The Charles Rogers Bird Journals Digitization Project

I don't know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.

Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, Stockholm, Dec. 7th, 1993.
Specimens from the Princeton Bird Collection used for teaching and research in several projects in the Stoddard Lab at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology of Princeton University. Photo credit: Audrey Miller.

The Charles Rogers Bird Journals Digitization Project is the result of a multidisciplinary collaboration between the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and the Princeton University Library (PUL). The project started in January 2019 when Mary “Cassie” Stoddard, an assistant professor in EEB, contacted the library about an extraordinary set of bird journals in the Princeton Bird Collection. The Princeton Bird Collection, curated by longtime EEB staff member Betty Horn, is home to more than 6,000 bird specimens. The specimens are used for teaching and research; several ongoing projects in the Stoddard Lab, which investigates avian coloration and morphology, make use of collection material.

Cassie Stoddard in the Princeton Bird Collection. Photo credit: Denise Applewhite.

The Princeton Bird Collection also includes archival documents, including personal bird journals and photo albums that belonged to Charles Rogers, who was a professor of ornithology at Princeton from 1920 until 1977. His handwritten journals cover the period from 1899 (when Rogers was eleven years old) to 1972 (when he was eighty-four) and contain records of the bird species observed on frequent walks in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

The Princeton Bird Collection, curated by longtime EEB staff member Betty Horn, is home to more than 6,000 bird specimens. Photo credit: Audrey Miller.

The bird biodiversity of Princeton is particularly well documented because Rogers was a Princeton undergraduate (1905-1909) and then faculty member for more than fifty years. Long-term datasets on bird biodiversity—particularly one spanning seven decades, by the same observer in the same general location—are extremely rare, making the Rogers dataset potentially of great value to researchers interested in the effects of climate change and/or land use change on patterns of biodiversity. Interpreting Rogers’ bird observations in light of modern data—like those amassed by large-scale citizen science projects like eBird—could reveal which bird species have been most severely affected by anthropogenic change.

Ben Hogan and Audrey Miller use an ultraviolet-sensitive camera to photograph a specimen. Photo credit: Stoddard Lab.

To preserve Rogers’ handwritten journals, some now over a century old, and to make their contents available to researchers, Stoddard and several lab members—including PhD student Audrey Miller and undergraduate Annika Kruse (’20)—worked with Betty Horn and a team at the Princeton University Library that grew to include staff from Library Information Technology, the Digital Imaging Studio, and the Preservation and Conservation group. The digitization part of the project is now complete, and transcription (which will make the database text-searchable) is underway.

Jarome Ali uses a spectrophotometer to measure parrot coloration. Photo credit: Stoddard Lab.

Ultimately, EEB and PUL will launch a dedicated Charles Rogers Bird Journal Digitization Project Digital PUL (DPUL) exhibit, where researchers and historians can access and explore the source material. This digitization effort will also serve as a template for future projects, including the digitization of natural history journals kept by the late Henry Horn. Henry was an ecologist and EEB faculty member from 1966 to 2011, when he transferred to emeritus status. He shared his enthusiasm for natural history with many in the Princeton community.

Members of the Stoddard Lab in the Princeton Bird Collection. From left to right: Benedict Hogan, Klara Norden, Audrey Miller, Rosalyn Price-Waldman, Monica Carlson, Jarome Ali.

Online exhibition curation & design: Jennifer Cabral-Pierce, Digital Imaging Technician, Princeton University Library.