While the Chilson Collection focuses on Midwestern history and culture, it also has many other interesting gems. One in particular that caught my eye was Water Birds of North America by Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway, a two-volume set containing hundreds of illustrations of heads and portraits of birds. In the set that can be found in the Chilson collection, the heads are all beautifully hand painted.
Water Birds of North America was a companion to A History of North American Birds: The Land Birds, another comprehensive book about the birds of North America. It was also published as volumes XII and XIII of the Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy at Harvard College. In a review of Water Birds, its publication was described as “the event of the year 1884 in the history of American ornithology” (A. 382).
The Land Birds began as an Act in 1860 ordering the State Geologist of California to conduct a survey of the geological, topographical, botanical, and zoological “productions of California.” There was a volume that came out of this Act about the land birds of California, which had nearly eight hundred woodcuts of diagrams and illustrations of the various birds. These illustrations were given to S. F. Baird so that he could produce a set of books about the land birds of North America. In exchange, he had to write a catalogue of water birds for the California report. (Whitney vii-ix)
However, because of the number of drawings contained within the books, its publication was expensive. In a letter to Alfred Peterson dated June 8, 1915, Samuel Henshaw from the Museum of Comparative Zoology writes that “[their] supply of the Water Birds of North America is so limited that [they] hold the same for exchange and have none for sale.” The Land Birds, in fact, was so expensive to produce that the “publishers of that work would have been unwilling to continue it at their own risk and expense – and, in fact, did decline to do so, when, after the stoppage of the California Survey, the present work was offered to them for publication by joint consent of the authors and the former State Geologist of California” (Whitney ix).
Here are some of the scans from Water Birds of North America:
A., P. A. “Review of Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy at Harvard College, Vols. XII and XIII. The Water Birds of North America by S. F. Baird; T. M. Brewer; R. Ridgway.” Auk. 1.4 (1884): 382-386. Web. 24 Sep. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4067236>.
Baird, S. F., T. M. Brewer, R. Ridgway, and J. D. Whitney. The Water Birds of North America. 1. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1884. Print.