Ralph Hoffmann Discovers Nest of Rare Bird in Massachusetts:
Great Horned Owl at Stockbridge, Berkshire County
in
1893

Dedicated
to the
Hoffmann Bird Club
Berkshire County, Massachusetts


by
Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Ballona Institute
322 Culver Boulevard, Suite 317
Playa del Rey, California 90293
2006


Introduction

On April 8, 1893, Ralph Hoffmann discovered a nest of the Great Horned Owl near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Stockbridge is in Berkshire County and it is where Ralph Hoffmann was born in 1870. He graduated from Harvard University in 1890, at 20 years old. He immediately became a teacher in the Boston area with his new degree in hand. Although he had already been a birder since childhood, and a fairly good expert by 13 years old in 1883, he began to write of his observations 10 years later in 1893, beginning with articles in the Boston Evening Transcript. The article by Ralph Hoffmann presented below is one of his earliest pieces for the Boston newspaper. After this early article, he soon wrote many more articles for the Boston Evening Transcript over the course of a decade or more.

Results

This article exists in microfilm in many libraries and it is also part of a scrapbook on Ralph Hoffmann, that can be found in the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The article is transcribed in it entirety here for educational, research, and scientific purposes. It is nine paragraphs in length. The field work took place on April 8 (saturday) by Ralph Hoffmann, but it was written on April 12 (wednesday), only four days later, then published on April 22 (saturday) in the Boston Evening Transcript. The total time from field study to publication was 14 days, which is nearly unheard of for a scientific natural history article. He would later cite this article several times in his other writings for scientific journals, such as in Auk. Presented below is the complete transcription of his discovery of a nest of the Great Horned Owl:

BOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT
Saturday April 22, 1893

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: OUT-OF-DOOR STUDIES. -- To the Editor of the Transcript:

I spent the 8th of April in a little village in southern Berkshire. It lies in a beautiful valley, but its charms have long been known, and the influx of summer visitors and the inroads of the farming lands have left little of the wild beauty which it must once have possessed. During my morning walk I was reminded in a striking manner, by two incidents which befell me, of the difficulty of wholly exterminating the remnants of savagery.

My path led through some second growth at the base of the mountain, beloved by the inhabitants of the valley which it guards, and famous in Bryant's poetry. Nearly at the base of the mountain lies a shallow body of water. As I neared it, I heard the loud quacking of ducks and their vigorous splashing in the water. There seemed to be a large flock of waterfowl feeding and playing close to me in the pond. I thought of wild fowl, but recollecting that farm lay on the other side of the water, I thought it more probable that the farmer's ducks had waddled down through the meadow to enjoy a more extended swim. Accordingly I crashed rather heedlessly through the undergrowth till I came within sight of the water. The open space was still bordered by ice, on the edge of which a long row of black duck were sitting, while others of the company were swimming, splashing and quacking in the open. They suffered a near approach, but as I emerged from the tangle of alder, they rose, one bunch after another, with loud protestations, and circled about, displaying their bottle-shaped forms and the silver lining on the under surface of their wings. It was a pleasant disappointment to find they were wild, the reverse of a former experience of mine. In a retired Nova Scotia inlet I once stalked a company of noble swans, only to see them all leave the water and march up hill, tranformed into domestic geese.

Crossing the valley in which the pond lay I came to the base of the main range of the Hoosacs. A trout brook runs along the foot of the mountains. The hills opposite were once clothed with splendid pines, but their crowns are now for the most part shorn. Along the brook, however, there still stood a noble company of trees, into the depths of which I plunged.

Just as I was on the point of leaving them a nest caught my eye, about fifty feet up in a stout pine. As I turned toward it a large bird flew off. I started at once to climb the tree, expecting at most to find the eggs of a hawk. There were no live branches below the nest, but there were plenty of stout stubs, in the angles of which I was as safe as need be. As I was about half way up, the bird which had left the nest flew by and lit in full view in a neighboring tree. I saw at once that it was a great horned owl, a bird whose acquaintance I had long wanted to make.

The owl now began to make a dismal cry like the barking of a small dog, or the croak of a night heron. Waugh! Waugh! In a moment another bird answered a short distance off, and soon flew into view. Then the pair began to hoot. Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo-oo! Sometimes they prefaced their hooting with the above-mentioned cry. The one which had come in answer to the call of his mate, I took to be the male, though I was not at all sure. At any rate it was with this one that I was particularly concerned. He was far bolder than the other, and soon began making unpleasant demonstrations on the limb of a neighboring tree. He spread his wings and, stretching out his head, glared furiously and snapped his beak. His yellow eyes were opened wide, and when he hooted his white bib showed plainly. Presently he flew past me, almost grazing my head.

I was in a difficult position at the moment, and I began to wonder just how bold the pair would be in defense of their nest. I had read of brave Scotch lads who had fierce battles in the clouds with eagles. I remembered how rich Englishmen bought the young birds and how the money saved the cow from the avaricious landlord. But I had no such incentive, and, moreover, the situation was now complicated by another circumstance. Yesterday's snow still lay thick on the ground, and it had been raining for some time. During the morning the sun had struggled through once or twice, and the mists had lifted off the mountains. This variety of weather would have satisfied any but the most capricious month of the year. Now, however, a distant rumble which I had heard for the last few minutes developed into a loud crash, and in an instant the pines, the owls and I were acting our little drama to an accompaniment of vivid flashes and loud peals of thunder.

