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Who was "Todd"?

Jack E. Solomon
February 2011

Birders in western Pennsylvania trace their ancestry to W. E. Clyde Todd, the late Curator of Birds at Carnegie Museum and Fellow Emeritus of the prestigious American Orithologists' Union. Todd lived much of his life in Beaver County and birded heavily in Butler County. He was a great scholar, and left a legacy of written material, as well as a gift of the original tract of land that founded the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania's (ASWP's) Todd Sanctuary in the 1940s. It helps me when I think about where we should go as a club to reflect on where we've been. If our genealogy as birders doesn't necessarily begin with Todd, he still stands as a giant presence.

Alas, I never met him, though I often wandered through the Section of Birds at the museum while he was there. My own focus on birding arose from a general interest in natural history, and the birding torch in me didn't ignite until a year after Mr. (He never obtained a doctorate, indeed, he never finished college) Todd's death. He died at 95 years of age in 1969, when I was about 28 years old.

As a member of ASWP, I was shown Todd Sanctuary, and I read a booklet he wrote, still available from ASWP, titled "Birds of the Buffalo Creek Valley" which chronicles his boyhood interest in birding, done over the sights of a shotgun in the late 19th century, in the wooded hills of southeastern Butler County.

My general account and quotes in the next several paragraphs are taken from a memorial article in the American Ornithologists' Union journal, The Auk, October 1970, No. 4, Vol. 87, written by Todd's colleague and successor as curator of birds, Ken Parkes, with whom I served on ASWP's board. (Thank you Randi Gerrish, for giving me a copy.)

At age 14 in 1889, Todd published an account in The Auk extending the known breeding range of the Magnolia Warbler. I still remember being amazed to read that, suspecting he had seen the nesting warblers, he hurried to buy a shotgun and dispatched the bird to document the identification. The thought of someone shooting a nesting warbler still gives me the willies, but birding with binoculars did not become popular until improvements in optics and field guides made it possible decades later.

Advised that he "could not have chosen a worse profession to gain even the plainest sort of living" than to try to become a professional ornithologist, Todd started college at Geneva with plans to become a railroad man, perhaps to direct train operations.

He promptly quit school when a position as a "messenger... at a salary of $50 per month" was made available to him in the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Though he never went back to college his high school education was clearly of a different quality than ours. His "grounding in Latin and Greek was so thorough that he served as classical advisor to his Carnegie Museum colleagues throughout his career," and his writing skill in English would be hard to improve.

One of his books, Birds of Western Pennsylvania (1940) given to me by a woman who knew him personally, is a classic, used to this day by those who want to compare the range and population of birds in our region with data from the the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When Graham Netting, former Director of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum (1954 – 1975) was awarded ASWP's prestigious W. E. Clyde Todd Award back in the nineteen seventies, I was lucky enough to hear him tell stories about old Mr. Todd (Todd was fairly old when Netting knew him). Netting said Todd had the old-fashioned work ethic, and came in to work at his office at the museum in Pittsburgh's Oakland section daily, without receipt of a salary, after he retired. He would take the train from Beaver County to Downtown Pittsburgh, then walk the several miles to the museum.

As time passed, Todd could no longer walk quite that far, so the museum arranged a taxi, having the fare billed directly to museum. Word from the cab drivers eventually reached the higher offices of the museum, to the effect that Todd, raised in the 19th century and retaining some of its more austere practices, did not tip. Further arrangements were made to include a tip in the payments from the museum. One cabbie, however, made a point of getting his views on record. He let it be known that he would gladly be assigned to bringing Mr. Todd to work, and a tip was not a concern, because "you could ask him any question you wanted about birds!"

Todd was an inspiration to local bird enthusiasts such as the late Joe Grom, "K" and Betty Abbott, and others who knew him. His devotion to meticulous scientific study was renowned, and his residual influence was one reason why many local amateur birders have participated in projects to collect data that professionals find useful.

With such an illustrious scientist in our immediate birding history, I hope Todd Bird Club will participate in lots of activities that add useful data to ornithology beyond our recording of sightings in the newsletter and on our web site. Of course, we're still a young bird club composed mainly of hobbyists who bird because it's fun. And I wouldn't want it any other way. Few of us are budding Todds, nor do most of us want to be. The encouragement of good birders to share their talent by leading outings is still what I regard as any bird club's immediately important challenge.

Yet we are named for W. E. Clyde Todd and have also been challenged, for example, by Pennsylvania Audubon's need for volunteers to collect data for Important Bird Areas. Projects such as the Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas, were compiled and updated mainly with data from amateur birders like us, and other scientific activities such as Breeding Bird Surveys and Special Area Projects to monitor bird life could use our help.

We are just a scant few decades old, still unknown to some birders in our region, still struggling to fill the calendar with outings. It will be up to our leaders and members whether we can devote more energy and resources to research.

But we stem from great stock, and I feel we will give something to birders and ornithological research in the 21st Century, in the same spirit as those who supported and assisted W. E. Clyde Todd in the 19th and 20th.

Western Tanager, Dixie NF, Utah 6/23/2019, Marg Higbee

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