Howard Cogswell
and the
"California Salt-Marsh" Sparrow

Implications for Ecological Restoration at the Ballona Wetlands
"The Importance of Tules, Pickleplant, and Weed Patches in a Prairie Meadow Wetland Ecosystem"

Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Conservation Biologist & Geographer
Ballona Institute
322 Culver Boulevard
Playa del Rey, CA 90293


Howard Cogswell discovered an extremely rare bird in California at the Ballona salt marshes on January 16, 1944. From his home in Pasadena, he had traveled to the Ballona marshes on the coast of Los Angeles County. While investigating the scientific natural history of birds near the small town of Venice (population 817), he birded the "Recreation Gun Club", where he came upon a Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow in the salt marsh. Approximately 20 years later, in 1963, this portion of the "La Ballona" salt marsh (lagoon and estuary), where Howard had discovered the "California Marsh" Sparrow, was obliterated when it was converted into a yachting marina by the County of Los Angeles. The County Supervisors voted to name it Marina del Rey and Supervisor Burton Chace proudly proclaimed to the public, and memorialized on a bronze plaque at Burton Chace Park, that this area had been improved and reclaimed from a "swamp" into a great recreational facility for the public.

Fortunatley, 40 years later, in 2003, the state of California purchased the remaining "salt marsh" of approximately 640 acres (one square mile) immediately adjacent to Marina Del Rey. Essentially, the state of California had snatched it away from the "jaws" of Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles. The state of California, in 2005, officially named this area the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. Although it's not a very creative name, as it could have been named for a special bird or plant that occurs there, or the state officials could have used a Native American word for what they called this region, or it could even have been named for an earlier naturalist that is important in conservation of wildife or early natural history of the Ballona wetlands, such as Howard Cogswell, or another person. In fact, a "salt marsh" in San Francisco Bay, near Hayward, has recently been named Cogswell Marsh.

Howard found not just one of these "marsh" sparrows, but two individuals in this location. He immediately reported and shared this new bird record to recreational birdwatchers of the Los Angeles Audubon Society. News spread quickly that there was a rare bird in the Ballona wetlands. Later, he would show this bird to George Willett, curator of ornithology for the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (LACMN) in Exposition Park. It is interesting to note that Howard used the term "salt marsh" and not "wetland" in describing the habitat for this sparrow. The reason for this is that in 1944, the term "wetland" was not yet in vogue or in common-useage. Consequently "salt marsh" was the appropriate phrase for this type of habitat, which ornithologists, birders, and naturalists, of the day, used regularly to describe what today we call coastal wetlands. However, less than a decade after Howard wrote his article, the term "wetland" would begin to emerge in our vocabularly and slowly replace the term "salt marsh" in our common language. And now, in 2006, almost no one uses the term "salt marsh" or "fresh-water marsh" as environmentalists, the media, and politicians, have all jumped on the "bandwagon" together to use the term "wetland" over and above "marsh" when talking about conservation of this diminished and continually diminishing habitat and ecosystem. Scientists and naturalists alike, continue to refer to "wetlands" as "salt marsh" because our science today, comes from a long legacy of natural history studies over the last centuries. Our knowledge today comes to us via earlier naturalists and scientists, such as Howard Cogswell, in their voluminous writings that can be found in books, articles, and art, that we still read. The term "marsh" dominates that literature, and we are reminded continually that is still appropriate to refer to a "coastal wetland" as a salt marsh. It matters not whether the coastal wetland under discussion, with its soil, water, plants, and animals, is tidal or non-tidal, estuarine or lagoonal, saline or brackish, it is still a salt marsh.

A good example is the large inland salt marsh at the heart of Death Valley National Park in the deserts of eastern California, isolated hundreds of miles from the ocean and its salt water. We, as naturalists and scientists still know this arid landscape as a salt marsh, even though no tides and no estuary occur here, because many of the animals and plants found in this great desert salt marsh are the same species, and if not the same exactly, are in the same genus or a closely-allied genus, such that fauna and flora can be called "closely-related."

Howard soon wrote up his field observations of this "marsh sparrow" and submitted them to Doctor Alden Miller, the Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California (UC) at Berkeley. Dr. Miller was also the editor of Condor and he immediately pushed forward Howard's observations and article into print. Dr. Miller had recognized the significance of this record, as it had only been recorded once before in California. Similarly, and almost miracuosly, Dr. Miller wrote up this new bird record at nearly the last minute, for the soon - to - be - published, monographic book, Distribution of Birds of California, by Joseph Grinnell (posthumously) and Alden Miller. An interesting aside to this fascinating story of discovery of a rare bird is that in several years, after Howard Cogswell returned from military service in the Pacific, Howard would be studying under Doctor Miller and Frank Pitelka at UC Berkeley. Alden Miller would become his mentor and advisor as he worked on his PhD dissertation.

