite error. You see my form and arrangement, it is, of course, at your disposal to alter as you see fit to make it conform to your general plan. The systematic form I should certainly prefer to an alphabetic one. My observations you are at liberty to suppress. Errors you will, of course, be good enough to rectify &c. The English names I would print in italic."
[Dr. Ebenezer Emmons; from Pioneers of Science]

There are other significant notables in the academic career of Emmons.

In 1837, while undertaking geologic studies, he ascended Mount Marcy in a mountain range in New York, and thereafter applied the Adirondack Mountains moniker that is still being used for the region in New York. Mount Emmons was named in his recognition. He wrote several "classic texts," including:

  • Manual of Mineralogy and Geology;
  • Natural History of New York;
  • A Treatise Upon American Geology;
  • The Swampland of North Carolina; and
  • Manual of Geology.

In 1857, the scientist was the first to name a fossil bird, based on "fragmentary bones from North Carolina" and this was the first known notation in the field of study which did not really originate until 1870, with the descriptions of some species by Othniel Charles Marsh, according to a later article by Alexander Wetmore.

Dr. Emmons was born in May 1799 at Middlefield Massachusetts ... the son of a farmer also named Ebenezer, and his mother, Mary. As a youth, he apparently had an obvious interest in nature, with bugs and butterflies adorning his room, according to historic accounts. The doctor passed in 1683, after an obviously accomplished and memorable life-span.

Periodical Phenomena

Though bird chronology was an obvious aspect of noting birds and their occurrence during the Emmons' period and subsequent decades, it was not given any notably particular attention for nearly two decades after the list from Williamston was published.

In 1851, the Smithsonian Institution issued a circular as they were "desirous of obtaining information with regard to the periodical phenomena of Animal and Vegetable life in North America," according to a note in the "Miscellaneous Intelligence" section of the journal of The American Journal of Science and Arts, issued in November 1851. An extensive list of plants to be "particularly observed" was given, but only five species of birds were particularly noted as deserving attention for when they arrived, and "if possible, time of depositing eggs."

A revised list for 1855 - also conveyed by the Smithsonian in one of their annual reports - listed 16 species in a tabular format where the details could be readily used to fill in the blanks, asking for particular details on when the species arrived in the spring, the commencement of nesting and incubation, when young appeared and the departure of the species in autumn.

1851: First appearance of the following animals

1855: Birds

Pandion carolinus, Fish hawk
Hirundo purpurea, Martin
Turdus migratorius, Robin
Sialis Wilsonii, Blue bird
Agelaius phoeniceus, Red wing black bird, and any other species of birds
Acanthylis pelasgia - Chimney bird
Agelaius phoeniceus - Red-winged blackbird
Anser canadensis - Wild goose
Hirundo purpuera - Martin
Hirundo rufa - Barn swallow
Pandion carolinus - Fish-hawk
Quiscalus ferrugineus - Rusty blackbird
Quiscalus versicolor - Crow blackbird
Sialia wilsonii - Blue bird
Turdus migratorius - Robin
Tyrannula fusca - Pewee
Dolichonyx oryzivora - Reed-bird, rice-bird, bobolink
Mimus felivox - Cat-bird
Tyrannus intrepidus - Ring-bird
Trogolodytes aedon - House wren
Antrostomus vociferous - Whipporwill

These two articles are also part of the first history for the realm of bird phenology, with the scientists at the government museum originating a request for details on particular events. There have not been any printed accounts found which present results which may have been submitted as a result of these requests.

Further efforts to devise bird migration times has been previously indicated for the mid 1870s, in articles published in Forest and Stream.

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