War Ornithologists

The two great wars that marked the first half of the 20th century saw a substantial number of recruits mobilized and sent to the front. Given that the recruits were from all walks of life, inevitably there were some who were passionate about the natural sciences. Despite harrowing living conditions, some soldiers tried to document the “natural” environment in which they were immersed. The Canadian Museum of Nature holds specimens dating from these difficult times; here are three examples.

rev_CMNAV_13020

Left: a magpie collected in Flanders in March 1917 by Major Allan Brooks. Catalogue number: CMNAV 13020. Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica). Image : Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature Right: Major Allan Brooks. Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Public domain.

Allan Brooks (1869–1946) was a wildlife artist living in British Columbia. He had joined the militia even before the start of the First World War, and spent the entire period from 1914 to 1918 in England and France.

In 1917, he was posted at Mont des Cats in Flanders (a place that would be the scene of a significant German offensive). It was there that he was able to collect some bird specimens, and pass them on to his colleague Percy Taverner, the first ornithologist of what is now the Canadian Museum of Nature. It is known that Brooks partly lost his hearing while at the front, to the point where he said he was “no longer able to hear the song of the skylark”

Upon his discharge, Allan Brooks had reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Back home, he contributed illustrations to Percy Taverner’s 1926 Birds of Western Canada. Brooks deposited many of his European specimens with the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Birds in the War-Zone, written in October 1916, describes his ornithological observations in Europe. Notably, he wrote that some birds did not seem to be unduly affected by artillery fire, which sometimes lasted for hours.

Ventral view of a quail specimen and a close-up view of one of the tags attached to the bird's feet. Showing the text: Coturnix c. coturnix L .; 29.V.1943; Kasar bei Orel, Russland.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has specimens from both sides of the front. Here, a quail collected in Russia in 1943 by a soldier of the German army. Catalogue number: CMNAV 68810. Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix). Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The young Viennese ornithologist Rudolf Tomek (1913–1943) was an employee of the Provincial Museum of Lower Austria. When Germany annexed Austria, he was conscripted into the army and sent to the front, in Russia, in 1942. The following year, he was killed during a Russian counteroffensive in the Orel region, south of Moscow.

Tomek had managed to send some birds collected in Russia to the Vienna Museum of Natural History. By a singular combination of circumstances, one of these specimens (a Common Quail) was part of a 1979 exchange of specimens between this Austrian museum and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Ventral view of a Grey-faced Buzzard specimen and close-up view of the tags attached to the bird's legs. It reads among others: Japan, Okinawa; Butastur indicus; October 13, 1945; A. R. Phillips.

This hawk is among the specimens collected by Corporal Allan R. Phillips as part of research on Japanese encephalitis vectors on Okinawa Island after the US landing in 1945. Catalogue number: CMNAV 96710. Grey-faced Buzzard (Butastur indicus). Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Allan R. Phillips (1914–1996) was a biologist best known for his work on the birds of Arizona and Mexico. In 1942, while a doctoral student in ornithology at Cornell University (New York, USA), he was enlisted in the US Army.

After surviving the Normandy landing in 1944, he was dispatched to Japan during the invasion of Okinawa Island in 1945. On the island, he met by chance a Cornell colleague, Sergeant Frank Cassell, who assigned Phillips to medical research

Corporal Phillips thus found himself studying the birds of Okinawa Island as potential vectors of Japanese encephalitis. Some of the specimens collected during this period now belong to the Canadian Museum of Nature which acquired part of Phillips’ collections in 1980.

(Translated from French)

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