The Kuser-Beebe Pheasant Expedition: A Monograph of the Pheasants
In the summer of 1909, a wealthy patron of the New York Zoological Park, and avid pheasant enthusiast from New Jersey, Colonel Anthony R. Kuser (link to a Corbis photo) wanted someone to research and write an updated Monograph on pheasants. Kuser told the Park's staff that he would fund $60,000 for the expedition, pay for the best bird artists in the world to do up color plates for the book, and he'd pay for the binding, printing and advertising. He even would allow the book to be published in the name of the New York Zoological Society. But with a big condition: Kuser wanted only William Beebe to lead the expedition. Kuser selected Beebe because of his success with keeping and breeding the pheasants in the NY Zoological Park, his scientific know-how, and most likely his flair with the pen; Beebe already having published several books.
Hornaday wrote in a letter that Beebe would just be a "rich man's plaything, and making a picture book that he never of his own imagination would have dreamed of making." He even referred to Kuser as an "evil genius," and said Beebe was being unloyal to the Park and himself. 'Why, who would ever read such a book in the next 20 years,' he questioned.
At first Hornaday gave his permission for Beebe to go for four months, but knew very well that it would take longer than that, including the many months it would take Beebe to do further research and writing of the manuscript. Hornaday then said that if Mr. Beebe went on the trip, that he'd be looking for someone to fill his curator position and that he would not return as curator of birds.
(When Beebe did return from the 17-month-long expedition, he was made Honorary Curator of Birds and Director Hornaday welcomed him home with open arms and ultimately high praise for the Monograph.)
Beebe was determined to seize this opportunity to conduct extensive field studies in the Far East. He was feeling his usual restless self and felt that studies in the field would be more valuable than studies in his laboratory.
(Will, at left)
Beebe writes in his first paper for the Park's scientific publication Zoologica: "The collecting of thousands of skins will be of no service nor will the study of those now in our museums be of any direct use. We must have careful and minute tabulation of the ecological conditions under which the phenomena under discussion appear."
Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn agreed. When Beebe was awarded the prestigious "Elliot Medal" for volume one of the Monograph, he presented the award to his former Columbia University pupil. "The journey extended over 52,000 miles; it ended in the great museums of London...of Paris and of Berlin, for the purpose of studying the type collections. Thus the order of the work was from nature to the museum and to man, rather than from man and the museum to nature."
"It is this distinguished note of direct observation of natural processes, under natural conditions, which is needed to-day in biology to supplement the note of the laboratory and of experiment. Living birds and living mammals have as much to teach us in their natural surroundings as they taught Darwin and Wallace and we must endeavor to keep the eyes and minds of these great naturalists in our modes of vision." (Science, "Second Award of the Elliot Medal," Nov. 21, 1919, p.473)
In 1913, Beebe authored chapter 20 of Hornaday's book, "Our Vanishing Wild Life." In it, he describes the wanton hunting of birds:
"In various trips to Mexico, Venezuela and other countries in the tropics of the New World I have seen many such scenes, but not until I had completed a seventeen months' expedition in search of pheasants, through some twenty countries of Asia and the East Indies, did I realize the havoc which is being wrought week by week everywhere on the globe...We could scarcely repeat the trip and make the same observations upon pheasants, so rapidly is this group of birds approaching extinction." (page 195).
