“It is sunset and as I sit in my study in the Museum a Robin is singing in an elm in the garden. What a hopeful, earnest strain! It always cheers and encourages me. Our Robin must have a brave heart and a pure conscience.”
– William Brewster, in correspondence to his friend, ornithologist Frank Michler Chapman. March 26, 1893. Cambridge, Mass.
William Brewster (1851-1919) grew up in a Cambridge of farm fields filled with singing Eastern Blue Birds and large flocks of Snow Buntings where we now have introduced House Sparrows. As a teen, he collected birds and practiced taxidermy, and carefully noted the dates when his family ate the year’s first lettuce and strawberries. If you’ve browsed the galleries at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, then you’ve passed by some of his life’s work; after working as an animal specimen curator at the museum for many years, he bequeathed his collection of birds and other animals to the museum.
Brewster’s fascination for birds and his observant note-taking laid the groundwork for his career as a prominent North American amateur ornithologist. He was the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and a president of the American Ornithologists’ Union.
An ongoing project at the the Ernst Mayr Library has been the digitization and transcription of Brewster’s diaries, field journals, and correspondences. Some of these journals and diaries are available to read on the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and we are working toward making all his notes accessible for study.
I joined the library a year ago as an assistant for this project, and I’ve spent this time immersed in Brewster’s world. As a Boston-area native, I’ve found some of it surprisingly familiar. Brewster watched the landscape and ecology change dramatically over the course of his life, yet some of his favorite local haunts still draw bird-watchers and dog-walkers today: Fresh Pond and Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Walden Pond in Concord, and Ponkapoag Pond in the Blue Hills, to name just a few. His notes are an enormously valuable resource for scientists interested in studying ecological and climatological change, but they’re also sprinkled with amusing observations, beautiful scenes, intriguing facts and bizarre stories that I’d like to share with you in a series of short blog posts.
Roger Tory Peterson’s original field guide called the American Robin “the one bird that everyone knows.” The Robin that Brewster heard on that March evening seems a perfect place to begin this series. Not only does the passage express a beautiful sentiment, but the familiarity of Robins and their sounds can make it feel quite comfortable for us to sit at an unfamiliar desk in Brewster’s museum office, watching the sun set in 1893. His comment on the “brave heart and a pure conscience” of the bird certainly isn’t objective science, but it connects us to a moment that I think we’ve all experienced before: an animal encounter that punctures our daily routine to remind us, briefly, of how wide the world is.
Play the video below to hear a Robin’s “hopeful, earnest strain” similar to the one that uplifted Brewster’s spirits in March of 1893. Those of us who are feeling winter-weary sure could do with the brave winter Robin’s encouragement.
American Robins are so ubiquitous that you might never have thought to learn about them. Check out the Peterson Field Guide video below to see how much you know.
See you again soon!
– Elizabeth Meyer