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Bulletin 

of the 

Museum of Comparative Zoology 


Volume 162, Number 6 


31 January 2020 


Wilmot W. Brown: One of The Most Prolific Collectors of 
the Vertebrate Fauna of the New World 


Kevin B. Clark 



HARVARD UNIVERSITY | CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS, U.S.A. 


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WILMOT W. BROWN: ONE OF THE MOST PROLIFIC COLLECTORS OF 
THE VERTEBRATE FAUNA OF THE NEW WORLD 

KEVIN B. CLARK 1 


Abstract. Wilmot W. Brown (1870P-1953) collect¬ 
ed birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles from 
1890 until his death in 1953, amassing a collection that 
forms the core of knowledge of the distribution and 
taxonomy of the terrestrial vertebrate fauna of Central 
and South America. His collection of more than 
18,000 bird specimens is spread over 25 institutions, 
although his longest collaboration was with Outram 
Bangs and John Thayer of the Museum of Compar¬ 
ative Zoology. He collected throughout the Caribbean; 
northern South America, including Colombia and 
Panama; and principally throughout Mexico, where he 
was based for more than 40 years, forming one of the 
most important collections ever amassed for that 
country. He collected more than 750 specimens now 
classified as some form of type specimen, and at least 
eight taxa are named in his honor, including two 
reptiles, a mammal, and five birds. Although he sent 
regular, detailed correspondence back to his benefac¬ 
tors in the United States, he never published a single 
professional article, and no field journal has been 
located, leaving his legacy obscured. In an era of lax 
data collection and fraudulent collectors. Brown’s 
specimens and associated data have proven to be of 
high quality and help form the basis for our current 
understanding of New World biodiversity, although 
his legacy is marred by his disregard for the 
conservation plight of the species he collected. 

Key words: Wilmot W. Brown, Collector, Collec¬ 
tions, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Grand Cayman, 
Birds, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Outram 
Bangs, Mammals, Reptiles 

INTRODUCTION 

Wilmot W. Brown (1870P-1953; Fig. 1) 
collected birds, mammals, amphibians, and 
reptiles from 1890 until his death in 1953, 
amassing a collection that forms the core of 

1 San Diego Natural History Museum, 1788 El 
Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California 92101. 
Author for correspondence (kclark@sdnhm.org). 


knowledge of the distribution and taxonomy 
of the terrestrial vertebrate fauna of Central 
and South America. His collection of more 
than 18,000 bird specimens (Peterson et al., 
2004) is spread over 25 institutions (Vert- 
Net, 2019). He collected throughout the 
Caribbean; northern South America, includ¬ 
ing Colombia and Panama; and principally 
throughout Mexico, where he was based for 
more than 40 years, forming one of the most 
important collections ever amassed for that 
country. He collected more than 341 
mammal, 211 bird, 196 reptile, and 11 
amphibian specimens listed as some form of 
type specimen, although he is rarely directly 
credited with their discovery. Although he 
sent regular, detailed correspondence back 
to his benefactors in the United States 
(Appendix 1), he never published a single 
professional article, and no field journal has 
been located, leaving his legacy obscured. 
While better known for his bird collecting. 
Brown also made extensive mammalian and 
herpetological collections that are key to our 
understanding of the distribution and tax¬ 
onomy of those groups, and at least eight 
taxa are named in his honor, including two 
reptiles, a mammal, and five birds (Appen¬ 
dix 2). 

By 1900 a fierce debate was occurring in 
the United States over whether and how to 
conserve species that were seemingly going 
extinct in rapid succession. The near 
extinction of the American Bison (Bison 
bison) was one catalyst for this debate, but 
the regular reports of wanton slaughter of 


Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool, 162(6): 347-378, January, 2020 347 


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348 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


wildlife for food or fashion also fed public 
anger, which resulted in the rise of the 
Audubon Society and other conservation 
groups that lobbied for increased wildlife 
protection in response (Barrow, 1998). To 
modern eyes, the seemingly preventable 
extinctions of iconic North American spe¬ 
cies such as the Labrador Duck ( Campto- 
rhynchus labradorius), Great Auk 
(Pinguinus impennis ), Passenger Pigeon 
(Ectopistes migratorius), and Ivory-billed 
Woodpecker ( Campephilus principalis) are 
tragic tales of missed opportunities that 
have left whole ecological communities, as 
well as modern human society, diminished 
to an unknown degree. As we shall see, 
Wilmot W. Brown had a cavalier attitude 
toward species conservation, which is espe¬ 
cially disturbing in light of the subsequent 
decline to extinction of some of the species 
he collected. However it must be remem¬ 
bered that the status and distribution of 
much of the New World fauna was very 
poorly known in the 1890s, when Brown 
began collecting for museums, and there 
was an eagerness, not to mention financial 
incentive, to discover and document as 
much of the natural history of the continent 
as possible. To this day the presettlement 
distribution of even charismatic species 
such as the Merriam’s elk ( Cervus elaphus 
merriami) in Arizona, the gray wolf ( Canis 
lupus) in California, or the American 
Flamingo ( Phoenicopterus ruber) in Florida 
are poorly known (Schmidt, 1991; Carmony, 
2009; Whitfield et ah, 2018). Without the 
diligent collectors and explorers recording 
their observations and collecting specimens 
for science, our modern conservation efforts 
would be lost in trying to determine where 
endangered species originally occurred and 
where they can be reintroduced. It was 
collectors such as Brown, collecting for 
museums that preserved these records in 
perpetuity, that allow us to attempt to 
understand and even reconstruct whole 
communities of organisms in places now 
irrevocably altered by modern society. 



Figure 1. Portrait of Wilmot W. Brown in 1930. 


Furthermore, the vast majority of species 
that went extinct, or nearly so, during this 
period were driven to their fate through 
either direct hunting for food, fashion, 
hides, oil or other consumptive uses; 
extensive habitat destruction; feral cats or 
other introduced predators; or a combina¬ 
tion of all of these influences. Scientific 
collectors generally took so few individuals 
of any one species in any given area that 
they had almost no effect on a species’ 
conservation status, although once a species 
became endangered, almost any loss could 
be detrimental. 

As we shall see, however, Brown’s own 
actions contributed to the decline of several 
rare species he collected, and he continued 
his collecting efforts despite knowing of 
their negative effects—and in some cases 
where he knew his actions were expressly 
illegal. Therefore, when considering his 
legacy, his significant contributions to our 
modern understanding of vertebrate taxon- 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


349 


omy and distribution must be balanced 
against his actions in imperiling some of 
the species he collected. 

Brown was originally from Somerville, 
Massachusetts, where by 1890 he had 
amassed an impressive collection of local 
birds (Hitchcock, 1890). By 1891 he was in 
the Caribbean, collecting birds in Puerto 
Bico and nearby islands (Cory, 1892). 

He first wrote to Outram Bangs, who was 
later to become curator of mammals at 
Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology 
(MCZ), in 1895 looking for sponsors to send 
him to South America to collect. Bangs soon 
sent him to the southern United States, 
where he collected in Georgia, Alabama, 
and Florida in 1896-1897. It was in 
Fernandina, Florida, that he writes of one 
of several close calls with law enforcement 
investigating his collecting activity: “I was 
obliged to leave Fernandina, Fla. in very 
much of a hurry as I got into trouble with 
the authorities over shooting birds, and 
would have been heavily fined had I not 
sailed away at midnight.... The authorities 
also learned that I was hunting deer which 
did not improve the situation. The fine for 
shooting deer out of season is $3.00!” (19 
April 1897 letter; see Appendix 1 for all 
correspondence details). 

In the late 1890s, Walter Rothschild, 
scion of one of the wealthiest families in the 
world, was compiling an immense zoological 
collection at the family’s estate in Tring, 
England. With his ornithological curator 
Ernst Hartert, he was sponsoring collecting 
expeditions around the world. Hartert 
himself had attempted to reach Venezuela, 
although he had been diverted to the 
Caribbean because of hostilities there 
(Rothschild, 2008). Hartert and other spon¬ 
sored explorers had successfully collected 
birds in central Africa, India, Sumatra, and 
the Galapagos Islands. The Rothschild 
Collection would eventually encompass 
more than 300,000 bird skins and 200,000 
bird eggs before the bulk of it was sold to 
the American Museum of Natural History 


(AMNH) in 1932 (Stearn, 1998). The 
curator of the collection in New York 
became Ernst Mayr, who used the extensive 
series of skins of individual species to 
document intraspecific geographical varia¬ 
tion, which became the basis of his System- 
atics and the Origin of Species (Mayr, 1942), 
one of the foundational texts of the neo- 
Darwinian evolutionary synthesis of the 
mid-twentieth century. 

