Pasadena's First Bird List

Pasadena was 20 years old in 1894 when a local physician, Dr. Hiram A. Reid, decided that it was time for someone to record the local history. He embarked on an ambitious tome concerning all aspects of Pasadena including the local natural history. He had heard of the reputation and vast bird knowledge of Joseph Grinnell who had amassed a preserved collection of every bird in the area, neatly recording the scientific and common names. Grinnell, who was to become the editor of the Condor, one of the early Ornithological journals, as well as the director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, was then only 17 years old. He was a local Pasadena boy attending Throop College (now CalTech). He was not the first expert on Pasadena birds. Pasadena’s first taxidermist, A. Wakefield, was from 1881 for 10 years the guru on all the local birds, but Grinnell had outshone him in eminence by the early 1890’s.

Grinnell was asked to write the section on birds for Reid’s book to which he devoted 10 pages. Included was the first list of Pasadena birds ever printed. He limited his list only to land birds seen within 8 miles of Pasadena. About 200 species were then known to be local to the Los Angeles area of which Grinnell listed 158 as being in the Pasadena area. He did not include water birds in his list of which he acknowledged there were between 20 and 30 local species.

Some on the list are now never or hardly ever seen in Pasadena such as the Condor and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Others were birds familiar to us but with names we would no longer recognize. A few examples are Marsh Hawk (Northern Harrier), Pigeon Hawk (Merlin), Gairdner’s Woodpecker (Downey Woodpecker), Western Flycatcher (Pacific-Slope Flycatcher), Arkansas Goldfinch (Lesser Goldfinch) , Intermediate Sparrow (White-Crowned Sparrow) and Pileolated Warbler (Wilson’s Warbler.)

Grinnell’s list was simply a compilation of local birds. There was no data as to time of year collected, their numbers, or the circumstances in which they were found. Eventually, when Grinnell became a Professor at Berkeley, he developed the “Grinnell Method” of recording natural history.Grinnell’s complete description and list of local birds can be found online at on pages 587-598 of Dr. Reid’s book (History of Pasadena, Pasadena History Company, 1895) which is in the public domain. The list itself can also be found on the Pasadena Audubon website together with an accompanying list in which I have given the modern names of those difficult to otherwise discern.

Ira A. Blitz