FOR THE LOVE OF BIRDS

Ralph Hoffman begins the introduction to his wonderful bird book, “Birds of The Pacific States,” first published in 1927, with a paraphrase from one of Cicero’s orations extolling the delights of studying literature and how it enriches life.  Hoffman then paraphrasing further, applying Cicero’s words to the study of birds:

“It (the study of birds) develops keen observation in youth and is a resource in old age, even for the invalid if he can but have a porch or a window for a post of observation.  Birds become the companions of our work in the garden and of our walks…”

He concludes with:

”If a parent wishes to give his children three gifts for the years to come, I should put next to a passion for truth and a sense of humor, love of beauty in any form.  Who will deny that birds are a conspicuous manifestation of beauty in nature?”

I keep next to me my copy of “Birds of the Pacific States” given to me by my parents in the 1930s.  I was smitten with birds, thanks to my Girl Scout troop and the work we did towards our bird badge.  From experienced teachers, we learned the birds of the garden, and, on a nearby lake, winter waterfowl.  It is no exaggeration to say that my life was transformed forever.

My original copy of “Birds of the Pacific States”; a gift from my parents in the 1930s
My original copy of “Birds of the Pacific States”; a gift from my parents in the 1930s

And it may have been inevitable that in my old age I moved from Berkeley to Santa Barbara, Hoffman’s home where he wrote my treasured book.

His book has a way of truly experiencing a bird rather than simply identifying it.  A simple system of identifying a bird alone would have to wait for Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, published first in 1941 (also given to me by my parents) where the salient features of a bird were indicated by arrows.  Further description was minimal, stating only that, in the case of a Brown Towhee: “A dull gray-brown with a moderately long tail; suggests a very plain overgrown sparrow.”

An illustration of a Brown Towhee from Hoffman’s “Birds of the Pacific States”
An illustration of a Brown Towhee from Hoffman’s “Birds of the Pacific States”

But read what Hoffman has to say about the Brown (now the renamed California) Towhee, a common bird found in the countryside and in most of our gardens:

“Can even a bird-lover become enthusiastic over a Brown Towhee – a plain brown bird that hops stolidly in and out of brush heaps…with no bright colors, no attractive song and no tricks or manners of especial interest? The bird is a rustic with the stolidity of the peasant and apparently lives its entire life near the spot where it was born.”

Hoffman from a “Natural History” article in 1982
Hoffman from a “Natural History” article in 1982

Now there is the “essence” of the towhee!

And how grateful I was that within a week of arriving at my new home, I discovered a towhee scratching in the dry leaves.

Inserted into the pages of my copy of Hoffman’s book is an article from “Natural History” magazine written by Harold Swanton in 1982 titled “Ralph Hoffman: Unsung Guide to the Birds” subtitled “Early bird guides concentrated on birds in the hand: a New England schoolmaster produced the first for birds in the bush.”

The earlier publication in 1904 of Hoffman’s a “Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York” was considered to be the first true bird guide.

After teaching Latin is several private schools in the east, Hoffman came west in 1919 to again teach Latin at the Cate School for Boys in Santa Barbara.  As a graduate of Harvard and the son of a distinguished Latin and Greek scholar, Ferdinand Hoffman, who ran a boy’s school in the East, Hoffman came by the classics naturally.

For the next six years, Hoffman lived in nearby Carpinteria where he had a clear view of the Channel Islands. The islands would draw him across the channel often, first to study birds and later plants. The northern-most island, San Miguel, would be where he met his untimely death.

View of the Channel Islands from Santa Barbara
View of the Channel Islands from Santa Barbara

The Pacific Coast was a new territory for Hoffman and he began almost immediately doing the research which would lead to the publication eight years later of the “Birds of the Pacific States.”

Hoffman’s home on Glendessary Lane in Santa Barbara
Hoffman’s home on Glendessary Lane in Santa Barbara

Swanton writes that “Hoffman had no formal training in ornithology or botany, and although he became an expert in both fields, he retained his amateur status.  He brought an amateur’s excitement and joy to his work, reflected in every line he wrote.”

Hoffman left teaching only when he was given the job as director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, an ideal job for a man who loved both teaching and the study of natural history.

 

Hoffman with Albert Einstein at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Hoffman with Albert Einstein at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

After the publication of his bird book, Hoffman turned his attention to botany. He took the opportunity on July 21, 1932 to go to San Miguel Island to pursue his study of buckwheat. When he failed to return to the group, after an eight-hour search in heavy fog, his crumpled body was found at the base of an almost vertical cliff. His broken trowel was found next to him. He evidently tried to use his trowel for support.

He is remembered especially at the Museum where a plaque memorializes him.  Though now found only through specialty booksellers, “Birds of the Pacific States”  remained in print for 50 years.

Joan Lentz, a Santa Barbara birder and author, agrees that Hoffman’s “Birds of the Pacific States” is one of the finest field guides every written.

For every lover of birds and nature, his book is an essential part of one’s library.

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10 thoughts on “FOR THE LOVE OF BIRDS

    • Dear Phila,
      While on sort of a leave, I am glad that I checked my email, allowing me to enjoy your blog and
      the brief biography of Hoffman. I always learn something new from you.

      We miss you here and if you had been here you could have joined us in celebrating Nancy’s
      and my 60th anniversary.

      Nancy, Elaine and Cat join me in saying Hi,
      George

  1. Such interesting information, Phila! Thank you for sending it! Please give us more from your ‘well spring’ of knowledge! Faye

  2. Lovely post, Phila! I appreciated the photo of your lovingly worn bird book!

    I, too, have gained an appreciation for my backyard towhees, who may be plain in their feathered garments, but that are interesting and devoted couples in their behavior, and as site faithful as my well rooted roses!

    I also enjoyed learning about Hoffman’s “amateur passion” for his chosen fields. He brought a childlike wonder to his in-depth observations, and thereby allowed us to also enter into his world of marvels.

  3. Dear Phila,
    I am glad that, although on a sort of leave, i checked my email, and thus was able to enjoy
    your blog. I am always pleased to learn something new from you, here the brief biography of Hoffman

    We miss you here; if you had been here, you could have joined us celebrating Nancy’s and my 60th anniversary.
    Nancy, Elaine and Cat join me in saying Hi,
    George

  4. Dear Phila,
    I have just read your piece about Ralph Hoffmann with great pleasure. My book looks just like yours; it must be the same edition. The comparison of the two brown towhee descriptions brings Hoffmann’s
    special qualities of observation vividly to mind. He loved the birds and watched them carefully.
    The house is delightful, so unpretentious and pretty, and I am intrigued by the memorial plaque. Where
    is it on the Museum grounds? Thank you for writing this article and evoking the memory of a good man
    whom all Californians who loved natural history should know.
    I have just returned from some of the wildlife refuges north of Sacramento, including Sacramento, Colusa, and Graylodge. It was heartening to see birds in quantity. Every day all day we heard the buzz
    and chatter of marsh wrens as snow geese and gray-fronted geese called from above.
    We are lucky to live in California. Even with all the loss, its diversity and beauty are still out there to be seen.
    Keep on writing.
    Best,
    Cathy Rose

  5. Lovely story, I saw some Brown Tohees just this morning scampering around on the roof of the house next door. They are a delight. It is time to work in the garden and hang with the birds. Plenty of crows here and thus not a lot of other variety.

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