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Great Scott! Look at All These Birds!

By Arthur Kim ’18

Until relatively recently, there were thousands of stuffed birds in Guyot Hall, which was once the home of Princeton’s Museum of Natural History. Most of these birds were collected by William Earl Dodge Scott, the former curator of the Department of Ornithology at Princeton University. Scott traveled throughout the country, studying and collecting different species of birds inhabiting each area. From pigeons to the great white heron, Scott established an impressive collection that was both educational and aesthetic.

Robert Bruce Hosfall illustration of William Earle Dodge Scott, May 1902. This illustration appeared as the frontispiece for Scott’s autobiography, The Story of a Bird Lover. Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107).

As a young boy, William E. D. Scott was always intrigued by birds. His earliest memory of a bird was when he tried to save one that was attacked by a cat, but he could only salvage a wing. Though the event seems traumatic, this was the start of Scott’s lifelong passion for studying birds. In 1874, after hearing about the new natural history museum that was erected at Princeton University, Scott discussed potential openings and his credentials with Professor Arnold Guyot. Scott was given a chance to prove his capabilities by collecting birds and presenting them to the trustees. A year later, Scott became the curator of the museum of biology at Princeton University working under Professor Arnold Guyot. In 1879, Scott became the curator of the Department of Ornithology.

Photo by William Earle Dodge Scott. Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107).

One of the first things Scott did at the university was burning most of the existing zoological collection that he deemed to only have historical value. Scott started his collection of birds from the local area with the help of a local hunter, Charlie Hubbard, and collected around 600 species of birds just in his first year at Princeton. Impressed by Hubbard’s knowledge of birds, Scott brought him along on other expeditions. His other two most frequent companions were his wife and dog, Grouse. Together, they traveled all over the country to states including Florida, Colorado, and Arizona to study and collect numerous birds. One of the most exciting scientific expeditions held by Princeton University was the expedition to Patagonia. Though Scott did not personally make the trip, he was in charge of analyzing and cataloging the multitude of birds that were brought back.

Photo by William Earle Dodge Scott. Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107).

Collecting birds was not the only thing Scott was known for. Scott’s skill in taxidermy was acclaimed by the Society of American Taxidermists. The organization requested Scott to be a judge during the first exhibition that was held by the organization. Scott was also the advisor for the Bird Club and taught lectures on avian species at Princeton University.

Photo by William Earle Dodge Scott. Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107).

Though Scott preserved thousands of various bird specimens, we have been unable to determine the location of the collection following the closure of the Museum of Natural History. There may be a storage room filled with stuffed birds somewhere on campus, or perhaps someone believed them to have only “historical value” and discarded them.



Daily Princetonian

Alumni and Faculty Offprint Collection (AC121)

Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107)

Princeton University Scientific Expeditions Collection (AC012)

Scott, William Earl Dodge. The Story of a Bird Lover. New York: Macmillian, 1904.

For further reading:

Scott, William Earle Dodge. “Bird Pictures.” Scribner’s Magazine (April 1897): 500-503.

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