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.
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.
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.