Monterey Seabirds
Rollo Beck
Biography

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This page contains biographical information about prolific ornithological collector Rollo Beck, honored by the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History with an exhibit and programs, and by Monterey Seabirds with a special pelagic seabird expedition in April 2006.

Beck, Rollo Howard (1870-1950)

There is a brief biography available in PDF from the Santa Clara Audubon Society (go to page 18) http://www.scvas.org/pdf/localornithology.pdf

Born in Los Gatos, Santa Clara County, CA, August 26, 1870.
* Joined the FB Webster-Harris Expedition to the Galapagos to collect giant tortoises for Lord Rothschild.
* 1905 2nd expedition to the Galapagos, collecting birds and tortoises for the CA Academy of Sciences.
* 1906-1908 Collected sea birds off the CA coast near Monterey Bay and waterfowl in the San Joaquin Valley near Los Banos.
* 1908 Visited Alaska.
* 1912 Rediscovered the Hornby Petrel on the coast of Peru. Head of the Whitney South Sea Expedition. Spent several years exploring the islands of the South Pacific and the interior of New Guinea for the American Museum of Natural History.
* 1936 Published a brief autobiography in Robert Cushman Murphy's "Oceanic Birds of South America."

Not bad for a local boy who never graduated from the 8th grade!

A description Beck's second expedition to the Galapagos in 1905-1906 that appeared in the magazine of the California Academy of Sciences - California Wild by Kathleen M. Wong with comments from Matt James is at: http://www.calacademy.org/calwild/2003spring/stories/galapagos.html

Ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy was curator of oceanic birds at the American Museum of Natural History in 1926. His first book was Bird Islands of Peru (1925). He organized an expedition to collect oceanic and coastal birds under the leadership of Rollo H. Beck.

Murphy's next scientific book was on these large collections, The Oceanic Birds of South America (2 vols., 1936), which his biographer Dean Amadon calls "noteworthy for its remarkably readable style." The scholarly treatise included the effects of climate, currents, and land masses on the distribution of oceanic birds, as well as general natural history and a detailed account of each bird species and its habits, illustrated with photographs, color plates, and maps. The book was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in natural history writing and the Brewster Medal of the American Ornithologists Union. Cushman writes of Beck in this book:

[In 1912]" Mr. Beck had not only an extended experience in collecting petrels in the northern Pacific Ocean, in the Galapagos Islands, and elsewhere, but had established a record for field work among seabirds in general which placed him in a class by himself. Subsequent activities during the Brewster-Sanford Expedition, a later voyage to Alaska, and, finally, the ten year's campaign of the Whitney South Sea Expedition, have served only to enhance his effectiveness and his reputation. He stands today as the most successful worker this branch of ornithology that the world has known." - Murphy 1936

After returning from his trip to the Galapagos, Beck ventured out into the Monterey Bay in a rowboat to collect specimens. Perhaps most impressive to local seabirders are the 18 Parakeet Auklets he found off Pt. Pinos between 1905 and 1908. See Don Roberson's website: http://www.montereybay.com/creagrus/MtyBayrarebirds.html

It is hard to imagine seabirding in a rowboat let alone being able to get a shot at one!

Beck and his wife Ida joined the Whitney Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History in the summer of 1920. Its original purpose was to study the birds of the Pacific Islands. The expedition was funded by Harry Payne Whitney and his family.

The expedition was unlike any other. Instead of being a single trek, the expedition visited thousands of islands, led by many different scientists and collectors, over more than a dozen years. Administered by a committee at the American Museum, the Whitney Expedition became a source of funds and equipment for collecting and research on the Pacific Islands.

A map of the expedition's route and a description of the Beck's contribution of Oceanic cultural artifacts and photographs to the Anthropological Department at the California Academy of Sciences is at: http://www.calacademy.org/research/anthropology/rollobeck/index.htm

Beck was the leader of the expedition. He hired Ernst H. Qualye and Charles Curtis, and together they made most of the botanical collections for the expedition. They sailed among the islands on the sailing ship France, stopping at islands large and small.

The Whitney South Seas Expedition was an epic scientific adventure, which made important contributions to biology, discovered scores of new species and provided the American Museum of Natural History with the materials for a new hall.

