Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
March 16, 2021

Bicknell: the Bird and the Man

Bicknell: the Bird and the Man
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With snow and ice still reluctant to make way for long-awaited signs of spring, bird species know that warm weather is indeed on its way, and many are already en route back to their Catskills breeding grounds. For many of us, robins are a telltale sign that spring has sprung. If you're hiking in the high country, though, you might be lucky enough to hear a Bicknell's thrush, back from its winter home in Hispaniola. Although its range is not limited to the Catskills, the bird was discovered here in the 19th century, by Eugene P. Bicknell. To tell us more about the man behind the bird, I spoke with Jeremy Kirchman, Curator of Birds at the New York State Museum.

This episode originally aired as part of Catskill Historical Views, an audio companion to Catskill Tri-County Historical Views, published by the Gilboa Museum & Juried History Center, with support from the Zadock Pratt Museum. Thanks to Humanities New York for their support.

--- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/kaatscast/support


Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via otter.ai

Brett Barry  0:03  
Welcome to Kaatscast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture, and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. With snow and ice still gripping some parts of the Catskills, bird species know that warm weather is indeed on its way and many are already in route back to their Catskills breeding grounds. For many of us, robins are a telltale sign that spring has sprung. If you're hiking in the high country (though), you might be lucky enough to hear the Bicknell's thrush back from its winter home in Hispaniola. To tell us more about this rare Catskills bird and its namesake (Eugene P. Bicknell), I spoke with Jeremy Kirchman (Curator of Birds at the New York State Museum).

Jeremy Kirchman  0:53  
Okay, my name is Jeremy Kirchman. I am the curator of birds at the New York State Museum here in Albany, New York.

Brett Barry  1:01  
What's the status of the museum these days during the pandemic?

Jeremy Kirchman  1:03  
We are still closed. We've been closed since March. So we've been closed almost the whole year. The building is open to staff, but a lot of staff are telecommuting either full-time or part-time, so I'm here today but I'm not here every day. Anything that I can do from home on my laptop, I'm doing at home. Anything that's collections based or lab work I come in to do.

Brett Barry  1:26  
You wrote an article in the Fall 2020 issue of Catskill Tri-County Historical Views about Bicknell's thrush. Who was Eugene Bignell...who this bird was named for?

Jeremy Kirchman  1:38  
Eugene P. Bicknell was an amateur ornithologist. He was a very influential and successful ornithologist, so he was amateur only in the sense that it wasn't his profession. His...his profession was that he was in international banking and like a lot of wealthy men of his era, he was interested in natural history specimen collecting and natural history study since he was a young boy and he was one of the founders of the New York Linnaean Society (The Linnaean Society of New York) and also the American Ornithologists' Union, which is now known as the American Ornithological Society...and so he was around when ornithology was really blossoming in the United States and when there was a lot of new discoveries being made about the basic biology of birds and bird distributions and things like that. So he wrote papers (beginning when he was a teenager) about the birds that he studied in and around his family's estate, which was in Riverdale-on-Hudson (which is now in the Bronx)...and so from a very young age, he was interested in studying birds with binoculars and also collecting bird specimens and making a specimen collection that he could use to perform comparative studies about basic bird biology, which birds live there during which times of the year in which birds lived in other habitats and things like that.

Brett Barry  3:06  
And this was a hobby of his that turned into much more he, as you say, he was with the banking firm (Monroe & Company), but he was also a member of the big scientific societies of the day. He authored 100 scientific publications. Is that what you mean when you call him a gentleman naturalist and was that common at the time?

Jeremy Kirchman  3:28  
Yeah. That's exactly what I mean and...and yes, it was the way that most science got done in those days. There wasn't a lot of professional science being done. Universities might have a small number of professors, but there were not nearly as many universities back then...and so there were not a lot of people whose job was to be an ornithologist, but there was a lot of ornithology getting done...and so Bicknell was not alone (even in smaller), you know, in...in and around New York and Philadelphia and Boston. There were lots of gentlemen naturalists who were involved in these societies and clubs, making their living in the business world, but spending all their free time in the field or in the museum collection, writing really the first scientific studies of birds.

