How Birding Inspired FDR’s Environmentalism
Even as a child, Franklin Roosevelt was being hailed as an authority on Hudson River bird life. His passion would mold his—and his country’s—ideas about protecting the land.
Barely a day went by when Franklin Roosevelt didn’t talk about the world of birds.
At ten years old he started dabbling in oology, the collecting of eggs and nests. There is a well‐circulated story about young Franklin racing into a family Easter party holding a blue‐speckled robin’s egg in his hand as if it were a Tiffany jewel. James Roosevelt eventually discovered drawers full of nests and eggs hidden in his son’s bedroom. Displeased, he ordered Franklin never to rob a nest of more than one egg. That wildlife conservation lesson stuck. So did Franklin’s love of birds. As a boy, he began a very grown‐up course of study, reading copiously, making field notes, and demonstrating to others his ability to organize in his own mind all that he was learning. Soon the boy gained his own reputation, independent of his family, as a local authority on birds.
On occasion, Franklin gave impromptu lectures at Springwood and Campobello for family members, neighbors, and household servants on subjects such as the Atlantic Flyway (although this term for the bird migration route stretching from Canada to the Caribbean wasn’t officially used until 1947). “Many people do not know what a great variety of birds we have,” he wrote in his first ornithological essay. “They can always point out a robin but probably could not tell the difference between a Fox Sparrow and a Song Sparrow and think that a nuthatch is a woodpecker.”
When Warren Delano of Newburgh heard his grandson hold forth on “The Shore Birds of Maine,” he gifted Franklin a lifetime membership in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. And he introduced Franklin to the organization’s esteemed president, vertebrate paleontologist Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn. Not only was Osborn a great advocate for Hudson River and Jamaica Bay (between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens) ecological preservation, he also headed the Save‐the‐Redwoods League in California.
The Roosevelts had other connections to important conservationists. Their close friend George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream, had established the first Audubon Society in 1886, just four years after Franklin’s birth. The Audubon Society’s declared mission was to outlaw the mass slaughter of wild birds that weren’t fit for human consumption; the vandalizing of nests and stealing of eggs; and the use of feathers in fashion or as ornaments. Women’s fashion of the period dictated that sophisticates wear hats adorned with exotic plumage from herons and egrets. Whole flocks of migratory waterfowl were being shot in Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana by hunters eager to supply New York milliners with feathers.
On Franklin’s eleventh birthday, James Roosevelt gave his boy a handsome pellet gun for the purpose of collecting bird trophies. It wasn’t long before his mother was able to record that his first shot struck a crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). The hobby stuck. Wandering around his family’s woodlands, he learned that different species of birds had their own favorite kinds of trees. The cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), for example, gravitated toward hawthorns, while the red‐cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) claimed long‐leaf and slash pines. One day near the hamlet of Staatsburg, Franklin studied a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) that flew right up to him “and appeared to be tame”; the unafraid raptor had probably migrated from Canada and never before encountered humans.
Obsessed with bird checklists, Franklin shot and classified three hundred species native to Dutchess County. Most of the bodies were carefully preserved. Family members—Roosevelts and Delanos alike—joked that Franklin was himself a magpie, a collector of ev- erything related to ornithology. Learning the complete taxonomy of species, he painstakingly wrote Latin labels for each specimen to place near its claws. “It was not long before the big mahogany cabinet in the library acquired a collection of brand new inhabitants,” Sara Roosevelt recalled in her memoir, My Boy Franklin. “There was an oriole, a heron, a robin, a woodpecker, and even a hawk, but the winter wren was missing.”
Whether Franklin Roosevelt would ever snag a winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) became a popular dinner‐table topic at Springwood. It was a challenge that the self‐styled ornithologist took up with gleeful determination. One afternoon he nonchalantly walked into the main house looking for his fowling piece. “There’s a winter wren way up in one of the big trees down there,” he said confidently. “I want to get him.” His mother chuckled at his boyish naïveté. “And do you think that wren is going to oblige you by staying there while you come in and get your gun to go back out and shoot him?” Franklin was undaunted. “Oh yes,” he replied, “he’ll wait.”
An amused Sara Roosevelt watched her son race across the lawn, prepared to tease him for coming home empty‐handed. But to her imperishable surprise Franklin returned to the house a single shot later with the dead winter wren in hand.
The majority of Roosevelt’s specimens were from Springwood and Crumworld Forest, the neighboring estate belonging to Colonel Archibald Rogers, which may have been the best natural environment in the Hyde Park area for bird‐watching. Rogers had worked with the department of forestry at Cornell University to turn his Hyde Park property into an outdoor aviary consisting of a combination of shady tree groves, thick underbrush, and specialized plantings.
