A new pinnacle of achievement has been reached in the compilation of bird records prior to the 1880s for Northern American. With the entry of more than 1000 records created by Edgar A. Mearns - of New York from 1871-1882 - this unique database now has more than 100000 distinctive instances of occurrence.
This extent is far beyond any previous expectations for what might result when this effort was initiated more than ten years ago. With an intense focus for the past two years, the information considered has dramatically increased, but has meant personal financial armageddon.
All of the information for the sightings of birds in American northward from Panama, and for the period from the early 1880s, back to ca. B.C. 10000 has been integrated into a relational database with six key tables, that now have the following statistics:
- Items in Bibliography: 2421, which includes about 80 items which it has not been possible to locate in the local university library or online
- Total number of occurrence records: 100168
- Unique entries in the bird species table: 1904, which includes recognized species, generic terms used to refer to birds (i.e., duck, goose, jay, warbler, etc. in order to deal with the myriad of ways in which people historically referred to a bird occurrence); as well as terms which refer to bird-related material, including bird bone artifact, bird effigy, bird-motif garments, petroglyphs or pictographs, skins, decoys, and feather fans. Additional species would be expected, but this will depend on the results of trying to conform the archaic names to a modern equivalent, which is basically one of the two most difficult tasks of this endeavor. it needs to be pointed out that the list includes extinct species, something which is sadly missing in modern taxonomic lists. Why should a species be ignored, and stricken from consideration once it is extinct. This situation also indicates that there is no modern list of species which is completely inclusive.
- A listing of 1403 historic narratives, which is used to determine which sources are known, and which also designates which have information about birds, and the status of its evaluation; there are 1087 which have been reviewed, with others awaiting their consideration. About 1178 are known to have information pertinent to this effort. Additional articles would be included, yet if they were brief, they were not included in this table, but simply entered into the record base, with all the essentials included.
- A table of 2117 records with the distinctly compelling tribal terms which refer to birds.
- Information on 8263 distinct localities; this table includes a distinct name for a particular place at a specific time, so there is some duplication of names. Metadata included for each site includes it situation relative to a current locality, the county (if known), state, and a designated chronology based on the period for the related records. Items are also designated as being either a narrative source, or from an excavation or archeological investigation. This allows the records of these two different types to be extracted separately.
There is some other information in some other tables that has been complied for informational purposes.
My database was developed in order to have records-based documentation for the period of time being considered.
Originally it was focused on the period from millennia ago, and up to 1800. The chore of dealing with the records of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1807 was a self-imposed barrier. Once the decision was made to forge beyond this - and after a few hundred hours of effort with big stacks of books taking up space - the time period changed, for the better.
Another barrier was ca. 1850, but it was hard to limit the records to a particular period of years, as some sources spanned the period of interest and into other years, so they were added and the focus-period was altered once again.
The current barrier of ca. 1880 is another self-imposed constraint. There are a number of records for 1881-1883 in the record base, but it is those earlier items which are getting the attention. Once again, this is a artificial choice to stop, but there are actually reasons to do so.
The historic record for ornithology burgeons in this period. More bird journals are being issued, beyond the profoundly important Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club and other important journals with zoological articles, into the oological journals and others which are thankfully still being issued. It would be an endless task to continue going forward because of the vast array of sources to address. It was deemed more important to retain a limit and focus on finding whatever possible.
It should be pointed out, that any review of information on birdlife of former times could not be possible without the extensive resources which are now available online. How wonderful to search and search and find pertinent material that was previously unknown.
There is no other effort underway to compile this sort of information, so this database is completely unique, and its importance to historic ornithology will only increase as further information is integrated.
The information is useful in ways only limited by the user's imagination. There is the opportunity to compare seasonal occurrence records from more than 125 years ago to modern conditions. The records document - based on known sightings, not conjecture - the distributions of a particular species, or bird group.
Personally, I've enjoyed the whole effort because of what is said in the wildly interesting reports, based on the unknown number of pages that have been read and reviewed and considered and analyzed, then documented and eventually copied once the records became part of the database.
There is such a variety of perspectives by so many contributors that can only be appreciated in an individual, yet holistic manner. Each person that took the time to get their observations and efforts recorded, provided something essential, which based on a composite analysis, is so much more than when the focus is myopic, while still expansive.
It is the effort of the individual that makes it possible to present this list of species for the time period considered. The following is a list of the species currently documented in the database, roughly based on the common names and taxonomic sequence provided by the International Ornithological Council, rather than any list provided from a North American bird organization, which does not even include some of the species documented within the area of focus:
Taxonomic sequence based on a 2008 list, but which will be updated some the decision is made to deal with this situation, as the people working on this topic are continually changing their lists, which makes it a drudge of a task to stay current. Perhaps any bird lists should just be presented in alphabetic order!
There are a number of other means of analysis, such as records per state, species per state, distribution of each species, variations in distributions, etc. but that would require so much more than is the intent of this essay.
Further details would be pending.
A Special Thanks
There aren't any particular people that deserve any particular thanks for assistance.
In many instances the opposite applies. Information was requested, yet nothing was provided. This is particularly appropriate in one case, in trying to determine the modern equivalents for the birds noted by Sloane in Jamaica.
Despite efforts during the past year, in communication with someone that developed a whole book on species and references, asking pertinent personnel in Jamaica, and after more than one inquiry to the British museum which is the repository for the Sloane material, it has still not been possible to resolve the name. One comment heard was "Why should we do your research?" How self-limiting was this view taken when asked, instead of perhaps showing an interest sufficient to determining what species had been observed. This was obviously not the view for those asked, and knowing the modern names remains something unable to determine.
It has seemed to be the opposite in this effort, that the documentary effort has been used to improve record-keeping. This is applicable to the material in the online database of the Smithsonian Institution, which is a premier source for anyone doing an evaluation of historic ornithology. There is a caveat though, look closely at the details, as there are errors in the data, and it is certainly worthwhile to have a critical eye when looking at records, and provide feedback to improve its quality. This has been done repeatedly, with great results, as the discrepancies were changed and the record accuracy improved.
There is only a single woman living in Carthage that deserves the biggest hug of gratitude. Without her patience and eventual understanding, working on this project and gathering the huge amount of information would not have been possible. To you I express a special and heartfelt thanks!
Importance of Historic Ornithology
Onward this endeavour goes with a profound appreciation for the experience it has provided and a hope its value will be realized! Understanding distribution of birds in the past is essential for comparison to peresnet and future considerations.
Some day, perhaps, this database information will be available online for all to consider, enjoy, and understand. Wouldn't it be grand to simply click a few times to determine the calendar of warbler migration that can be derived from the astute observations of Mr. Mearns, in the Hudson Highlands.
Why can't this dataset be integrated with other efforts to provide a record of bird phenology from the 1860s into the modern era? How this can be developed is a prime consideration, but a laudatory goal that can be easily accomplished with the resources available now.
It would be so grand to click on a map to see the distribution of the Passenger Pigeon for any particular decade, and then select an option to see how this range varies through the years until the species becomes extinct. Or what was the historic distribution of the Whooping Crane, or Carolina Parakeet.
The information is now available, but accessible to only one person in the whole world. This should not be the situation, as it is obvious that others would appreciate being able to learn more, and perhaps make a contribution. The scientific value would be simply priceless.
The history of the birds deserves its own place of importance, in the growing awareness of people working to realize the value of understanding the essentials, and sublime, of historic ornithology.