A Traveller’s Guide to Feathers, Article 103 – Naughty Bird Biologists

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The Wilson Journal of Ornithology is a highly respected repository of information related to bird science. The most recent issue of the journal includes sixteen long articles and twelve briefer communiques. Readers of that issue can learn about research on the effects of flooding of the Missouri River on Least Tern reproduction, the nesting behaviour of Gray Tinamous in Ecuador, and parental behaviour of Costa Rican Clay-coloured Thrushes.

The journal began one-hundred and thirty years ago under the name The Ornithologists’ and Oologists’ Semi-annual. That title lasted only a year, being replaced by the more ponderous Semi-annual, Agassiz Association, Department of the Wilson Chapter. The name was changed to The Wilson Quarterly in 1892, and then The Journal of the Wilson Ornithological Chapter of the Agassiz Association in 1893. Things settled down after that, and the journal was called The Wilson Bulletin from 1894 to 2005.

In the early years, most subscribers to the journal were dedicated laypeople, rather than professional ornithologists. Articles from more than a century ago reflected the naive state of the field at the time. An account of birds seen while on a cruise might have been followed by an description of the timing of nesting of birds in a local cemetery. Even so those old issues can for interesting reading.

The second issue of the fifth volume of the journal was just eight pages long. On the second page of that issue was a statement short on details but rich in inuendo. It read: “Charges of sufficient seriousness have been preferred against Messrs. J. W. P. Smithwick and F. T. Pember to warrant their expulsion from the Chapter. A majority of the Executive Council have voted to remove their names from our roll. Their crime is fraudulent methods in Oology.”

It seems that J. W. P. Smithwick of San Souci, NC, and F. T. Pember of Granville, NY, had been active members of the group to that point, including writing articles with titles like: “Collecting in the Gila Valley” and “The Burrowing Owl: Speotyto cunicularia hypogaea.” Despite being on the membership list in Volume 5, issue 1, their names were missing from that list in issue 2.

I have not discovered what crimes against oology had Smithwick and Pember dismissed from the society, but I have found a few additional details about their comings and goings. Franklin Tanner Pember was born in 1841 and died in 1924. A businessman with interests in oil and oranges, his boyhood fascination with nature led to a substantial collection of artifacts, including bird nests and eggs. He and his wife, Ellen Wood Pember, established the Pember Library and Museum in 1909. That facility still serves the people of eastern New York state.

An online article by David Cecelski suggests that John Washington Pearce Smithwick was born in North Carolina in 1870, and was an avid collector of bird eggs by 1888. Shortly after being drummed out of the Wilson Society, Smithwick donated his collection of eggs to the state’s natural history museum. He then became a physician. I have not seen Cecelski’s reference material, and so cannot comment on his assertion that Smithwick was a hate-mongering racist.

Birds are angelic. Birds biologists will be judged by time.

Photo credits: reprint of The Ornithologists’ and Oologists’ Semi-annual Volume 1 (1889) – www.empik.com; image from page 61 of “The Ornithologists’ and oologists’ semi-annual” (1889) - https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14750528982/