Brett Barry  4:17  
I guess we call that citizen science today.

Jeremy Kirchman  4:19  
Yes, that's right. They're the kind of people that today would have a, you know, very expensive pair of binoculars and a spotting scope and a collection of bird books in their home and whom might take trips to Peru to go look for hummingbirds and things like that. So yeah, the people who are really into birding today are sort of the descendants of the gentleman naturalists of the 19th century, including Bicknell and...and other people like him.

Brett Barry  4:43  
And he used his ears, too. He was a bird vocalization expert.

Jeremy Kirchman  4:46  
Yeah. That's right. He was a bit of a pioneer where that's concerned because most of the bird study that was going on in those days was collections based so going out and either collecting eggs and egg sets and nests and preserving them in a collection or shooting birds and stuffing them and making study skins and Bicknell used field glasses look today we would call binoculars just as much as he used the shotgun and that was kind of unusual for the...for the time...and so he developed a very keen ear and could identify the birds of New York by their vocalizations and wrote a lot about that. So many of his papers concerned the vocalizations of birds. He wrote a six-part series of papers that was published in the AUC in the 1880s about the song life of birds.

Brett Barry  5:36  
And you mentioned the shotgun, you say in your article that birds were secured and collected, which I think is a euphemism for killing the bird, right?

Jeremy Kirchman  5:46  
Yeah. That's right. The...when...when someone would get a specimen in their hands, they...they'd said...the, you know, the bird was secured. Yeah, we still use the verb collect to refer to modern specimen collecting. The work that I do here at the museum involves taking care of century old specimens, including those that were collected and prepared by Bicknell, but we also are adding new specimens to the collection all the time. Any large natural history museum that has an active program in ornithology is still engaged in the act of collecting birds in Bicknell's day that was sort of a free-for-all and it was a hobby and there was no laws regulating that kind of thing and in the 20th century, laws were developed to protect wild bird populations that they wouldn't be over exploited mostly for commercial reasons, but also by overzealous scientific collecting...and so the collecting that goes on nowadays is mostly salvaging birds that have died for other reasons for natural reasons, but it's all very well regulated by permits and (really) nobody can do it except a very small number of scientists who are engaged in active research programs.

Brett Barry  6:51  
Bicknell published a series of papers in 1882 that you say cemented his ornithological legacy. Can you explain what those were about?

Jeremy Kirchman  6:59  
The trips that he took into the Catskills were intended to fill the gap of knowledge of the birds of those high elevation areas...and so, even though the Catskills are very close to New York City and there was a lot of ornithological activities centered around New York City and the New York City museums, there was almost nothing known about the avifauna of the Catskills and Bicknell recognized this. It was at a time when there was access to the Catskills through railroads and steamships...and so, he planned a series of trips (in 1880 and 1881) to visit the Catskills and survey of the breeding birds and it was the result of those trips that he published these three papers in 1882 (actually only two of those papers were written by Bicknell). The first one was a description of the birds of the Catskills, which is published by the Linnaean Society of New York and it was really the first study of what birds live there at different elevations. He was in addition to being a great ornithologist in the field was a very accomplished botanist...and so the descriptions of the habitats that he walks through as he goes up the mountains in the Catskills are very detailed and he identifies all the tree species and all the shrubs and things that are in the undergrowth. So it was really a sort of an ecological description of the habitats and the birds that live in the Catskills. So that was the first paper. The second paper was actually written by Robert Ridgway, who was the curator of birds at the Smithsonian at the time. Bicknell having made this discovery of this thrush that he thought was new to science (sent his series of specimens to Ridgway) and Ridgway wrote the paper in 1882 that describes Bicknell's thrush, and then the third paper was a follow up to that because Bicknell realized that the type of paper that you write when you describe a new species is just a description of the specimens and the application of the new name and doesn't really say anything about the biology of the bird...and so his third paper was the follow up to the Ridgway paper, in which he describes the habitat where you find Bicknell's thrush breeding and also describes the series of events that took place when he made the discovery.