Brown wrote to Hartert in 1897 seeking a 
sponsor for a trip to Venezuela, because 
specimens from there were in great de¬ 
mand. However, Hartert was already spon¬ 
soring several collectors in Venezuela, 
including George Cherrie, later with the 
AMNH and future companion of Theodore 
Roosevelt on the River of Doubt expedition 
in Brazil in 1912. Hartert suggested Brown 
travel to Colombia instead, and Brown, 
receiving Hartert’s telegram a few days 
before departing for Venezuela, changed 
his plans to go the Sierra Nevada de Santa 
Marta in northeastern Colombia. Between 
his arrival in December and his descent 
from the Sierra in April, Brown heard 
nothing from Hartert and concluded that 
Hartert had backed out of the deal. Brown 
may have anticipated the event, because he 
had kept up a correspondence with Bangs, 
trying to convince him to sponsor him at 
$110 per month for his collecting. Brown 
claimed that Hartert, as the collector for the 
Rothschilds, and with plenty of money 
behind him, would pay top dollar for the 
specimens if Bangs did not buy them first (8 
Jan 1898 letter). A little bit of bravado did 
not hurt: “A revolution is expected to break 
out any day and I have been warned by the 
American Consul to leave the country. But 
this I will not do for I came to South 
America to make a collection and will 
accomplish what I came for or die in the 
attempt” (15 Dec 1897 letter). The rela¬ 
tionship between Brown and Bangs would 
last for the next three decades. 


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350 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


COLOMBIA (1897-1899) 

Brown’s travels in the Sierra Nevada de 
Santa Marta on the north coast of Colombia 
were productive, even though he sometimes 
complained about the hospitality. Brown 
lived for 5 weeks with the Arhuaco Indians, 
who helped him check his traps and guided 
him through the Sierra. He lived mostly off 
of what he trapped and looked to his hosts 
for cooking assistance, "I gave the bodies of 
these rats to an Indian girl to cook for 
herself. I also gave her some bird bodies to 
make a soup out of for me. Well, to make a 
long story short, she ate the birds herself 
and made a soup out of the rats for me, 
which I ate thinking it was bird soup until I 
fished a rat out of it with a tail! The soup 
was pretty good however” (15 April 1898 
letter). 

Bangs (1899), like many others, was 
amazed by Brown’s persistence and forti¬ 
tude, no matter what the conditions: 

Travelling in the Sierra Nevada is at best 
slow and laborious and in the rainy 
season is harder still. Mr. Brown, in 
order to go as light as possible, carried no 
tent with him, and cut down his outfit in 
other ways till much too small for his 
comfort. Night after night he slept out 
with no shelter, wet to the skin by the 
terrific thunder storms that rage in these 
mountains nearly continuously through¬ 
out the spring. His one pair of shoes was 
soon worn out by the rough travelling, 
and for the greater part of the trip he 
went barefoot, his feet and legs exposed 
to the attacks of wood ticks and numer¬ 
ous insects with every now and then a 
narrow escape from a fer-de lance or a 
bushmaster. 

Despite the difficult conditions, Brown 
sent more than 1,000 bird skins and 350 
mammal skins to Bangs after his first 6 
months of effort (Bangs, 1899). 

The field supplies Brown used were 
minimal to promote portability but con¬ 


tained a variety of tools for the wide range 
of birds, mammals, reptiles, and butterflies 
he might collect. A request to Bangs for 
supplies in 1899 included detailed instruc¬ 
tions on an auxiliary shotgun barrel he 
needed, as well as the following (4 May 
1899 letter): 

50 pounds Duck Shot 
25 pounds No. 4 shot 
10 pounds of Powder in Cans 
L A Doz. boxes of No. 2 Winchester Primers 
8 boxes No. 114 Winchester Primers 
1 Recaper for No. 12 Gauge Shell (a strong 
one) 

100 Stevens Long Everlasting Br_Shells of 

44 Calibre 

100 U.S New Climax Paper Shells No. 12 
Gage [sic] 

1 doz. Boxes of No. 10 Thick Wads 
1 doz. Boxes of No. 12 card board wads 
5 pounds of Napthalene or shat Mr. Frazar 
calls “Alba” [a fumigant] 

12 Rolls of Cotton Batten 
1 small steel vice 
300 newspapers 
1 fine file. 

PANAMA (1899-1904) 

In late 1899 Brown arrived in David, 
Panama, where he proceeded about 20 
miles to the west to collect near Divala, 
just inland from the Pacific coast. Now 
cleared and agricultural, this region at the 
time was primary tropical forest and greatly 
impressed Brown: “In the luxuriant, cool 
tropical forest, the red rubber trees and 
gigantic Spanish cedar abound .... Around 
the trunks of the forest trees big vines wind 
themselves and find their way far up among 
the branches. On certain trees orchids 
abound while on other trees they are scarce. 
Tropical flowers of many species beautify 
the trails. At night the monkeys (mono 
congo) [howler monkey (Alouatta palliata)] 
make the forest tedious with their roars” (24 
Jan 1900 letter). Bangs (1901b) proceeded 
to describe six new avian taxa from Brown’s 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


351 


collection. Brown also fathered a child, 
Serafina Brown Arauz, in Divala (Heck- 
adon-Moreno, 2004). 

Brown then moved to Colon on the 
Atlantic coast where he made a collection 
of more than 750 birds and mammals, 
although 40 of those were eaten by a pig 
as he left them to dry in the sun: “I was 
never so mad in my life” (4 April 1900 
letter). He also relates that since 1888 
millinery hunters had been active in the 
area to provide feathers to Frenchmen 
based in the Panama Canal. Probably 
because of this competition and the sup¬ 
pression of bird populations by the millinery 
hunters, by April 1900, Brown made plans 
to leave Colon for the Pacific Coast and the 
Las Perlas Archipelago. This string of 
islands lies in the Gulf of Panama, and at 
this time its natural history had been largely 
unexplored. Ever since Alfred Bussell Wal¬ 
lace’s famed collections of fabulous birds 
and butterflies from the Malay Archipelago 
in the 1850s and Charles Darwin’s even 
more famous finds in the Galapagos Islands 
two decades earlier, naturalists and collec¬ 
tors had sought out islands the world over 
for unique finds. Once Brown arrived in the 
islands, he stayed for a month and made a 
collection on San Miguel Island, the largest 
island in the Bay of Panama (Bangs, 1901b). 
Bangs (1901a,b,c) would describe four new 
avian taxa and six mammalian taxa from 
Brown’s brief stay in the islands. 

Panama at this time was a semiautono- 
mous department of Colombia, and the 
whole region was engulfed in "The Thou¬ 
sand Days War,” a prelude to the separation 
of Panama in 1903. Brown, never one to shy 
away from conflict zones, nevertheless 
found it difficult to negotiate this strife in 
Panama, and he returned to Boston. Think¬ 
ing the revolution over, Brown returned to 
Colon in October but found the city under 
martial law and renewed fighting imminent. 
Brown relocated to western Panama, and by 
May 1901 he shipped to Bangs more than 
1,500 bird and mammal skins, principally 


from around Boquete and up to 8,000 ft 
elevation on Baru Volcano. This included 
what became the type specimen of the 
Timberline Wren (Thryorchilus broicni). By 
4 July 1901, Brown wrote Bangs trium¬ 
phantly that he had reached the summit of 
the volcano, at more than 11,400 ft eleva¬ 
tion. “The summit was a high towering rock. 
The last rock of the peak was so narrow that 
I had to straddle it. Under one foot was a 
sheer fall of some 900 ft., under the other a 
sharp slope of 600 or 700 ft. I found no signs 
or marks of a previous ascent. My carriers 
and men failed to follow me. I left two 
records of my ascent. The people of David 
and Boquete claim mine to be the first 
ascent” (7 July 1901 letter). Brown provided 
a separate 11-page description of the ascent 
and the vegetation and birdlife encountered 
at various elevations: “The characteristic 
species of this region is a Junco [Volcano 
Juneo, Junco vulcani] which feeds partly on 
the berries. It has a sharp alarm note. 
Towering up some 300 ft. is the rock barren 
summit of Mt. Chiriqui [now Volcan Baru], 
which frowns down in all its majesty on the 
Caribbean Sea on the north and the Pacific 
Ocean on the south.” 

