Birding with Teddy Roosevelt

by | August 2019, History

The hermit thrush is a compact bird, a snowball with big eyes topped with feathers the color of sugar-maple bark dappled in sunlight. It isn’t revered because of its looks, which camouflage it in a dense Adirondack forest. Its song, on the other hand, is ethereal and catching. Sixteen-year-old Theodore Roose­velt, hunting not far from Paul Smith’s Hotel in August 1875, was bowled over by this music, an unexpected gift after hours of fruitlessly searching for deer.

It was night, the moon not yet visible in the reflection of the small lake nearby. The evening felt oppressively quiet, the hoot of an owl or the laughter of a loon made deafening in contrast, and the looming pines on the other edge of the water were a blotch of soaking dark. But then the silence was pierced by a few spare notes “from the depths of the grim and rugged woods until the sweet, sad music seemed to fill the very air, and to conquer for a moment the gloom of the night; then it died away, and ceased as suddenly as it had begun.”

This observation is found in one of Roosevelt’s many journals, titled Notes on the Fauna of the Adirondac Mts., so adolescently presumptuous that you wonder if he imagined one day presenting his vacation findings to hordes of mustachioed men tying flies and vigorously nodding. “Perhaps the song would have seemed less sweet in the daytime,” he added, “but uttered as it was, with such surroundings, sounding so strange, and so beautiful amid those grand but desolate wilds, I shall never forget it.”

Roosevelt, his handwriting the loopy and legible cursive of a boy not too far removed from penmanship lessons, filled notebooks with details like this one. The young birder never used a common name when a scientific name was at his disposal—and being a kid who wanted to grow up to be a naturalist, there was a lot of Latin knocking around his head. His teens proved the apex of his birding years; take a look at his diaries and they often amusingly reduce life down to birds seen and specimens collected, as if there were nothing else to report: “Monday August 2, 1875: Three-toed woodpecker. Whiskey jack. Grass finch. Black-throated blue warbler. 4 skins.” (As a freshman at Harvard, his life, according to his diaries, transitioned to being a nonstop parade of boxing matches: people punched, people defeated.) He noted whether he saw birds high in the trees or on the water or in a field, if they get around by jerky hops or swoops, if they ank, ank or zuca, zuca, zuca, crescendoing as they hit the final refrain—or if they peter out on a lisping zeet. On Saturday, July 7, 1877, he finished his last birding trip in the Adirondacks, remarking in his diary that he had caught one duck, one buck, three grouse and 52 trout. It had been “good fun.”

Later that year, Roosevelt compressed three summers’ worth of these notes into his first published work, The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks in Franklin County, N.Y. It is a list of 97 birds that he and H. D. Minot, a friend from Harvard who accompanied him on one trip, saw while exploring the St. Regis Lakes area. (He does not mention his guide, Moses Sawyer, who helped this affluent young man from Manhattan find his way around the woods.) Dr. C. Hart Merriam, head of the U.S. Biological Survey, wrote in the April 1878 Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club that the Roosevelt and Minot log “bears prima facie evidence of reliability—which seems to be a great desideratum in bird lists nowadays.”

In 2019, the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt’s death, it seems fitting to look back on this list, the first published bird log of this area of the Adirondacks. When our 26th president and the Adirondacks are mentioned in tandem, Roosevelt’s 1901 rush down Mount Marcy, necessitated by the shooting of President McKinley, usually comes to mind. But these first trips to the Adirondacks are a more useful way of looking at Roosevelt’s legacy. He wrote a list of what he saw here, and it didn’t just give insight into the mind of a future conservationist. He also laid down a marker by which we could measure change and movement in the Adirondacks.

The first thing that Ross Conover notices about Roosevelt’s bird log is that it’s not quite scientific. The brown creeper is common, Roosevelt wrote. The winter wren is moderately common, while the red-eyed vireo is very common. At a distance of more than a century, the associate professor of wildlife at Paul Smith’s College has no idea what these vaguely different adjectives were meant to convey. Conover, whose office is near the hotel where Roosevelt’s family always stayed—at least before it burned down in 1930—is the kind of professor who gets random calls from students while they thrust their phone toward birds, hoping he can manually Shazam the song’s origin. He can vouch for the fact that the red-eyed vireo is very common; one had been singing in his ear the morning we spoke. Conover is impressed by the mind of this birder, even younger than his students, despite his inability to get too specific with numbers. Roose­velt accurately ordered his list by taxonomy and clearly cared for more than just birds shot for game (although, as the Smithsonian’s voluminous collection of Roosevelt’s specimens can attest, he shot plenty of non-game birds in the name of science, including one hermit thrush found in the Adirondacks).

