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TR's resident naturalist for the African Safari

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  • Edward J. Renehan Jr.
    From the Times Herald Record in New York s Hudson Valley, the story of a local boy from Highland Falls (near West Point) who made good and went with TR to
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 8, 2006
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      From the Times Herald Record in New York's Hudson Valley, the story of a local boy from Highland Falls (near West Point) who made good and went with TR to Africa. Best, - EJR

      Local boy became world explorer

      1 of 1
      Top Photo
      Highland Falls-born Edgar A. Mearns was a famed naturalist. A local bird club is named for him.Photo provided
      Highland Falls

      When the U.S. Army was shooting at the Moro terrorists in the jungle-choked, leech-infested Philippines in 1906, you could almost hear some officer yell: "Where's our surgeon running to?! Tell him to get down! He'll get himself killed!"

      That zigzagging, leg-churning medico was Edgar A. Mearns, a Highland Falls boy and, in a good way, nutty about nature.

      As the battle raged, Mearns spotted a green parrot behind an enemy wall. Mearns, agile at 5 feet, 4 inches tall and 140 pounds, leaped over that wall.

      But standing between him and the parrot was a heavily armed insurgent Moro clansman. The Moro had the bird. Somehow, Mearns got the bird.

      "Men had died violently for infinitely less provocation," recalled a U.S. Army major.

      But that was Mearns for you — Army surgeon and world-class specimen collector. Consider his contributions to what is now the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. 20,000 birds, 7,000 mammals, 5,000 reptiles and 5,000 fishes, including 19 new species of Philippine birds. And that's just one museum.

      Who better to become the figurehead for one of the mid-Hudson's most active bird clubs — the Edgar A. (for Alexander) Mearns Bird Club. Its 50th anniversary is coming up, and it's a perfect time to remember Mearns, who never got the recognition of, say, an Audubon or a Burroughs.

      As a Highland Falls teenager, Mearns compiled the first comprehensive list of Hudson Highland birds (he did the same with its mammals, plants and reptiles, too).

      His notes are snapshots of the mid-Hudson of the 1870s, and they can make you weep for the old days. "The whole region is wild, and sparsely inhabited," Mearns wrote as he trudged across the mid-Hudson on foot.

      The river and woods were teeming with critters now gone — shot out of existence for food, or harried out of their habitats by resource profiteers.

      They were critters like the now-extinct passenger pigeon. The great white pelican, an extremely rare visitor these days, was "numerous on the Hudson," he said. Our plague of deer? Just an occasional whitetail showed up back then, Mearns reported.

      On the flip side, common backyard birds like cardinals, which crowd bird feeders today, weren't around much, Mearns found.

      "He did (the list) as a high school student, a fantastic piece of work for a kid, and it was beautifully done," says expert birder Ed Treacy of Highland Falls.

      It was Treacy's idea to name the local bird club after Mearns, thereby getting behind a hometown boy who made natural history big-time. Mearns was a top science author, with 125 titles on everything from shells to archaeology. More than 50 birds bear his name, like the Mearn's quail of the Southwest and a rare Philippine swift. A slew of plants and other animals were dubbed "meransi."

      After retiring as an Army lieutenant colonel after 26 years, Mearns was Teddy Roosevelt's choice as managing naturalist for the famed 1909 Smithsonian African science safari. Mearns later beat a path into little-traveled territory around Ethiopia with paleontologist Childs Frick in 1911.

      Mearns was an overachiever. On one jaunt at his first Army posting in Fort Verde, Ariz., he was in the saddle for 900 miles. Give him a breather, and he'd whip up a scholarly paper like the one on sparrow hawk subspecies in parts of the United States.

      His nervous breakdown in 1900 sidelined him for only three months. He bounced back with a study of jungle cats.

      But he couldn't fight microscopic creatures. Malaria, tropical parasites and, finally, diabetes — in an era without insulin — killed him. He died on Nov. 1, 1916, at age 60. Mearns' ashes went to the home of the Washington Biologists Field Club on a Potomac River island.

      Nearby, in the Smithsonian Institution, rests the skin of the Philippine bird Mearns risked his life to collect: the Mount Malindang Racquet-tailed parrot.

      This is writer Wayne A. Hall's nature column, which appears twice monthly. Wayne is a lifetime nature enthusiast. Any ideas, nature news, special people and natural history observations might lead to a column, so e-mail him at scribewayne@....

      Edward J. Renehan Jr.

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