Peterboro Celebrates Famous Ornithologist

Ornithologist Greene Smith, (right) son of abolitionists Gerrit and Ann Smith of Peterboro, with his bird specimen hunting partner Hiram Wilson. Smith’s collection at the Ornithon, a collection of 3,000 specimens by 1880, was regarded as among the finest in the world.

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In 1863, Greene Smith built his Ornithon (Bird House) in Peterboro between his parents’ home (on the left) and Oneida Creek. The bridge in the foreground was built by Hiram Wilson to cross the Oneida Creek.

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Samples of bird specimen donated to Colgate University from Greene Smith’s Ornithon collection that was on display at the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark in Peterboro.Birdhouse Rorer 8-30-09

Kay Rorer, chairwoman of the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark Bird House Committee, examines samples of bird specimen donated to Colgate University from Greene Smith’s Ornithon collection that was on display at the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark in Peterboro. John Pumilio, Colgate University, will feature differing Ornithon species in his presentation Greene Smith’s beloved birds at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at the Smithfield Community Center, 5255 Pleasant Valley Road, Peterboro.

(Peterboro, NY – March 2013Smith, Greene & Wilson PAM Rorer 3-13-13 crp) Sunday, April 14, marks the 171st birthday anniversary of Greene Smith, son of famous abolitionists Gerrit and Ann Smith and an extraordinary leader in his own right, in his own realms. Expected to attend Harvard College, Smith decided instead to pursue his true passions, particularly the exploding world of 19th century ornithology.

Smith’s collection of birds, nests and eggs from around the globe eventually numbered at least 3,000 specimens and, when he died suddenly at age 38 of tuberculosis, his was considered widely to be one of the finest collections in the world.

In “A World of Wonder: Greene Smith’s Beloved Birds,” speaker John Pumilio of Colgate University will feature differing specimens left to Colgate by Smith’s widow to illustrate the exciting role of birds in mid-19th century science, including Darwin’s emerging theory of evolution. From raptors to finches to hummingbirds, Smith’s birds helped scientists and students of this crucial era learn firsthand about the fascinating diversity among species.

From childhood on, Smith actively pursued life as a dedicated naturalist and first-class citizen-scientist. He began buying birds, both living and “skins,” as a teenager. By May 1863, barely 21, he had designed and built his “Bird House,” a three-story, state-of-the- art museum facility in Peterboro, envisioned as home for his growing collection of birds, nests and eggs.

He became an expert ornithologist who lectured at Cornell University. His donation of 362 bird specimens in 1869 established that new college’s collection and helped lay foundation for today’s world-renowned Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. A gifted, self-taught taxidermist, he worked directly with the Smithsonian Institution to build their collections. He also corresponded with leading experts of the day, including Dr. Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian and Audubon’s longtime field naturalist J. G. Bell, who became a good friend.

After his untimely death in July 1880, Smith’s widow Elizabeth eventually donated most of the collection to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (1892) and Colgate University (1903). Today, Colgate’s biology department partners with historic Peterboro to create public displays selected from Smith’s exquisite specimens.

Students at Colgate have been cataloguing the hundreds of birds and eggs in the university’s collections, which represent an era of outstanding and groundbreaking science by visionaries from Central New York.

Colgate University Sustainability Coordinator John Pumilio holds degrees from SUNY ESF and Evergreen State College. He has taught ornithology and worked with endangered animal species. From Alaska and the Canadian Rockies through North America to the Caribbean, leading safaris in Africa and excursions in the Galapagos Islands, Pumilio has developed programs to introduce hundreds of students and citizen-scientists to the wonders of nature around the world and the threats they face.

Pumilio’s presentation will begin at 2 p.m. at the Smithfield Community Center at 5255 Pleasant Valley Road in Peterboro. An easy, informal birdwatching “ramble” will follow, to scout for spring migratory birds. Dress accordingly.

Interested participants may also walk to the nearby Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark, where the foundation ruins of Greene’s Bird House have been cleared for a formal “forensic” site exploration this summer.

“The Bird House Built by a Billionaire” will be presented Sunday, May 26, by Norman Dann, Smith biographer. The event will celebrate the Bird House on its 150th anniversary in a presentation at 2 p.m. A $3 suggested donation for each of these events supports the work of the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark.

For more information, call 315.280.8828, email info@gerritsmith.org or visit www.gerritsmith.org.

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