Elon Howard Eaton: Part 2

 

(This 915th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 5, 2008.)

 

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H. C. Burgess of Canandaguia, Elon Howard Eaton and Verdi Burtch of Branchport

birding Potter Swamp in the early 1930s. Note the combination of hip boots and neckties

 

This second column about Elon Howard Eaton based on his son Steve's 2007 account continues from the time Eaton published his seminal Birds of New York Volume 1 in 1908.

 

This is my favorite of the final two volumes. It includes, before the individual species accounts: summaries of New York birds by season, maps of breeding ranges of selected species, charts of bird occurrence in various life zones, a commentary on changes in bird populations, suggestions for bird students including how to keep notes, several field trip lists, a lengthy compilation of county migration records, and a narrative of a forty day mid-summer trip Eaton and several of his Hobart students took to the Mount Marcy region. It is impossible to read these sections without unearthing gems of information. Among them: the complete absence at that time of cardinals, tufted titmice and Carolina wrens from western New York.

 

The pressure of full-time teaching, his studies of the limnology of the Finger Lakes - taking all their temperatures from the surface to 50 meters from 1911 to 1918 -, his marriage in 1909 and the start of his family, and a major heart attack in 1913, all slowed production of the text for the second volume, but it was finally issued in 1914. Ornithologist William Brewster described it as "a truly monumental work, alike to him who wrote it and to the broadminded generosity of the state authorities who have sanctioned what must have been the very heavy expense of publishing and distributing so sumptuous and handsomely illustrated a book."

 

After Birds of New York became available Eaton received hundreds of letters from state birders. One that stands out came from a Jamestown teenager, part of which reads: "Dear Mr. Eaton; I have found a Pileated Woodpecker's nest in the swampy woods bordering the Outlet of Chautauqua Lake, about a mile from town. I would like to know if this is very unusual, for I always thought that it never nested in this section. I found the hole about May 10th. I resolved to keep tabs. The hole was placed near the top of a tall dead elm stub, about 50 feet from the ground. The other day I returned and the female was at the mouth of the hole. I watched her for two hours from a neighboring tree but she did not leave; in fact, she didn't seem to mind my presence. Occasionally she would call to her mate from the hole, and the male came to the nest twice, to see if things were going all right. I took one picture of the male at the hole as I stood below the stub. The picture was extremely sharp but the image of the bird was only about 3/16" long, so I am going to try to get a good enlargement of it. I will send you a copy. There is a second pair of these birds down farther in this woods, because sometimes when this pair would call to each other, a third bird would chime in in the distance. Yours truly, Roger T. Peterson".     

 

After Eaton's death in 1934, one of his colleagues wrote in a college publication entitled, "As we were": "Professor Eaton, who was particularly my friend, possessed more varied knowledge than any man whom I have ever known. Not only did he appear to know everything in his own domain of living things, but all the natural objects of the universe seemed to talk to him. He was well acquainted with everything in the outside world from the atom to the galaxy, while his tolerant and humorous comprehension of human nature was as profound as it was delightful. To his training in the sciences, he added the culture of a classical education; to his wide knowledge of the liberal arts, he added those of the vintner and the chef. He was an enthusiastic sportsman and an excellent shot; and those who have enjoyed the game he killed, the wine he made, and the excellent meals he cooked have something to look back upon."

 

The Eaton Bird Club in Geneva honors the name of this outstanding state ornithologist.-- Gerry Rising