Bird Watcher's General Store

Ludlow Griscom - 10/22/04


Dear Bird Folks,

I read your recent column on the Great Auk with great enjoyment. But you wrote that the Great Auk was "North America's only flightless bird." If Guatemala is in North America, and I believe it is, you should consider the flightless Lake Atitlan Grebe, which is also now extinct. I mention this because the bird was discovered and was given the Latin name by my father, ornithologist Ludlow Griscom.

-Andrew Griscom, Chatham

You know Andrew,

Your note started out so good, then I saw the dreaded "but" and I knew I was a dead man. The "buts" always mean trouble ahead. I should have stopped reading right after the words "great enjoyment". That's what I get for being nosey.

Of course, you are right about Guatemala being in North America. For anyone who might be running to the nearest atlas thinking that Guatemala is in Central America and not in North America, forget it, I've already tried that. Central America is indeed considered part of North America.

Not wanting to drag everyone down with another extinction story, I've decided not to dwell on the loss of that little grebe. I'd rather write something a bit more positive. With due respect Andrew, I would like to pass along a few words to the readers about your father, for it would be hard to find anyone who had a more positive effect on the world of birding than Ludlow Griscom.

If you were to ask the average person to name the biggest names in birdwatching, they would probably say John James Audubon, me, Roger Tory Peterson and in recent times David Allen Sibley. Besides me, those other three guys had one thing that distinguishes them from Ludlow Griscom. Can you guess what it is? They all had middle names. Wasn't it obvious? The other important difference is that those three icons were talented artists, their works and their names were out there for the masses to learn and to recognize. Griscom was a bird man. He didn't spend endless hours in the studio and on book tours, he spent it in the field, educating other birders and promoting the protection of important habitat.

It was Ludlow Griscom who first taught a young Roger Tory Peterson the skills of field identification. Before Griscom their really were no "birders". Anyone interested in birds was either a collector or an ornithologist, and both studied birds up close via the "shotgun" method. Using the skills he learned from Griscom and his artistic talents, Peterson produced a revolutionary field guide to the birds. Back in the 1930s Peterson's field guide concept was so unusual that publisher after publisher refused to print it. It was Boston based Houghton Mifflin Company that finally took a chance and printed a mere 2,000 copies, but not until they showed the book to Ludlow Griscom for his approval. That book passed the Griscom test and went on to sell close to a zillion copies.

Ludlow Griscom is not a name from the distant past like Audubon, or from another country like Darwin. Griscom spent most of his adult life right here in Massachusetts, working at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Spending the summers in his house in Chatham, Griscom lead legendary birding trips to Monomoy. Many long time Cape birders have told me stories of those Monomoy trips. They would float an old car across to Monomoy and drive along the beach in search of birds. The car itself was half the show. We are not talking about a luxury SUV with air conditioning and a DVD player. Griscom drove a wooden paneled Model A Ford, with balloon tires, that got stuck much of the time.

Griscom's lifetime of achievements is so much more than impressive. He was the president of the American Ornithologist Union. Okay fine, that doesn't mean much to me either, but he was also the Chairman of the board of National Audubon Society. Even Audubon himself never did that. Griscom was a driving force in the Massachusetts Audubon Society and is given credit for putting Boston's Museum of Science on the map and saving it from bankruptcy. It was through his efforts that both Parker River on Plum Island and Monomoy became national wildlife refuges. And please don't let me forget to mention that somehow Ludlow Griscom found time to travel to the tropics where he discovered several new bird species, including the now famous flightless Lake Atitlan Grebe.

While others in the birding world, because of their skills and successful publications, have reached celebrity status, Ludlow Griscom has achieved legendary status in the eyes of his peers. Sometimes that's all the notoriety anyone ever needs.


Artwork by Catherine Clark


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