Howard Cogswell Field Note:
Enormous Flock of White Pelican in 1950 Overhead
in the
San Gabriel Mountains of Los Angeles County

California State Bear Flag Brown Bear Walking on Green Meadowy Prairie Amongst Brown Gopher Mounds California State Bear Flag

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



The study of birds in California has a long history in our state. It began in the 1790s with the first scientific natural history expeditions arriving by boat. The study of birds continues today more than 200 years later. In this continuum, Howard Cogswell began his study of California birds in the 1930s and continued this endeavor for more than 70 years until 2006. In 1950, for example, Howard Cogswell noted an unusually large flock of the American White Pelican in Los Angeles County. He reported his observation to the Los Angeles Audubon Society. The Cogswell field observation was promptly reported in the next issue of the newsletter of this Audubon chapter (Western Tanager).

The pelican field note by Howard Cogswell was summarized by Caroline Daugherty because she was the rare bird compiler at that time. She reported the pelican observation by Howard Cogswell as follows:

"WHITE PELICANS; Howard Cogswell reports an estimated 2500 migrating westward over the San Gabriel Mountains on March 28 [1950]."

Interestingly, only 9 days earlier on March 19, Howard Cogswell was at the coast by the Santa Monica Pier, not in the mountains doing his chaparral research. What day of the week was March 19, a Sunday so he was taking a day of rest and relaxation and recreation with family and friends at the Pier?

For context, in 1950, Howard Cogswell had returned from his military duty in the Navy and he was enrolled in graduate school at the University of California (Berkeley) in an effort to earn a PhD. His research topic for his PhD dissertation was focused in the San Gabriel Mountains of Los Angeles County. He was studying the avifauna of the chaparral in the foothills above Pasadena and Glendora. It was here in the mountains above Los Angeles in the National Forest, while conducting his field research on chaparral birds that Howard Cogswell observed this large flock of White Pelican flying overhead.

After conducting field studies in Los Angeles County, Howard Cogswell returned to Berkeley to write up his results. Following the completion of his PhD studies at Berkeley, Howard Cogswell remained in the San Francisco Bay region because he secured a teaching position nearby to Berkeley at Mills College. It appears clear at this time that Howard Cogswell would become a permanent resident of the shores of San Francisco Bay. IT was not long afterward that he became a professor of biological sciences for a new California State University that was built in 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. The book was completed in 1977 and it reached the public with great success as a selection for the "California Natural History Guide" series (number 40). The section of Howard's book that dealt with the ecology of the American White Pelican is appropriate to quote here as it complements nicely with historical context his observation of the White Pelican in Los Angeles County approximately 28 years earlier:

"Primarily an inland bird in spring, the White Pelican is one of the most spectacular of water birds, both there and on the shallow bays and salt evaporators where they also congregate following breeding. They often fish by swimming in companies, a long arc of the big birds slowly closing in on schools of fish in shallow water and scooping them up in pouches used as dip nets. Flocks "continuing" between feeding areas may be seen circle-soaring upward in rising thermals of air and then peeling off as they reach the top, to glide downward to another thermal or to flap ponderously onward in their direction of travel. Large flocks of 2000 or more engage in similar behavior on their longer migration passages. When far off and circling in sunlight, the birds in such a flock appear first glistening whtie and then dull gray. Nest: of mounded dirt and debris, or practically none; always in colonies, usually on barren islands or remote dikes in lakes. Young: naked at first and fed in nest; with white down all over, after 3-4 weeks; they finally wander around colony in masses known as "pods" for several more weeks before they fly."

"Occurrence in California. Common to Very Common July-December. (fewer Occ. through winter)on primary salt ponds about San Francisco Bay; Locally Uncommon to Common on major lakes and marshes of Central Valley and coast slope of central and southern California at same seasons, also September - March at lakes of southern desert areas."

The drainage of larger lakes in the Central Valley for agriculture reduced the species to only occasional breeding there, although colonies of several thousand existed at Buena Vista and Tular lakes as late as the early 1950s. Islands in the Salton Sea where smaller numbers nested (March - July) up to 1957 have been inundated by rising water level there. Still breeds in some years ta major lakes on northeast plateau, where Common to Very Common April - July (sometimes March - September or longer). Migrating flocks noted overland, especially southern California mountains and passes, every month but June, though primarily March - May and August - early November. Regular but Uncommon visitor April - September to Tahoe and Occasional other Sierra Nevada and southern California mountain lakes."

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 and birding in Los Angeles County and southern California during the 1940s and early 1950s.

The Ballona Institute, located in Los Angeles at Playa del Rey, California, now has four copies of Howard Cogswell's book: Waterbirds of California. One copy of this book at the Ballona Intsitute has a jacket cover with an excellent portrait photograph of Howard Cogswell. Although the photograph is in "black and white" the photograph shows Howard seated at his desk in his university office with a great big smile on his face. Howard is pictured wearing his glasses, with his hands holding a map.

The Ballona Institute has assembled a biographic file and history file about the life of Howard Cogswell as a birder and ornithologist which has a good selection of articles written by him and about him. The archived file is especially rich in the early part of Howard's life in Los Angeles County, when he resided near Pasadena (Glendora) and was affiliated with the Los Angeles Audubon Society. Some of these writings were published in the Western Tanager, a newsletter of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, for whom he was employed as a sanctuary manager for several years at the San Gabriel River Bird Sanctuary, now known as Whittier Narrows Nature Center and managed by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. A forthcoming biography of Howard Cogswell will be published by the Ballona Institute and written by this writer, who is a co-director of the Ballona Institute. Sadly, Howard Cogswell passed away in his 90s in the spring of 2006, after leading a very rich life.

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