Few oologists are better or more favorably known than Mr. A. M. Shields, the subject of this sketch, and those who have become acquainted during the past fifteen or twenty years with this active field collector, through his graphic and accurate contributions to the life histories of birds or his genial personal correspondence, will appreciate the satisfaction of the editors of THE CONDOR in the presentation herein of a late portrait, the first one of Mr. Shields to appear in an ornithological journal.
In looking over the file of the dear old Young Oologist (Volume 1, 1884), we come across some of the first published articles by Mr. Shields on collecting, when his home was at Los Angeles, and then it was that with rapturous interest we followed his experiences at "Nigger Slough," and "Gospel Swamp," of which he wrote by way of explanation: "The swamp part of the name is all right, but I could never just see where the 'Gospel' part of the business comes in, for the country itself, full of dark sloughs and deep bog-holes, is very far from being gospel-like."
Alexander M. Shields was born in Knoxville, East Tennessee, April 28, 1865. He has been an egg collector and student of bird-life for over twenty years, and is, as will be seen, not quite old enough to be a great grandfather. He was always an ardent naturalist and spent all his idle moments in early boyhood in reading all available books on natural history.
"I began my collecting experience," says Mr. Shields, "when I was ten or twelve years of age, and collected eggs of 'brownies,' 'chippies,' 'blue canaries' and other correctly named (?) local species, and used the time-honored cigar boxes to contain my scientifically (!) collected, end-blown specimens which were valued by their number and colors more than anything else." By the usual course of evolution experienced by many of us, scientific methods were followed and the Shields' collection now represents probably 500 species and sub-species, over 3000 sets, aggregating ten to fifteen thousand eggs.
Mr. Shields' home is now in San Francisco, and although he occupies an important position as Pacific Coast Manager of Equitable Life Assurance Society, he is still enabled to devote some time, although much less than formerly, to scientific matters. He is an enthusiastic sportsman as well as naturalist, and one of the phenomenal wing shots of California. He is president of the Empire Gun Club, and a member of six other shooting organizations, while retaining his active membership in the Cooper Ornithological Club and his association with the A.O.U., California Academy of Sciences and several other natural history clubs.
Mr. Shields' first published paper was on the "Nesting of the Black-necked Stilt," (Young Oologist, Volume 1, Number 3) and he has always made a special study of the waterbirds. Among some later and noteworthy contributions to learning may be mentioned his papers on the ducks; description of "An Ibis Rookery in California," "Collecting an Egg of the California Condor," and a very valuable article, recently appearing in the Bulletin of the Cooper Ornithological Club, on the nesting of the Fulvous Tree Duck.
If you ask any naturalist or scientist living today in 2005 whether it is important to know natural history and environmental history, they will invariably tell you it is very important. In fact, knowledge of our native flora and fauna of our recent past 100 years or so tells a geography and history story that is vital to knowing how we got to the environmental predicament of this new Millenium, now in 2005 with rising concerns over air pollution, water pollution, global warming, crashing biodiversity on Earth, "cannibalistic cities", and shortages of open spaces and parks for our ever increasing human population.
The biography of a naturalist from a hundred years ago can also enlighten us about genuine restoration of our parks and open spaces, namely habitats such as rivers, wetlands, sand dunes, woodlands, and prairie meadows in our heavily urbanized cities of southern California.
The focus of this investigation is Alexander Shields. He was still a young man of 19 years of age when he resided in Los Angeles in 1884. He was born the year the Civil War ended in 1865. His explorations of the swamps and sloughs of southern California, today called wetlands, are very significant for scientists and naturalists for several reasons.
For example, his narrative description of the Black-necked Stilt tells not only about early bird life but also the vegetation, characteristics of the water and its quality, and even the weather and climate and seasons of our past six score years ago. The nests of many Stilts that he found, were nesting in what today is the region along Dominguez Creek which passes through the cities of Torrance, Gardena, Carson, and Wilmington before terminating at Sea Level in San Pedro Harbor. Today, in 2005, no Stilts nest on Dominguez Creek in Wilmington or Carson, but they still come here annually after nesting season on the Salton Sea. In addition, a few Stilts still nest on the nearby Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek, just a few miles south and north respectively, from Dominguez Creek. If a few wetlands were restored along Dominguez Creek, Stilts would also be restored as nesting birds. Incidentally, many other birds, plants, and other wildlife would also benefit by the restoration of nesting Stilts on Dominguez Creek.
