Elon Howard Eaton came to the Colleges at the time of the founding of William Smith College in 1908 and taught for 26 years. He established and was head of the biology department, teaching classes in biology and ornithology, among others. The most obvious of Professor Eaton’s legacies is a building on campus that bears his name. However, his impact on both the Colleges and the national scientific community is vast – and ongoing. Recently, Eaton’s meticulous collection and cataloging of specimens has enabled new research into extinct species of birds using DNA sampling techniques not imagined in Eaton’s time.
In 2012, Eaton’s collection of approximately 1,000 taxidermic birds was transferred from the Colleges to the New York State Museum, an institution for which Eaton was state ornithologist and acted as curator for six years. Researchers use such skins to look at certain species and measure a variety of features including wing span, for example. The collection had been housed on campus since Eaton developed it and conditions were not optimal for preservation or research.
Jeremy J. Kirchman, Ph.D., curator of birds for the Museum facilitated transfer of the collection and sampled DNA from the claws of Eaton’s Carolina Parakeets and Spruce Grouses for two recent studies.
“The parakeet study has been published and made a big splash in the ornithological community,” says Kirchman. “The results will be very useful to wildlife and conservation professionals as they consider ways to save the New York population from extirpation.”
Eaton compiled the collection of what are referred to as study skins to write “Birds of New York” (Vol. I, 1910; Vol. II, 1914). This monumental treatise was the first complete study of birds of northeastern North America and still is considered the standard authority on the topic. Eaton worked with renowned illustrator Louis Fuertes, who created the color plates of the birds found throughout the book. It is possible that Fuertes, too, used Eaton’s collection as reference for color and detail.
“The collection has great historic and scientific value,” explains Associate Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander. “Among the subjects are extinct species such as the Labrador Duck, Passenger Pigeon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Eskimo Curlew, Great Auk, and Carolina Parakeet. There are also earlier generations of existing species that hold scientific significance.”
He gives as an example a bird commonly called the house sparrow, which is an invasive species currently found throughout the U.S. The specimens in the Eaton collection are from the late 1800s, so were part of the first invasion from Europe.
“If a researcher wanted to see what the species looked like or wanted to test DNA from the earliest invaders, the collection represents one of the few places he or she could do so,” says Deutschlander.
In fact, if anyone wanted to know anything about birds from the late 1800s to early 1900s, they would want to look at that collection. While Eaton collected primarily birds from New York, he managed to acquire birds from the South – such as the Carolina Parakeet– through friends and other means.
Due to the time period, the collection is also entirely from the pre-pesticide era. Recent research on other collections in the U.S. points to the uniqueness of such a collection; one study discovered that pesticide use (particularly DDT) weakened the shells of eagle eggs, contributing to nest failure when these weaker eggs were crushed by the weight of adult eagles.
The Colleges still has in its archives Eaton’s catalogue, the original ledger of the skins that describes the origin and attributes of each bird. The ledger also includes data on subjects contained in a small mammal collection that was once housed at the Colleges in what is referred to in the 1908-09 Hobart College Catalog as the “Biological and Geological Museum.” A number of donors contributed to the growth of this collection and, while most of the samples have been moved to other sites more suited to their preservation, the Colleges still maintain and display roughly 300 or so birds mounted in museum collection fashion. Additionally William Smith donated about 100 birds from all over the world in a Victorian case around 1908 and that is still on display on campus. Fittingly, they are on the second floor of Eaton Hall.
“While these have no scientific value, they hold academic value because the students can see the size, shape and natural posture of the birds,” says Deutschlander. As with Eaton’s collection, a number of samples in the mounted bird cases also represent extinct species.
In 2007, a First Year Seminar class created tags for the mounted collection, researching the birds, noting the Latin name and providing some descriptive information for anyone viewing the case. Another First Year Seminar class identified all of the birds in the Victorian case, and a Senior Seminar created a spreadsheet cataloguing the museum mounted birds and the skin collection.
“The people who curated and donated these birds captured a moment in time. Both the skins and the mounts are now in places where people can access and benefit most from them,” says Deutschlander.