Brown also discovered that a rival collec¬ 
tor, J. H. Batty, was collecting in Boquete 
and was using several paid assistants to 
collect “on the wholesale plan making big 
series of all species.” Batty was a well- 
known, charismatic figure in natural history 
circles, having participated in several high- 
profile expeditions to remote regions of the 
western United States. lie subsequently 
wrote a book titled Practical Taxidermy, 
published in 1880. He was well positioned 
to cash in on his fame and seek sponsors to 
send him to remote locations to collect. 
While Rothschild would not hire an unher¬ 
alded W. W. Brown to collect in tropical 
America, Batty’s fame proved a selling 
point. Brown suspected as much in letters 
to Bangs: “I believe Mr. Batty is collecting 
for the Tring Museum, but am not sure.” 
Brown further wrote to Bangs: “He played 


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352 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


you a mean trick in encroaching on your 
collecting ground. In my opinion it was a 
put up job.... It makes me mad” (27 Jan 
1902 letter). 

The chance that Rothschild took on a 
more well known figure like Batty proved 
disastrous. Batty took large series of birds 
and mammals from mainland Panama and 
fraudulently changed the dates and locali¬ 
ties to make them appear to have been 
collected from the Las Perlas Archipelago. 
Rothschild, like many collectors, knew that 
islands harbored many new species, and 
Batty likely knew that he could charge a 
premium for island specimens. Rothschild’s 
collection manager, Hartert, was suspicious, 
as were several later ornithologists, but it 
was not until recently that the full scale of 
Batty’s fraud was evident (Olson, 2008). 
Batty parlayed his “successful” Panama 
expedition into a paid collecting position 
with the American Museum of Natural 
History. They paid Batty $2,000 per year 
to collect throughout Central America 
beginning in 1902. This only lasted a few 
years however, as Batty was eventually 
killed in the field when his gun accidentally 
discharged in southern Mexico in 1906 
(Olson, 2008). 

Brown returned to the United States in 
July 1901. By January 1902 he was in La 
Ceiba, Honduras, on the Caribbean coast. 
Between 1 and 27 Jan he collected more than 
500 specimens. By April 1902 he was back in 
Colon, Panama, but the war was continuing 
and he found it impossible to travel. He 
returned to the United States that summer. 

In the spring of 1904, Brown returned to 
the Las Perlas Archipelago and spent 2 
months collecting (Thayer and Bangs, 
1905). Two new avian subspecies were 
described from this collection. 

MEXICO (1905-1911) 

After returning from Panama, Brown left 
for Mexico in what would become a life¬ 


long collecting effort throughout that coun¬ 
try for the next five decades. 

Imperial Woodpecker 

Brown knew the Imperial Woodpecker 
(Campephilus imperialis) of western Mex¬ 
ico, the largest woodpecker in the world, 
was a highly sought after specimen. In 
September 1905, he spent 2 weeks in the 
Sierra Madre Occidental among the Mor¬ 
mon colonies of northern Chihuahua, where 
he procured 17 Imperial Woodpecker 
specimens in 2 weeks (Snyder et al., 
2009). Brown also provided the first de¬ 
scriptions of the nest and eggs of the Thick- 
hilled Parrot (. Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyn- 
cha), which at that time often nested in 
Imperial Woodpecker nest cavities (Thayer, 
1906). He likely paid a high price for local 
hunters to bring him specimens, for not 
long after he left the Sierra Madre, word 
travelled that Imperial Woodpeckers had a 
high value on their head, as illustrated by an 
article in the March 1908 Condor (Smith, 
1908): 

Recently there came to my knowledge 
facts relative to a deplorable slaughter of 
the Imperial Woodpecker ( Campephilus 
imperialis), not so very far south of our 
border. 

Two prospectors (one of whom imparted 
the information given herewith) were 
working over a region in west central 
Chihuahua some fifty miles west of 
Terrazas (pueblo), a mountainous and 
heavily forested country, much frequent¬ 
ed by the bird in subject. One of the men 
had heard somewhere of the rarity of the 
species, and that it bore a commercial 
value, but erroneously, his conception was 
that the bill was the portion in demand, 
and not the prepared skin. Working on 
this idea he shot some seventeen of the 
magnificent creatures in the course of a 
few months, and cut off the bills, figuring 
them at $25.00 each, until on reaching 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


353 



Figure 2. Brown collected more than 120 Masked Bobwhite 
(Colinus virginianus ridgwayi) specimens in southern Sonora, 
Mexico, in 1905-1906, at a time when fewer than 30 
specimens were known. 

civilization again, he was chagrined to find 

his material utterly worthless. 

In the early 1920s, Brown again returned 
to the Sierra Madre in search of these 
woodpeckers and now found the birds much 
rarer and proceeded to purchase them from 
local hunters. L. A. Carlton (1922), who 
kept a diary of his hunting trip into the 
Sierra, revealed how high the price had 
risen: “Saw giant woodpecker today. Rare 
bird and to be found only in these 
mountains. His coloring is gorgeous—blue- 
black, white and red. Very large. Perhaps 
twenty-four inches in length. The Whettens 
[J. A. Whetten was the party’s Mormon 
guide] tell us that some museum or 
ornithologist recently procured a specimen 
here by paying $1500.00 for its capture.” 

The only specimens from the early 1920s 
are four obtained by Brown from the Sierra 
Madre Occidental in the vicinity of Mound 
Valley, just south of the Mormon colony of 
Colonia Pacheco and now at the American 
Museum of Natural History (Snyder et al., 
2009). 

Masked Bobwhite 

After its discovery in northern Sonora by 
Frank Stephens in 1884, the Masked 



Figure 3. Many of Brown’s expeditions were sponsored by 
John Thayer, including his trip to Sonora, Mexico. 


Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi) 
became a much sought after specimen by 
period naturalists (Stephens, 1885; Allen, 
1886). By 1905, the Masked Bobwhite was 
still known from fewer than 10 specimens 
from the Mexican State of Sonora, and an 
equal number from adjacent Arizona 
Territory, where it had already become 
extirpated by drought and excessive live¬ 
stock grazing (Brown, 1989). Brown dis¬ 
covered a population far south of its known 
range at the boundary of the Yaqui tribal 
lands in southern Sonora. In December 
1905 and January 1906, he collected 120 
Masked Bobwhite, nearly 50% of the total 
number of specimens now in collections 
(Brown et al., 2012; Figs. 2, 3). Unrest 
between the Yaquis and the Mexican 
government prevented any more investi¬ 
gations farther south through the first half 
of the twentieth century (Spicer, 1980), 
and Brown’s collection area remains the 
southern boundary of the known historical 
distribution of this critically endangered 
bird. 

By spring of 1906, Brown was in southern 
California. His fame was now significant, 
and his arrival was announced with fanfare 
in the journal The Condor (Anonymous, 
1906): 


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354 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


Mr. Wilmot W. Brown, Jr., of Cam¬ 
bridge, Mass., is in southern California 
for a few month’s collecting, having just 
returned from a successful trip into the 
Yaqui country of Sonora. lie intends to 
visit some of the Santa Barbara Islands, 
and if a suitable vessel can be chartered, 
Guadalupe Island off the Lower Califor¬ 
nia coast. Mr. Brown is famous for his 
many years of field work in South 
America, where he has discovered over 
100 species of birds, and a great many 
new mammals. By dint of extreme 
courage and energy he has penetrated 
into the most remote districts, discover¬ 
ing such remarkable novelties as the 
white-tailed hummingbird, from the 
Santa Marta region, figured in a colored 
plate in the April, 1899, Auk. Mr. 
Brown’s work is pursued wholly thru 
his love of collecting, tho he works partly 
in the interests of the Museum of 
Comparative Zoology at Cambridge, 
and of Mr. Outram Bangs, the latter 
gentleman publishing most of the results. 

Guadalupe Island (1906) 

Brown’s interest in visiting remote islands 
full of unique fauna was still strong. Of all 
the islands off the western coast of North 
America, Guadalupe Island, about 160 
miles west of Baja California, is a rarity in 
being an island of volcanic origin that never 
had any connection to the mainland. As 
such, it contains no native terrestrial mam¬ 
mals and supports a high degree of ende¬ 
mism in its flora and fauna (Moran, 1996). 
No fewer than nine endemic bird taxa have 
been described: Guadalupe Caracara ( Ca- 
racara lutosus), Guadalupe Storm-petrel 
(Oceanodroma macroclactyla ), Guadalupe 
Flicker (Colaptes auratus rufipileus), Gua¬ 
dalupe Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes be- 
wickii brevicauda ), Guadalupe Rock Wren 
(Salpinctes obsoletus guadeloupensis ), Gua¬ 
dalupe Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus 
calendula obscurus ), Guadalupe Spotted 


Towhee (Pipilo maculatus consobrinus ), 
Guadalupe junco (Junco [, hyemalis] insu- 
laris), and Guadalupe House Finch ( Carpo- 
dacus mexicanus amplus ). Sadly, only three 
of these, the Rock Wren, Junco, and House 
Finch, are still extant, the rest having 
succumbed to feral cat predation and 
habitat destruction by feral goats (Quinta- 
na-Barrios et ah, 2006). 

