History of Ornithology at the Academy

The Early Period (1812-1869)

Many of the pre-eminent ornithologists and naturalists of the early 19th century enjoyed membership in the Academy and contributed knowledge and specimens to its collections. At the end of this period, the collection was considered by some to be the best in the world thanks to the purchase of several important collections and the contributions of these early ornithologists. One of the first presidents of the Academy, T. B. Wilson, helped to purchase a large collection from Europe (the Rivoli and Tristram Collections) that formed the early foundation for the bird collection.

The early Academy collectors and preparators are today considered to be the founders of the field of Ornithology. Among these many famous and colorful individuals were Alexander Wilson, the Father of American Ornithology, and author of the first book and North American birds, William Bartram, Thomas Nuttall, and Charles Bonaparte. John James Audubon and his preparators, John Townsend, Edward Harris, William Gambel worked to add early series of North American birds to the collection and of course produce outstanding early bird art. Finally Charles Temminck, John Cassin, S.F.Baird, John Gould, and Adolphus Heermann served to add additional specimens, expertise, and publications to the early period of the Academy’s Ornithology program.

The Middle Period (1888-1969)

Following a lull in activity during and after the Civil War, these years saw a resurgence of ornithological studies and exploration as well as the first public interest in conservation and environmental protection. Witmer Stone was responsible for revitalizing the Academy's Ornithology Department by increasing the collection fivefold, and contributing time and research to conservation efforts and national organizations such as the American Ornithologist's Union (AOU). Stone also brought public interest to ornithology and the bird collection when he founded the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC).

In the early 20th century, Rudolphe Meyer de Schauensee and James Bond expanded the scope of Academy ornithology to include international regions: Africa, Asia, and, particularly, the Neotropics. The collections and collecting trips funded by Meyer de Schauensee and Bond form the core of modern specimen collections with associated data that includes exact locality data and specific information about the specimen in general (i.e., soft part colors and gonad size). Meyer de Schauensee in particular saw the potential of hiring field preparators to explore remote areas of the world and collect the avifauna of the region. Two of the field collectors of this middle period that contributed tens of thousands of birds skins were Melbourne Carriker and Kjell von Sneidern.

The Late Twentieth Century Period (1969-1994)

Frank Gill displayed tremendous leadership that guided the growth and modernization of the Ornithology Department. Gill established a variety of progressive programs that became integral parts of the Department. Included in these programs was the addition of Bob Ridgely to the Department in 1982. Ridgely commenced work on his monumental four-volume opus, Birds of South America, illustrated by Guy Tudor. Second was VIREO, Visual Resources in Ornithology, now the world's largest collection of bird photographs. Third to be established was the ambitious Birds of North America (BNA), planned as a series of 720 life histories of the nesting species on this continent. Finally, one of the world's major collections of frozen bird tissues for molecular study was established in this period.

With two the four projected volumes of Birds of South America published by 1994 and thus covering all of the continent's passerines, Bob Ridgely temporarily halted work on that project to complete another landmark work, the two volume Birds of Ecuador, this time illustrated by Paul Greenfield. Published in 2001, the Birds of Ecuador grew out of a major field program conducted in Ecuador during the 1980s and early 1990s with funding from the MacArthur Foundation. It consisted of a series of pioneering expeditions to remote areas of Ecuador led by Bob Ridgely and Mark Robbins. The specimens that these expeditions added to the Department's collections bolstered its already strong collection of birds from Andean countries and made it arguably the most important in the world for the birds of this region. Also in this period, conservation and atlasing efforts in conjunction with the RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, produced important publications and vastly increased modern knowledge.

Frank Gill's own research led to revolutionary changes in the study of higher and lower level systematics. His work on restriction sites of avian mitochondrial DNA and DNA-DNA hybridization steered the development of another arm of the Department, one concerned with exploring use molecular methods in systematics and population studies. With the aid of students and research assistants and with the complementary work of molecular systematist Fred Sheldon who joined the Department in this period, the Ornithology Department produced major contributions to molecular studies of the world's birds in this period.

Current Situation

In 1994, Frank Gill become Vice-President of Science at the National Audubon Society. Following his departure, Bob Ridgely became Director of the newly established Center for Neotropical Ornithology at the Academy. This provided him with the perfect vehicle for completing the Birds of Ecuador. Inspired by his discovery in late 1997 of one of the most remarkable birds to be found in the last 50 years, the Jocotoco Antpitta Grallaria ridgelyi, Bob spearheaded efforts to establish the Jocotoco Foundation for the conservation of Ecuador's birds. Already successful beyond conserving the habitat of its namesake, the Foundation is writing the "how to" manual on international bird conservation programs. Bob Ridgely, too, has now moved on to continue that vital work at the World Bird Conservatory and we wish him well in this endeavor.

Leo Joseph was hired as Ornithology Curator in May 1997 and became Chair of the Department in November 2001. Joseph’s research continued on the Academy’s now long history of bird molecular research. Leo published on innovative research that tied the molecular history of birds to their biogeographical distributions. He also initiated the first field research, collecting, and publishing on Australian birds by Academy scientists in nearly 160 years. Dr. Joseph was hired as the Director of the Australian National Wildlife Collection in 2005.

Nate Rice was hired as the Collection Manager in May 1999. His primary tasks are caring for the Academy’s bird study skin and tissue collection, handling loan and information requests, and adding new material to the collection. In recent years, Nate has conducted collecting expeditions in Africa and Australia. Rice has been able to maintain a research program since taking on the collection management duties and publishes primarily on the systematics of various groups of suboscine passerines.