Steve Eaton


(This 903rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 13, 2008.)



Honoring Steve and Betty Eaton

at the St. Bonaventure Club


Earlier this year Stephen W. Eaton and his wife Betty moved from their home near Olean to southern Pennsylvania to be near their children. To me this represented the end of the important Eaton era in New York State ornithology for Steve and before him his father, Elon Howard Eaton, represented the best of this field. I will write about the author of the first Birds of New York State in another column, but I salute Steve Eaton in this one.


I have known Steve Eaton since the mid-1950s when Harold Mitchell introduced us. At the time I took over from him editing the state journal, The Kingbird, a task about which he was very helpful. Interestingly, many years later he passed on another task from which he was retiring: editing regional reports for that same journal.


We met only occasionally over the years but I spent a wonderful day with him in March 1992. In a column about that day when he showed me how he made maple syrup, I described him as, "a retired St. Bonaventure University biology professor who remains active on his Shadbush Farm east of Salamanca. There he tends a dozen beehives, raises blueberries, and manages a maple woodlot of 540 trees."


This past April the Cattaraugus County Bird Club, of which he was a founding member, held a dinner honoring Steve and Betty Eaton for their lifetime of devotion to the natural history, the local history and the community of Cattaraugus County. Dr. Eaton also received a lifetime achievement award from the New York State Department of Conservation for his work in preserving the Wild Turkey in New York State.


Eaton was an outstanding botanist as well. With Edith Schrott he wrote the definitive "Vascular Plants of Cattaraugus County," a book reviewed as "one of the finest and most comprehensive of its kind."


Those achievements clearly identify Steve Eaton as important to this region, but he had a national reputation as well. He contributed important papers on turkeys, goshawks, Northern and Louisana waterthrushes, other wood warblers and yellow-billed cuckoos, and he studied and wrote about the birds of Cuba; Kwangsi, China; and Tamaulipas, Mexico.


My favorite of his papers served as the lead article in the July 1948 issue of The Auk, the professional journal of American ornithologists. In it Eaton described his Canadian bird study expedition. Here is a paraphrase of his trip description:


Starting on June 15, 1940, H. O. Palmer of Geneva and I traveled by canoe and later raft 600 miles from Peace River, Alberta to Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories. We averaged about 50 miles a day, camping under the spruce trees along the riverbank at night. To run the Peace River required about two weeks and we made our first camp on the Slave River on July 1. After three days traveling and several more camping on the Slave River, we cached our canoe and hiked ten miles from Grand Detour to the Little Buffalo River. There we constructed a raft of dead spruce, which carried us 100 miles downstream to Great Slave Lake. From the mouth of the Little Buffalo River we hiked 16 miles along the lakeshore to Fort Resolution. From there we took passage on a diesel ship back to Fort Smith, stopping to pick up our canoe on the way. After portaging our canoe again around the Smith Rapids, we boarded another diesel ship and rode it to McMurray, several hundred miles south on the Athabaska River, arriving there on July 23.


I find two interesting features of this report. One is the fact that birds were not "collected", that is, shot for identification. Only a few years earlier such an article would not have been accepted by an ornithological journal. The other is that 50 miles per day. To me that represents a major paddling achievement.

Out in the field.jpg

Steve and Tim in the field


Former president of state birders Tim Baird has spoken for all of us: "I never had a formal class with Steve, but every time I enjoyed talking with him or trying to keep up with him in the field, my knowledge of the natural world vastly improved. Both Steve and Betty are gracious, gentle people who will be sorely missed."-- Gerry Rising