Beebe also writes about the burning and clearing of vast stretches of the country for the rubber tree industry:
"The East seems rubber mad, and whether the enormous output which will result from the millions of trees set out month after month will be profitable, I cannot say. I can think only of the vanishing of the entire fauna and flora of many districts which I have seen as a direct result of this commercial activity." (page 201)
"Once, for many days we studied the wonderful life of a jungle which stretched up to our very camp," wrote Beebe. "Troops of rollicking wa-was or gibbons frequented the forest; squirrels, tupaias, birds and insects in myriads were everywhere during the day. Great fruit-bats, flying lemurs, owls and other nocturnal creatures made the evenings and nights full of interest. And then, one day without warning came the sound of an ax, and another and another. From that moment the songs, cries, chirps and roars of the jungle were seldom heard from our camp. Every day saw new phalanxes of splendid primeval trees fallen, or half suspended in their rigging of lianas. The leaves withered, the flower petals fell and we heard no more the crackling of bamboos in the wind. Then the pitiful survivors of the destruction were brought to us; now a baby flying lemur, flung from its hole by the falling of some tree; young tupaias, nestling birds; a few out of the thousands of creatures from insects to mammals which were slain so that a Chinaman or Malay might eke a few dollars, four of five years hence, from a grove of rubber trees. I do not say it is wrong. Man has won out, and might is right, as since the dawn of creation; but to the onlooker, to the lover of nature and the animal world it is a terrible, a hopeless thing." (page 202)
In 1913, they divorced bitterly and publicly (Las Vegas) with the notice making the front page of the New York Tomes ("Naturalist Was Cruel"). Will did not fight the divorce.
Blair remarried the next day to architect and photographer Robert L. Niles who was the nephew of William White Niles, an executive of the New York Zoological Society. Robert Niles had been a mutal friend of Will and Blair. She changed her name to Blair Niles and went on to fame and fortune as a writer in her own right. However, Beebe never mentions that Blair was along with him in pheasant books.
Will and Blair sailed from New York onboard the Lusitania (above left) for Queenstown, Ireland in late December 1910. They returned, also by sailing, from the Far East in early 1911 reaching home (New York) May 27, 1911. They circumnavigated the globe, visiting 20 countries and traveling about 52,000 miles.
One day in Ceylon, Beebe set out searching for pheasants, but heard the familiar scream of a distant peacock. Seeing it fly away, he went after it with his tracker.
"I had started out after jungle fowl," wrote Beebe, "but nature has a contrary habit of offering the unexpected; so I was greatfull enough and began crawling along after him."
"There is something essentially undignified in such a pursuit as this; but work in the field has nothing to do with dignity or with anything except patience, concentration, and eternal vigilance. All that I had to do was to get that peacock within range, and to keep out of sight."
Upon returning from seeing the peacock, Beebe wrote that he almost stepped on a Russell's viper, but was warned by his tracker. "I should have stepped on him if I had been alone, and my pheasant work would have come to an abrupt end. It was not a pleasant experience."
In Malaysia Beebe wrote of the envy his fellow man must feel towards his situation: "I clapped twice, and my Cinghalese boy Aladdin appeared with a lime-squash; and as I sipped it, I thought of envious friends at home. But I wondered how many of them would have enjoyed earning this luxurious hour by the day's tramp through swamps, crawling through leech-infested thorn thickets, with heat and gnats and crackling leaves hindering the noiseless approach to a flock of peafowl, or a solitary argus, or family of peacock pheasants. Only aching muscles and excited memory of new facts achieved could make perfect the enjoyment of such an evening."
Of course from Beebe'e writings, one would never have known that his wife, Blair was by his side through the leeches, the gnats and heat...and headhunters. And she did all of this bushwacking dressed in skirts and blouses and maybe even corsettes.
"Thus throughout the whole country," Beebe wrote, "if you find favor in the eyes of a tribe, you are formally presented with an egg on the day of your arrival in their village...when the ceremony of landing was fully and properly achieved, Narok and his chief led us to his tribal house, where one by one, we climbed the steep, notched pole that was the sole roadway between a high veranda and the earth, some ten feet or more below."
The Sea-Dyaks performed their dances for the Beebes (left).
While in Borneo, Will and Blair visited the chief Dyaks' Lamin, or longhouse. These Lamin houses are built on stilts along the banks of rivers and may house 50 or more families. The Lamin consists of long passageways, lit with bowls of resin, and may have 200 doors.
"Cherished heads were passed down through generations...it's said that even today, travelers still come across skulls, but usually not fresh ones." (From Bill Dalton's article, "The Splendid Isolation of Borneo's Dayak Tribes."