It was Rogers who encouraged the Cornell Agriculture Experiment Station to help him gather data for a series of Dutchess County residential reforestation projects. Rogers had completed his house in 1889 after buying five smaller estates to form his impressive grounds, and every spring he had trees planted by the thousands. He encouraged the Roosevelts to develop a scientific forestry plan for Springwood. Even after automobiles became ubiquitous, the colonel preferred to travel on horseback to avoid scaring birds. His primary ambition in life was to be the kind of land steward George Washington would have warmly embraced as a neighbor in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Owing to Franklin’s enthusiasm, ornithological pursuits were built into the Roosevelts’ European itineraries. While in London one year, Franklin wanted to make an excursion to Osberton, the Nottinghamshire seat of Cecil Foljambe (earl of Liverpool, a friend of the Roosevelts), to study his famous collection. When James canceled the Nottinghamshire trip for business reasons, Franklin was inconsolable.
“Mummy, can’t I go without you?” he pleaded.
“You mean you’d visit people you’d never met?” she asked, astounded.
“I’d go anywhere to see those birds!” he answered.
Tired of Franklin’s pestering, James and Sara agreed to let their son take the two‐hour train ride alone. Foljambe embraced Franklin as if he were kin. Bursting with sophisticated enthusiasm, he showed the young American his world‐class collection of birds from the faraway Amazon and Arctic. Franklin considered the experience a high‐water mark in his European education.
Over time, Franklin grew into a decent taxidermist. But, as Sara noted, cutting out the insides of an owl or bluebird often turned him “green.” More and more, warnings about the lethal effects of arsenic—a chemical commonly used in taxidermy—gave her pause. A public health campaign was under way to outlaw arsenic. Under parental sway, Franklin eventually farmed his specimens out to pro‐ fessionals in Poughkeepsie and New York City. A number of Franklin’s preserved birds were accepted by the American Museum of Natural History—the first serious accomplishment in the future president’s storied career.
On March 3, 1895, Sara brought Franklin to Manhattan for a meeting of the Linnaean Society of New York. Named after naturalist Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth‐century Swedish naturalist who laid down a lasting foundation for the categorization and naming of species, the organization provided a lively outlet for the study of natural history and ornithology. Among its founding members were nature essayist John Burroughs, editor George Bird Grinnell, and botanist Eugene Bicknell, after whom Bicknell’s thrush (Catharus bicknelli) was named. Theodore Roosevelt had been a dues‐paying member of the Linnaean Society since 1878. As part of Franklin’s education, Sara took her son to hear Dr. William Libbey III, a professor of physical geography at Princeton University and director of its esteemed Elizabeth Marsh Museum, deliver a lecture about Hawaii at AMNH. Franklin, fascinated, took careful notes.
Once back at Springwood, Sara helped her son polish his jottings into a full‐ fledged essay worthy of submission to the Linnaean Society; his piece was ambitious for a boy his age. Franklin wrote an able description of Maui’s Iao Valley, indigenous plant life, and the kukui nut tree (Aleurites moluccana), which yielded “great quantities of oil for lamps.” But it was Hawaii’s active volcanoes—in an area that President Woodrow Wilson would preserve as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1915—that set his imagination aflame. “The volcano of Kilauea is the highest in the world, being over 14,000 feet high, as high as Mt. Blanc,” Roosevelt wrote in careful cursive. “Near the volcano are many cracks in the soil from which sulphurous steam comes out. At one end of the crater is the Burning Lake or Lake of Fire, in which Prof. Libbey threw a log of wood and proceeded to run for his life, as the log of wood with a quantity of molten lava was thrown high into the air. The whole surface of the lake was bubbling up and quantities of steam rose from it. Around the crater are several underground passages, in which are huge lava stalactites which sometimes fall around and break with a fearful crash.”
Inclement weather never curtailed Roosevelt’s ornithological pursuits around Dutchess County. Combating the whistling winter winds, he started keeping “Bird Diaries,” written in his elegant penmanship, early in 1896. He marked the date a bird was seen, the weather and temperature at the time of the sighting, the number of specimens he counted, and any other notable traits and characteristics he deemed relevant. Birds were by nature difficult to count, but Franklin tried his hardest. Here’s a sample entry from the first Bird Diary:
Wea. Fine Mon. Feb. 10, 1896 Ther. 30°
1 fine red male Pine Grosbeak & saw 1 other. Also, 1 Blue Jay. saw 1 flock of about 50 Pine Grosbeaks.