The first ornithological collections from 
the island were made by the botanist 
Edward Palmer in 1875. W. E. Bryant 
provided the first systematic account of 
the ornithology of the island in 1884 (Allen, 
1887). The collectors A. W. Anthony (in 
1896) and Rollo Beck (in 1900) had also 
visited Guadalupe, but the status of the 
island’s declining species was still unclear by 
the time of W. W. Brown’s visit in 1906 
(Thayer and Bangs, 1908). 

Before departing on the trip, Brown 
conferred wifli Frank Stephens, with the 
San Diego Society of Natural History, who 
was one of the most experienced collectors 
in the southwestern United States and had 
just finished his book California Mammals 
that year (Stephens, 1906). Stephens rec¬ 
ommended a colleague of his, II. W. 
Marsden, to accompany Brown on his island 
trip. Stephens remarked that Brown “is a 
peculiar fellow and seems afraid people will 
find out something about his business” 
(Stephens, 1906, letter to Swarth). 

In May of that year Brown arrived on the 
island where he was to spend 2 months. His 
main target was the Guadalupe Caracara, a 
darkly colored, bold, and aggressive version 
of the mainland Crested Caracara ( Caraca¬ 
ra cheriway ). This species had only been 
discovered by science after Palmer’s visit in 
1875. Brown repeatedly set out dead goats 
and hid nearby, waiting for the Caracaras to 
appear. As Brown himself relates, a sailor 
who lived on the island 30 years before had 
told him that, at that time, these birds were 
common and were so bold as to swoop down 
on a freshly killed goat carcass as the goat 
hunter was still skinning it. However, the 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


355 


hunters discovered they preyed on the kids 
and began killing them. An agent on the 
island made a special effort to shoot them 
with regularity, and after Palmer’s early 
visit, each subsequent visitor noted fewer 
and fewer of the raptors. One visiting 
American goat hunter, aware of the bird’s 
rarity, even went so far as to catch four of 
the birds alive and bring them to San Diego 
in f898, hoping to sell them. They spent 
some time on display in the front window of 
a saloon downtown (Abbott, f933). Brown’s 
extensive efforts to collect the caracaras 
came to nothing, as the last of the birds 
were collected by Beck in 1900 (Abbott, 
1933). Shortly after Beck arrived, he came 
across a flock of 11 birds and shot nine of 
them, failing to come across any others for 
the rest of his time on the island. Years later. 
Beck expressed regret that he had contrib¬ 
uted to the species’ demise, “judging by 
their tameness and the short time that I was 
on the island I assumed at the time that they 
must be abundant” (Abbott, 1933). 

Brown (1906) also took note of another 
hunter busy catching the birds of the island: 
“Domestic cats in a wild state were 
numerous, particularly along the northern 
ridge where the petrels and shearwaters 
breed. The mortality among the petrels 
[both Guadalupe and Leach’s Storm-Petrel 
Oceanodroma leucorhoa socorroensis ] and 
shearwaters [Black-vented Shearwater, Puf- 
finus opisthomelas] must be great for there 
were hundreds of their wings strewn about, 
and the wings and feathers of Juncos and 
Rock Wrens and Woodpeckers [Guadalupe 
Flickers] were also found. The extinction of 
(Pipilo consobrinus) [Guadalupe Spotted 
Towhee] was undoubtedly caused by the 
cats. A woodpecker’s nest containing four 
young ones was robbed by the cats. One fat, 
sleek feline killed by us contained 13 mice 
and some feathers in her stomach.” The 
Guadalupe Flickers and Guadalupe Storm- 
petrels described by Brown were not to be 
found again by subsequent visitors. 


Bangs himself well knew the effect of 
feral cats, especially on islands. As related in 
his obituary (Peters, 1933), “One of the 
incidents of his local mammal trapping that 
he sometimes referred to was how he and 
Gerrit Miller saved the Muskeget Island 
beach mouse ( Microtus breweri) from 
extinction. One summer while trapping on 
Muskeget, they found the island overrun 
with house cats gone wild, but not a sign of 
Microtus. On a smaller island separated by 
only a narrow channel, the mice occurred in 
abundance. lie and Miller procured some 
catnip and either trapped or shot every cat 
on the main island; they then waded over to 
the smaller island and caught a large 
number of mice with which they restocked 
Muskeget. The following winter, the smaller 
island was washed away in a storm.” 

Despite the carnage by feral cats and 
habitat destruction by goats, the endemic 
Rock Wren of Guadalupe Island, larger and 
with a much longer bill than its mainland 
relatives, was still common. Despite their 
abundance, the Rock Wrens of Guadalupe 
had found a trick that even Brown could not 
surmount: “Once when out hunting, I was 
standing motionless, when I saw a rock wren 
nearby, it was too near to shoot for a 
specimen, so I backed off so as to get a long 
shot and the wren followed me, so I backed 
again and sat down, when along it came, 
jumped onto the toe of my hunting boot and 
hopped up to my knee with its head on one 
side looking up into my face with the 
greatest of curiosity. Needless to write, that 
wren, and all the other wrens of a like 
sociable nature are still denizens of Guada¬ 
lupe” (Brown, 1906). 

Brown also found time to collect 85 plant 
specimens on the island, which now reside 
in the Gray Herbarium at Harvard Univer¬ 
sity. Upon returning, Brown again con¬ 
ferred with Stephens in San Diego. 
Stephens later wrote to Harry Swarth after 
hearing from both Marsden and Brown 
about their trip: “they returned thoroughly 
disgusted with one another. I suspect both 


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356 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


were at fault” (Stephens, 1906, letter to 
Swarth). 

Brown’s breezy, humorous account of his 
trip is the only surviving typewritten man¬ 
uscript apparently authored by him to 
survive. While providing important details 
to his observations and collections while on 
the island, it glosses over an incident that 
occurred at the end of his trip and portends 
some of his later actions in regard to rare 
species. After being picked up by their 
chartered boat that was weeks late in 
arriving, Brown and Marsden circled the 
island looking for two very rare pinnipeds, 
the Guadalupe fur seal (Arctocephalus 
townsendi), and northern elephant seal 
(Mirounga angustirostris ). Both species 
had been reduced to near extinction over 
the previous century by sealers harvesting 
them for oil and hides. Brown found a 
group of 11 elephant seals on a remote 
beach and approached in a small skiff. 
According to Brown: 

As we rowed quietly toward the herd we 
could see that they were all asleep, being 
stretched out lengthwise on the sand. As 
we got nearer, one rose colored old male 
who scented or heard us, raised himself 
on his flippers and pointing his head 
upward gave a deep growl, upon which 
the others rose up with many growls and 
faced us. 

By this time we were within firing 
distance directly in front of the herd, 
and close to a dangerous looking surf. As 
a big swell caught us we seemed to rise 
and then we dashed forward on the crest 
of a big comber, there were three shots 
and the next moment we were cast 
among eleven now thoroughly aroused, 
retreating, floundering sea elephants, 
their jaws snapping and their deep 
growls mingling with the roar of the surf, 
which swept in behind wetting us nearly 
to our shoulders, and filling the boat. As 
the elephants did not offer to attack, we 


finally got our boat up on the beach out 
of reach of the surf, and then proceeded 
to make observations .... We spent two 
hours with these good natured, harmless 
animals, most of the time lying in the 
sand within ten feet of them, but with the 
exception of one raising his head now 
and then they ignored our presence. 
Wishing to see them swim we suffered 
their displeasure by throwing sand on 
them and by shouting and waving our 
hunting bags and hats in their faces, until 
they seeing more sleep was out of the 
question were glad to get into the surf. 
As we rowed back to the ship, we passed 
several with their heads high and straight 
out of the water giving them the 
appearance of treading water .... The 
beach, under three thousand feet of 
perpendicular basaltic cliffs and washed 
by a heavy roaring surf is truly a wild spot 
and a fit setting, for probably the last 
herd of Sea Elephants in North Ameri¬ 
can waters. 

