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Step back into ornithological history

By Ellen Paul


William Brewster
All sorts of handwritten notes from illustrious ornithologists are now on the web. You can help to make them more accessible!
Citizen science is nothing new! Back in 1881, ornithologist Wells Cooke organized volunteers throughout the Mississippi Flyway to collect data on the arrival and departure dates of migratory birds. For this work, he was eulogized in the Auk as the "Father of cooperative study of bird migration in America." His success sparked the interest of C. Hart Merriam, of the newly formed American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) who expanded the volunteer network to include the entire United States, Canada and a portion of the West Indies. The program was then passed, in the late 1880’s, to the Division of Economic Ornithology (then in the Dept. of Agriculture; it was the forerunner of the Bureau of the Biological Survey, which later became part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) where it reached its greatest extent of 3000 volunteers.

By the time the program was discontinued in the 1970s, it had amassed millions of hand-written cards. Cards that are perishable and from which data extraction would be far too time consuming for an individual researcher.

Today, the USGS, under the leadership of Jessica Zelt, has scanned the records and place the images online, where volunteers from all over the world have been transcribing the content and entering it into a database for analysis. This North American Bird Phenology Program is part of the USA National Phenology Network which collects phenological observations of plants and animals in cooperation with existing phenology monitoring programs, with the aim to increase understanding of the phenology of organisms and landscapes and how the respond to environmental variation and climate change.

Field notes are another invaluable source of information that until recently have been largely inaccessible. Now the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative History at Harvard has launched a project to digitize and transcribe the field notes of ornithologist William Brewster.

Brewster (1851-1919) was a renowned American amateur ornithologist, first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and a president of the American Ornithologists’ Union. He is the namesake of the AOU's prestigious Brewster Medal. His collection of over forty thousand bird specimens, collected from 1861 until his death in 1919, was bequeathed to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. It is considered one of the finest private collections of North American birds ever assembled. Though Brewster collected throughout North America, his collection is especially comprehensive in its coverage of the birds of New England. Brewster thoroughly documented his collecting trips. His journals and diaries are a gold mine of scientific observations and a delightful account of years spent exploring the woods, fields, lakes, and rivers of New England.

The Library is digitizing its collection of Brewster’s field notes and observations, and making these available worldwide via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). As part of a project led by the Missouri Botanical Garden, and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the library has begun efforts to transcribe Brewster’s voluminous field notes with the ultimate goal of making the full text of his observations searchable and available for any number of uses. As an initial trial project, the library has placed ten digitized volumes of field notes on two crowdsourcing websites, and invites anyone interested to help transcribe Brewster’s journals. The crowdsourcing websites chosen for this project are the Biodiversity Volunteer Portal (BVP), a collaboration between the Australian Museum and the Atlas of Living Australia; and a BHL installation of FromThePage, a transcription tool developed by Ben Brumfield.

Please visit one or both of these transcription sites, create an account, and enjoy Brewster’s idyllic writing style while helping to unlock his valuable observations for the benefit of all. While there, browse Brewster’s diaries and journals on the BHL portal.


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