Search MCZ

Ornithology Department

About the Department

History

1859-1862

The Ornithology Collection at Harvard University can trace its beginnings to the decade before the founding of the MCZ in 1859: one of the first accessions to the collection was a series of 25 bird specimens bought by Louis Agassiz at the Boston Market in the winter of 1847. However, significant additions to the collection were not made until the arrival of Addison Emery Verrill in 1859. In 1862 Verrill, a Harvard student appointed by Agassiz to oversee the bird collection, reported in the first annual report on the Ornithology Collection that the collection had grown by 2274 specimens, representing more than 450 species. Verrill left in 1862, eventually becoming the first Professor of Zoology at Yale University.

1862-1885

Joel Asaph Allen succeeded Verrill as the head of the Ornithology Department in 1862. He had come to Harvard University as a student of Agassiz and with significant experience in natural history, having grown up collecting birds in western Massachusetts. Allen oversaw a period of extensive specimen acquisition, through both purchase and donation, and also organized and sometimes participated in collecting trips to Florida, Lake Ontario, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. In 1865, Allen, along with Agassiz, participated in the Thayer Expedition to Brazil, which yielded more than 1400 bird specimens for the collection. By the time Allen left the MCZ in 1885 to become the first Curator of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, the MCZ’s Ornithology Collection had grown to over 33,000 specimens and was one of the most respected collections in the United States.

1885-1932

Following the departure of Allen and continuing into the 1930s, the period under Curators William Brewster and Outram Bangs saw the greatest expansion of the Ornithology Collection. By the end of that period the collection had reached 250,000 specimens, including 1316 type specimens. This expansion was mainly due to the bequeathing of several large private collections to the MCZ: those of William Brewster (40,000 specimens), Outram Bangs (24,000 specimens) and John Thayer (28,000 specimens). These three men played enormous roles as both curators and benefactors of the museum. In particular, Brewster and Bangs oversaw the welfare of the collection and many of its upgrades for almost four decades.

Another noteworthy addition to the collection at this time was a large donation from the Boston Society of Natural History, which included the 19th century Lafresnaye Collection (comprising nearly 9000 specimens and over 300 type specimens) and the remnants of Charles Willson Peale’s collection, which contained, among other treasures, specimens used by Alexander Wilson for his publication American Ornithology (1808-1814) and specimens collected on the US Exploring Expedition. Also noteworthy were the donations of the private collections of some of the most renowned American ornithologists of the times, including Thomas Penard’s neotropical collection of over 2000 specimens, Frederic Kennard’s extensive North American collection numbering over 5000 specimens, C. F. Batchelder’s collection of 7,500 specimens and Arthur C. Bent’s collection of some 12,000 scientific specimens representing nearly every North American taxon.

The LaTouche collection of over 8,000 birds from eastern China, and J. L. Rock’s collection of over 1,000 birds from western China were also received in this period, as were the collections from Africa made by Selah Merrill, J. C. Phillips and Arthur Loveridge, from the Philippines by W. C. Forbes and Indonesia by O. Bryant.

1932-1952

After this period of great expansion, responsibility for the collection was taken over by James L. Peters who had worked under Outram Bangs at the MCZ for over 15 years. Much of that time was spent in the field collecting for the MCZ and included a year long trip to Argentina which resulted in an impressive collection of over 1,200 specimens. The first five years of Peters’ curatorship saw the continued expansion of the collection, averaging over 4000 specimens per year, but much of his focus was transferred to his monumental publication, Check-list of Birds of the World (1931-1987). Although Peters never saw the project’s completion, this systematic checklist still remains the basis of organization for many ornithological collections throughout the country. Peters also initiated specimen exchanges with many European, Asian, and American museums.

The egg and nest collection in the Ornithology Department also received some much deserved attention during this period. Winthrop Sprague Brooks was appointed the collection’s first Custodian of Bird’s Eggs and Nests in 1928 and spent the next 5+ years rearranging and upgrading the storage of the collection which, by that time, numbered over 35,000 specimens. Responsibility of the collection later fell to Richard C. Harlow, who was Harvard’s football coach at that time.

1952-2000

This period was overseen by Curators James C. Greenway, Jr. (until 1961) and Raymond A. Paynter, Jr. Much of the focus during these years was on the curation and upgrading of the collection and the completion of the Check-list of Birds of the World, finished in 1987. Following publication of each volume, the MCZ collection was rearranged to conform to the Check-list. The transfer of skin specimens from wooden to metal cases was also begun during this time and the skeleton collection was transferred to new boxes.

Some of the significant acquisitions made during this period include collections from Vietnam, Laos, and the West Indies made by Greenway, and from India, Pakistan (including Bangladesh), Nepal, Mexico and Ecuador by Paynter, who also supervised the transfer of 6,300 birds from the Boston Museum of Science. Dr. Paynter also wrote and edited, with Melvin A. Traylor, Jr., the 11-volume Ornithological Gazetteers of the Neotropics, based partly on the ornithological collections of the MCZ and the Field Museum, and in 1991 he began entering the collection into a database.

2000-Present

Following the retirement of Dr. Paynter in 2000, Douglas Causey was brought in as interim curator. During his four years here, Dr. Causey organized and led multiple collecting trips to Costa Rica and Alaska, oversaw the expansion of office and work space, the acquisition of new cases and the transfer of the database to a new platform. He also hired the department’s first Curatorial Assistant (now Curatorial Associate), Jeremiah Trimble.

In 2003, Scott V. Edwards joined Harvard University as Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Curator of Ornithology. Dr. Edwards has revitalized the study of Ornithology at Harvard University on the graduate level bringing in a number of students dedicated to work in Ornithology. His work has included a number of collecting expeditions to Australia organized around his research and the research of his students. In 2007, the Ornithology Department was awarded a three-year NSF grant to complete the databasing of the collection. As of May 2008, nearly 280,000 specimens or nearly 70% of the collection had been databased.