Another example of Alexander Shields' contribution to early history is a narrative essay about Dominguez Creek wetlands and his overnight stay on the Dominguez Hills, where today a California State University is located. In that essay, entitled Duck Hunting at Gospel Swamp, printed in the Young Oologist, Alexander Shields wrote that he explored "on the banks of sloughs" with "tules" and found "many nests" of "Clapper Rail." He went on to write about their camping locale in the Dominguez Hills, which they called "Coyote Hill." His essay discusses the coyote, which he called "Prairie Wolves," and he wrote about their antics at night, particularly their "tumultous howlings," which kept Alexander Shields awake for most of the night.
It is still possible today, in 2005, to see and hear "Prairie Wolves" with their "tumultous howlings," in Los Angeles County, adjacent to the former "prairies", however one must now go into the adjoining Santa Monica Mountains to do so. Alas, sadly, no "Prairie Wolves" howl on the once widespread Los Angeles Prairie found in the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, and near the coast in Santa Monica, Venice, Mar Vista, Playa del Rey, Culver City, Hawthorne, El Segundo, Gardena, Lawndale, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Carson, Long Beach, Wilmington, San Pedro, and at the the Los Angeles sand dunes at LAX Airport. The emergence and growth of all these cities and suburbs spelled doom for the "prairie wolves" and the "Clapper Rail" along the coast of Los Angeles County. An individual person can still experience the "coyote howling on a Los Angeles prairie" at the Carrizo Plain National Monument, just a few hours north of Los Angeles. Going to the Carrizo Plain is a kind of "living history" and could be said to be stepping back in time to experience an earlier era of Los Angeles, about 100 years ago, and even into the 1930s, just prior to World War II. The War changed things in Los Angeles dramatically and drastically. The effects and impacts of 50 years ago, are still with us today in Los Angeles.
I might ask if anyone living today, in 2005, can recognize any of our past naturalists or environmental scientists from a century, or even just 50 years ago in Los Angeles County? Does anyone know about their great explorations in southern California?
It is indeed fortunate that Henry Reed Taylor wrote a biography of Alexander Shields 105 years ago in 1900, so that we can rediscover and research our history of Los Angeles and southern California. How is it that Mr. Taylor wrote a biography of Alexander Shields, so long ago, so that today, another biographical researcher of Los Angeles history can compile and build upon that earlier biography of Alexander Shields? We need to say thank you even today in 2006, for people who will write biographical essays about past ornithologists, naturalists, and bird watchers.
In addition to Henry Reed Taylor's biographical writing, two contemporary scientific naturalists of 100+ years ago also wrote about the contributions of Alexander Shields. Both of these scientist's writings about Alexander Shields are buried as succinct passages in their writings. They are Frank Lattin (Editor of Young Oologist) and Joseph Grinnell (editor of Condor). For example, in December of 1884 (Young Oologist, volume 1, number 8, page 111), Frank Lattin noted a special recognition that was bestowed upon Alexander Shields by the City of Los Angeles. The quote by Frank Lattin follows: "We are pleased to note that Mr. A. M. Shields, a name familiar to the readers of the Young Oologist, of Los Angeles, California, was awarded a Diploma and Silver Medal, for the best Oological Exhibit of the Fair, recently held in that City."