Brett Barry  9:15  
Now obviously, before he discovered the Bicknell's thrush, it wasn't called the Bicknell's thrush. What characterizes a thrush and what makes this one different or identified for the first time from...from others?

Jeremy Kirchman  9:31  
Well, thrushes refer to any large number of species that are in the family turdidae, so it's a family of birds. They're globally distributed. Here in New York, we have the American robin and the eastern bluebird. Those are both considered species of thrush, even though they don't have thrush in their names. So in the Catskills, there are several species of thrushes that were known to be breeding birds there in Bicknell's time that includes wood thrush and it includes Swainson's thrush and it also includes hermit thrush and the veery, but there was also another species thrush in that same group. That's called gray-cheeked thrush, but which was not known to breed in the United States. It's a very northern breeding species that today occurs from Newfoundland all the way across Canada into Alaska...and so when Bicknell was in the Catskills, he was at a high elevation on Slide Mountain and a Swainson's thrush came across his path and he shot the bird and collected the specimen and while he was dealing with the specimen, another thrush crossed his path and began to sing and he recognized that it had a vocalization which was not the same as the Swainson's thrush. In fact, it reminded him of the veery, but veeries are not found that high up on the mountains, they're sort of a low elevation bird...and so he collected that bird as well and when he had it in his hand, he realized immediately that it looked like a gray-cheeked thrush because he had gray-cheeked thrushes in his specimen collection that were birds that had passed through New York during the spring and fall migration...and so he really realizes immediately that there's a population of gray-cheeked thrushes breeding at high elevations in the Catskills and...and that it sings a different song that more closely approximates the song of the veery than it did the Swainson's thrush and so he sort of returns back to the base camp knowing that he's got something important in his hands.

Brett Barry  11:25  
And is it a gray-cheeked thrusher? Is it a completely different species?

Jeremy Kirchman  11:28  
Well, at the time, it was considered to be a subspecies of gray-cheeked thrush. So (Bicknell) being a student of bird vocalizations knew that the voice of the Bicknell's thrush was slightly different from the gray-cheeked thrush and looking at the specimens side by side, he could see that the...the ones that were breeding in the Catskills were smaller and had a slightly different color of brown on their back than the ones that migrate through here that presumably breed to the north of us...and so after he had sorted through all of his specimens that he had collected during the fall migrations, he realized that they sort of fall out into two size classes as well. There's the larger ones, which were presumably the northern gray-cheeked thrush, and then this smaller version that's breeding at high elevations in New York, in which he correctly guessed was probably also breeding in the Adirondacks and in the Green Mountains and in the White Mountains in New England...and so he sends this series of specimens to Robert Ridgway at the Smithsonian and says, "I think this is something different. I've got some anecdotal observations about its vocalizations and what do you think," and Ridgway laying out his much larger series of specimens that was available to him at the Smithsonian agrees and says, "Yes, this is definitely something different. It's definitely very close to the gray-cheeked thrush," and so he named it as a subspecies of gray-cheeked thrush and it isn't until many decades later that it was realized by further study that they're distinct enough to constitute a full species.

Brett Barry  12:55  
And he discovered this bird in the area that is Big Indian/Slide Mountain?

Jeremy Kirchman  12:59  
Yeah. That's right.

Brett Barry  13:00  
And that's just one area where they can be found, but what's the range of this bird?

Jeremy Kirchman  13:06  
Well, they live only above 3,000 feet of elevation in the Catskills, so they're really only on the very tallest mountains in the Catskills. When you hike uphill in the Catskills or in the Adirondacks, you (sort of) go through this deciduous forest, and then there's a transition zone where you start to see birch trees and fir trees, and then when you get up into the...what we would call the boreal forest zone, you're surrounded by stunted spruce and fir trees and that's the habitat that you find Bicknell's thrush breeding in, so anywhere that you find that kind of habitat, you can find Bicknell's thrushes. So they're found in the Adirondacks, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, in the White Mountains in Maine and New Hampshire, and then also in Cape Breton Highlands of Nova Scotia, and in the Christmas Mountains of New Brunswick, and in some high elevation areas in southern Quebec as well. So it's sort of a New York/New England maritime distribution, but it's very locally distributed, which means it's not found everywhere. You have to be in the right habitat and in down here, you have to be in sort of the highest elevation places.

