Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Heroes of the Birding Revolution VII - Joseph Grinnell

Joseph Grinnell 1877 - 1939

A former biology teacher with a lifelong interest in natural history became California's foremost ornithologist and mammalogist. He was the founder and first director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley from 1908 until his death in 1939.

Joe was an enthusiastic field biologist who wanted to understand the relationship between an organism and its environment. He invented, or at least defined, what we now understand to be competitive exclusion. He pioneered and invented the concept of the ecological niche (published 1924) and gathered evidence to show that two different species cannot occupy the same niche at same time, because one will exclude the other. Millions of students worldwide are taught this, and it shapes their world view, but few know where it came from. Blame Joey.

Of course, this being the early 20th century, the art of writing wasn't quite dead, and his scientific works are quite entertaining to read. Check this, from California’s grizzly bears

Opinion frequently expressed by old-timers to the effect that grizzlies would not tolerate the presence of black bears within their home territories is borne out by the history of the respective geographic ranges of the two species: As that of the grizzly in certain parts of the State shrank, that of the black bear expanded - at least in those directions where factors of climate, food, and shelter were favorable to the latter species. Thus, at the south, in the Tehachapi-to-Santa Barbara tangle of chaparral-clothed mountains, up even to the 1890's the metropolis of grizzlies, as these beasts vanished, blacks (or browns) came in from the southern Sierra, to the eastward, spread and multiplied, until according to Forest Service reports they are now relatively numerous in Los Padres National Forest.

Grinnell was devoted to wildlife conservation, particularly through the National Park system, and performed numerous long term studies in Yosemite national Park. He recognised that California's wild lands and wildlife were under threat and used his ecological studies to suggest management plans. Perhaps his greatest insight was in recognising the value of baseline data - going out into the countryside and recording accurately what was there, such that 'after the lapse of many years, possibly a century, the student of the future will have access to the original recordof faunal conditions in California'. It took us in Britain over 50 years to catch up with that.

His strength was in accurate observation and record keeping: Grinnell and coworkers collected more than 20,000 specimens, took about 2,000 photographs, and filled 13,000 journal pages at over 700 study sites. Working for Joey sounds like hard slog - he required more from his collectors than the ability to bring home a dead bird in a bag. Each specimen had to be accompanied by detailed notes on the circumstances of its collection and (here comes the ecological niche bit), the surroundings and the weather. But don't be fooled into thinking he was dry and boring. Have a scout through his field notebooks, starting here and you see he's just a birder at heart. Good man. He was a keen student of subspecies too, and began to put two and two together regarding the role of natural selection in shaping ecological communities.

His vision is being followed up too... there is now a resurvey project going back to his old haunts

Many of his books and articles describing Californian avifauna are online (google them), but among the areas where he was ahead of his time are things like this:
Risks incurred in the introduction of alien game birds." Science 61:621-623

where he pointed out the detrimental effects of exotic introductions on native communities.

To my mind, this is the best bit... for all the great philosophers out there who believe they were the first ones to suggest that vagrant birds might be pioneers of new breeding or wintering areas, I'm afraid Joey got there before you. Read this and weep, from The role of the accidental. Auk 39 (1922): 373-380.

'But before the individuals within the metropolis of a species succumb directly or indirectly to the results of severe competition, or those at the periphery succumb to the extreme vicissitudes of unfavorable conditions of climate, food or whatnot obtaining there, the latter have served the species invaluably in testing out the adjoining areas for possibly new territory to occupy. These pioneers are of exceeding importance to the species in that they are continually being centrifuged off on scouting expeditions (to mix the metaphor), to seek new country which may prove fit for occupancy. The vast majority of such individuals, 99 out of every hundred perhaps, are foredoomed to early destruction without any opportunity of breeding. Some few individuals may get back to the metropolis of the species. In the relatively rare case two birds comprising a pair, of greater hardihood, possibly, than the average, will find themselves a little beyond the confines of the metropolis of the species, where they will rear a brood successfully and thus establish a new outpost. Or, having gone farther yet, such a pair may even stumble upon a combination of conditions in a new locality the same as in its parent metropolis, and there start a new detached colony of the species.'

See also this 'amusing' cartoon suggesting (horrors!) that birders might get frustrated by taxonomists recognising and naming taxa that are difficult to distinguish from each other. See, if you think you were the first to think of that, Grinnell was miles ahead.

That cartoon also demonstrates that the standard of publishable humour has improved dramatically in the last 80 years.

Joseph Grinnell - visionary, cleverclogs, pioneer of Biodiversity Action Plans(!), ecologist, taxonomist, collector, curator, rarity hunter, enthusiast. You shaped our modern view of what drives birds to do what they do. In the spirit of internationalism, I hereby name you a Hero of the Birding Revolution.

"We’d be sitting in camp, and we’d both be skinning. Pretty soon, he’d throw a rat over to me, and he’d say, 'Here, Russell, finish this one up,' and he’d just ... pick up his notebook, and start writing."
Ward Russell


John said...

Thanks for including a Californian among the ranks of the "heroes!" I don't think you mentioned that he co-authored the first comprehensive work on California bird distribtion (published postumously) - a book so thorough as to be almost ridiculous (who knew there were four races of California Quail?). Anyway, he really loved his subspecies. With all the splits in recent years you could say he was so far behind the times that he was actually ahead of them.

...Recent example...in "The Distribution of the Birds of California" he argued against the merger of Dendragapus obscurus & fulginosus into a single species (Blue Grouse). They were just re-split into separate species. It took 62 years, but he was finally vindicated.

Speaking of California birding, there is an important link between California and Scotland - namely Guy McCaskie. More than any other single person (post-Grinnell) he was responsible for kicking off the California birding revolution. To see what I mean, go to http://montereybay.com/creagrus/CAwhoGMcC.html - the info. there relates to the years 1965-1989, but he's still around and finding rarities. Maybe you have to be dead to be a hero, but that's what he is to California birders.

Martin said...

You don't have to be dead to be a hero. But it helps. ;-)

I won't rest til I've seen all four races of Californian Quail.