The Dyaks were happy to be hired to help bring back pheasants and other animals. They also helped Beebe hunt for local pheasants, showing him the birds' haunts and dancing arenas.
"They (the dyaks) did not understand the purpose of the expedition," Beebe wrote, "and were at times sorely troubled by the scientific mysteries they were encountering for the first time. They thought it supremely logical to follow a pheasant for hours with the greatest possibly patience and discretion, only to refuse to shoot it once it was within easy range. They considered it a waste of energy to pack so many bugs and pheasants and flowers in big boxes and nail them up securely. But whatever their personal opinion in such matters, it did not at any time interfere with their work."
Beebe writes of how they gave medical care to the natives who "came oftener to my bungalow to be treated for the diseases which ran rife in the small, community. Antiseptics and mercury were needed in most of the cases; for many there was nothing to do but give a little morphine. And even then little could be accomplished, for, despite all threats and warnings, every pill and powder would be sallowed the instant it was received, the theory being that the greater the amount of medicine consumed, the quicker the cure."
Beebe also mentions that Cholera was running rampant through the tropical environment: "With dead cholera victims floating past, children and others, and two hundred cases dying down river out of every two hundred, I dared take no risk. Our drink was the universal Japanese mineral water Tan-san, or thrice-boiled river water."
Will wrote: "From high overhead in the tracery of foliage came a low chuckle. Probably no sound in the world could have affected me as that. It meant that somewhere near by was a roosting pheasant."
"And it was to find this that I had come half round the world. I was to become intimate with these birds that I had traversed the fiery Plains and had penetrated deep into the heart of this wilderness - these Hills of Hills."
It was in the Himalayas that they encountered a heavy hail storm.
"Pheasants called in a way which they should not have done except in early morning; small creatures rustled here and there among the leaves. I picked up my gun and walked toward camp...From the Tibetan snow-peaks in the distance billowed a breath of cold air-icy, unfriendly-and a dark cloud swept across the sun."
"The mist grew thicker and closed down. The birds and forest creatures became silent as death, and for as long as two minutes the silence was oppressive. Then in the distance, dimly though the fog, the trees bent and straightened, the mist yellowed and a drop of rain fell. Finally, came a sound as strange as any in the world, the noise of ice falling on flowers and leaves, a mitrailleuse volley of hail such as only the great Himalayas knew. Lashed by the ice, our horses whinnied with pain and fright, and although wild mountain ponies, crowded close to us beneath the shelter of the dak...their coats were covered with welts as if from heavy blows of finely divided thongs of a whip."
A Monograph of the Pheasants is made up of four volumes, each around 150,000 words. The first run was 600 copies at $250 a set. An abridged version sans scientific details, came out in 1926 as "Pheasants, Their Lives and Homes." It was reprinted in 1936 into a single volume. A more dramatized version of the expedition was the book "Pheasant Jungles," published in 1927. (Satry Tragopan at left)
The journey occupied seventeen months, extended over twenty countries, and resulted in a rare abundance of material, both literary-concerning the life histories of birds-and pictorial, photographs and sketches."
"This (Monograph) is a profound study of the living pheasants in their natural environment in various parts of eastern Asia. There are nineteen groups of these birds; eighteen were successfully hunted with the camera, with field-glasses, and when necessary for identification, with the shotgun."
- HF Osborn
Hornaday, William T. "Our Vanishing Wild Life: It's Extermination and Preservation" New York Zoological Society, 1913. Beebe wrote chapter 20 "The Destruction of Birds in the Far East"
Core Historical Literature of Agriculture (CHLA). Ithaca, NY: Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University.
This book is online at this link:
MacKinnon, John Borneo The World's Wild Places-Time-Life Books, Amsterdam, 1975 Chapter 5 "The Sacred Birds," p.108-117.
Some Plates from the Monograph
Will Beebe and Japanese Pheasant.
The Official William Beebe Web Site is copyrighted 2000 - 2011 by Catharine L. Hines. All rights reserved. No images may be reproduced as many of them are copyrighted and are used with permission of the copyright holder. Last updated February 2011.