Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan, 1909-1910
Balaeniceps rex, collected March 7, 1910
Upon returning home from his second tour of duty in the Philippines in 1907, Mearns was assigned to Fort Totten, New York. Charles Richmond, a Smithsonian curator and dear friend, remembered that Mearns began a garden, and documented its growth and progress with all the care he exercised in his collecting work. Mearns did not tend his garden for very long. Within the year, plans for a new (and highly publicized) expedition were underway. Upon retirement, President Roosevelt planned to go to Africa.
Much has been written of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Smithsonian-sponsored expedition to Africa in 1909 (check out this overview on the centennial of the expedition); indeed, Roosevelt himself wrote about his experiences in a serialized account for Scribner’s Magazine. Three naturalists were selected to accompany the President and his son Kermit on their expedition: Edgar A. Mearns (birds), J. A. Loring (small mammals), and Edmund Heller (big game). After twenty-five years as an army surgeon, Mearns retired, and then voluntarily returned to active duty in order to serve the President. (After the trip — the time of his life, if his letters home are any indication — he retired from active service for good.)
While the media coverage understandably focused on Roosevelt, the letters Mearns wrote home to his family offer an additional perspective on the expedition: “Most of my time is spent shooting and skinning little birds. We are on a plain like Montana at Livingstone. Along the river are trees and abundant life, fur, fish, + fowl. Loring collects small beasts, and goes by the name of ‘mouse man.’ At first the (250) porters called me ‘doctor’, then ‘man with the big mustache’, and now I am ‘the man who never sleeps’ because I am always shooting things at night.” These nicknames and jokes make great stories to send home to family —at one point, Heller sends word to Mearns that he’s got “rhinocerositis,” meaning too many rhinos to prepare all at once— but they also remind us of what’s different about this trip. (See this post on the centennial of the Roosevelt rhinoceros.) Though Mearns referred to Roosevelt by his military rank, often calling him Col. R. in his letters, Mearns wasn’t in Africa to be an army surgeon. This time around, being a naturalist was his day job — though his work often stretched well into evenings.
Mearns describes the rhythm of the expedition in his letters: periods out in the field punctuated with breaks in town (often staying on private, and sometimes “palatial” estates) to keep prepping, drying, packing and shipping specimens before gathering up the necessary equipment to head back out and do it all over again. On June 22, 1909, he wrote that they had collected “9 lions, 5 rhinos, 6 giraffe, and 7 cheetahs with series of all the antelopes. I have a man who does nothing but catch bugs and press plants. Loring + I each have a bird and mammal skinner. Everybody works all day + part of the night + we are all having the time of our lives.”
There are reminders in these letters that Mearns isn’t on just any expedition; this one has celebrities, and by association, Mearns is also of interest to the press. To Ella, his wife, he writes, “All of the photographers have been at work until I feel as if my face must be quite worn out, but you will see some of my expressions in the papers. I tried to look serious and grave but something always made me laugh just as the shutter opened.”
Mearns didn’t seem to mind this particular photo shoot. Kermit Roosevelt took these pictures of Mearns with a Shoebill Stork collected and prepared by Belgian officials the group met while traveling on Lake No (in present-day South Sudan). Mearns narrated the encounter this way: “On March 7, 1910, we met a steamer on Lake No. Two Belgian officials with their wives were aboard. They had preserved two adult birds (whale-billed storks), one destined for the British and the other for the Congo Museum (Their permit allowed them to kill one).” Kermit photographed Mearns holding these specimens, presumably on the Belgian steamer.
Mearns continued his story, describing not only the prepared specimens, but two live young birds of the same species:
"They also had aboard two downy birds, taken March 7th by an Arab servant, who told me the nest was in a wet place. The birds had bent over some long grass and upon this were placed a quantity of long grass which the parents had sheared off with their beaks and bent round and made into a compact mat about as thick as a heavy doormat. The young were clothed in soft, long grayish white down. The iris was pale gray. Bill livid gray, horn color on apical(?) 2/3 of nail at tip of beak. Feet dark, muddy gray. They were evidently of opposite sexes. The male was somewhat larger, with a much larger nail at the tip of the maxilla, and also a more distinct dorsal groove. They were fed the scraped flesh of small fish. Kermit Roosevelt photographed the pair, lying on a chair."
Members of the Roosevelt expedition found shoebills in two places: the Bahr el Ghazal, and Lake No. Mearns describes seeing about fifty shoebills in total. They were spotted alone or in pairs, but not in larger groups. He watched them, and beautifully narrated their behavior: “They sat quite still, with heads bent down, the bills glistening white in the sunlight. Sometimes one would suddenly dip into the water with great energy after the fishes upon which it feeds.” Take a look at this page from Mearns’s specimen register. Alongside detailed measurements, he sketched this bird’s distinctive bill.
Careful notes accompany the sketch: “bill horn color, tinged with greenish yellow along commissural line, with pale purplish brown elsewhere; irregularly spotted and lined with dark purplish brown, the lines converging anteriorly towards the commissure.” These colors fade quickly, which is why it is important for this kind of data to accompany specimens into museum collections. This description, together with the prepared skin of this particular bird, helps researchers piece together a more precise picture of this bird’s characteristics.
This is one of two Balaeniceps rex (both gathered on this expedition) in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s collections. Though we often associate Theodore Roosevelt’s Smithsonian-sponsored African Expedition with the big game the group brought home, Edgar Mearns’s papers remind us that the results of this expedition can be found across many of the divisions of the museum — and that there are birds as big or bigger than many mammals, like Balaeniceps rex!
Richmond, Charles W. 1918. "In Memoriam: Edgar Alexander Mearns, Born, September 11, 1856 - Died, November 1, 1916.” The Auk. 35 (1): 1-18.
Correspondence, Mearns to family, June 22, 1909 and December 20, 1909, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Box 1 folder 4.
Catalogue of Birds collected on Smithsonian African Expedition, Volume 3, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 24, folder 2.
Photographs taken by Kermit Roosevelt, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 24, folder 11.
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