Rothschild | Birds of Laysan
grey lines
Digital EditionIntroductory EssaysFull Text Version
spacer image curve

On the History and Importance of Rothschild's Avifauna of Laysan
by Storrs L. Olson
Curator of Birds, National Museum of Natural History

Although scientific knowledge of the birds of the Hawaiian Islands began with the European discovery of the archipelago in 1778 by Captain James Cook, more than a century elapsed before any serious ornithological exploration of the islands took place. In 1887, Scott Barchard Wilson, with the support and encouragement of Alfred Newton, Professor of Zoology at Magdalene College, Cambridge (England), embarked on a collecting expedition to the Hawaiian Islands, where he stayed until the end of 1888. Descriptions of new species began appearing under Wilson's name in August 1888, when he was still in the islands, and it has long been my belief that Newton wrote the bulk of everything that was attributed to Wilson and to Wilson and Evans.

The new discoveries arriving from the Hawaiian Islands excited the imagination of Newton's pupil Walter Rothschild, who, using the wealth at his disposal, determined to send out his own collector. It is far from certain to what extent he may initially have attempted to collaborate with Newton in this effort---the correspondence concerning this published by Rothschild's niece Miriam can be interpreted in a different light from that she cast upon it. Regardless, the relationship between Newton and Rothschild soured, with the result that Hawaiian ornithology in the last decade of the 19th century became a very competitive enterprise.

Young Rothschild had somehow engaged the services of one Henry Palmer, said to have been a sailor, though little is known about him. He seems to have first appeared in New Zealand, but after his sojourn in Hawaii and a short stay in England, he returned to Australia, where he was later "obscurely murdered" in the gold fields (Amadon 1964, Mearns and Mearns 1992). Rothschild first sent Palmer to the Chatham Islands, off New Zealand, in December 1889 - January 1890. These islands had been relatively well worked by then, so that Palmer obtained only one new species, a pigeon, for Rothschild to describe and name. Palmer was then sent to the Hawaiian Islands, where he arrived in December 1890, with his New Zealander assistant George Munro, who stayed with him until 1 March 1892, when he was replaced by another New Zealander, Ed. ("Ted") B. Wolstenholme. Palmer remained in the islands until August 1893, sending back shipments of bird skins from which Rothschild eventually named 18 valid new species and subspecies.

Because Wilson could not be induced to resume his collecting activities, Newton became the prime motivator in arranging for a joint committee of the Royal Society of London and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to sponsor the explorations of R. C. L. Perkins, but the delay proved disastrous to Newton's ambitions, as was later lamented in the introduction of the volume attributed to Wilson and Evans (p. xx): "The loss of the season of 1891 was unfortunate for the credit of the Joint Committee; for many discoveries which its collector, had one been sent out in that year, could not have failed making fell to the lot of the persons employed by Mr. Rothschild in 1890-92 . . ."

By the time Perkins arrived, the font of new species had nearly dried up, and he was able to secure only one, the Black Mamo Drepanis funerea, that Palmer had missed. Perkins insisted that Newton take credit for describing this new species. Meanwhile, the results of Scott Wilson's and Perkins' ornithological endeavors were appearing as Aves Hawaiienses: The Birds of the Sandwich Islands, a royal quarto volume issued in eight parts from 1890 to 1899, with hand-colored plates by Frohawk, ostensibly authored by Wilson and Arthur H. Evans, a colleague of Newton's at Cambridge.

At the same time, in order to secure priority for his names during the period of competitive discovery, Rothschild was publishing brief descriptions of his new species in rapidly appearing periodicals, but had plans for an even more imposing monograph than Aves Hawaiienses, to be published in imperial quarto with colored plates by Keulemans. The first two parts of this appeared in 1893, after the first four parts of the Wilson and Evans work had been published. They bore the rather curious title The Avifauna of Laysan and the Neighboring Islands: With a Complete History to Date of the Birds of the Hawaiian Possessions. One can only speculate now why Rothschild chose to emphasize Laysan, a small island in the northwestern Hawaiian chain, when his work covered the entire archipelago. Perhaps he had a particular fascination for Laysan with its myriad seabirds and five endemic land birds in less than a square mile of land area; perhaps he wanted a title that would immediately distinguish it from his competitor; or perhaps he was trying to impress his father, who controlled the money, with the importance of Laysan, for the money that Rothschild's collector, Palmer, had to pay Capt. Wheeler for his miserable passage to the northwestern islets was the single greatest expense of the entire expedition. In his account book, a copy of which is in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Palmer entered for 18 August 1891 "passage for self & assistant on 'Kaalohai' @$250.00 per month $709.30." For perspective, Rothschild was paying Palmer an annual salary of £250, then equivalent to $1200.

Published in August 1893, the first part of Avifauna of Laysan indeed deals exclusively with the birds of Laysan Island and its exploration. The second part, containing accounts of some of the species from the main Hawaiian islands, followed in November of the same year. At this time, Rothschild was only 25 years old. He, like Scott Wilson, must have benefited from an éminence grise, and in his introduction he acknowledges his curator of birds "Mr. Ernst Hartert for his assistance. He has taken great interest in the work from its commencement, and has helped me a great deal, especially with the synonymy and introductory chapters." His entomological curator Karl Jordan evidently viewed Hartert's contribution as being even more substantial. In the bibliography that accompanied his memoir of Lord Rothschild, he places Hartert's name in parentheses at the end of each entry for Avifauna of Laysan, which was the convention he adopted to indicate "collaborators," by which he meant co-authors.

