Bedesa, Ethiopia, 1911-1912
Gyps africanus, collected May 28, 1912
Mearns’s field notes for what would be his final expedition began with a meeting: “Mr. Childs Frick, St. Regis Hotel, N.Y., Tuesday at 8 A.M.” It appears that Mearns prepared a list of questions about the job he’d been offered. He wrote the answers he received alongside them in his notebook:
“Can the other half of the birds be utilized for a report on the collection? Yes.”
“What is the name of the Exped? The Childs Frick Abyssianian Exp.”
“What steamer must I take? Steamer Maritania Monday.”
“What will be the route? Somali, Abyssinia, B.E.A.”
And then the notes become a list: medical case, surgical instruments, an official collecting outfit, guns and ammunition.
More questions. “Transportation? Subsistence? All necessary expenses.”
“Any big game shooting allowed for me? No.”
“What is to become of the mammal specimens?”
A few more list items: “Personal map of the country. Thermometers, chemical + ordinary.”
“Are more field naturalists needed? No.”
“In what does ‘half’ consist? Would types be included in the division? Undetermined.”
This snapshot of Mearns’s meeting with Childs Frick offers a first look at the way the terms of this expedition were negotiated. Mearns asked several key questions — about his expenses, his role, the size of the team, and when he would leave. He also asked a question that highlights his interest in the way these specimens would be used, in how they might add value to scientific study. When Mearns asked about types, he wanted to know if new discoveries could be part of his half of the birds — the half that would go to the Smithsonian. Perhaps Frick wanted to wait and see.
Because this was a private expedition, Childs Frick set the parameters. From the conversation in Mearns’s notes, we know that the specimens collected to were to be divided — half to the U. S. National Museum (USNM) at the Smithsonian, and half to wherever Childs Frick intended to keep his portion. Further digging reveals that Mearns’s decision to participate was contingent on whether the USNM would benefit. Frick approached Secretary Walcott about finding a “doctor naturalist” and Walcott suggested Mearns. By telegram to Frick, Mearns asked, “Are the specimens to come to the National Collections? Otherwise I could not spare the time in the field.” Frick responded positively, and the two men met face-to-face to discuss the particulars, which Mearns documented in his field book.
Mearns didn’t have much time to prepare. He sent the telegram on Friday, October 20th, and arranged to meet Frick the following Tuesday, October 24th. The pages that follow are a flurry of to-dos before a November 1, 1911 departure: personal, medical, and collecting supplies to gather, people to see, particular shops to visit. This list of supplies for the expedition’s “collecting outfit” reveals quite a bit about the specimens Mearns was preparing to encounter. There are several sizes of ammunition, cotton and tow for stuffing, arsenic for protecting against bugs, and tools for preserving everything from small birds to very large mammals. The supply lists extend past contact information for Mr. May at Abercrombie & Fitch, past notes on which drugstore had the right forceps and who to talk to about trousers. Collecting chests and steel boxes, mammal traps, fishing supplies, notebooks, stationary, and calling cards. A butterfly net, added in pencil. A last minute idea, perhaps? A three barrel gun, cornmeal, oatmeal for traps, peanut butter; these items all make the list as well.
Mearns appears to have remembered everything, and these lists highlight the kind of expeditionary planning necessary for a successful trip. Not long after his initial meeting with Childs Frick, Mearns was on board the steamer Mauritania, bound for Liverpool, and from there, a train to London, Paris, Marseilles. The to-do lists became birds lists: herring gulls on the steamer, “only sparrows in London,” and gulls again as he sailed across the Mediterranean. Once Mearns reached northern Africa, there were additional expenses: wages for “skinner boys,” laundry, telegrams, more supplies—wires and salt. And then the collecting began. Some birds were observed and collected in Djibouti, and then, in late November the expedition adventured further afield.
This is one of several White-backed vultures collected by the Childs Frick Abyssinian Expedition. In fact, while still in the field, Dr. Mearns gathered together seven “fresh” examples of Gyps africanus for comparison. These pages of narrative description and preliminary analysis offer a glimpse of Mearns as a researcher as well as a collector (and perhaps amateur artist?).
He writes, “There are 7 fresh specimens before me. (See table of weights + measurements, p.39.) From the resemblance in size and form I am satisfied that these 7 are conspecific. The neck is long and slender, the skull narrow; nostril vertical, or parallel to side of base of culmen. Skin of head + neck is slaty black, like the bill + cere, head sparsely covered with fine hairs, thickest on top of head; color dirty white; neck more or less covered with tufts of whitish down, quite heavy on the nape; chest patch furry, sooty brown. Feet + claws slaty black. Iris, in all seven, very dark brown.”
Next, Mearns begins to compare their plumage and color variation, and as he describes the birds, it becomes clear that birds 4, 5, and 7 are adults, whereas birds 1, 2, 3, and 6 are immature. These younger birds hadn’t yet developed the characteristic white feathers on their backs and the “white under wing-coverts.”
This chart demonstrates the points of comparison Mearns used to examine this series of vultures — the seven examples of Gyps africanus, and two other birds: a black vulture (monachus) and a smaller bird he tentatively labeled as Lophaetus occipitalis, the Long-crested Eagle. Though bringing together Mearns’s field notes and birds has meant a focus on the context of their collection, the careful examination and comparison of specimens gathered and prepared by a broad network of naturalists is central to ornithological work.
Field notes, November 1-November 27, 1911. Includes: a list of collected birds; itinerary, October 28-November 25, 1911 (Washington, D.C., to Dire Daoua), 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 25, folder 1.
Correspondence between Secretary Walcott, Childs Frick, and Edgar Mearns, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 23, folder 21.
Notes on birds seen from Aletta to Escarpment, March 7-September 4, 1912, 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 25, folder 5.
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