Today, a little break from the sepia tones of the Nineteenth Century. Writing a book on a teenaged ornithologist-turned-president, I couldn’t help but learn more about birds. So I’m adding some color provided by technology Teedie didn’t have, and his notes about their winged ancestors. The images you’re looking at are from the blog of a biology professor, Sue, in Minnesota. You can see more “Backyard Biology'” at http://www.bybio.wordpress.com. Thank you, Sue, for letting me share your wonderful work!
The teenaged Theodore observed loons diving in Oyster Bay off the northern shore of Long Island. If one was alarmed, he said that it would sink its body beneath the water, leaving only head and neck exposed.
When Teedie was eight, about forty migrating barn swallows flew into the open windows of the summer house where the Roosevelts were staying. He reported proudly in his first diary that he rounded them up and sent them back out to their flight south.
Paul Cutright’s book, Theodore Roosevelt, the Making of a Conservationist, gives fascinating details, such as places that specimens from Theodore’s bird collection were sent. While the bulk of them went to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, others were traded to museums and individuals worldwide. The skin of a red-winged blackbird, the Agelius phoeniceus, wound up in the Museum of Natural History in Paris.
The young naturalist took taxidermy lessons from an associate of John James Audubon and preserved his birds himself. He wrote to his sister in 1875, “At present I am writing in a rather smelly room, as the fresh skins of six night herons are reposing on the table beside me.”
One spring before going to college Theodore wrote, “The trees and shrubs are in full blossom and the fields are even more verdant than they were…above all, the birds have come back.” He woke to the beautiful sound of the wood thrush, and also listened to the “sweet, plaintive” notes of the bluebird, above. Since his eyes were weak, he developed a keen sense of hearing, and invented his own code for birdsongs.
“Such horrible noises,” he said in one of many notebooks he kept in his youth. “I do not think you can ever walk in any wood where there are catbirds without promptly being informed of their presence by the monotonous and exasperating ‘pay pay’…”
Theodore thought the American redstart was vivacious, with its call of “zee zee zee zee zee!” When I discovered I could not use my daughter’s snowy owl photo on the cover of my book due to copyright restrictions, I chose Sue’s excellent shot of the redstart for a replacement. Theodore Roosevelt was also American first of all. Spots of brightness attracted others to him; he liked to talk. He was always looking up to better things. And his life was a series of crisscrossing themes, like the twigs on the branch in the background.
Have birds since his time noticed the change caused by humans? Space for their homes is limited, and air and water are certainly not as clean today. There are more and more people interfering with the environment. TR’s bold action to conserve land for his generation, their children’s children, and the bird and animal life he loved is one of his many legacies.