Brett Barry  14:11  
And this is the area where he discovered the Bicknell's thrush that John Burroughs called "The Heart of the Southern Catskills" and he wrote an essay about his hikes up Slide Mountain or his attempts at hiking Slide Mountain and also hearing this bird.

Jeremy Kirchman  14:23  
Yes, that's right. That's right. So the Slide Mountain is what you would call the type locality for that newly discovered species, but you can also find it if you're hiking up in the Blackhead, Black Dome, Windham Range on the Devil's Path going up, Sugarloaf and Indian Head and Hunter Mountain in all those places.

Roland Smith  14:44  
It seemed as if the bird was blowing in a delicate slender golden tube, so fine and yet so flute like and resonant, the song appeared. At times, it was like a musical whisper of great sweetness and power. The birds were numerous about the summit, but we saw them nowhere else. No other thrush was seen. Though a few times during our stay, I caught a mere echo of the hermit song far down the mountainside.

Brett Barry  15:20  
And then come winter, they head down to Dominican Republic and Haiti, I think?

Jeremy Kirchman  15:26  
Yeah. They're basically a Caribbean bird during the winter, so they arrived here in late May. They're breeding in June and July. They're taking their young out of their territories in August and when September rolls around, they start to migrate south (down the east coast of the United States), and then they make the leap up into the Caribbean and most of the wintering population is on the island of Hispaniola, so Dominican Republic and Haiti, but there's a small number of them that also winter in Cuba and Jamaica, the place where you find the most of them is in the high elevation cloud forests. So places that are cool and perpetually moist.

Brett Barry  16:05  
The Catskills...in terms of their breeding grounds...are the southernmost portion of the range, but that's where they were discovered. So it's...it's kind of interesting to me that of all the other places that they show up, no one had identified them in those areas.

Jeremy Kirchman  16:22  
I think that's probably because the Catskills are the most accessible of these...of these places, you know, there's close proximity to big cities where there would have been a lot of people who are interested in ornithology and you can get there by train...and so you wouldn't have to have a major expedition to get into the Catskills (the way you would have if you wanted to get into the White Mountains or even the Adirondacks).

Brett Barry  16:47  
You write in the article that today only 120,000 birds are estimated to be alive worldwide with only 4,000 in the Catskills with a 6.4% annual decline. Can you tell me more about that reduction in numbers?

Jeremy Kirchman  17:02  
Yeah. So the...the number of breeding pairs or the number of birds alive is estimated based on the amount of available habitat, and then that's extrapolated from, you know, the density of breeding pairs when you're in the right kind of habitat...and so the Catskills is the smallest of the populations just by virtue; the fact that it has the least amount of high elevation boreal forest and there's been some long-term studies, long-term meaning more than a decade, that have looked at the occupancy of different mountains throughout the range of Bicknell's thrush. This is an effort led by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. It's called mountain birdwatch and they use citizen scientists to survey hiking trails at dawn for Bicknell's thrush and other high elevation boreal forest songbirds each summer...and so there's been a number of papers that the Vermont scientists have published looking at population trends in Bicknell's thrush and in others and for the Bicknell's thrush what they've found is that in most of their range (across most of their range in the Adirondacks and places farther north and east). Populations are stable over the last 10 or so years, but the population in the Catskills seems to be declining, as you said, at a rate of about 6% per year. So if you go back and look at their data, which are available (freely available) to all citizens on their...on their web page, you can see where that...where the routes are and you can see how many birds have been found along each route going back each year...and so there is some concern that...that here at the southern periphery of their range. They might be getting either pushed uphill and off the tops of mountains or maybe they're being limited by competition from other thrush species that are becoming more high elevation as they're pushed up by warming climates. So it's not really sure exactly what the causes of the declines are, but it is interesting that the only place in their range that is declining this much is the Catskills part of the range...and so it's something that we need to keep an eye on now and into the future and deserves a lot more study.

Brett Barry  19:19  
I suppose the Catskills being the southernmost portion of their breeding range would be the warmest.