Also, another flock of about 25 individuals. Also, 14 single Grosbeaks at other times. Chickadees, Nuthatches, Juncos, Jays, Crows, and Downy Woodpeckers. Sent Grosbeak to W. W. Harts & Co. New York.
Just a few days after Franklin Roosevelt entered those observations in his field diary, he returned to New York City for a tour of the American Museum of Natural History with the head ornithologist, Dr. Frank M. Chapman, a dear friend of Theodore Roosevelt. Always eager to talk about birding, Chapman was an expert guide. Charged with educational outreach for the museum, he viewed Franklin as a promising protégé.
In 1894 Chapman had become the associate editor of the Auk, an organ of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). Modeled on the British Ornithological Union, the AOU was created with a primary mission similar to that of the National Audubon Society: preventing bird extinction in North America. Two friends of the Roosevelt family—Dr. Elliott Coues of Washington, D.C.; and ornithologist Dr. C. Hart Merriam of Locust Grove, New York—were among its founders in 1883. The chairman of the AOU was William Brewster, who became the curator of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in 1885. The AOU led in the creation of waterfowl sanctuaries throughout Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. In 1886, the AOU’s Committee on the Protection of Birds drafted a “model law,” which was adopted later that year by the government in New York. Making non‐game birds safe from hunting, while defining what species would be considered game birds, the new law was the opening salvo in the modern wildlife‐protection movement.
But even more significantly, the AOU, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, persuaded the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy under the leadership of Dr. Merriam in 1886. While ostensibly this division was funded to help farmers deal with pests, like the English sparrow (Passer domesticus), Merriam used his connection to the AOU to begin conducting field surveys and distributing studies of birds, mammals, and other biotic communities.
By the first decade of the 20th century the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy had evolved into the Bureau of Biological Survey (the precursor of today’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
Young Franklin was enthralled by the naturalists he was able to meet—and they were impressed by him. In addition to leading the American Museum of Natural History and helping to edit the Auk, Dr. Chapman would travel as the British West Indies and Mexico in search of rare species. However, it was his homespun expertise on the “common” birds of the Hudson River Valley—like the robin—that brought him the most acclaim. In the process, as the New York Times observed, Dr. Chapman became the most influential man since John James Audubon in getting Americans “interested in birds.”
Roosevelt was a willing follower and Dr. Chapman offered the boy an associate membership in the AOU. Poring over Chapman’s Birds of Eastern North America (first published in 1895) became a ritual for FDR. His bird list grew rapidly throughout late 1896 and 1897, filled with tallies of specimens “shot & stuffed or skinned by F. D. Roosevelt.” One banner day Franklin acquired both a scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) and an indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)—an admirable ornithological feat.
Joining Franklin in his devotion to birding was a fellow River Family boy, Maunsell Crosby. Five years younger than FDR and raised at Grasmere, an estate just outside the village of Rhinebeck, the boy was the scion of the Livingston family, which had played an important role in the founding of the United States. Philip Livingston had signed the Declaration of Independence, William Livingston had helped draft the Constitution, and Robert Livingston had administered the oath of office to George Washington. Inspired by Dr. Chapman, Maunsell decided early on to become an ornithologist, and he, too, had been granted associate membership in the AOU. Like FDR, he attended Linnaean Society meetings in New York City. In coming years Crosby would conduct the rst Audubon “Christmas count” in Dutchess County.
For use in ornithological study by others, Franklin’s birds needed to be tagged for identification. In May 1896, soon after he started his Bird Diaries, Franklin noted, “I am to send about 1 dozen Grosbeaks to Museum of Natural History for local collections.” It was in fact ten Dutchess County pine grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator) that Franklin eventually donated to the museum. These robin‐sized birds, cute like finches and with a slightly forked tail, usually foraged for food in the trees at Springwood. Permanent residents of the Hudson Valley, they made a mellow teu-teu-teu sound that Franklin found soothing. Because of their wide distribution, the pine grosbeaks weren’t considered rare. Nevertheless, Franklin amassed a good mixture of regional specimens—male and female—for Chapman’s shop to study, considering ornithology “one of my chief avocations.” That year he also wrote a short article on birds for a children’s magazine, the Foursome (unfortunately much of his piece had been plagiarized).
Roosevelt often romped around Hyde Park with his half brother, Rosey. Twenty‐eight years older than Franklin, Rosey lived only a mile down the Post Road from Springwood. Close despite their age difference, he and Franklin both eagerly anticipated the migration of bird flocks, which occurred every winter and spring. “Shot a Pine Finch,” FDR wrote on an outing with his half brother. “The bird was alone in a small pine tree and he appeared very shy. I had trouble shooting him.”
