Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Heroes of the Birding Revolution VIII - Ernst Hartert

Ernst Hartert, 1859-1933

Born in Hamburg, Germany, on October 29th 1859, to an army General, who was later posted to Pillau, Prussia, as a Kommandent. Whatever happened to Prussia? Home of colourful kings, some wars that everyone has heard of but few can explain (Austro-Prussian War, anyone?), vast estates, and eventual abolition. At school we had a history teacher who was always umming and erring as he talked, and he often dropped his ‘aitches’. Not like I drop them, from being common, but a kind of well-spoken way of knowing when to drop your aitches. I remember he was telling us about cruel King Frederick William of Prussia, who would spit on his family’s plates before the food was served, and, I quote… “ was a beggarly sod who errrr… used to drag his daughters round the errrr…. palace by their errrrrr…. ’air!”. True. I’ve forgotten EVERYTHING else he told us about Frederick William, and indeed even why we were being told about him. Just goes to show. I’m not show what it shows, but there’s a lesson there.

Ernst, a keen self-taught naturalist from childhood, became an avid egg collector in the flushing meadows and babbling streams of Konisberg, learnt to skin birds and would head off into the marshes on a whim. His researches as a young adult lead to the publication of the bird life of Prussia (274 species documented – not bad) in an Austrian magazine. In 1885/6, at the age of 25, he headed off on a 16 month tour of Africa, collecting and skinning birds, then a year later followed up with a trip to the Far East and India – Sumatra, Penang, Calcutta, Assam, Bombay. Actually he was collecting insects mostly, at least at first. Bagged some birds though, and on his return he was lured to England by the siren wail of God’s Own Job at the British Museum errrr… cataloguing the Swifts and Nightjars, it says here. But which of us can truly resist a good goatsucker? He published this, and then sensibly ran away – took his wife round Central America to have a good long hard look at some live birds. Six months later, 1892, with a nice tan and a stomach upset that scared small children in the street, he really did land God’s Own Job – Director of the fabulously wealthy Lord Rothschild’s Museum at Tring, where he stayed for 38 years contributing to the amassing of the greatest private collection of birds in the World (eventually 280,000 specimens), and, importantly, keeping on top of their classification and taxonomy. He joined the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1893 and then the Club and spent 40 years attending their dinners and bringing along interesting specimens. He made many trips to North Africa to collect birds, often in the company of Lord Rothschild, assembling a fantastic representation of the region’s birds. He also had a special interest in East India and the Far East, and wrote many papers in Novitates Zoologicae (the Tring in-house journal), Bull. BOC, Ibis, British Birds, and the like.

He became an honorary member of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1902. Between 1903 and 1922 he published his greatest work, Die Vogel der palaarktischen Fauna, a product of a brilliantly organised mind backed up by the greatest reference collection ever seen. Publication was in 3 parts but suspended during the Great War. As a German in Britain, this was what BB called, with probably outrageous understatement, a time of ‘great difficulty’ for Hartert. Although he was at home in Britain, he retained his accent and continental airs, which must have lead to daily difficulties, even though his son died fighting on the British side. After the war, he instigated the revival of the International Ornithological Congress, on the sound basis that birds do not recognise political boundaries. Birds do recognise vicious territorial disputes, but maybe it wasn’t good to carry the analogy too far.

To ignorant monoglot Brits (not pointing any fingers) it is actually his 1912 Hand-list of British Birds that remains the most enduring influence. Hartert was first author of four, the other three being the British Birds triumvirate of editors – Harry Witherby (Hero of the Birding Revolution), FCR Jourdain (future edition: Egg-collecting Hero of the Birding Revolution – not yet documented) and Norman Ticehurst (future edition: Hero of the Birding Revolution). I’ve pasted in a random page – looks pretty normal to us, but it is impossible to describe how revolutionary (at least in Europe) it was at the time, with subspecies recognised by use of trinomials, and strict adherence to the International Rules of Zoological Nomenclature, even when it meant changing a lot of well established scientific names. It was his advocacy, as one half of the Seebohm-Hartert axis, of the recognition of subspecies and the use of trinomials that changed Europe’s landscape. The Practical Handbook of British Birds came next (1924), for which he was the expert in nomenclature and classification. He recognised and named 18 new subspecies of British bird, documented numerous type specimens from around the world, and landed the BOU’s Salvin Gold medal in 1929, one year before retirement and the trip back ‘home’ to Berlin. Back in Berlin, he was given a room to himself to work in the Berlin Museum, which he used until his death on 11th November 1933. After Hartert left Britain, the Rothschild Collection was sold and packaged off to the States under circumstances that Lord Rothschild would probably have preferred to have avoided – between the loss of the Tring collection and the Ernie’s death, the heyday of ‘British’ taxonomy was over, and a long-term decline set in.

Ernst Johann Otto Hartert. At the turn of the 20th century you dragged European taxonomy kicking and screaming into a modern age, in the face of extraordinary resistance to the use and recognition of subspecies. You single-handedly managed the greatest logistical one-man taxonomic band ever known, in the shape of the Rothschild collection, and sorted out the mess left by other people’s attempts to organise their own collections, without which European taxonomy could not move on. For this you are recognised as a Hero of the Birding Revolution, first class.

Adapted from his obituary in British Birds, February 1934.

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