Odier than firing shots, Brown makes no 
mention of collecting any seals, and his 
account differs dramatically from that recol¬ 
lected by Marsden and told to Stephens who 
related the story in a letter: “They anchored 
overnight at the southern end of the island. 
Next day near the north end of the island 
they saw a group of large seals lying on a 
little gravel beach at the foot of an immense 
perpendicular cliff and fired a number of 
shots at them from the launch. They saw that 
they had killed two or three and Brown, the 
Mexican, and the sailor from the launch went 
ashore through the surf which was very 
heavy. Brown says the bunch originally 
consisted of eleven seals. They had killed 
one huge fellow and a small one on the 
beach and one large one was dead in the 
surf. The rest of the bunch still remained on 
the beach and Brown says he gradually drove 
them up against the foot of the cliff. They 
growled and snarled at him but backed off 
without really showing fight. He got within 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


357 


eight feet of them! ... They skinned the small 
seal. Brown says it was eight feet long and 
this it was a young one. Quite as likely that it 
was an adult female. He says the other was so 
big that he could do nothing with it and 
come off and left it! They then went back to 
the anchorage at the south end of the Island. 
Marsden says he asked Brown why he had 
not taken the skull of the big one, and that 
Brown replied that he had not thought of it. 
Nothing more was said but next morning 
Brown told the captain to go back there and 
he went ashore and cut off the head .... 
Brown says he measured eighteen feet in 
length .... This little band of Elephant Seals 
is the only one the sailors and people of that 
region know of and they were on a beach not 
known to be frequented by them” (Stephens, 
1906, letter to Swarth). 

One skull of a male elephant seal and the 
skin and skull of a female elephant seal 
collected by Brown in 1906 are in the MCZ 
collection. Despite Brown’s actions, the 
species survived, likely in part because of 
their extended adolescence period, in which 
juvenile seals spend several years at sea 
before becoming sexually mature and re¬ 
turning to their breeding sites. The majority 
of the individuals in a population are 
therefore not at vulnerable breeding sites 
on land at any given time. Subsequent to 
Brown’s visit in 1906, another six elephant 
seals were collected from Guadalupe Island 
in 1911 by C. II. Townsend for the 
American Museum of Natural History, and 
then another 15 were collected from there 
in 1913-1914 for the California Academy of 
Sciences, San Francisco, and the Los 
Angeles County Museum of Natural Histo¬ 
ry. After this period, protections increased 
and the population quickly rose. Today the 
population has risen to more than 200,000 
(Garcia-Aguilar et ah, 2018). 

Baja California (1906) 

Brown’s forays into Baja California were 
very successful, both in satisfying the 


demands of his sponsors for large series of 
rare birds and in showcasing Brown’s 
perseverance under trying conditions, cou¬ 
pled with an ambivalence to bird conserva¬ 
tion. Shortly after arriving in the cape region 
of Baja California Sur, he bragged that his 
collecting was so thorough that the desire 
for nests and eggs of some rare species by 
John Thayer of the MCZ might be difficult 
to fulfill: “It will be a question if I will be 
able to find the nest and eggs of the 
Mangrove Yellow Warbler [Setopliaga pete¬ 
chia castaneiceps ] as most of them are in my 
collection. And this also applies to Frazar’s 
Green Heron [ Butorides virescens fra- 
zari\ —most of them being in my collection” 
(28 April 1908 letter). While in the cape 
region, Brown continued to focus on 
wetland birds, writing “from Miraflores, 
we took the pack mules to Santiago and 
camped at the Laguna within fifteen feet of 
the tules [reeds], and shot Belding’s Mary¬ 
land Yellowthroats [Geothlypis heldingi ] out 
of the back door of the tent” (20 Jan 1909 
letter). The Belding’s Yellowthroat is now 
considered globally endangered, although 
primarily from wetland destruction, rather 
than direct shooting (Rodriguez-Estrella et 
ah, 1999; Erickson et ah, 2008; Fig. 4). 

In January-March 1909 he traveled up 
into the Sierra de la Laguna range in 
southern Baja California (Thayer, 1909a,b). 
On 26 Dec at El Sauz, he found a Band¬ 
tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata vioscae ) 
nest with egg, showcasing how this species 
can breed on a near year-round basis. 
Several other Band-tailed Pigeons were 
found with young chicks. He also further 
cemented his reputation for finding elusive 
species that few others could collect in 
numbers. The Rufous-crowned Sparrows 
(Aimophila ruficeps sororia) is a case in 
point. This non-flocking sparrow is generally 
thinly distributed in pairs across arid, often 
steep, hillsides. Modern birdwatchers rarely 
see more than a few in a day. In 2 weeks of 
collecting at El Sauz, he was able to secure 
70 Rufous-crowned Sparrows. “They were 


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358 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 



Figure 4. Belding’s Yellowthroat (Geothlypis beldingi) 
collected by Brown in Baja California Sur, Mexico, in 1912. 


not common as about six specimens a day 
was all I could do” (19 Jan 1909 letter). 

Brown also related some of his tricks for 
securing rare birds in the field: “I found the 
Mangrove Warbler a rare bird but my 
previous experience with this species in 
Panama, the Pearl Islands, and in Yucatan is 
what made me successful. I learned its song 
and alarm note in Yucatan in 1893. The first 
morning I went into the mangrove swamp of 
La Paz I whistled the song of the Yucatan 
species and they answered me and this is 
the secret of my success, for it is very 
secretive in its habits. I found it so difficult 
to get that I offered 500 a piece for them to 
the duck hunters and others including the 
local taxidermist, but they all failed to get 
it!!” (25 Aug 1908 letter). 

Gulf of California Islands (1909) 

The Gulf of California, or Sea of Cortez, 
is dotted with numerous islands of various 


sizes, and like islands elsewhere, these host 
a suite of endemic species. In the spring of 
1909, Brown visited several of these islands, 
with a focal species of his searches being the 
Craveri’s Murrelet (Synthliboramphus crav- 
eri). The Craveri’s Murrelet had been 
discovered by the Italian naturalist Federico 
Craveri in 1856, although from which island 
is an ongoing mystery (Bowen, 2013; Bowen 
et al., 2015). In 1909, this species’ distribu¬ 
tion and biology was still little known, and 
Brown made a concerted effort to locate a 
breeding colony. He undertook a trip to the 
islands of San Jose, San Francisco (now San 
Francisquito), and nearby Roca El Callo. 
He found a nesting colony in a rocky bluff 
on El Callo and a small islet and proceeded 
to collect a series of eggs and skins. “We 
found the murrelets nesting in the crevices 
among the rocks of the bluff. The nest in all 
the instances was a slight depression in the 
earth at the end of the crevice. Much 
difficulty was experienced in getting the 
eggs out of the crevices as some of the 
crevices were 6 ft. long. Most of the nests 
contained two eggs, but some of the nests 
only contained one. The young ones take to 
the water two days after being hatched! 
Twenty two days is the period of incubation. 
The males aid in the act of incubation— 
many males being taken on the eggs in the 
day time. In the early morning hours, 
particularly an hour before dawn, there 
was much activity among the murrelets, 
they at this time being seen in pairs.” 

One pair he collected was notable: “Our 
tent was pitched at the foot of a bluff and it 
was almost impossible to sleep the murre¬ 
lets made so much noise, for when they fly 
there is a sharp, loud whirring sound. 
Towards the end of our stay they learned 
that the wall of our tent was soft and 
seemed to take a delight in butting into it in 
their amourous [sic] frolics. One couple in 
the excitement of the moment must have hit 
it head on, for they dropped to the ground 
with a thud and fluttered together under the 
side of our tent into my bed, which made 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


359 


me sit up and take notice. I caught them by 
throwing a blanket over them. This is the 
first collecting I have done in bed” (10 
March 1909 letter). 

Brown also visited several islands in the 
southern Gulf, in search of the recently 
described Heermann’s Gull (Larus lieer- 
manni ). He finally found a nesting colony on 
the small Isla San Udefonso, just east of 
Bahia Concepcion. There he found approx¬ 
imately 15,000 pairs, and proceeded to 
collect 610 sets of Heermann’s Gull eggs, 
an egg never before collected (Thayer, 
1911). Today, over 90% of the global 
population of Heermann’s Gull nest on Isla 
Rasa, east of Bahia de Los Angeles, in the 
Gulf of California. The population at San 
Ildefonso was estimated at 200 individuals 
in the early 1990s (Velarde and Anderson, 
1994) but declined to zero by 2000 (Mellink, 
2001). The reasons for the vast decrease in 
the population size at San Ildefonso since 
Brown’s day are unknown, but the estab¬ 
lishment of a lighthouse and its popularity 
among fishermen may have increased the 
disturbance level and discouraged nesting 
gulls. The population of Isla Rasa rose 
significantly after the establishment of a 
bird refuge on the island in 1964 (Anderson 
et ah, 1976). 

Sierra de San Pedro Martfr 

In the fall of 1909 Brown headed to the 
Sierra de San Pedro Martir, in the northern 
half of the Baja California peninsula, in 
search of the endemic subspecies of Moun¬ 
tain Quail (Oreortij.x pictus confinis ) resid¬ 
ing there. “I had much difficulty in 
collecting them on account of the mountain 
fires which oblidged [sic] us to move our 
camp five times—we had two narrow 
escapes ... the Partridges [Mountain Quail] 
were scared away by the fire and smoke of 
the burning pine forest. In fact at one time 
it looked as if the trip was doomed to failure 
as the mules got frightened and ran away ... 
we did not see any Condors, the mountain 


fires probably made them seek other parts.” 
However, he was proud to report collecting 
two pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) 
during the trip (10 Dec 1909 letter). 