Reprinted below in narrative form is the story of discovery of the Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow in Los Angeles County by Howard Cogswell, 62 years ago. Great effort has been taken to scribe the article exactly as it appeared in the January issue of Condor. At the end of the article, a few concluding remarks about the article by Howard Cogswell are presented by the author. As you read Howard's article please try to transplant yourself to that time period, thinking about such things as what kind of car was used to go recreational birding, the dress and mannerisms of the 1940s wartime period, and despite the war, people going out to a salt marsh at the Ballona wetlands to do some recreational birdwatching, while accompanying a scientific naturalist named Howard Cogswell on a walk in the marsh to find a very rare sparrow.

A New Record of the the Sharp-tailed Sparrow in California
On January 16, 1944, at the Recreation Gun Club near Venice, Los Angeles County, California, my attention was attracted by the bright coloration of a small sparrow which flew from under my feet as I walked along a dike between an old unused duck pond and the salicornia flats. The bird took refuge in an isolated clump of tules (Scirpus) at a corner of the dike between the pond, flats, and a weedy field. I "squeaked" and presently the sparrow slid obligingly up a slanting tule stem and remained in my view for some time, while I noted all details of its plumage that I could using 8X binoculars at about 20 feet. Checking in all the books I had available I could make it out to be nothing but a Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta).

On January 30, together with Frank G. Watson and Arthur L. Berry, I revisited the locality and found the same or a similar bird near the same spot. Again we noted coloration and markings at close range, including the rich buffy wash over the entire breast, flanks and surrounding the gray cheek, the almost black crown stripes separated by a narrow light gray one, and the short black stripe running horizontally back from above the ear region. On this date also we first obtained a view of the bird's back with its prominent white stripes. We were now quite sure of the bird's identity; but since the only previous records of this species in California, and in fact west of the Rockies, were prior to 1900 (Barlow, Condor, 2, 1900: 132), we wanted to check our observation further. Early in February several other amateur ornithologists visited the area and found the bird from our directions; and on February 8, in the same clump of tules as before, Mr. George Willett of the Los Angeles Museum and I found not one, but two birds of this species. Mr. Willett confirmed our identification, saying that the sparrows were one of the prettiest and brightest he had ever seen and that there was no mistaking them.

Both birds were again seen on February 12, 1944, by about ten members of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, who watched them feeding on the salicornia flats at high tide, running mouselike over the tangled stalks and apparently eating the seeds. When the area was revisited on February 24 after several days of rain and wind, the sparrows were not to be found.-Howard L. Cogswell, Pasadena, California, May 17, 1944.

Table 1.
Jan. 16, 1944 ... First trip to Ballona by Howard (discovery of "Marsh" Sparrow)
Jan. 30, 1944 ... Second trip to Ballona by Howard (2 birders verify sparrow)
Feb. 4!, 1944 ... Third trip to Ballona by birders (Howard's directions find sparrow)
Feb. 08, 1944 ... Fourth trip to Ballona by Howard (George Willett sees two sparrows)
Feb. 12, 1944 ... Fifth trip to Ballona by Howard (Ten LA Audubon members see sparrow)
Feb. 24, 1944 ... Sixth trip to Ballona by Howard (sparrow not found after winter storms)
Feb. 26, 1944 ... LA Audubon Society President inscribes gift book to Howard
May 17, 1944 ... Howard submitted "sparrow" article to Condor
July 01, 1944 ... "Sparrow" article published in Condor, volume 46(4):204.
Dec. 30, 1944 ... Howard's discovery published in Grinnell and Miller monograph.

Just shy of one year after his discovery of the rare "marsh" sparrow at the Ballona wetlands' salt marsh, Joseph Grinnell and Alden Miller publish their monographic tome, a massive book, on birds of California. On page 490, Howard Cogswell is noted for the discovery of the "Nelson Sharp-tailed Sparrow" after being not seen for approximately 50 years. The quoted passage by Grinnell and Miller is as follows:
"Rare straggler from the interior of the continent. Three records, two at Milpitas, Santa Clara County: specimen taken by R.H. Beck, May 6, 1891. ...; another by January 31, 1896 (Barlow, Condor, 2, 1900:132); both birds were taken "on the marsh," the first among tules at the edge of a small salt-water slough. ... Also, the species observed, January 16 to February 12, 1944, near Venice, Los Angeles County; two individuals seen, on salicornia flats and in tules (Cogswell, Condor, 46, 1944:204.)."