Looking back at these years, an older Roose­velt, one who had enshrined many game laws and forest preserve protections in the federal code and still mentioned all the birds he saw in letters to his children, didn’t think much of his younger self’s aptitude as a naturalist, calling his notes “copious and valueless” and that he “never grew to have keen powers of observation.” But, he added, “whatever I did see I saw truly, and I was fairly apt to understand what it meant. In other words, I saw what was sufficiently obvious, and in such case did not usually misinterpret what I had seen.”

Even if it’s not a perfect example of data collection, its mere existence is useful. “There’s definitely value in having something as simple as a list,” says Stacy McNulty, associate director of research at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Adirondack Ecological Center, in Newcomb. “We can go back to it later, and say, Are these things still here, or why not? Things are going to change, ecosystems are not the stable things we once thought they might be.”

It’s hard to ignore how much time has altered the landscape, not because of what you see, but what you hear. Roosevelt, attuned to the tiniest differences in a bird’s song, would have been amazed to hear his symphony changed. There is still silence, the kind of quiet that an asthmatic boy from the city would have reveled in, but the noises are sometimes different. The rustle of leaves is the same, although clear-cutting by the timber industry and subsequent forest fires and flooding would alter that texture in the decade between Roosevelt’s visits and the passage of the “Forever Wild” amendment in the state legislature. The whine of a plane above is new. If you paddle on Whey Pond, you might hear the ripple of wings and water as mallards take flight; the bird had not yet arrived in the Northeast in the 1870s or claimed its spot as the most prevalent duck in North America. The punt gun and beaver hunting made waterfowl in general rare in Roosevelt’s time. He never saw a turkey, as it only moved north when winters began to thaw. Birds that need open clearings have become abundant as the shape of the Adirondacks changes, with a heart of forests kept within state confines as development pops up elsewhere. Roosevelt shot a woodcock in July 1877 at Paul Smith’s and remarked in Summer Birds, “None of the inhabitants knew what it was, or had ever seen another.” Those long-beaked birds are common enough today that Roosevelt wouldn’t excite too many locals by finding one.

But, even a century later, after much environmental ping-pong, most of the species mentioned on Roosevelt’s list will look familiar to anyone who has been to the Adirondacks in the past few years. “With the exception of the chickadee,” Roosevelt wrote of the red-breasted nuthatch, “it is the most unsuspicious bird I know of, going about its work utterly unmindful of observation. I have had them creeping under and over the limbs and up and down the trees (always descending head downwards, by the way) within ten feet of me, and yet never paying me the least attention.” Go to the marshy areas near Saranac Lake on a morning near the end of summer, and you will agree with Roosevelt that the red-breasted nuthatch can accurately be summed up as “common.”

Today “there would be no need for Roosevelt’s field notes,” says Wesley Hochachka, assistant director of the bird population studies program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Or, there would be no need for Roosevelt to waste money publishing his own findings. We know where birds live today because of the work of thousands of Roosevelts, all in the woods and on the beach dutifully noting what they saw and when. (John Thaxton, who has birded in the Adirondacks for more than 30 years and gives tours of the area, notes that this is a hobby that attracts inveterate list makers; librarians and accountants abound.) “If he were around today,” Hochachka says, “he might have his smartphone and could note what he’s seeing right on his phone, and it could go right to a database.”

The era of citizen bird science began while Roosevelt was still alive; in 1900, Frank Chapman, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, held the first Christmas Bird Count, a practice that the National Audubon Society continues today. New York State ornithologists compiled the first Breeding Bird Atlas in 1988 using data collected by volunteers. The latest survey, released in 2008, can be consulted by those curious to know more about how the birding populations have changed since 1877. Cornell also has eBird, which calls itself “the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project,” and lets you keep your own personal list while also sending your data to the scientists who need it. The list for Franklin County online shows 143 different species this year, some with notes that would be undecipherable to Roose­velt. One birder saw a northern saw-whet owl in August 2018, and its “eyes looked orange in the headlights.”

The pleasure of hearing an unrequested song on a summer night remains the same, no matter how we convert that moment into data. Thaxton says that he, like Roosevelt, loves hearing a hermit thrush: “They sound like a musical organ being played on the water.” The bird has been spotted by Franklin County birders at least 1,847 times since eBird began, still sounding “so strange, and so beautiful amid those grand but desolate wilds.” The land might keep changing, logged and polluted and warmed up, but for now, some of the most indelible music remains static, something to hold on to while the surrounding world keeps remixing.


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