Brown did express concern about the 
hunting practices he encountered in his 
travels, although often for the negative 
effects they had on his collecting rather 
than any larger concern for the plight of 
dwindling resources. Near Mexico City in 
the summer of 1910, while the capital was 
preparing for their centennial celebration of 
Mexican independence on 16 Sept, Brown 
complained that “the large haciendas make 
a regular business shooting ducks for the 
market, but instead of hunting them with 
double-barreled shot guns, they use (arma¬ 
das) batteries and sometimes kill at one 
discharge four or five boatloads!!” 

Conditions in Mexico during this time 
were also changing in ways that would affect 
Brown’s travels. “There is a revolution here 
and several trains have been held up in 
Chihuahua ... in Chihuahua there has been 
heavy fighting and many have been killed. 
And several hundred wounded soldiers 
arrived here a few days ago from the front 
.... There is a strong anti-American feeling 
here and a demonstration against Americans 
(according to old timers here) is liable to 
break out at any time. Last month there was 
an anti-American demonstration by the 
students in Mexico City ... .” 

As the Mexican Revolution spread across 
the country, Brown left Mexico in the spring 
of 1911 for a new adventure in the Cayman 
Islands. 

GRAND CAYMAN (1911) 

His collecting trip to Grand Cayman in 
1911 can only be described as scandalous: 
“I shall not leave Grand Cayman Island 
until the Governor of this island receives 
permission for me to collect from the 
Governor of Jamaica. And as the Governor 
has been informed by English Naturalists 
that many of the resident or ‘species 


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360 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


peculiar to the Cayman Islands are nearing 
extinction’ I am afraid his answer will be 
unfavorable to us. At any rate this is what 
the Governor of this island thinks!” (15 May 
1911 letter). 

Brown did not let permit problems stand 
in the way of his collecting however: “I am 
now located in a remote part of the island 
which I selected after looking over the 
Island thoroughly by canoe and horse. And I 
have beyond doubt selected the best locality 
for collecting the birds ‘peculiar to Grand 
Cayman’ on the island. And last, but not 
least, it is quite distant from the Govern¬ 
ment House and out of range of the 
inspector.” 

His choice of campsite was indeed a 
successful one: 

Have made a fine collection—particular¬ 
ly of the rare things you want so much. 
Have taken six fine specimens of the very 
rare Icterus bairdi [Jamaican Oriole 
(Grand Cayman), Icterus leucopteryx 
bairdi] —this species is on the verge of 
extinction! Of Mimorichla ravida [Grand 
Cayman Thrush, Turdus ravidus] which 
is as rare as Baird’s Oriole [Icterus 
leucopteryx bairdi] I took eight fine 
specimens. It is not only very rare, but 
very hard to find as it is very secretive in 
its habits. Ten years ago this species was 
quite common, but it now appears to be 
on the verge of extinction! I have been 
told that the Naturalists who have visited 
Grand Cayman of late years made a 
special hunt for both the Thrush and the 
Oriole, but failed to find a single one! 

Brown blamed the rarity of the thrush on 
two exotic species: “this rare thrush which is 
without question on the verge of extinction 
due to the ravages of domestic cats in a wild 
state that overrun the island, and to the fire 
ants which kill the young birds in the nest” 
(16 Sept 1911 letter). 

“Of Spindalis [Western Spindalis (Tana- 
ger), Spindalis zena] and Melopyrrha tay- 
lori [Cuban Bullfinch, Melopyrrha nigra], I 


have a fine series of each. Also a nest and 
egg of Melopyrrha. Of the other rare things, 
I have taken a fine series of each.” 

He further describes his exploits in a 4 
July 1911 letter: “Collection contains 17 
specimens of the very rare Icterus bairdi — 
the rarest bird I ever hunted!” 

Brown’s exploits had made news around 
the island, and the Governor specifically 
forbade Brown from collecting any birds 
“peculiar to the island .... However my 
collecting blood was up by this time, so 
hiding what I had already collected, I went 
on collecting just as if the Gov. of Jamaica 
and the Gov. of Grand Cayman had never 
been heard from.” 

Of the birds Brown collected, the Grand 
Cayman Thrush is now globally extinct, 
Brown being the last one to collect it. The 
Cuban Oriole still survives on Cuba, but 
Brown was the last to collect it on Grand 
Cayman where it is now extirpated. These 
species were likely doomed to extinction 
anyway because of ongoing habitat loss as 
the remnant forests of the island were being 
cleared, as well as predation by exotic 
species as Brown relates, but his apathy to 
their plight and desire to collect every last 
one, while common among both the scien¬ 
tific community and the general public, is a 
sad reflection of the mores of the time. The 
last Passenger Pigeon, once the most 
abundant bird in the world, was soon to 
die in a zoo in 1914. Mores were changing, 
however, as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 
protecting the direct killing of birds and 
destruction of nests, was signed 2 years 
later. 

Bangs’ 1916 publication on Brown’s 
collecting trip to Grand Cayman gives cover 
to Brown’s actions that certainly are not 
borne out in his letters of the time. Bangs 
writes: “The Thrush is now extremely rare 
and local in Grand Cayman. Brown covered 
the whole island and found it only in two 
remote patches of woodland. Each of these 
tracts of rather heavier forest than is usual 
in the island now-a-days was inhabited by a 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


361 


few pairs of thrushes, which Brown believes 
to be the entire population of the island. In 
each of these woods Brown was careful to 
leave birds enough to perpetuate the 
species, if it is not gradually becoming 
extinct from some natural cause, as seems 
to be the case.” 

Bangs seems to have been concerned 
about the public reaction to Brown’s 
collecting such endangered birds. Brown 
never mentions being “careful to leave birds 
enough to perpetuate the species.” Brown 
himself stated that the thrush “appears to 
be on the verge of extinction!” (15 May 
1911 letter). 

Johnston (1969) relates an interview with 
an elderly resident of Grand Cayman who 
recalled Brown’s collecting efforts, “Still 
living at Old Man Bay, Mr. Whittaker 
clearly recalled his experiences ... when 
W. W. Brown sailed around to Northside 
from Georgetown and remained in the 
home of Willie Tatum for several weeks 
during which time Brown paid the small 
boys one dollar apiece for bird specimens. 
Mr. Whittaker helped his brother collect the 
thrushes and other species with slingshots. 
At that time the thrushes were, according to 
Mr. Whittaker, conspicuous, noisy, and 
common where timber was being cut about 
3/4 mile inland from Northside.” 

UNITED STATES (1911-1922) 

Brown then shifted his focus back to the 
United States, spending the years from 1912 
to 1922 collecting in various U.S. locations, 
including California, Arizona, and Alaska. In 
Alaska in the summer of 1915, he collected 
more than 300 bird specimens for the MCZ. 
In California, he wrote to eminent naturalist 
Joseph Grinnell for help in obtaining 
collecting permits: "the Audubon society 
has made collecting in California very 
difficult, and one has to have a gilt edged 
recommendation now days to get a permit 
to collect birds” (22 Sept 1912 letter). 
Brown spent significant time in Arizona 


during this period, collecting almost 2,000 
specimens of birds, mammals, and reptiles 
all across the state. Traveling to the 
Huachuca Mountains of Arizona in 1917 
to collect birds in that important area. 
Brown befriended a young Ed Jacot, then 
newly arrived in the state and who would go 
on to make many important bird discover¬ 
ies, especially in the lives of nocturnal birds. 
Brown taught Jacot to make proper bird 
specimens, a skill Jacot later shared with 
others, including another young transplant 
to the state, Allan B. Phillips in the 1930s 
(Phillips, 1977). 

Brown appears to have married sometime 
between 1916 and 1918, as the pronouns in 
his letters to Bangs and Thayer change from 
“I” to “We” and he begins mentioning 
“Mrs. Brown” when ending his letters. He 
remains married until his death, as several 
visitors in his later years remark on visiting 
Brown and his wife after they settle in 
Chilpancingo, Guerrero, Mexico, in 1931 
(Sibley, 2010). 

RETURN TO MEXICO (1922-1953) 

Brown returned to Mexico in 1922 where 
he spent the next 30 years collecting, 
although ironically it is in this period of his 
life that we have the slimmest record of his 
exploits. In 1922-1925 Brown spent exten¬ 
sive time in the Sierra Madre Oriental in 
San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz. 
While in Veracruz Brown collected 38 
Sumichrast’s Wrens (Hylorchilns sumi- 
chrasti), of 55 total in museum collections 
today (Bangs and Peters, 1927). 

