October 19, 2010

Arthur Allen Gave Wings (And Ears) to The Ornithology Lab

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Arthur Allen, founder of the Lab of Ornithology, was himself a product of the University: A.B. (1907), Master’s (1908) and doctorate (1911). His doctoral thesis, “The Red-winged Blackbird: A Study in the Ecology of a Cattail Marsh,” instantly garnered the attention of the nation’s foremost ornithologists.

Allen’s penchant for understanding the environmental relationships and life histories of birds became the hallmark of his work. His keen insight into the lives of birds as organisms and their behavior inspired countless students who passed through his “Grad Lab,” which from the ’20s until the ’40s, was the premier site for training ornithologists.

Olin Sewell Pettingill Jr., a past director of the Lab of Ornithology and a student of “Doc,” as Allen was affectionately called, remembered him to be “imaginative, outgoing, and inspirational.” Doc always seemed to have time to give everyone his undivided attention, and he was calm to the point of being unflappable – always doling out encouragement and never stinging criticism. His students went on to teach and establish other graduate programs. They too often became pioneering ornithologists.

Allen also cultivated a commitment to the public, promoting understanding and interest in birds through lectures, articles (in National Geographic), photographs,  motion picture and sound recordings. Allen was a skilled photographer, and his shot of the peregrine falcon against the background of Taughannock Falls remains iconic today.

His work in recording began when he observed a film crew capturing bird sounds, and found the crew’s equipment to be impractical and expensive. Even now, the Lab of Ornithology continues to supply Hollywood directors, such as Steven Spielberg, with sound recordings.

The utility of the images and recordings to the study of birds did not escape Doc, and he led his students on missions to record endangered and near-extinct birds. Allen and his wife, Elsa, who herself earned a doctorate from the University in 1929, first sighted a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Florida in 1924 at a time when the species was already believed to be extinct. When Doc again sighted the “Lord God” bird – named for the utterance people made when they saw it – again in 1935 in Louisiana’s Singer Tract, he wrote “I have just enjoyed one of the greatest experiences of my life, for I have found that which they said could not be found.” The bird has not been seen since 1944, but ornithologists announced a rediscovery on the basis of sound recordings that match ones in the record.

The “Laboratory of Ornithology” was built and designated as a department in 1955, two years after Allen retired.

Original Author: Jing Jin