This quotation by California's two most distinguished ornithologists at UC Berkeley, in their monographic book, is apparently the first time that the young scientist, Howard Cogswell, was cited in a professional publication. This significant moment for Howard occurred while he was at sea on a U.S. Navy ship, headed for the tropics, but while he was birding from the ship for such birds as albatross, shearwater, petrel, tropicbird, and other unique birds that the young Howard had never seen. He wrote about these bird sightings in a nice travel narrative for Audubon Magazine, entitled: A Bird Watcher Goes to Sea.

The article by Howard Cogswell, reprinted above, was soon published in July, only a few months later, after he originally submitted it on May 17, in Condor, volume 46, number 4, page 204. Now it is 2006, 62 years after Howard observed the "marsh" sparrow and recorded it an article that he wrote, which was published in a scientific journal, which will last in perpetuity, as long as libraries exist. It was not the first time that Howard went to a southern California salt marsh, as there is proof that he birded and explored the Mugu salt marsh and lagoon in Ventura County in 1942, two years prior to his historic visit to the Ballona salt marsh.

Howard, unfortunately, passed away in June, 2006, and he will be sorely missed by this fellow biologist. After Howard's encounters with this "salt marsh" bird in Los Angeles County and sharing it with birders, he continued to study birds in salt marshes and share his knowledge through teaching and field studies for the rest of his life, in the "salt marshes" of San Francisco Bay. He was 29 years old when he first discovered the Sharp-tailed Sparrow in the "salt marsh" of Santa Monica Bay. And he passed away after 91 years of life, not too far from a "salt marsh" in San Francisco Bay, in our great state of California.

I would like to acknowledge Terry Preston for encouraging me to submit information to her about Howard Cogswell for a memorial article in an Audubon Newsletter. That, in turn, invigorated me to continue my research investigation into the "life and times" of Howard Cogswell. And I also would like to thank Terry for sharing knowledge about a book given to Howard by the Los Angeles Audubon Society, via its president, with an inscription to Howard. He gave this book to Terry as a gift some time ago. Originally, it was given to Howard in 1944, immediately after he shared his discovery of the "salt-marsh sparrow" to LA Audubon Society members, but only shortly before he departed Los Angeles, to go to sea, during World War II.

Howard's interest in the history of ornithology and birding in California comes forth late in his life, when he finds him as the chairman of the history committee for the professional scientists and ornithologists of the Cooper Ornithological Society. Howard authored an article about the namesake of the society, Dr. Cooper, and entitled that article, "Who Was "Cooper" ? (Cogswell, 1986). It is a fascinating account which concludes with the dire fate of the California Condor going extinct in the "wild" in the 1980s. Howard Cogswell lived long enough, 20 years after he wrote that "Cooper" article, in 2006, to know that the California Condor was being restored and recovered in California, not too far south of Howard's San Francisco Bay home. The Condor flies again in the Big Sur region, feeding occasionally on marine mammal carcass, such as seals, whales, and dolphins. It is a triumph of modern ecology and conservation biology, and of history, if we realize that approximately 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark, on their famous expedition, reached the Pacific Ocean near Portland at the mouth of the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark saw condors feeding on a carcass of a marine mammal, believed to be a dead California Gray Whale.

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Bent, Arthur, 1968. Life Histories of North American Birds. U.S. National Museum.
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Cogswell, Howard. 1942. Point Mugu Jaeger and Hummingbird. Audubon Magazine.
Cogswell, Howard. 1949. Alternate Care of Two Nests in the Black-chinned Hummingbird. Condor 51:176-.
Cogswell, Howard. 1978. Waterbirds of California. UC Press.
Cogswell, Howard. 1986. Who Was "Cooper" ? Condor 88 (3): 402-403.
Cogswell, Howard. 2000. Foreward, in Marsh and Mud.
Dunn, Jon. 1976. Field Notes. Western Tanager 42(8):4.
Garrett, Kimball and Jon Dunn. 1981. Birds of Southern California. Los Angeles Audubon Society.
Graber, Richard. 1953. Sharp-tailed Sparrow in Oklahoma. Condor 55(3):209.
Greenlaw, J.S. 1993. Behavioral and Morphological Variation in Sharp-tailed Sparrows. Auk 110:286-303.
Hyde, Sidney. 1958. Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow in Gunnison County, Colorado. Condor 60:68.
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Grinnell, Joseph and Alden Miller. 1944. Distribution of Birds of California. Pacific Coast Avifauna.
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Roberson, Don. 1980. Rare Birds of the West Coast. Woodcock Publ.
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Unitt, Philip. 2005. San Diego Birds.

Articles by Howard Cogswell on Los Angeles County Birds
Howard Cogswell Biographical Notes in Los Angeles County

Bird Observations in Los Angeles County in 1940s
1950. Harlequin Duck at Santa Monica Pier.