"After sixteen years of arduous adventure in the service of the American Museum of Natural History, Mr. Rollo H. Beck and Mrs. Beck had started homeward from the Solomon Islands in June, 1928. They looked forward to retirement and a well-earned rest in their California home. The heat, and danger, and swelter of nearly a decade among the far-flung islands of the South Seas, during the period of Mr. Beck's leadership of the Whitney South Sea Expedition, was soon to become only a memory in which happy episodes would crowd out any less pleasant to remember.

"Mr. and Mrs. Beck had not even reached Sydney, Australia, on their homeward way, however, before a wireless message overtook them, proposing an additional year's work on the mainland of New Guinea. A study of the birds of paradise was among the naturalist's temptations mentioned in the message and, despite their homesickness, Mr. and Mrs. Beck turned northward again as soon as they had outfitted in Australia. Some of their experiences during the subsequent year are related in the ... account, in which Mr. Beck tells of the discovery of a bird of paradise new to science, all the more remarkable because it was obtained in territory supposedly exhausted of such ornithological surprises." - Robert Cushman Murphy - The Oceanic Birds of South America 1936


Excerpts from Beck's book about the New Guinea expedition, A Collector in the Land of the Birds of Paradise, along with a slideshow featuring some of the Becks' photos from New Guinea can be seen at http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1929_11-12_pick.html

Beck continued to collect until late in life. His last specimen was collected at age 79 in 1950.

Several generations of visitors have enjoyed over 90 of Beck's taxidermied specimens in the Museum's Monterey County bird exhibit at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, and this new addition to the display will introduce viewers to the man behind the birds.

Many of Beck's birds are kept by institutions including The Natural History Museum (Tring, England), the American Museum of Natural History, and the University of California's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.


Matt James, Geology Department Chair at Sonoma State University, is a biographer of Rollo H. Beck, working on a book about Beck's expedition to the Galapagos in 1905-06. He was kind enough to share his wealth of knowledge about this iconic collector of birds in this phone interview conducted by Roger Wolfe on April 5, 2006.

RW: How was it that you came to learn of Beck in that you are a geologist as opposed to an ornithologist?

Matt James: In 1982 I was doing graduate work in geology in the Galapagos. We were collecting marine fossils and using the notes from one of the members of the 1905-06 expedition that Beck led. In reading his notes there were many references to Rollo Beck. There were eight on board with Beck, who was the oldest. Since then I've interviewed Beck's relatives and the relatives of those eight young men who went to the Galapagos. I've tried to read everything those eight guys have written but it's Beck who became my main focus. I've even visited all of their gravesites that are in the Bay Area with the exception of one who is buried in Florida that I haven't visited yet. Basically I've been trying to figure out who these guys were and why they did what they did and Beck stands out as the one who did the most expeditions and the most collecting.

There was a paper written by Frank Pitelka, a bird professor from Berkeley who has since passed away. In that article he describes Beck as THE Collector because he figures so prominently in the world of collecting and it's true that Beck was the preeminent field collector of his time, and that included mostly birds. He kind of got his fame in seabirds. That theme got started down around Monterey in the 1890's. He lived in Pacific Grove and that is where Beck gets his big start. He was born in 1870 so in the 90's he's in his twenties. There's a point in which he starts to stuff birds and sell eggs. There was a big trade for eggs and bird skins back then. There were magazines devoted to egg trade much like stamp collecting.

RW: So how did Beck make the leap from collecting birds locally to getting invited on that first Galapagos Expedition?

Matt James: It was a matter of good luck for Beck but bad luck for other people. The expedition was put together on the east coast from Massachusetts. They took a steamer to Central America. This was before the Panama Canal and a bunch of them get Yellow Fever and die so they get themselves up to San Francisco to get a new collecting crew. They charter a vessel called the Mary Sachs which they intend to sail on down to the Galapagos.

Beck is a member of the Cooper Ornithological Society, he's one of the early members. In one of the first issues of their bulletin he's written up as this promising star in California birding and undoubtedly there he meets some of the professional curators who go to the meetings and along the way he becomes connected to the California Academy of Sciences. By knowing those curators and in particular this fellow named Alfred Mills Loomis, a procilleriiformes guy who is the director. Beck becomes his man in the field.

