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Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Division of Birds

Labrador Duck
Labrador Duck
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution

Lanius ludovicianus, collected January 24, 1898

Lanius label, E. A Mearns
USNM 163692 Lanius lucovicianus, Loggerhead Shrike, collected 24 Jan 1898 Photo Smithsonian Institution
USNM 163692, Lanius ludovicianus, Loggerheard Shrike

In the middle of the U.S.-Mexico International Boundary Survey, Edgar Mearns was reassigned to Fort Clark, Texas. His supervising officers attempted to get the orders changed, or at least delayed, so that he could continue his medical and biological surveying work, but orders were orders. In November of 1892, Mearns did his best to organize all that he’d collected thus far, and left the Boundary Commission camp on the San Pedro River to report for duty at Fort Clark. These new orders meant that Mearns’s family would be able to join him; they’d stayed behind at Fort Snelling when he left to join the survey. Plus, he’d heard good things about the area surrounding Fort Clark. As soon as he arrived, he wrote to his wife Ella, “This post suits me to a T. Compared with Arizona, it is a garden spot.”

Catalog of specimens from Mexican-US survey, E. A Mearns
Page from “Catalogue of specimens collected on the Mexican-United States International Boundary Survey,” Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083.
Page from “Catalogue of specimens collected on the Mexican-United States International Boundary Survey,” Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083.

Once he arrived at Fort Clark, it seems Mearns was happy to be there—and to be able to spend time with his family. He used this opportunity to collect as much as he could: tucked into the middle of his boundary survey specimen list are entries for 444 birds collected from Kinney County, TX. And then, six months later, he received orders to rejoin the survey. He returned to the exact spot he’d left from, and continued collecting material alongside the work of rebuilding the monuments marking the border as the group moved west to the Pacific. Once in California, Mearns had opportunities to collect natural history specimens even further afield, in the Channel Islands off the California coast. At survey’s end, Mearns was assigned to Fort Myer, in Virginia, where he was able to work through his boundary collections and prepare his report on the biological material of the nation’s southwestern border. But Mearns’s service at Fort Clark was not yet complete.

At the end of 1897, Mearns was assigned to return to Fort Clark. In March of 1898, just a few weeks after the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, Charles Richmond, Assistant Birds Curator wrote to Mearns, “People are standing about 500 deep in the halls of the Capitol trying to get into the Senate. There is a heavy quiet hanging over everything as if people were holding their breath waiting for something to go off. The newsboys are calling ‘extras’ on the street and war rumors are in the wind.” (And Richmond drew something resembling an American flag over the part of his letter where he asked Mearns, “When do you expect to be ordered East to fight Spaniards?”)

Field Notes, E. A Mearns
Charles Richmond to Edgar Mearns, March 5, 1898, Box 5, Correspondence-March 1898, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers,Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Charles Richmond to Edgar Mearns, March 5, 1898

Richmond’s letter gives us a sense of the uncertainty that soldiers faced, especially when “war rumors” were “in the wind.” But even amidst all of the excitement about the possibility of a war with Spain, Mearns continued to collect specimens. One of his field books from this period contains pages of notes not just about birds, but about mollusks, reptiles, plants, and fish. Furthermore, Fort Clark seems to have offered Mearns the time and space to not just collect, but also to conduct serious scientific inquiry. In particular, he began to look more carefully at variation in loggerhead shrikes.

List of Loggerhead Shrikes
Pages from “Miscellaneous Bird Notes,” Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083.
Mearns's list of Shrikes

He put together a list of all of the loggerhead shrikes he’d collected while stationed at Fort Verde, with the Boundary Survey, and during both of his details at Fort Clark. There is a rich record of correspondence from Mearns’s time at Fort Clark, suggesting that his post responsibilities allowed him plenty of time to write, think, and study. He sent cactus specimens to the Department of Botany; he exchanged letters with several well-known naturalists; he even began writing to other ornithologists about his plans to describe a new subspecies of shrike found on San Clemente Island. His own work with shrikes common in Texas would have aided him in comparing what he’d encountered in California with what he observed at Fort Clark.

Lanius specimens, E. A Mearns
Group of Loggerhead Shrikes collected by Mearns. USNM 163691, 163692, 163293, 134521
Group of Mearns's shrikes.

Joseph Grinnell offered to send female and juvenile birds he’d collected earlier in 1897 from San Clemente Island, and Rollo Beck mailed Mearns ten island shrikes from his personal collection. Beck described these shrikes as “the wildest land birds I ever saw by far,” and supposed that Mearns only had a few of them because of the challenge of collecting them. In another letter, Beck used the phrase “Life’s too short” in his description of how difficult it could be to gather shrikes for study! Both Grinnell and Beck would go on to become significant American naturalists; Grinnell later became the director of Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, and Beck became a noteworthy field collector. Robert Ridgway also contributed to Mearns’s efforts to understand potential differences between shrikes observed on the mainland and shrikes collected from the Channel Islands. Ridgway compared specimens in the museum’s collection, and wrote to Mearns at Ft. Clark with his impressions. (Several years later, Ridgway named a subspecies of shrike for Mearns: Lanius ludovicianus mearnsi.)

Loggerhead Shrike
Lanius ludovicianus USNM 134521, collected by E. A. Mearns
Lanius ludovicianus USNM 134521

In the summer of 1898, Mearns published “Descriptions of Two New Birds from the Santa Barbara Islands, Southern California” in The Auk. The birds he described were (1) Carpodcaus clementis, a new species of house finch, and (2) Lanius ludovicianus anthonyi, a new subspecies of shrike, which he named for A. W. Anthony, a naturalist who accompanied Mearns to San Clemente Island. (The trip had been momentous; upon his return, Mearns wrote a note to his mother to let her know that even though the papers had reported that he’d been shipwrecked, he was, in fact, fine.) In his description of this island shrike, Mearns drew on his correspondence with Grinnell, Beck, and Ridgway to explain both the bird’s physical features and its behavior. For example, Mearns quoted Grinnell describing how challenging it was to get close to one of these birds, even though he saw them regularly while on San Clemente Island. Even “the rustle of the tent door” was enough to send a shrike “up over the ridge, not to appear again for hours.”

Shortly after his article in The Auk came out, Mearns was ordered to report to Chickamauga, and then Camp McKenzie, in Augusta, Georgia, where he was assigned to duty with the Reserve Hospital Corps and School of Instruction, Second Army Corps. Once in Georgia, Mearns wrote to the National Museum to ask for materials to aid him in collecting around Chickamauga, and possibly in Puerto Rico. Even amidst more active duty, Mearns worked to make significant contributions to scientific knowledge—through collecting and through study.

***
Edgar Mearns to Ella Mearns, November 6, 1892, Box 1, Correspondence-Family, November 1892, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Charles Richmond to Edgar Mearns, March 5, 1898, Box 5, Correspondence-March 1898, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Joseph Grinnell to Edgar Mearns, August 4, 1897, Box 9, folder 9, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Record Unit 7083, USNM.

Rollo Beck to Edgar Mearns, April 20, 1898, Box 9, folder 9, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Record Unit 7083, USNM.

Robert Ridgway to Edgar Mearns, May 6, 1898, Box 9, folder 9, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Record Unit 7083, USNM.

Edgar Mearns, “Description of Two New Birds from the Santa Barbara Islands, Southern California,” The Auk, Vol, 15, No. 3 (July 1898), pp. 258-264.

Edgar Mearns to Mrs. A. Mearns, August 30, 1894, Box 1, Correspondence-Family, August 1894, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

George Merrill to Edgar Mearns, August 9, 1898, Box 5, Correspondence-August 1898, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

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