Animals

William Beebe’s “Fascinating Game”

Beebe colorfully-illustrated article in the New York World reflects his beliefs about birds and artistry.

William Beebe believed zoos had the potential to inspire. Visitors must be, he insisted, “pleased, entertained and instructed.” Artists, he continued, should observe grace and color. Ornithologists should find answers to their scientific inquiries. Foreigners should view reminders of their homeland with pride, and the “child of the slums” should stand “speechless with delight.” Beauty, knowledge, nostalgia, and enlightenment were all pieces of Beebe’s ideal exhibit, and his ambitions for the zoo were as political as they were aesthetic. The zoo provided an escape from urban life, enlightenment of the masses, and a space for conservation education. The latter intention was a goal with concrete objectives. Ladies, wrote Beebe, should swear to never wear feathers again after “seeing them adorning the living form of their rightful owner!” It was this conservation message that truly defined the New York Zoological Park as something other than animal amusement. Beebe envisioned his bird exhibition as a place in which minds were changed about personal interactions with nature and wildlife.

When the New York Zoological Park opened in 1899, its exhibits had included the Reptile House, buffalo range, alligator pool, sea lion enclosures, beaver dam, and bear dens. One of the most praised exhibits was the Aquatic Bird House. Cages lining the exterior of the building contained birds of prey–owls, eagles, hawks, and vultures. But the inside, wrote one journalist, “was a revelation.” A photograph from the time showed ducks, flamingos, egrets, penguins, geese, storks, pelicans, and “other water fowl from many climes” standing around a small concrete pool. There was a door at the far end, and two palm trees framed either side of the enclosure. Upon his arrival, Beebe took charge of this collection of birds. In addition to those in and around the Aquatic Bird House, Beebe was responsible for the Duck Aviary, the Winter Shelter House, and the half-completed Flying Cage. Altogether there were 36 avian species and 175 individual birds.

Beebe was unimpressed with these exhibits and collections. When he assumed responsibility in 1899, he joked that he had become the curator of a handful of ducks and geese. He was more pleased when the Flying Cage was completed. In June 1900, Beebe released one hundred birds into the enclosure, which was 150 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 50 feet tall. In contrast to the concrete surroundings of the Aquatic Bird House, the Flying Cage was wide open, contained rooted trees, and was bisected by a naturalistic stream. New enclosures featured numerous pheasant cages, facilities for ostrich, a wildfowl pond, wild turkey range, macaw tree, crane paddock, and the House for Perching Birds.

By 1902, the Bronx Zoo’s initial success had secured funding for additional buildings, including the Antelope House and the Lion House. These exhibits impressed the English writer and sportsman F. G. Aflalo, who visited the zoo in 1906. “The visitor finds at once the expression of American ideals and the reproach of European Zoos,” he wrote. “Perspective, immensity, a middle distance that would measure the furthest limit of Old World menageries, to which it is as New York’s flatiron buildings to mud hovels in Connemara.” Aflalo suggested that the Bronx Zoo embodied ideas specific to American culture regarding the abundance of the natural world. It was an expression, he said, of the nation’s “freedom from the trammels of tradition and immunity from the handicap of obsolete ideals of architecture, as well as to that liberal policy of progress which is the comfortable equation of public subsidy and private generosity.”

Inside Beebe’s bird house visitors participated in a game of identification.

Beebe’s contribution to this mass “expression of American ideals” opened, fortuitously, on July 4, 1905. The House for Perching Birds stood grandly on Baird (now Astor) Court at the center of the zoo. “From an aesthetic and utilitarian point of view,” boasted Beebe in the NYZS’s Bulletin, “there is no doubt that it excels most other buildings of its kind in the world.” The enclosures lived up to the zoo’s overall goals of providing ample and aesthetically pleasing space for its animals. Its ceiling was equipped with movable glass panels to allow ventilation and light. The openness of the space and its high ceilings exemplified Aflalo’s idea of an American obsession with “immensity.” The specimens were abundant and diverse. Inside was Beebe’s pride and joy–a small flying cage (36 x 15 x 20 feet) including potted trees and flowering vines, an environment he described as “happily combining a profusion of flowers with brightly-colored song birds.”

Within the flying cage of the House for Perching Birds, a variety of species lived together. This break in traditional bird display was criticized by European aviculturalists. Generally, each enclosure housed just one species, which prevented conflict between birds and provided neat and orderly labeling of enclosures so visitors could be told exactly what they were seeing. In Beebe’s cage, however, all attempts to direct the viewer’s gaze were given over to randomness. Beebe provided visitors with picture-coded identification cards, which encouraged visitors to make a game of watching and naming various bird species as they flew around freely within the enclosure. Beebe believed that this exhibition technique allowed visitors to engage actively in their own experience with, and observation of, his bird collection.

