Howard Cogswell
Rare Water Bird in 1950
Santa Monica Bay,
Los Angeles County, California

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



The study of water birds in California, particularly waterfowl, namely ducks, has a long history in our state. The first monograph to treat these birds was written in 1918 by Joseph Grinnell and his junior associate scientists.

In 1978, a new magnum opus on water birds was written by Howard Cogswell. During the 1940s, from 1940 to 1950, excluding a few war years, Howard Cogswell made continuous observations on the bird life of Los Angeles County, and other areas of southern California. One of his last field observations of water birds in Los Angeles County took place in the late winter of 1950. This report discusses that observation, its historic curiosity, its birding relevance today, and its eclectic research potential to modern students of birds in Los Angeles County.

On March 19, 1950, Howard Cogswell observed a Harlequin Duck at the Santa Monica Pier. It was a male harlequin that was diving with Surf Scoters. The report of Howard's observation was printed in the LA Audubon Newsletter, Western Tanager, by Caroline Daugherty (rare bird compiler). She stated the following about the Harlequin: "This is a resident in the state, mostly in the northern part, but nowhere numerous." In her "Observations Column" she reported the Santa Monica Pier as being the Santa Monica Yacht Harbor because of the detached breakwater which allowed sailboats to anchor behind it in those days, which is no longer allowed.

Apparently, by 1950, Howard Cogswell had finished his tour of duty in the military and was residing again in Pasadena, California. It would not be long before he moved to the San Francisco Bay area to attend graduate school for a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. Interestingly, his PhD dissertation research would bring him back to Pasadena for a study of the chaparral avifauna in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Following his PhD, Howard Cogswell became a professor for the California State University at Hayward. At this university, he spent his career teaching students about birds and ecology. He also began research on his magnum opus, a 399 page book entitled: Water Birds of California. It reached the public in 1978 as one of the "California Natural History Guide" series, number 40. The section of Howard's book that dealt with the habits of the Harlequin Duck is worthy of reproduction here as a comparison to his observations from 28 years earlier in Los Angeles County waters:

"A bird preferring turbulent waters, the Harlequin Duck is found foraging in small companies amid the surf or in choppy areas in coves of our rocky headlands. Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore has the most regular population, and relatively few ever straggle far into even adjacent bays. Their food is mostly taken from the edges of underwater rocks or pilings, and includes a great variety of marine crustaceans, snails, limpets, and chitons. Where undisturbed, they rest on rocks above the splashing waves. A few Harlequins nested in former years along larger streams in the Sierra Nevada, from the Stanislaus to the San Joaquin headwaters, and may still do so in a few places. Their typical habitat farther north is along similar streams, the young being led into rough water even while still small and unable to fly."

Howard Cogswell will not be forgotten for his contributions to birding in southern California, particularly in Los Angeles County because of this web site. He was an important part of the history of ornithology in the 1940s especially.

The Ballona Institute, located in Playa del Rey, California has two copies of Howard Cogswell's book: Waterbirds of California. One copy at the Ballona Intsitute is his first edition book and its first printing as a hardback edition with a jacket cover. There is an excellent black & white photograph of Howard in his office at the university with a great big smile on his face, wearing glasses, and his hands on a map on his desk. The Ballona Institute also has a research file with biographical notes on Howard Cogswell and virtually all of his published writings including his earlier writings when he resided in Los Angeles County at Pasadena, California. These writings were published in the Western Tanager, a newsletter of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, for whom he was employed as a bird sanctuary manager for several years at Whittier Narrows Nature Center on the shores of the San Gabriel River. A forthcoming biography of Howard Cogswell is planned by this writer and co-director of the Ballona Institute. Howard Cogswell passed away in spring, 2006.

Articles by Howard Cogswell on Los Angeles County Birds
1944. Sharp-tailed Sparrow in Southern California.Condor

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Howard Cogswell Biographical Notes in Los Angeles County