The third and final part of Avifauna of Laysan did not appear until December 1900, and the reason for the delay is apparent. Perkins was still collecting in the islands and had the potential of discovering new species of birds, and in addition Wilson and Evans' Aves Hawaiienses was still being issued, with the last part not appearing until 1899. Rothschild clearly held back the last part of Avifauna of Laysan to be certain to include all the species of birds then known from the archipelago, and also, no doubt, to have the "last word" on the subject.

The Avifauna of Laysan is of lasting value to the ornithologist, historian, and aesthete. Many of the birds treated by Rothschild are now extinct or extremely endangered. For some of them, we know nothing other than what was recorded by Palmer and by Perkins, and our only source for Palmer's activities remains Rothschild (except for portions of G. C. Munro's unpublished journal in the B. P. Bishop Museum). Knowledge of Palmer's itinerary and time afield is important for assessing the former relative abundance of species that have either vanished or no longer occur in much of the range that they occupied in the 1890s.
Keuleman's illustrations are still probably the best in existence for most species of Hawaiian birds and are markedly superior to those of Frohawk that appeared in Wilson and Evans' work. Frohawk was better as an entomological illustrator and was not adept at rendering the postures of birds from study skins (or even from living individuals in the case of the Laysan Rail). Students of Hawaiian birds and of Hawaiiana have long needed better access to Rothschild's work because of its great scarcity and value.

The valid new taxa discovered on the Rothschild expedition and named by Rothschild in scientific journals include (those marked with an asterisk are now extinct): the *Laysan Rail Porzana palmeri (actually named by Frohawk for Rothschild), the *Laysan Island Millerbird Acrocephalus familiaris, the *Laysan Apapane Himatione freethii, the *Greater Koa Finch Rhodacanthis palmeri, the *Lesser Koa Finch R. flaviceps, the *Greater Amakihi Loxops sagittirostris, the Laysan Duck Anas laysanensis, the Maui subspecies of Akepa Loxops coccineus ochraceus, the *Maui Nukupu'u Hemignathus affinis, the *Lanai Akialoa Akialoa lanaiensis, the Maui Parrotbill Pseudonestor xanthophrys, the *Molokai O'o Moho bishopi, the Maui subspecies of Maui Creeper Paroreomyza montana newtoni, the Maui Nui subspecies of Amakihi Loxops virens wilsoni, the Laysan Albatross Diomedea immutabilis, and the *Oahu subspecies of Akepa Loxops coccineus wolstenholmei.

Two new species were first described in the Avifauna of Laysan itself: the Small Kauai Thrush Phaeornis palmeri, and Perkin's Creeper Oreomystis perkinsi, believed to be an aberrant individual or a hybrid involving the Hawaii Creeper Loxops mana.

A unique contribution of the Rothschild Hawaiian expedition was the collection of eight specimens of the Lesser Koa Finch by Palmer and Munro in the Kona District of Hawaii Island. These were taken from 30 September to 16 October 1891, and the species was never seen again, even though Perkins searched specifically for it only a year later. Had Palmer and Munro not been collecting in Kona at that time, it is likely that we would know nothing whatever about Rhodacanthis flaviceps apart from what can be determined from fossils.

Chronologies of the Competitors in Hawaiian Ornithology in the 1890s

Dates of Hawaiian Visits

8 April 1887 -- end of 1888

December 1890 - August 1893

March 1892 - September 1894
March 1895 - March 1897

Publication of Valid New Species

collector: Wilson
author: Wilson
10 species August 1888 -- June 1891

collector: Palmer
author: Rothschild, Frohawk
18 species March 1892 -- July 1893

collector: Perkins
author: Newton
1 species 1894

Summary of Monographic Publications

Wilson & Evans. Aves Hawaiienses. December 1890 - July 1899

Rothschild. Avifauna of Laysan. August and November 1893, December 1900

Literature Cited

Amadon, Dean. 1964. Obituary. George Campbell Munro. Auk, 82: 256.

Manning, Anita. 1986. The Sandwich Islands Committee, Bishop Museum, and R. C. L. Perkins: Cooperative Zoological Exploration and Publication. Bishop Museum Occasional Papers, 26: 46 pages, 4 appendices.

Mearns, Barbara, and Richard Mearns. 1992. Audubon to Xantus. The Lives of Those Commemorated in North American Bird Names. London: Academic Press. xix + 588 pages.

Munro, George C. 1944. Birds of Hawaii. Honolulu: Tongg Publishing Company. 189 pages, 20 plates.

Rothschild, Miriam. 1983. Dear Lord Rothschild. Philadelphia: Balaban. 398 pages.

Wilson, Scott Barchard, and Arthur Humble Evans. 1890-1899. Aves Hawaiienses: The Birds of the Sandwich Islands. London: R. H. Porter, xxvii + 257 pages, 69 plates. With two appendices by Hans Gadow. [A facsimile reprint was issued in 1974 as part of the series "Natural Sciences in America" by Arno Press, New York. The original was issued in eight unpaginated parts, later completely rearranged for binding according to the table of contents, which gives the publication dates for each of the species accounts.]