The critical European aviculturalists were skeptical about Beebe’s endeavor. They complained that the glass roof would create climate trouble; the potted plants would attract mice and rats; and the mixing of species and introduction of new birds to already stable enclosures would lead to the intimidation and death of some birds. Additionally, they claimed Beebe’s exhibit would confuse the public. Visitors would be flustered by the picture labels and desire the straightforward labeling of one species in one cage with a single label. Beebe’s cage, said one, “can only have been conceived by someone entirely unacquainted with birds.”

While Beebe conceded that climate and rodents presented difficulties, he stuck by his other methods of display. He insisted the public was curious and interested in the active observation encouraged by his identification cards. He saw encounters between visitors and bird identification as “a fascinating game” that resulted in the acquisition of “considerable knowledge of several species of birds.” Mixing species encouraged a realistic picture of birds as they existed in the wild.

Excerpted from Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination (University of Virginia Press 2012).

Resources & References

Beebe, C. William. “History of the Bird Department of the Zoological Park,” Bulletin of the Zoological Society (June 1910).

Bridges, Gathering of Animals: An unconventional history of the New York Zoological Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Hornaday, William T. “Zoological Garden Nearly Completed,” New York Times, May 17, 1908.


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Obscuring the heath hen: memory and the nature of memorials

This past summer, artist Todd McGrain placed a sculpture on Martha’s Vineyard in memory of the extinct heath hen. His statue stands along a bike path in the former reserve meant to save the dwindling species, now known as Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. McGrain’s installment looks smooth and graceful as it shines darkly against the muted colors of the New England forest. Its beak is opened slightly, as if crying out for its lost companions.

McGrain's memorial to the extinct heath hen, part of his Lost Birds project.

Heath hen once occupied barrens from New Hampshire to Virginia and some believe it was heath hen—not turkey—that Pilgrims consumed at the first Thanksgiving dinner, as they were a cheap and easy food source. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, the hens became increasingly rare and, by 1870, were completely gone from the American mainland. Only on the Massachusetts island Martha’s Vineyard did the heath hen remain.

The population diminished quickly, however, from 300 to less than 100 individuals by the turn of the twentieth century. Only then did the island place a ban on hunting. In 1908, the same year Theodore Roosevelt announced American bison were nearing extinction, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard created the Heath Hen Reserve. Instead of hunting the bird, people now made pilgrimages simply to observe them.

Yet even as tourist attraction, the heath hen of Martha’s Vineyard could not hold on. They suffered from fire, weather, disease, predators, and inbreeding. Despite human intervention, there were a mere dozen birds in 1927; only two were female. The next year, the females were gone. By the end of that year, only one male remained. Booming Ben, as he was named, was the last of his kind. Birders flocked to see this lone male, hoping to catch a glimpse before he too disappeared. Sighting this creature who could not reproduce, had no companions, and whom one would likely never see again, must have been a sublime moment of wildlife observation. Booming Ben observers literally watched the original wildness of America pass before their eyes. Ben was last seen on March 11, 1932. In 1933, heath hen were officially declared extinct.

Though the people of Martha’s Vineyard were unable to save the heath hen, residents today continue to find a sense of identity in the bird. Rare as it was, the community once prided itself on its ability to retain a population, and the heath hen remains a part of their local identity—so much so, in fact, that they talk of reintroduction. Of course it is impossible to re-introduce the heath hen species itself, as it no longer exists. But some believe introducing a flock of greater prairie chicken is a near-enough match. Not quite a reintroduction, the plan is, rather, an ecological memorial.

Tim Simmons, from the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program says the (re)introduction is not an attempt to get back to an original nature, but a way to “reintroduce processes.” The greater prairie chicken would be an umbrella species that would help restore the landscape to what it was in historical memory. The chicken is not a heath hen, but its ecological role is similar. Thus, what the (re)introduction would produce is an historic landscape; it is not restoring a species but reproducing a place considered part of the region’s natural heritage.

Historian Tom Dunlop suggests the (re)introduction would add another rare species to Martha’s Vineyard (which has several), creating a unique New England landscape for nature-seeking tourists. This perspective would seem to restore the island’s sense of itself as a draw for wildlife tourists, as it was over the heath hen’s declining years. Greater prairie chicken, themselves growing increasingly rare, would represent a pairing of natural and cultural heritage that has more to do with human uses of the landscape than the extinction of one species. The heath hen itself gets lost in the shuffle.

Since the original (re)introduction discussions began more than ten years ago, some ecologists admit the greater prairie chicken plan has problems. As it turns out, greater prairie chickens are not so closely related, genetically, to heath hen. Ecologists have grown increasingly skeptical of what one said would resemble a “museum exhibit of landscapes” more than a modern ecological restoration. Another was pushed to question: “What really is a heath hen?” Though he asked this from a biological standpoint, when turned onto culture, the question takes on a different significance. Is it a specific biological species? A generic chicken-like bird? Or a character in history?

Plaque commemorating the lost species at Correllus State Forest.

It is all these things. And in its memory, each brings the heath hen back to life. The question of what really is a heath hen underlines our memories of and memorials to the extinct species. Booming Ben is remembered on the bronze plaque installed in the state forest, but his body is not preserved (as is Martha‘s, the last of the passenger pigeons). Nor does he have a sculpture representing his individual identity: the hens depicted on the plaque are generic specimens.

