Although the Baird Ornithological Club is celebrating its centennial, the roots of the BOC can be traced deep into the 19th century, as far back as John James Audubon. Spencer Fullerton Baird, the club’s namesake, was born in Reading in the family home at the southwest corner of Fifth and Washington streets in 1823. The family moved to Carlisle when Baird was 6. He was an avid collector of all things related to natural history, and in his youth, Baird maintained a lively correspondence with Audubon after Baird had sent him a specimen of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a species then new to science. In return, Audubon named the Baird’s Sparrow, Amodramus bairdii – a bird of the Great Plains, in his honor. The Baird’s Sparrow is the last bird species described by Audubon and is the final plate in Audubon’s monumental work, The Birds of America. The Baird’s Sandpiper, Calidris bairdii, was also named for him in 1861.
Baird rose to prominence as the first curator of the National Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in 1850 and was named the second Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1878. He concurrently held the position of the first director of the United States Commission on Fish and Fisheries, establishing the Marine Biological Research Station in Woods Hole, Mass., where he died in 1887. His pioneering work with fisheries was honored by his fellow researchers with nearly 100species of marine life named for him. Baird himself named over 200 species.
Although he had left Reading, Baird still had ties to the city. One young man influenced by Baird was Levi Mengel, who would go on to found the Reading Public Museum. Mengel’s father was a lawyer for the Baird family, and Mengel in his unpublished autobiography recalls a dinner meeting with the great naturalist. “Well do I recollect the first time I ever saw Professor Spencer F. Baird,” Mengel writes. “When I was yet a little boy, one day we had a great guest for dinner. Can anyone picture my awe and amazement, when I gazed across the table and beheld the great Professor Baird? I was almost afraid to breathe.”Mengel goes on to recall how Baird listened to him intently and with interest as he showed him his own meager collection of stones that he had collected. Baird emphasized to Mengel the importance of labeling each specimen with the location it was collected. If there is one outstanding characteristic of the Baird Ornithological Club, it is this patient attention given to nature enthusiasts of all ages and abilities by its members during the monthly meetings and the many field trips to various spots in Berks County and beyond.
Levi Mengel in 1916 would bring Earl L. Poole to Reading as an art teacher and then assistant director to the Reading Public Museum. In 1921, Poole and Harold Morris formed the contemporary Baird Ornithological Club and held regular meetings at the Reading Public Museum. The first published reference to the BOC occurred in Bird-Lore, the forerunner of Audubon magazine, for the 1923 Christmas Bird Count. The Reading Christmas Bird Count began in1911, and only individuals submitted their records to Bird-Lore. Beginning in 1923 and continuing to the present, the BOC has organized and compiled every Reading Christmas Bird Count.
One distinguishing characteristic of the early BOC was its egalitarian nature. Very few scientific societies at the time admitted women to their ranks. For instance, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club has only allowed women to join since the 1980s.The BOC, however, welcomed women bird watchers, and Poole’s records from those times list Anna and Mary Dieter, Florence Hergesheimer, and Constance Kline as contributors. Catharine A. Feick served as the first woman president in 1952, and more recently Emma Gauge, Pamela Munroe, Ruth Adams, Katrina Knight, and Joanne Kintner have all served as president of the BOC. Lucy Cairns is the current president.
The BOC arrived just in time for two significant events that positively impacted the bird life of Berks County: the creation of Lake Ontelaunee in 1927 and the establishment of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in 1934. Poole was the driving force behind the early BOC and was the club’s president from its founding until 1946. He kept meticulous records and published his and BOC members’ findings in three books, The Bird Life of Berks County in 1930; A Half Century of Bird Life in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1947; and Pennsylvania Birds in 1964. “The most significant contribution of the BOC to ornithology has been the long-term recording, compilation and publication of the bird observations by its members,” said Rudy Keller of District Township, the club’s bird sightings compiler. “Poole used such observations, his own and those of others, made seasonally over many years, to produce his works on the status and distribution of the birds of Berks County and Pennsylvania. ”Bird observations made by BOC birders have been seasonally compiled and published in The Distelfink, the club’s quarterly newsletter, and in Pennsylvania Birds, a magazine founded in1987 by Barb and Frank Haas, of Narvon, Lancaster County, that publishes quarterly reports of bird sightings gathered by county compilers across the state. These extensive records enabled the BOC to publish an update to Poole’s 1947 work in 1997, the 335-page A Century of Bird Life in Berks County, Pennsylvania, one of the most comprehensive county bird books in the state and possibly the nation.
By Bill Uhrich, November 12, 2021. Biil is a longtime B.O.C. member and editor of A Century of Bird Life in Berks County, Pennsylvania
In Memorial for Longtime BOC member Matt Spence who passed away in October 2021.