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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.