He is the one who sends Beck down to Monterey to collect. Beck does this for a couple of years. When this Galapagos trip arrives in San Francisco and they're asking around for collectors they are going to ask at museums and end up at the Cal Academy.

Loomis had been sending him down to Pacific Grove where Beck would go out and collect seabirds and eventually either send them up or take them up himself to deliver his catch and he would be paid. That was his job. He made a little bit of money on the side by collecting his own birds and selling a stuffed this or that for a dollar - fifty cents which doesn't seem like much now but it was back then. He was making his living on selling and trading eggs and skins.

What Loomis wanted was for Beck to collect specimens so that Loomis could then publish on them. This was the kind of parasitic relationship that they had. Beck wanted to make money, Loomis wanted to publish and so it was a little marriage made in heaven. Loomis got to stay in San Francisco and run his museum and Beck would just fill up the museum with specimens because he was just so prolific.

He got to be so good at stuffing, this was a remarkable thing about Beck was that he was renowned for his accuracy and his speed. He could put up a bird skin in just a phenomenal amount of time. His accuracy was such that when you look at his birds in a museum drawer they look like cigarettes in a box they were so exact.

He once went to New York City to the American Museum of Natural History and when the scientists heard Beck was coming they wanted to see him stuff a bird. So they sent someone out from the museum to the upper West Side to the Hudson River where they got hold of some dead starlings and brought them to the museum and they had a Rollo Beck demonstration.

RW: They probably realized at some point that Beck was a real ace at collecting.

Matt James: Right, right. He has like a seventh grade education and he's kind of tough as nails. Beck would go out in a rowboat out of Monterey/Pacific Grove for days.

RW: He would go out for days at a time?!

Matt James: Yeah, days at a time.

RW: Unbelievable!

Matt James: He'd go out for like a week or ten days and he would come back weighing more than he did when he went out because after skinning them he would be eat the carcasses of the seabirds. He took a box that had sand in it on this rowboat so he could have a fire and he could cook them. They must have tasted terrible! Skanky tasting!

Beck perfected this technique which is to take this rowboat and row out, drop bits of meat or fish or something for two miles and then row back. The birds have now come back, attracted by the oily smell and he would shoot them. Later, when he went on the expedition around South America, he would tell the crew "OK it's really calm, we're not sailing anywhere today so I'm going to row out and get some birds". They'd say "But there aren't any birds around, we don't see any birds". But Beck would come back with all these birds because he could draw them with this line of flesh in the water.

Frank Petalka from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley knew Beck. Petalka would ask him can you bring me X, Y and Z from the Central Valley to demonstrate some phenomenon and Beck would bring a cardboard box of 150 of these birds and pile them on the table.

Petalka said to me, "He was a little devil you know." It was interesting that Frank Petalka, who was the most devilish person you can imagine, is telling me that Rollo Beck was a little devil. Even in these old black and white photos of Beck you can see that he has these blue eyes with a definite twinkle. So I don't have any reason to doubt that he wasn't a little devil.

RW: At what point did his wife Ida start going on these expeditions with him?

Matt James: She traveled with him on this big South America trip that lasted a few years that went all the way around to the Dominican Republic. Then she went on a bunch of the Whitney Expedition. That expedition had a lot of rough points because they're out there so long and it was such a difficult time. Beck probably wouldn't have been kept on the Whitney trip if he hadn't been so good. Personally people didn't always get along with him.

RW: Now wasn't he the leader for that expedition?

Matt James: He was the leader, yeah. As my father used to say, "He was a tough little b_____d." I think it was hard for people to keep up with him. I really do. I think he was just tougher than most people. He required less sleep, less food, less water. He drove people to their grave. It's undeniable that the guy was remarkable with faults or not.

RW: One of the criticisms we hear about Beck and many of the collectors of the time is that they were almost rapacious in their collecting. Some have claimed that Beck single handedly wiped out the last of the Guadalupe Caracara and killed the last tortoise on Fernandina Island in the Galapagos. How do you respond to that?