Plans to memorialize heath hen with prairie chickens obscure the lost birds even further. While the plaque admits the birds are gone, describing in detail how they disappeared, (re)introduction seems an act of denial. Such plans care not for the fact of extinction. They are statements about place. Bringing in the threatened prairie chicken creates a blurred watercolor version of an historical landscape, defines Martha’s Vineyard as a sort of Noah’s Ark for endangered poultry, and installs a living landscape of loss.

Beyond the stark history of the plaque and the denial of (re)introduction stands McGrain’s statue, larger than life and silent, yet telling a more poignant story of loss. McGrain’s representation stands in place of the real thing not because it has to, but because the animal itself has become an abstraction.

As the case of the extinct heath hen reveals, we have no standard cultural response to losing the last of a species. McGrain’s statue is a beginning, a recognition, that humans mourn animals—and not just their pets—but an entire species.

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

Resources & References:

“An Extinct Bird has comeback hopes,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine (May – June 1999).

Barrow, Mark. A Passion for Birds (Princeton University Press 2000) and Nature’s Ghosts (University of Chicago 2009).

Cokinos, Christopher. Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds (Tarcher 2009).

Dunlop, Tom. “Birds of a Very Different Feather,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine  (September – October 2004).

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Memorializing extinction: monuments to the passenger pigeon

“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.”  – Aldo Leopold

Martha on display in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Just over one hundred years ago, a bird that no longer exists flocked in such great numbers they blocked the sun turning day into night. The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a tale often told by historians of nature. It is a parable of wasted American abundance. Felled for food and feathers, wasted by sport hunters and nest-robbers, these pigeons, remarkable only for the immensity of their migration, existed as a handful of individuals in zoological parks.

Still, some optimists kept looking. They scanned the skies and wandered hopefully through former nesting grounds. In 1909, the American Ornithologists’ Union launched a comprehensive hunt, offering prizes of over $2000 to anyone who located passenger pigeon nests or nesting sites. Though the contest continued through 1912, no sightings reported held any credible evidence of their existence.

Despite such denial of loss, the remaining individuals became living (and then stuffed) memorials to their species. The last living passenger pigeon spent her days at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, after the nation’s first lady. When her mate, George, passed in 1910, she lived another four years as an unlikely and unfortunate celebrity. Her pagoda cage labeled her the last of her kind. She was, according to Christopher Cokinos who chronicles avian exintctions in Hope is the Thing with Feathers, the first endangered species specimen to garner such attention.

A statue likeness of Martha outside her pagoda at the Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of Roadside America.

When Martha died on September 1, 1914, the zoo immediately iced her body and shipped her to the Smithsonian. At the pagoda where people once pilgrimaged to see the last of a species, stands a memorial. A statue remembers Martha herself near the building’s entrance. Inside, an exhibit tells the story of passenger pigeon extinction and has several stuffed birds on display. The contrast of living animals outside and dead inside is unusual for a zoo and is a powerful juxtaposition.

At the Smithsonian, Martha’s body was preserved and then put on display. In the halls of the U.S. National Museum, Martha’s body served as a reminder and a warning against the excesses of American culture. Though Martha is no longer on display, her body still lies in the Smithsonian’s collections, at the National Museum of Natural History, underlining her importance in the stories Americans tell about themselves.

Another memorial lies far from the site of Martha’s demise, in the woods of Wisconsin where it is thought an Ohio boy with a BB gun shot the last wild passenger pigeon. There, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology installed a bronze plaque on an oak tree engraved with the following words: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”

When the plaque was dedicated in 1947, naturalist and nature-writer Aldo Leopold spoke eloquently of the event’s significance. “We meet here to commemorate the death of a species,” he began. “This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.” Leopold painted a pastoral picture of the landscape with its now-extinct wildlife and called attention to its place in that environment. Its disappearance changed a visual marker of the seasons. Not only was a bird species lost, but a rhythm, an aesthetic.

A plaque honoring the pigeon and proclaiming the avarice of man in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park. Courtesy Wisconsin State Parks.

But why, Leopold asked, do we mourn the loss of a species? “Perhaps, we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.” More poignantly, Leopold wondered how lost species could be remembered: “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather; they live forever by not living at all.”

Indeed, Martha in the museum, her pagoda, the statue of her likeness, keeps the passenger pigeon alive. But no longer are they signals of seasons; they stand as harbingers of extinction. They warn of the ability of human activities to be both destructive and protective. In embodying the pigeon with such meanings, we tell an emotional history of lost abundance. But Leopold warned of the hubris of telling pointed parables: “We who erect this monument are performing a dangerous act. Because our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon.” But, he continued, it was people just like us who brought about the death of this species. They believed that is was “more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing here today is publicly to confess a doubt whether this is true.” Leopold concluded: “This then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained.”

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

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