22 December 2009

Observant Doctor Originates Phenology in Michigan

When Harmon A. Atkins, M.D., moved to a territory in Michigan in 1842, he decided to stay, with his tenure spanning more than four decades during which a profound interest in birds brought about a pioneer effort for historic ornithology. The doctor documented the arrival of different species, their status, and other aspects of their local natural history which he shared in a variety of ways.

Dr. Atkins arrived in 1842, having left Elba, N.Y., with nothing to indicate why he selected this particular place. At his new home, he was the first medical practitioner in the township, according to chronicles of the county history book. Though he left for a short time, he returned - owning property - and took up residence in Belle Oak, a small hamlet also shown on a map of Ingham county in 1873 as the Locke post-office.

The township was mostly covered with forest, and had sufficient growth of beech, ash, maple, basswood, hickory and black-walnut to provide the harvest of timber in abundance, according to a history of the county. The area includes Sullivan Creek and Squaw Creek.

Area maps of Locke township, Michigan.

The territory was his home, his "roving office" and the outdoor setting where he denoted a variety of birds he observed and appreciated enough to remember.

Dr. H.A. Atkins was "an old style doctor, went horseback, had his saddle bags, and believed in bleeding, and blistering. From necessity he was forced to use barks and herbs. His great knowledge of medical botany enable him to gather from woods and fields. He made a decoction of white popple bark to take the place of quinine in chills and fevers. Many of his old patrons told ... how he cured them of the 'shakes' by using this decoction. Dr. Atkins was a naturalist and his hobby was ornithology. He was a second John Burroughs in keenness of observation. He always noticed the flight of our migratory birds and would often stop when going to visit the sick to study the habits and appearances of any strange bird. His articles on birds often appeared in the local newspapers, and his 'Book on Birds' appeared and was published with Dr. Cook's work issued by M.A.C. Dr. Atkin's studies took a practical trend as he showed the farmers that the birds were great insect destroyers and should be protected instead of destroyed." — Pioneer History of Ingham County

In looking for details on this pioneer of historic ornithology, there was no information found on the manner in which the doctor kept his observations. Undoubtedly his notebook was a treasure, providing the source for presenting his observations 25 years after they were first noted during his travels about the local country.

Bird Calendar

The doctor certainly had a roving eye for three months each spring of the year, looking for his first sighting of a particular species. Some of the essential details were issued in summary tables - typically only nine or ten lines - of an article of a very few paragraphs in the Ornithologist and Oologist, a fledgling journal of the early 1880s.

The Baltimore Oriole and Scarlet Tanager were the first two species with the details issued; and both had been first noted in the summer of 1842. Then, the small green-crested flycatcher (Empidonax acadicus) first seen in 1857, followed by the Whip-poor-will (first seen in 1842), American Redstart, and Sandhill Crane. A couple of brief articles on other species were issued during the interim, including one noting how the Black-billed Cuckoo had a nest in which a Yellow-billed Cuckoo also laid eggs, and possibly incubated the entire clutch!

The following table starts with Julian Date 50 which corresponds to February 19, 1857; day 60 equals March 1; day 90 is March 30 or March 31, depending on the year; day 120 is April 29 or 30; day 130 is May 9 or 10; and day 156 is June 5, 1865. A Julian date is determined by converting a calendar day to a particular number, and is very useful in sorting dates of occurrence.

