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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Birds of a Feather

Enjoying the birds at your feeders from the warmth inside your house this weekend? Here are some of the people who first studied and popularized our feathered companions.

Pioneer Scientists

Before the Civil War, R.P. Hoy cataloged the birds of southeastern Wisconsin and reported his findings to scholars in the East. Another mid-century scientist, Increase Lapham, built on Hoy's work to create the first published list of Wisconsin birds (in the Transactions of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society for 1852).

After the war, Swedish immigrant Thure Kumlien (1819-1880) gathered his many observations of birds around Lake Koshkonong in Jefferson Co. He later joined the Milwaukee Public Museum staff and wrote the first book on Wisconsin birds (published posthumously by his son).

By the end of the 19th century, Wisconsin's John Muir was becoming the most powerful voice of the American conservation movement. In his popular autobiography he tells how growing up with the birds around his home near Portage helped turn him into America's best-known environmentalist.

About the same time, Kumlien's grand-daughter Angie Kumlien Main was trying to raise public consciousness about protecting birds. Her 1925 book "Bird Companions" was read throughout the nation by young people. Because amateur theatricals and pageants were popular in those days before television, she even wrote a short play about a fictional conference of birds.

Schorger and Leopold

Between the wars, two Wisconsin scholars produced work that escaped the bounds of academia to resonate with a wide general public. Ecologist Arlie W. Schorger researched extinct and endangered species. His books on the passenger pigeon and wild turkey appealed equally to scholars and non-specialists, and are still standard authorities on their subjects. Schorger published many articles between 1919 and 1958 in the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, which you can see online (search his name from that page).

At the same time, UW professor Aldo Leopold was shaping an entire generation of environmentalists with his books Game Management and A Sand County Almanac. Leopold's manuscripts, photos and other papers have been published online by our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Cultural Perspectives

Finally, for a discussion of the different ways that Native Americans and white settlers understood Wisconsin birdlife, see "Flights of Fancy: Birds and People in the Old Northwest" in the Spring 2000 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.

:: Posted in Animals on January 23, 2014

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