Before 1920, fewer than 10 specimens of 
Worthen’s Sparrow (Spizella wortheni) 
were known. This included the original type 
specimen from Silver City, New Mexico, in 
1884; an 1893 specimen from Puebla, 
Mexico, and an 1888 specimen from San 
Luis Potosi, Mexico. Six specimens had 
been collected by Nelson and Goldman in 
1898 in the Sierra Madre Oriental of 
Tamaulipas, in a town called Miquihuana. 


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362 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 



Figure 5. Worthen’s Sparrow (Spizella wortheni) collected by 
Brown in Miquihuana, Tamaulipas, Mexico, in 1922. 

Brown travelled to Miquihuana in 1922 for 
the American Museum of Natural History 
and took 24 Worthen’s Sparrow specimens 
(Figs. 5, 6). Not to be outdone by a rival 
institution, Thayer sponsored Brown to 
return to the site in 1924 and Brown took 
another 53 specimens and 25 egg sets of 
Worthen’s Sparrow. A triumphant Thayer 
quickly published a paper on the collection 
and the only description of nesting of the 
species then available (Thayer, 1925). 

Because the Worthen’s Sparrow has 
never been found as far north as New 
Mexico since its discovery there in 1884, the 
Silver City specimen collected by Charles 
H. Marsh represents a mysterious anomaly. 
However, Hubbard and Dove (2013) found 
Marsh’s field notes and other specimens 
consistent with his residency in Silver City 
at that time. Numerous other grassland- 
dependent bird species were extirpated 
from southeastern Arizona and southwest¬ 
ern New Mexico by 1900, owing to severe 
drought conditions and widespread over- 
grazing, resulting in millions of livestock 
deaths and barren landscapes devoid of 
grass (Bahre, 1991; Clark, 2019). Species 
extirpated, or nearly so, in this period 
include such grass-dependent species as 
the Masked Bobwhite, Rufous-winged Spar¬ 
row ( Peucaea carpalis), Botteri’s Sparrow 



Figure 6. Worthen’s Sparrow specimen tag. 


(Peucaea botterii), and Aplomado Falcon 
(Falco femoralis; Phillips et ah, 1964). 
Therefore, the idea that a population of 
grassland-dependent birds could have been 
extirpated from New Mexico by 1900 is 
consistent with the landscape conditions of 
the time. 

In 1954, Webster and Orr (1954a) 
published a description of a new subspecies 
of Worthen’s Sparrow named for Brown: 
“Spizella wortheni browni —The new race 
is named in honor of the late Wilmot W. 
Brown, who collected so much of the 
valuable material of Mexican birds now in 
several museums, including a majority of 
the above-lifted specimens of S. w. worthe- 

• it 

m. 

Although Brown is best known for his 
bird and mammal collecting, he made 
important contributions to herpetology in 
his travels as well. In total. Brown collected 
more than 1,800 reptile and amphibian 
specimens in Mexico. In 1939 he collected 
253 reptile and amphibian specimens alone 
in Guerrero, all now in the Field Museum 
of Natural History (Chicago). In 1942 he 
collected another 282 reptile and amphibian 
specimens in Guerrero, now in the Museum 
of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at the Uni¬ 
versity of California (U.C.), Berkeley. 

One example of the future value of some 
of these specimens is the large series of 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


363 


what is now known as the largenose earth 
snake ( Conopsis nasus ). Greer (1966) used 
Brown’s collected specimens to determine 
the breeding season of this species: “The 
Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard 
University, has a collection of 104 Conopsis 
nasus (MCZ 19040-19043, 47501-47600) 
from Alvarez (elev. 7,500 to 8,000 ft.), San 
Luis Potosi, Mexico. The collection was 
made by W. W. Brown during October and 
November 1923. Twenty-two females were 
determined to be gravid and were opened 
for inspection ...” (Greer, 1966). 

Brown also collected reptiles on his first 
trip abroad to the West Indies in 1891-92. 
Among the specimens he collected was a 
single individual of what is now known as 
the Mona Boa ( Chilabothrus [Epicrates] 
monensis) then unknown to science. The 
Mona Boa is now a threatened species 
protected under the U.S. Endangered 
Species Act. Brown also collected what 
became the type specimen of the Puerto 
Rican racer ( Borikenophis [Dromicus] var- 
iegatus; Schmidt, 1926). 

Brown also made significant mammal 
collections. In 1922, in the vicinity of 
Miquihuana, Tamaulipas, he collected a 
bat that proved to be a new genus. The 
skin and skull arrived in such good condi¬ 
tion that from this one specimen a new 
genus and species were described as Allen’s 
big-eared bat, Idionycteris mexicana (now I. 
phyllotis; Anthony, 1923). 

Brown collected the type specimens of a 
number of other mammals, including the 
San Miguel rabbit (Sylvilagus brasiliensis 
incitatus) and the rufous tree rat ( Diplomys 
labilis) both first collected by Brown in 1900 
on San Miguel Island in the Las Perlas 
Archipelago (Bangs, 1901a; Thayer and 
Bangs, 1905). 

By 1931 Brown had settled down in 
Chilpancingo, Guerrero. This locality, situ¬ 
ated at 4,000 ft elevation at the eastern base 
of the Sierra Madre del Sur, was likely 
chosen as one with an agreeable climate and 
with close access to high elevation forests 



FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY 

R: FMNH 38494 - Micrurus browni - Jul 1939 - 

North America Guerrero: - ale 

IRN: 1865752 type 

GDI Imaging 2013 

Figure 7. Micrurus browni type specimen from the Field 
Museum of Natural History, Chicago. 

that had been poorly explored for specimens 
(Gadow, 1908). A favored nearby collection 
locale was Omilteme (sometimes spelled 
Omiltemi), a locality 20 km west of Chil¬ 
pancingo at more than 7,000 ft elevation. 
Over the next 20 years, Brown collected 
more than 1,400 bird specimens from 
Omilteme and an additional 6,600 from 
Chilpancingo. He also stayed active collect¬ 
ing mammal, reptile, and amphibian spec¬ 
imens. In 1939 he collected a new coral 
snake (now Micrurus browni) from Chil¬ 
pancingo (Fig. 7). 

Outram Bangs died in 1932, and the 
following year Brown’s longtime benefactor 
John Thayer passed away as well (Peters, 
1933; Phillips, 1934). Despite this setback, 
Brown was able to find other benefactors in 
North American museums and continued 
collecting. In fact, after 1933, Brown 


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364 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


collected more than 12,000 specimens of 
birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, 
selling them to various collections. More 
than 2,000 specimens went to the Moore 
Laboratory of Zoology at Occidental Col¬ 
lege, Los Angeles, California, mostly in the 
late 1930s. Nearly 2,000 more went to the 
California Academy of Sciences between 
1949 and 1952 (Webster and Orr, 1954b). 
The bulk of his collecting efforts during this 
period, more than 6,600 specimens, were 
sold to Milton Ray, who later donated the 
majority of the collection to the MVZ from 
1938 to 1944. 

Brown died in Chilpaneingo in 1953 in 
the company of Chester Lamb, himself a 
veteran bird collector throughout Mexico, 
who collected the last Imperial Woodpecker 
specimens in 1947 (Davis, 1974). 

DISCUSSION 

Although he never authored a paper 
himself. Brown was a prolific letter writer 
and maintained correspondence with many 
different researchers throughout the United 
States. Despite his accomplishments and 
contributions to ornithology, no obituary of 
Brown was ever published in an ornitho¬ 
logical journal, probably because he out¬ 
lived his chief benefactors whose careers 
were built on analyzing specimens Brown 
collected. 

Charles Sibley (2010) describes visiting 
Brown on separate trips to Guerrero. In 
1941 he visited Brown in Chilpaneingo, 
where Brown and his wife, both elderly by 
this time, rented a couple of rooms in town 
at the Hotel Mexico. “He could no longer 
collect in the field, but he bought specimens 
from young men who brought them to his 
window on the street. He made beautiful 
skins and let us watch him. He had metal 
troughs of various sizes in which the 
completed specimen was laid, then wrapped 
with thread. This produced the round- 
backed specimens for which he was known” 
(Sibley, 2010: 278). 


Sibley again arrived in Chilpaneingo in 
1946 and visited the Browns at the hotel 
where they had been now for 9 years. Mrs. 
Brown was ill and did not recognize Sibley 
or his party (Sibley, 2010: 248). 