While tutors supervised Franklin’s early education, James Roosevelt remained a strong influence on him, especially when it came to land stewardship and forest conservation. Cardiac problems, however, kept James from engaging in strenuous planting or pruning at Springwood [the family’s Hyde Park estate]. Even though the actual upkeep of Springwood took a backseat to his New York City investment interests in coal and railroads, James continued to instill in Franklin his conviction that proper land management was the best way to protect nature and have a fulfilled life. FDR embraced this belief as his own.
A high‐water mark in James Roosevelt’s public life came in 1892, when he was chosen as an alternate commissioner to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, organized to celebrate the four‐hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World. The exposition grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and planner Daniel Burnham on a 600‐acre site; it included a wooded island park and the Midway Plaisance, a mile‐long amusement park. The fair, sometimes referred to as the “White City” because of its classical‐style architecture, opened in May 1893 and drew an astounding 26 million visitors before it closed late that October.
The highlight of the Exposition for FDR—who attended with his Hyde Park friend Edmund Rogers, the colonel’s son, arriving via James’s private railcar—was watching Native Americans pick up pennies using long whips and studying the taxidermy displayed in dioramas. With wide‐eyed wonder, Franklin could see more than fifty thousand specimens of flora and fauna displayed at the Exposition (these became the nucleus of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History).
An exhibit of trees native to New York State was Franklin’s favorite attraction at the fair. The caption under an elegant photograph of a stand of sweet gums explained how, in 1802, Alexander Hamilton had brought Liquidambar styraciflua saplings from Mount Vernon in Virginia to the upper end of Manhattan Island to plant himself. The plot in Manhattan where America’s first secretary of the Treasury planted the sweet gums became known as Hamilton Grange. This display made Roosevelt keenly aware of the symbolism behind planting “historical seeds” at Springwood in the coming years.
Studying natural history—not just ornithology—was Franklin’s pastime when his parents took him on another European trip in 1896. That summer, the Roosevelts visited half a dozen cities—and Franklin dashed off to as many natural history museums as he could. In London, when he learned that the Prince of Wales (later, King Edward VII) was presiding over the opening of a new ornithology exhibit at the South Kensington Museum, he was especially excited. Admission to the event, however, was by invitation only. Undeterred, Franklin and his private tutor, Arthur Dumper, artfully crashed the soiree. Roosevelt slipped his American Museum of Natural History membership card to Dumper, who, in turn, presented it to security in lieu of a proper invitation. The guard carefully studied the document, deeming it a valid credential. As Roosevelt later wrote, he and Dumper were thereafter accorded the courtesies due true scientists.
Once the family returned from abroad, Franklin prepared to enter Groton School in Massachusetts. Reverend Dr. Endicott Peabody, the boarding school’s headmaster, was an Anglican minister who had been educated at the prestigious British schools Cheltenham and Cambridge. Founded in 1884, Groton was situated along the Nashua River not far from Boston. Peabody’s aim was to make Groton a preparatory school on par with British public schools and prepare the sons of the wealthy and prominent for an Ivy League education. Every night following evening prayers, Peabody shook the hand of each boy in a ritual that became known as the “go‐by” as they wandered off to bed.
Because Franklin was only 14 when he started at Groton, there is a mistaken tendency to see him as a blank slate, overparented but well tutored in foreign languages and history. But Franklin—carrying 140 pounds on his nearly six‐foot frame— wasn’t an enigma or clay to be easily molded. Quite simply, Roosevelt was already what novelist Wallace Stegner called “a placed person,” fully belonging to the Dutchess County countryside. As historian David Schuyler noted, Roosevelt, like others from the region, saw the Hudson River Valley as a “sanctified landscape” that represented “a place of transcendent importance to a regional and national cultural identity.” No matter what longitude or latitude Roosevelt happened to be in, his inner compass was always pointed toward the Hudson. Over the years he developed the philosophy that Hyde Park, with its strong cultural identity, was a model for other American villages to emulate. Cardinals never seemed so red to Roosevelt, or trees so elegant and full‐bodied as on the Springwood grounds. “All that is in me,” FDR said, “goes back to the Hudson.”
Excerpted from Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America by Douglas Brinkley, published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and reprinted here with the permission of the publisher and the author, who retain all rights.
Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University, the CNN presidential historian and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Audubon. IN addition to Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, his books include The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.