Matt James: I actually talked with Ernst Mayr who replaced Beck on the Whitney South Seas Expedition. Mayr said that although Beck is attributed with collecting the last specimens that bird was already on the decline so we can't say that Beck went there and shot so many of them that it caused the bird to go extinct. There were 11 birds seen and he shot 9 and then no one ever sees them again. But the truth is somebody else got the first 9,000. So it's just a little too easy to say he caused their extinction.

And the same could be said for this Galapagos Tortoise on the island of Fernandina. The whole point of this 1905-06 expedition is to collect these tortoises before it's too late. They believe that the tortoises are fast disappearing and this comes from Beck's earlier trip to the islands collecting for Lord Rothschild where they see thousands of tortoises slaughtered all over the place. Loomis finds out about this and decides to put together this expedition. People are eating them, whalers, buccaneers all manner of people have eaten them over the years. So the Academy decides to get them before it's too late. Thinking they're better dead and preserved in a museum than left to the whims of the locals. They go there to simply harvest the last ones.

So when Beck goes to the island of Fernandina he hikes up to the top of this island. Which, by all accounts is an almost impossible hike. Hiking to the top of Fernandina will kill the average person, literally. Well, he gets up there and he stays overnight, sleeps on lava, he has 200 ticks crawling all over him. He picks them off two at a time. He has nothing more than an oil cloth to sleep on the bare lava.

Eventually he finds this tortoise as the sun is going down so he puts down his pack and eats his dinner with the tortoise munching on grass nearby. Then, he writes, "I skin the tortoise by moonlight." He probably stayed up most of the night because it takes like seven or eight hours to skin out one of these tortoises. Then he puts it on his back, this thing still has to weigh like 150 pounds or something like that. He carries this all the way down to the coast on a walk that will kill the average person.

Beck would have collected this tortoise, the last of its kind, even if it had a sign on it that said as much. You cannot be a modern day conservationist saying, "Oh Beck did something bad", because he would have said, "I'm going to collect it anyway, I'm going to get the last tortoise because it is better for me to kill it and put it in a museum than it is for someone to eat it and throw it into the ocean or leave its bleached bones lying in the sun."

If you apply modern day political correctness to what people were doing a hundred years ago it just doesn't work. It was a different mind-set.

I have this quote from Elliot Coues where he advises birders to collect 50-100 of every species you find except the most common. The logic being that the most common you can always go back and get later. He says that, "birds are so abundant that they could populate every public museum and private collection without noticeably diminishing their numbers." Now this is the recommendation of the most prominent ornithologist of the time. I use this quote in my presentations to show that this was the mind set of the time. You have to put it into that context.

RW: What were the conditions like on the boat for these Galapagos Expeditions? They were their own crew, right? They weren't just sitting in cabins enjoying the ride, were they?

Matt James: They were sailor/scientists, exactly. That was the plan all along. There was a guy they brought along as a navigator and a mate.

RW: I heard he was a bad navigator.

Matt James: The navigator ended up getting kicked off after running them aground a few times. On those vessels everyone was expected to lend a hand with hoisting the sails. You just don't have a complete crew and everyone sits around with their feet up on the table. These weren't dilettante gentlemen waiting for the sails to be raised. It wasn't like the Alan Hancock expeditions to the Galapagos where everybody dressed in tuxedos and played classical music after dinner and you only got to go if you could play a classical instrument.

RW: After they left the Whitney Expedition and spent the next year in New Guinea what did he do?

Matt James: Beck wrote that after all that time away he was looking forward to staying at home for a while. He'd been on this trip for all those years under really harsh conditions. He nearly died of malaria that last year in New Guinea. There are photos of him in San Francisco where he looks really skinny, really bad.

He just wanted to be a gentleman farmer. He grew up on a ranch in San Jose. He bought a piece of property in Planada just east of Merced on the way to Yosemite. He grew apricots there. He lived on that property and he died there on November 22, 1950. He's buried in the family plot in San Jose at the Oak Park Cemetery. It's a big, old cemetery with a lot of the old pioneer families buried there.

But all the while he did continue to collect for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology on the Berkeley campus and they would get him his collecting permits. He collected in the Central Valley for them until his death.


For more information about the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History exhibit and programs about Rollo Beck, please see the Pacific Grove Museum website.


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Last updated May 22, 2006