Jeremy Kirchman  19:24  
Yeah. That's right. That you would expect that...that would be the first population that would be stressed by increased temperatures. They're really...they're really a, you know, a cold climate specialist they live in. They start breeding when there's still snow on the ground up there...and so they really like it cold.

Brett Barry  19:42  
And then going back to the man who discovered the bird, although the bird made him famous. He went on to make even greater contributions to the field of botany.

Jeremy Kirchman  19:50  
Yeah. You know when I was invited to write the article, I didn't know that, you know, I did a little bit of research right away and discovered that his obituaries were published in the bird journals, but also in the botany journals...and so, like I said, you know, he knew all the plants in all these different habitats where he was studying birds and it seems that as he aged, he sort of made a pivot from birds to plants...and so, this...this was especially true when he moved his family estate from Riverdale-on-Hudson to Long Island. So as after he got married and had a couple of kids, he moved the family down to Long Island and sort of became a specialist on plants that grow in the Long Island Pine Barrens and along the dunes and they took...they took trips every year to Martha's Vineyard in Cape Cod...and so he published some papers about the vegetation of those places, too. So he's sort of specializing in beach vegetation and as you might guess, there was lots of discoveries to be made along these lines back in the 19th century...and so he made at least as many good contributions to botany as he did to ornithology.

Brett Barry  21:00  
Yeah and again, I'm not sure how you juggle discovering plants and animals writing scientific papers and holding down a full-time job at a banking firm.

Jeremy Kirchman  21:10  
Yeah. I think he probably had a lot of help. I think...I think that he...they probably had a staff that helped run their house and I would say he was probably a tireless worker, but it still is amazing to think that a person could be a father and also a husband and also an ornithologist and a botanist and a banker.

Brett Barry  21:32  
Circling back to your museum, tell me a little bit about the collection there and Bicknell's place in it.

Jeremy Kirchman  21:39  
Well, the New York State Museum is the oldest state museum in the country...and so we've been collecting and interpreting natural history specimens since the 1840s. There was a, you know, began with the original biological and geological survey of the state and all the specimens that were collected back then became sort of the basis for the state natural history cabinet as it was known back then, and then the state museum...and so...over those many, many decades, there have been a small number of people who have held the job that I hold now and they throughout their own research careers have added specimens to the collection and the collection has also grown by adopting privately owned collections or collections that were teaching collections at regional universities. So (currently) we have over 20,000 or anthological specimens, 80% of which are birds collected in the state of New York, and Bicknell's collection of about 400 bird specimens came to us through Vassar College. So when he died, his widow donated his specimen collection to the Vassar Brothers Institute in Poughkeepsie and it was there for many decades and in the 1960s, Vassar was not interested in maintaining it or keeping it any longer. They wanted to renovate their classrooms and this was at a time when the value of museum collections was at its lowest, so people (sort of) thought of it as 19th century descriptive science. They didn't realize that there was such a thing coming as global warming and that people would be able to get DNA out of these old specimens, you know, now we know that there are many, many new uses for old specimens...and so they have this sort of renewed importance, but in the 1960s, the thing to do if you wanted to study birds was to study living birds in the field and study behavior and vocalization and migration and things like that...and so Vassar offered their collection to the New York State Museum and at that time, my predecessor here was Ralph Palmer and Palmer had been a professor at Vassar before he took the job of state ornithologist...and so he knew what was in that collection and he sent some of the most important specimens including the...the type series for Bicknell's thrush to a museum at Harvard, which is called the Museum of Comparative Zoology because that's a very important huge bird collection, and then everything else came here to Albany in 1969.

Brett Barry  24:09  
And are they on display or are they (kind of) in a back room for researchers to access on request?