The next swoop the owl made brought him into violent contact with my shoulder. This direct attack roused all the obstinacy in my otherwise gentle nature, and I lost no time in making directly for the nest. A second later I felt a sharp blow at the base of the head, which knocked off my hat and drew blood. But I had now reached the nest, and the bird for some reason gave up the attack.

The nest was a deep, firm mass of pine twigs resting on two limbs close to the trunk of the tree. There were two young birds in it, downy white masses, stretched out in the manner of ancient gryphons. On the edges of the structure lay the hindquarters of two Northern Hares.

I descended without disturbing the nestlings and made for the nearest shelter from the thunderstorm. I was drenched and my nerves unstrung from the unusual exercise, but I was happy. I had found the most savage bit of bird life left in the valley, and I had seen a new bird.

Ralph Hoffmann.
Arlington, Massachusetts.
April 12, 1893.


Conclusion

In this article by Ralph Hoffmann that he wrote for Auk in 1895, he proclaims that the the Great Horned Owl is not extinct from the wilds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

There is a passage from Hoffmann's 1895 article regarding the Great Horned Owl which is important to quote here for a complete understanding of the matter at hand: "Bubo virginianus. Great-horned Owl. Nest with young found in Stockbridge, April 8, 1893."

In Hoffmann's monograph of 1900 of Berkshire County birds, the bibliography (page 59) is enlightening regarding the Great Horned Owl as follows: "In Boston Evening Transcript, April 22, 1893. Account of finding a Great Horned Owl's nest in Stockbridge, April 8, 1893." And in the body of the text of the monograph (page 37), there is direct narrative of this owl for Berkshire County as follows: "Great Horned Owl. Rare permanent resident. Nest with young found in Stockbridge, April 8, 1893 (Hoffmann, Auk, XII, 1895, 88)."

In toto, we see that Ralph Hoffmann mentions the Great Horned Owl in four statements, in three separate publications. Interesting indeed, as a bit of history of birdwatching in Berkshire County, Massachusetts.



Discussion

There is so much to interpret regarding Ralph Hoffmann, birding, history, and synergy. From a careful perusal of the above article, for example, we can ascertain that Ralph Hoffmann must have departed Boston after teaching that week, because his owl adventure was on April 8, which after a perusal of a perpetual calendar in the 2006 Almanac, I discovered was a saturday. It seems likely that he traveled by train from Boston to Stockbridge sometime earlier in the week, perhaps, just the day before on Friday, April 7.

I have recently enjoyed researching and reading the various writings of Mr. Hoffmann during his young adult years in Massachusetts, particularly his observations on Berkshire County. It is clear that Ralph Hoffmann was interested in avian ecology, particularly distribution and movements. He shows an interest that is focused on the spring and summer season with breeding birds in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. He grew and emerged in his natural philosophy as an ecologist and natural historian, with an interest in avian ecology, rather than avian taxonomy. He does not describe new species of birds, but instead he reports on their behavior and ecology, or what is often called scientific natural history. At the time of this publication in 1893, Ralph Hoffmann was 22 years old, still a young man, and a teacher in Boston. He was a recent graduate of Harvard, just one year earlier in 1892, with a degree in Latin/English, not in the sciences. He would continue birding throughout his life, an amateur hobby that began as a child in Stockbridge (Berkshire County), Massachusetts. His interest in scientific natural history of birds and plants, together with an interest in conservation is demonstrated by his involvement in the American Ornithological Union (AOU) as a member of committees and participation as an officer in the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which lasted about 20 years, before moving first to Missouri, and then on to California, two years later, where he would continue his scientific natural history studies of birds and plants for the rest of his life.



Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the library staff of California State University at Long Beach for their assistance in finding the Boston Evening Transcript. I would also like to thank the Archives-Special Collections staff of UCLA Biomedical Library which assisted me in finding Ralph Hoffmann's monograph of Berkshire County birds. The UCLA copy was part of the Donald Dickey ornithology library before it was donated to UCLA. The opportunity to have a photocopy made for the Ballona Institute is extremely helpful for my biographical and historical ornithology research.


Bibliography and References Cited

Hendricks, Bartlett. 1941.
Hendricks, Bartlett 1995.
Hoffmann, Ralph. 1893. Out-Of-Door Studies. Boston Evening Transcript: April 22, 1893.
Hoffmann, Ralph. 1895. Some Birds of Berkshire County. Auk 12: 88."
Hoffmann, Ralph. 1900. Birds of Berkshire County.
Hoffmann, Ralph. 1922. Supplement to birds of Berskhife County. Auk 39.
Hoffmann, Ralph. 1927. Birds of the Pacific States. Houghton-Mifflin, Riverside Press, Cambridge.
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