The beginning of Baird’s catalogs of birds

Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887) was a distinguished zoologist, educator, and scientific administrator. He served as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1878 until his death.

Baird’s last major publication was A History of North American Birds, 3 volumes that were co-authored with Thomas Brewer and Robert Ridgway. The entry for the California condor is in the last volume and includes this illustration by Edwin L. Sheppard of a condor chick:
01 BBR 1974 - chick
“BBR”, as this book is sometimes known (the initials of the authors’ last names), was published in 1874. It is the end of a string of comprehensive works about birds by Baird. In this post I present what appears to be the beginning of that string.

In 1847, Baird presented “Lectures on Land Birds” to the freshman class at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pennsyvlania). Here is the title page for these notes:
02 Baird 1847 - title page
The lecture notes, totaling 65 pages, are now housed at the Smithsonian Institution.

“Lectures on Land Birds” has much in common with BBR. Both are catalogs of birds organized by their scientific classification. Basic information about the species and families is provided. Unlike BBR, and not surprisingly, the lecture notes are written in an abbreviated style and there are no illustrations.

Below are the portions of the 2 pages of notes concerning the California condor. Following each is my best, but incomplete, attempt to understand Baird’s handwriting and then my comments:
03 Baird 1847 - text 1
Family Vulturidae. Characters [???]
Vultur. Nostril [???]
Cathartes. [???]
Sarcorhamphus. Crest on nose.
Gypaetes. Bearded. [???]
[???]. [???].
Regulate dead bodies
Vultur. 2 or 3 species in Europe large.
Cathartes. 4 species.
+++++++californianus

Cathartes californianus was a scientific name for the California condor at the time these notes were written. The word following “nostril” likely refers to the Vultur having a separator between the nostrils, which is lacking in Cathartes (I am referring here to the names that Baird used, names that are no longer valid).

04 Baird 1847 - text 2
West Rocky Mts. Eats fish. Salmon on Columbia
river. Hop or run to rise. Wt 25 to 35 lbs. Build
on Columbia Pines. Eyes [???]. Incubate 29 or 30 days.
White down on young. Eat stag or horse in hour.
Difficult to shoot. Plumage. Tubes tobacco pipes.

“Build on Columbia Pines” likely refers to the nests. The last 3 words refer to the use of feather quills as tobacco pipes. This information is based on reports by others, not first-hand observations.

(Please contact me if you are able to fill in any of the gaps in my interpretation of the handwriting.)

This set of lecture notes is not in George Goode’s annotated bibliography of Baird’s publications. That bibliography lists only 9 publications dated 1847 or earlier, all of which have a much narrower subject than the lecture notes.

Goode’s bibliography includes this photograph of Baird:
05 Goode 1883 - Baird

Baird’s “Lectures on Land Birds”, completed 27 years before the publication of BBR, and Baird’s related works published in the intervening years (some of which are noted below), exemplify how major scientific publications such as BBR are often the result of incremental efforts over the course of an entire career.


Complete dictionary of scientific biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 2008.

Baird, S F, T M Brewer, and R Ridgway. A history of North American birds. Little, Brown. 1874.

Goode, George Brown. Bibliographies of American naturalists: I. The published writings of Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1843-1882. Government Printing Office. 1883.

Baird, Spencer F. Birds. In Reports of explorations and surveys to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Beverly Tucker. 1858.

Baird, Spencer F. Catalogue of North American birds, chiefly in the museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections. 1859.

Baird, Spencer Fullerton, John Cassin, and George N Lawrence. The birds of North America. Lippincott. 1860.

Baird, Spencer Fullerton. Review of American birds in the museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Institution. 1866.