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Drawn from Nature: Art, Science, and the Study of Birds

Ornithology as a Profession

The American Ornithologists’ Union

In September 1883, 23 ornithologists gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for the inaugural meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union. It was an invitation-only event. Amateur collectors, taxidermists, and other non-scientists were excluded from full membership status. Instead, they were given the opportunity to join as associates, a second-tier, non-voting membership.

Robert Ridgway, a founding member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, served as Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum from 1880 until his death in 1929. Ridgway’s background is typical of many of the early professionals. He was self-taught in the field, a systematic ornithologist, and affiliated with a museum along the eastern seaboard. Harry Harris, “Robert Ridgway, with a Bibliography of His Published Writings and Fifty Illustrations.” The Condor, January-February 1928. View Source.

Ornithology in the Lab

The goal of the early ornithologists was a continuation of the work that Audubon and others had started decades before: the identification and description of North American birds. But unlike their artist-naturalist predecessors, few ornithologists were interested in life histories of living birds. The bulk of their work was on systematic ornithology: the description and classification species and subspecies based on the study of dead birds that filled their museum cabinets.

cover of the first issue of The Auk, their official journal of scientific ornithology

In January 1884, the AOU published the first issue of The Auk, their official journal of scientific ornithology. The Auk, vol 1, no. 1, 1884. View Source.

Professional Publications

Though some professionals had artistic ability, their texts reflected their emphasis on systematic ornithology. The books were authoritative, detailed, exacting, and often lacked complementary artwork. A prominent publication during this era was Robert Ridgway’s Manual of North American Birds, published in 1887. The Thrush entries are typical of the entire 600-page volume—concise, descriptive text without illustrations.

photo of a page from Ridgway, Robert's A Manual of North American Birds

Ridgway, Robert. A Manual of North American Birds. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1887. View Source.