Even late in life Brown was an inveterate 
collector able to penetrate topography and 
conditions few others could. In 1940, when 
Brown was 70 years old, he collected a new 
species of vireo [Neochloe (Vireo) brevipen- 
nis browni] in Guerrero from an area that 
was relatively unexplored: 

My specimen was taken at 4000 feet 
altitude in the mountains near Chilpan- 
cingo, Guerrero, Mexico. The locality 
was a very remote part of a wild, deep 
canyon where hunter’s feet have seldom 
trod, for this region has the reputation of 
being extremely rough and precipitous. 
The bird was collected on the steep slope 
of the canyon from the top of a tall tree 
standing among surrounding scattered 
pines. In foliage the tree had leaves and 
tiny blossoms scarcely different from the 
tree you have in California called the 
Rum or Choke Cherry. It happened at 
the particular time that I was ensconced 
in a niche in the canyon-wall watching 
the opposite side for a possible Amaur- 
ospizopsis relictus [Slate-blue Seedeat- 
er], when two small birds, similar in 
color, form, size and flight, flew by. 
Fhing closely together they lit simulta¬ 
neously on the tree-top. Presumably they 
had been down to the river in the valley, 
far below, to drink, and returning, had 
perched to rest prior to continuing their 
journey up the canyon. Peculiarly there 
was no water in the higher mountains on 
this particular date although it was 
during what is known here as the rainy 
season. On alighting, both birds had 
disappeared in the foliage at the top of 
the tree, which was well up on the other 
side of the canyon. But presently one of 
them emerged so that it was silhouetted 
against the sky. It appeared out of gun- 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


365 


range but I decided to try; so putting in a 
three inch shell I fired and to my 
astonishment the bird fell. As the locality 
where the tree grew was very steep, I was 
a long time reaching it, being obliged 
first to find a place that I could 
successfully climb. On arriving at the 
foot of the tree I saw my bird lying at the 
bottom of a drop-off, ten feet below, in a 
shady spot on a bed of leaves. On 
reaching this ledge, as I stooped to pick 
the bird up, I thought “it’s a Basileute- 
rus ” [Rufous-capped Warbler], but when 
I opened my hand and saw the strange 
white eyes and the peculiar coloring of 
the underparts I realized at once that I 
had taken a bird that was new to me. 
(Miller and Ray, f944) 

Miller and Ray (1944) summarize nicely 
what made Brown such a successful collec¬ 
tor, “Brown’s notes also show that the 
taking of the lone specimen of Neocliloe 
[ Vireo ] brevipennis browni was dependent 
on three fortunate factors: favorable weath¬ 
er conditions during the rainy season, 
continual combing of a wide area of 
precipitous mountain-sides by a tireless 
and long-experienced field ornithologist, 
and lastly extremely good marksmanship 
on the part of Mr. Brown himself.” 

Brown was a talented naturalist. He 
mentions in various places his skill at 
imitating bird calls. On Guadalupe Island 
he was adept at calling in Guadalupe Juncos 
to within inches of his face, which became a 
favorite amusement of his. 

In an era of commercial collecting with 
great competition among curators to de¬ 
scribe new forms, prices for specimens were 
influenced as much by the location of the 
specimen as by the particular species 
collected, with islands and other isolated 
locales potentially full of endemics greatly 
prized. In this atmosphere there was strong 
incentive to falsify the location of speci¬ 
mens. Joseph H. Batty sold a number of 
bird and mammal specimens with erroneous 


locality data to Walter Rothschild at inflated 
prices (Olson, 2008). Richard Meinertzha- 
gen stole specimens collected by others and 
relabeled them as his own from new 
locations (Knox, 1993; Rasmussen and 
Collar, 1999). However, an analysis of 
falsified collection localities in Mexico by 
Peterson et al. (2004) found that Brown’s 
localities were supported by logical travel 
itineraries at least 98% of the time, the 
highest of the four “mega-collectors” that 
they analyzed. 

In modem scientific discourse as well as 
popular culture, it has become fashionable 
to downplay the value of specimens, or even 
actively to oppose their collection, with the 
thought that modern research techniques 
such as banding studies, genetic testing, 
stable isotopes, and other nonlethal meth¬ 
ods can completely replace lethal collection 
of specimens. However, specimens repre¬ 
sent a permanent record of a species as it 
occurred in a particular place and time, and 
museum collections are devoted to preserv¬ 
ing these collections for science in perpe¬ 
tuity. It remains to be seen how novel data 
sets that are not based on physical speci¬ 
mens are to be maintained through time so 
that researchers generations from now can 
access them. A prime example of the value 
of collections through time is the current 
effort to resurvey field sites throughout 
California first systematically sampled by 
Joseph Grinnell more than 100 years ago. 
The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, where 
most of GrinneH’s specimens, site photo¬ 
graphs, and field notes are housed, in 
conjunction with other institutions such as 
the San Diego Natural History Museum, are 
resampling the same field sites with both 
historical and modern methods. His collect¬ 
ed specimens, often consisting of dozens to 
hundreds per site, offer a benchmark with 
which to compare modern specimens. As 
taxonomy changes and species are split and 
recombined, specimens allow us to know 
exactly what occurred at a field site origi¬ 
nally, with their intact genetics and mor- 


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366 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


phology available for study, without having 
to interpret field notes and all the name 
changes that have occurred since then. 

Today’s collectors are strictly regulated in 
terms of both which species can be 
collected and how many, but more impor¬ 
tantly, modern day collectors, many of 
whom have dedicated their careers to 
conserving rare species, would not conduct 
any research that did not further conserva¬ 
tion efforts, even if such research resulted 
in harm to individuals, as many nonlethal 
techniques also do. 

W. W. Brown’s collections in Mexico, the 
southwestern United States, and Central 
and South America laid the foundation for 
understanding the biodiversity and distri¬ 
bution of vertebrate species in the New 
World. Without collectors and their bene¬ 
factors, whether museums, universities, or 
wealthy individuals, much of this biodiver¬ 
sity would have gone unrecorded until 
decades later, and many species document¬ 
ed by Brown and others and preserved in 
museum collections would have quietly 
gone extinct, whether because of habitat 
destruction, feral cats, or other mechanisms, 


and the lessons of these extinctions would 
be unknown to conservationists today. 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 

The bulk of Brown’s letters are main¬ 
tained in the Ernst Mayr Library of the 
Museum of Comparative Zoology at Har¬ 
vard University. Thank you to Dana Fisher 
for facilitating access to these letters. 
Letters were also accessed at the Museum 
of Vertebrate Zoology at U.C. Berkeley and 
the Natural History Museum, London 
(BMNH). Thank you to Stanley Hecka- 
don-Moreno for correspondence about 
Brown’s travels in Panama. The manuscript 
was vastly improved through discussions 
and reviews by David E. Brown, James 
Hanken, and one anonymous reviewer. Eric 
Mellink provided context about Brown’s 
travels in Baja California. Janet Hinshaw at 
the University of Michigan Museum of 
Zoology provided access to documents in 
that library and the Brown photo. Christo¬ 
pher Swarth provided access to the Frank 
Stephens letter to Harry Swarth from the 
Swarth family collection. 


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Wilmot W. Brown • Clark 


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367 






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15 Jan 1924 Samuel Henshaw San Luis Potosi, MCZ Leaving for southern Mexico to collect for Thayer. Asks to please secure collecting permit 

Mexico on behalf of MCZ and send to him. 

4 Aug 1924 John Thayer Miquihuana, MCZ Left Texas 18 May. Looking for Vermivora browni. Found a few in mountains higher up. 

Tamaulipas, 119 mammal skins, 180 bird skins, and 100 reptiles and 82 bird egg sets. List of birds 

Mexico collected. 53 skins of Worthen’s Sparrow and 25 egg sets. Description of nests and habits. 






374 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


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376 Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. 162, No. 6 


Appendix 2. Taxa named in honor of W. W. Brown. 


Class 

Taxon 

Common Name 

Citation 

Aves 

Thryorchilus browni 

Timberline Wren 

Bangs, 1902 

Aves 

Elaenia frantzii browni 

Mountain Elaenia 

Bangs, 1898b 

Aves 

Vireo brevipennis browni 

Slaty Vireo 

Miller and Ray, 1944 

Aves 

Spizella wortheni browni 

Worthen’s Sparrow 

Webster and Orr, 1954a 

Aves 

Sicalis citrina browni 

Stripe-tailed Yellow-Finch 

Bangs, 1898b 

Mammalia 

Microsciurus alfari browni 

Central American dwarf squirrel 

Bangs, 1902 

Reptilia 

Mixcoatlus browni 

Brown’s montane pit viper 

Shreve, 1938 

Reptilia 

Micrurus browni 

Brown’s coral snake 

Schmidt and Smith, 1943 


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