Jeremy Kirchman  24:17  
They're in the research collection, so they're not available to the museum going public except on request. So the only birds that are on exhibit here at the museum are the birds in our Hall of Birds, which is in the exhibit called Birds of New York...and so those are taxidermy mounts that were prepared specifically for display, so they're in natural positions in there. They have glass eyes and their beaks and their feet are painted...and so they're the sort of typical bird mounts that you'd see in natural history museums. The research collection (the other 20,000 or so bird specimens) including all specimens from Bicknell are in metal cabinets on the third floor of the cultural ed center and available for viewing only by appointment. So we have visiting groups come from high schools and colleges (especially college professors that are teaching ornithology or vertebrate zoology). They can come use the specimen collection for that reason. Any scientist is able to visit the collection and make measurements or take samples from the specimens under supervision of myself and our collections manager and we also send specimens out from time to time on loans to researchers who need to use some of the material that's in the collection, but they can't make the time to visit. In addition, our whole collection is in a database...and so our holdings are downloaded from the database, and then supplied to three different internet portals. So people around the world can see what we have and make requests or...or just use the date and locality data that are associated with the digital specimen records...and so a lot of research gets done on our specimens without us even knowing it because we share the data with the world through the internet.

Brett Barry  26:01  
Wow...and is any of that available to the general public?

Jeremy Kirchman  26:03  
Oh, yeah. That's all available to the general public.

Brett Barry  26:05  
How do you access that?

Jeremy Kirchman  26:06  
Well, one of the portals is called VertNet...and so you can go to vertnet.org and that is a compilation of all the vertebrate specimen collections in all the major research museums in North America. So that includes bird collections, fish collections, mammal collections. They're all there in VertNet. Another one of the portals that we supply our data to is called iDigBio, the letter "I" and then "D-I-G," which is short for digitized, and then "BIO" also ".ORG," another specimen searching portal that is supported by the National Science Foundation and headquartered at the University of Florida. It's a huge set of websites that you can search all kinds of museum collections. and then we also share our data with GBIF, which is the global biodiversity information portal, which has museum digitized collections available for targeted searches globally.

Brett Barry  27:03  
Great...and then in terms of just getting in touch with your museum, where do you exist on the web?

Jeremy Kirchman  27:08  
Well, we're at nysm.nysed.gov. You can also just Google...New York State Museum. If you get to the New York State Museum's webpage (their homepage), you can click on the tab that says "Research & Collections," and then under that tab, you'll see all the different kinds of collections that we have here and you look for the ornithology collection. When you click on that, you'll see a picture of me and a description of the collection and all the contact information that you would need if you want to bring your school group here or if you want to use the collection for some sort of research project.

Brett Barry  27:41  
Great. Do you have a prediction on when you'll be open to the public again?

Jeremy Kirchman  27:44  
It's hard to say, you know, there are other museums that I know of that are opening up to the public, but because we're in the Empire State Plaza, it's a little bit tricky because it's an office building complex...and so they don't really want the public coming in when there's, you know, all these state workers in all these different buildings...and so we're connected underground to all the state agency buildings and the Corning Tower and all that...and so even though we are a building that is open to the public (normally), we're still closed to the public for the foreseeable future, I'm afraid. So you can...you can access the collection electronically and we can send things out, but we're not really inviting anybody and we don't have any students working in our labs yet. We don't have any volunteers working in the collections as we normally do. So it's a bit of a drag, you know, it's kind of quiet here on the third floor.

Brett Barry  28:33  
Well, we'll look forward to making the trip once you're up and running.

Jeremy Kirchman  28:36  
Yeah. Hopefully soon.

Brett Barry  28:40  
Thanks to Jeremy Kirkman for talking birds with me and to Roland Smith whose narration you heard in an excerpt from "The Heart of the Southern Catskills" by John Burroughs. It's part of a two-disc set available at silverhollowaudio.com. The Bicknell's thrush was recorded by William L. Hershberger and used by permission of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This episode originally aired as part of Catskill Historical Views and audio companion to Catskill Tri-County Historical Views published by the Gilboa Museum and Juried History Center with support from the Zadock Pratt Museum. For more on that series, go to catskilltricounty.org. Thanks to Humanities New York for their support. Please don't forget to subscribe to Kaatscast wherever you get your podcasts; and if you can rate the show, it will help other listeners find us. You can also join fellow listeners in supporting the show directly by going to kaatscast.com and clicking "Support." Audio production by Silver Hollow Audio. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening and happy spring!