Thursday, May 25, 2006
Rollo Beck (1870-1950), the godfather of Monterey Bay birding, was a turn-of-the-century adventurer, scientist and world traveler who amassed one of ornithology’s most important collections as he helped prove some of Charles Darwin’s controversial theories.
If you’ve ever been to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History you’ve seen his work. Beck collected many of the mounted specimens in the Monterey County Birds exhibit. If you haven’t been to the museum in a while, now’s a good time to check out the new permanent exhibit devoted to Beck’s life.
Don Roberson, the author of Monterey Birds, calls Beck “probably the single-most-important turn-of-the-century collector in Monterey County.”
“He is the collector on which we base our understanding of what seabird distribution was like,” Roberson says.
Beck collected birds around the bay from the 1890s through 1912.
“We can compare the 20 years he spent collecting to the last 20 years,” Roberson says. “And although we can’t make an estimate on numbers, we can say whether something was common based on how many he collected.”
Beck’s collections have also been key in writing identification guides. “If he collected a hundred of something then we can identify the full range of physical characteristics,” Roberson says.
Yet Beck’s contributions to local birding is only a fragment of the man’s story. According to Esther Trosow, the exhibit’s curator, Beck obtained and preserved tens of thousands of specimens and collected data for some of the most important bird collections in the world. Institutions including The Natural History Museum in Tring, England and the American Museum of Natural History in New York hold Beck specimens.
Born in Los Gatos, Beck’s formal education lasted only to the eighth grade. A neighbor taught the youngster how to identify birds, prepare skins, and mount specimens. In the mid-1890s, Beck worked aboard a schooner that plied its trade between Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, and did some early ornithological field work near Lake Tahoe and the Yosemite Valley.
While traveling over the Sierras towards Lake Tahoe in 1897, Beck received an invitation to join an expedition to the Galapagos Islands. Although the expedition was plagued by disease, it returned to San Francisco in 1898 with over 3,000 bird skins and tortoises and introduced Beck to oceanic birds.
In June 1905, Beck returned to the Galapagos as expedition leader and chief collector. The California Academy of Sciences’ expedition revisited locations from Darwin’s famous 1835 HMS Beagle voyage. It was a trip that would have major implications for science.
“That expedition was run under the direction of [Leverett M.] Loomis,” Roberson says. “Loomis was resistant to Darwin’s theories. He sent out this expedition possibly to disprove evolution. In an ironic twist, it wound up being one of the more important expeditions that proved a lot of Darwin’s concepts.”
While the Galapagos Islands had inspired many of Darwin’s theories, it took expeditions like Beck’s to discover species like Darwin’s finches, which illustrated his controversial ideas.
In another ironic twist, the expedition had a difficult time procuring a ship to take them to the Galapagos. This major delay not only saved the expedition’s data, it also may have saved the academy from closure.
“If not for that delay the thousands of specimens collected on this one-and-a-half-year trip would have been wiped out by the great San Francisco earthquake,” Roberson says.
Due to the late start, the expedition didn’t return until fall. When they did get back, they found the city, including the California Academy of Science, in ruins. What they brought became the basis of the academy’s new collection.
The exhibit at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History charts the rest of Beck’s colorful career as he traveled on collecting expeditions to Hawaii, Alaska, the Bering Seas islands, the coast of South America, Pitcairn Island, the South Seas, and New Guinea.
After several decades of collecting museum specimens in far-flung and oftentimes dangerous places, Beck returned to California with his wife. In the 1940s, the Becks lived on and off in Pacific Grove. It was during these years that he collected and mounted many of the specimens now on display in the Monterey County bird exhibit.
It’s a remarkable story of classic scientific adventure, the kind of tale that belongs to another century but takes wing again in this new permanent exhibit in the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.
THE ROLLO BECK EXHIBIT is on permanent display at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, 165 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove. For more information call 648-5716 or visit pgmuseum.org.