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the praise given to Alexander Shields by California's most famous and distinguished ornithologist of all time, Joseph Grinnell. In Grinnell's 1898 monograph on Los Angeles County birds (Pasadena Academy of Sciences Publication), Joseph Grinnell acknowledged Alexander Shields for his contribution regarding the field notes of "water birds", namely the ducks and geese, which were the primary game bird of Los Angeles in the 1890s. Grinnell's brief passage appears as follows: "The water birds of this county [Los Angeles] have been given but very little attention. Mr. A. M. Shields, to whom I am greatly indebted for notes on the major part of the game birds, has in fact done almost the only work in that line." These field notes can be gleaned by reading carefully Grinnell's monograph, particularly the portions dealing with waterbirds and shorebirds.
An example of how Joseph Grinnell used the field observations and field notes of Alexander Shields can be seen in the narrative statement about the American Avocet in Grinnell's 1898 report: "Found in marshy districts in varying numbers throughout the year. Breeds commonly in the vicinity of the Alamitos swamps and Nigger Slough. A.M. Shields took a set of four fresh eggs at the latter place, May 27 ('92), and W.B. Judson took a similar set, June 26 ('95), in the same locality. Evan Davis reports taking eggs near Santa Ana from May 3 to July 6. Full sets are almost invariably of four."
Eleven years later, in 1909, Joseph Grinnell wrote again about A.M. Shields in his comprehensive Bibliography of California Ornithology. This time he lists Alexander Shields' name 10 times. The first three times, these are simple phrase summaries of articles by A.M. Shields from the Young Oologist such as in 1884 regarding the Black-necked Stilt, where Joseph Grinnell states: "Nesting near Los Angeles." This is immediately followed by the comment of a birding outing to collect eggs by A.M. Shields as having occurred: "In Los Angeles County." A year later, 1885, A.M. Shields wrote two more articles for Young Oologist, the first article being about about Duck Hunting on Dominguez Creek, but Joseph Grinnell, oddly enough, makes no comment. However, the second article of 1885 is about the Redhead, and this time Joseph Grinnell states that this is about its: "Nesting in Los Angeles." Other examples include an 1886 article by A.M. Shields regarding some notes on various southern California birds, where Joseph Grinnell is unimpressed and thus writes: "Unimportant popular account from vicinity of Los Angeles." Two years later, in an 1888 article on the Long-billed Curlew by A.M. Shields, Joseph Grinnell felt compelled to make a few editorial remarks as follows: "Said to have nested in vicinity of Los Angeles." Then skipping ahead six years to 1894, regarding yet another article that A.M. Shields wrote about southern California, this time about the White-faced Ibis, Joseph Grinnell simply stated that this was an article focused: "In San Diego County." And in 1895, regarding an article written by A.M. Shields about the nesting of the California Condor, Joseph Grinnell commented that this was an article about "Eggs taken in San Luis Obispo County." Joseph Grinnell also had a few words to say about an article on the California Quail by A.M. Shields with the following phrase: "Habits and nesting in Southern California." And finally, in 1899, Joseph Grinnell had a few comments regarding A.M. Shields on the Fulvous Tree Duck as follows: "Extended account of nesting habits in central California.
Interestingly, we might ask today, in 2005: Why are there no more classical naturalists such as Joseph Grinnell and Alexander Shields? Could there be "classical-type" naturalists living among us today? Or have they all died and gone away forever? Is there a new generation of classical naturalists arriving on the scene in our new Millenium of the 21st Century? And finally, who will do scientific natural history and descriptive ecology in the future in southern California and Los Angeles?
I have scribed and compiled this biography of Alexander Shields by Harry Taylor for the purpose of explaining my own biographical research of "classical" naturalists such as Alexander Shields. With this purpose in mind, I have decided to write a supplementary biography to Harry Taylor's first biography of Alexander Shields which was written 105 years ago. In this new biography, I have compiled a more complete bibliography of known articles written by Alexander Shields which focus on California, particularly southern California. These fairly descriptive articles by Alexander Shields are presented to the reader in chronological order by year. Interestingly, nearly every article was briefly commented upon by Joseph Grinnell in his 1909 Bibliography of California Ornithology. In the future I hope to scribe and compile these articles by Alexander Shields so the interested individual with a bent toward environmental history or natural history, can glean from them, by a simple selection on the internet-on line as a living history immediately at their fingertips.