Julian
Date

Acadian
Flycatcher

American
Redstart

Baltimore
Oriole

Sandhill
Crane

Scarlet
Tanager

Whip-poor-will

50

-

-

-

1857

-

-

60

-

-

-

1882

-

-

68

-

-

-

1860, 1871

-

-

72

-

-

-

1883

-

-

73

-

-

-

1868

-

-

74

-

-

-

1878

-

-

75

-

-

-

1859

-

-

78

-

-

-

1858, 1873

-

-

79

-

-

-

1865, 1874

-

-

84

-

-

-

1867

-

-

86

-

-

-

1862

-

-

87

-

-

-

1869

-

-

88

-

-

-

1872, 1881

-

-

89

-

-

-

1877

-

-

90

-

-

-

1863, '70, '81

-

-

92

-

-

-

1861

-

-

93

-

-

-

1866

-

-

99

-

-

-

1876, 1879

-

-

103

-

-

-

1864

-

-

104

-

-

-

-

-

1858, 1878

112

1860

-

-

-

-

1866, 1881

113

1861

-

-

-

-

1861, ' 63, '77

114

1881

-

-

-

-

1862

115

1870, 1878

-

-

-

-

1869, 1872

116

1862, ' 65, '72

-

-

-

-

-

117

1880

-

-

-

-

-

118

1866

-

1859

-

-

1856, 1880

119

1858, 1871

-

-

-

-

1860

120

1863, '67, 68, '79

1878

-

-

-

1857, ' 71, '79

121

-

-

1860, '61, '71, '78

-

1878

1865, '67, '70

122

1859, 1869

1863, 1872

-

-

-

1859

123

1857

1866, '69, '82

1856

-

1872

-

124

1873

1879, 1881

1869, 1880

-

1861, '63, '80

1868

125

1874

1873, 1880

1858, '67, '77, '79

-

1856, '60, '70

1873, 1876

126

1864

-

1868

-

1859, '71, '73

1864

127

-

1870, 1874

-

-

-

-

128

1876

1860, '61, 67

1865, '66, '72, '73

-

1858, 1874

1875

129

1875

1875

1864, 1874

-

-

1874

130

1877

1861, '71, '76, '77

1862, '63, '75, '76

-

1866, '75, '79

-

131

-

1859

1857

-

-

-

132

-

1857, 1858

-

-

1862, 1877

-

133

-

1868

-

-

1876

-

134

-

-

-

-

1869

-

135

-

-

-

-

1864

-

136

-

-

-

-

1868

-

137

-

-

-

-

1867

-

138

-

1865

-

-

1857

-

156

-

-

-

-

1865

-

157

-

1864

-

-

-

-

The dates noted by the doctor readily indicate the times when appropriate for the particular species to arrive in Michigan. When the particular date (i.e., the julian date has several instances), this is an indication of the period when the species was most noted more often in this region of Michigan by Dr. H.A. Atkins.

There were undoubtedly a variety of factors influencing when the Doctor first noted a species, including their prominence in the landscape, ease of being noted, and those personal concerns - especially from patients - which could influence the ability of Atkins to look for birds and to take the time to make a notation in the medium which he used to record observations ...

Acadian Flycatcher
First noted on April 21 with the range of arrival dates extending to May 10, a period of 28 days.
American Redstart
Arrival dates from April 30 to June 5, with most of the arrival dates occurring through mid-May, a period of 18 days. Perhaps the June date was the result of a doctor caring for his patients?
Baltimore Oriole
From April 28 to May 11, a period of 13 days. Nothing is prominent here to indicate the variance in dates of arrival. This species appears to have the most constricted range of dates.
Sandhill Crane
Dates from February 19 to April 12, a period of ca. 53 days. There were obviously a variety of factors influencing when the cranes arrived, which would be based on weather conditions and other items apparent to the birds, and which would may not be obvious to some watcher.
Scarlet Tanager
Arrival dates from May 1 to June 5, with all but one between May 1 and May 18 (a period of 17 days), so the latter date was probably the result of some unknown influence.
Whip-poor-will
Arrived between April 14 and May 9, a period of 25 days.

These details convey an effort of observation based upon closely looking for different species - all of them were not so readily seen as the Sandhill Crane - and to note the time. The focus was not for one year, but continued for one year, then the next and onward for more than 25 years.

Watching the birds — though the statement may seem trivial based upon the historic record of accomplishment — obviously meant so much to the Doctor, that he continually kept his eye on the bird scene, made his vital notes, and eventually presented them to other enthusiasts when there was a means of publication.

Ornithological Legacy

Dr. Atkins continued to publish his bird observations. Two important papers gave details on the winter and summer birds (82 species during June to August 1884) of the township. Other items issued about his observations are given in the bird books for the state, though summarized.

Sadly, the birdly efforts of Dr. H.A. Atkins were cut short by his death on May 19th, when he was 64, having been born in 1821 in Erie County, New York. The doctor's obituary was published in latter 1885 in the Ornithologist and Oologist. Another much shorter version was issued in the Auk, a fledgling journal of the era.

"For twenty-nine years, he carefully recorded day by day the arrivals, presence and abundance of a large series of birds, and his accuracy and painstaking effort have rarely, if ever, been equaled. His notes, a few of which were inserted from time to time in our pages, were always the results of his own observations. We valued them especially for the care, so plainly shown, with which each state fact was personally endorsed." — Ornithologist and Oologist

The editor mentioned that Dr. Atkins had planned on publishing a book of observations, but was unable to achieve this.

Obviously a detailed presentation of the observations of Harmon A. Atkins, M.D. would still be a valuable contribution to historic ornithology, more than 125 years later, as they would indicate the conditions for the migratory birds at a particular place in time. The details on spring arrival dates would make an especially interesting comparison if available for species other than those given here, and if climatological data could also be evaluated to evaluate any apparent differences.

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