Earl Godfrey

Zoology, Animals, Physiology, Metabolism

Researched and wrote the bird-watcher's bible "The Birds of Canada"

Earl Godfrey was an ornithologist famous for his study of birds and for writing the bird watcher's bible, The Birds of Canada, first published in 1966 and selling over 200,000 copies.

Godfrey came to his love of birds while he and a friend were trying to knock them out of apple trees with a slingshot, near his hometown of Wolfville, Nova Scotia. The boys were discovered in their mischief by Dr Robie Tufts, an avid birder and Chief Federal Migratory Bird Officer for the Maritimes. Dr. Tufts invited them up to his place to see his birds, where Godfrey's view of them changed forever. The study of birds became his life's work, and Dr. Tufts a life-long friend.

He went on to study biology at Acadia University in Wolfville, where he got a bachelor of science in 1934. Then, through Dr. Tufts, he met Cyrus Eaton, a Nova Scotian industrialist and philanthropist living in Cleveland. Godfrey agreed to move to Cleveland and tutor Eaton's son Mac. While in Cleveland, he attended grad school at Western Reserve University and volunteered at the Museum of Natural History. In 1945 he became the assistant ornithologist at the museum, which eventually led to the position he held for the rest of his career starting in 1947: Curator of Ornithology at the National Museum of Natural Science in Ottawa (Now called the Canadian Museum of Nature).

Godfrey spent his summers traveling across Canada, working seven days a week from dawn until midnight collecting, classifying, and documenting Canada's birds. He focused on regions where little collecting had previously been done. Through his work, he acquired almost 20,000 specimens, and became an expert at identifying birds simply by examining a sample of their feathers.

In his spare time at the museum, he worked on The Birds of Canada and answered the thousands of letters sent to him by birders from across the country.

The Birds of Canada was the first guide to include colour pictures of birds, bird distribution maps, and sketches of birds showing identifying marks for easier identification in the field. Much of the distribution data for the maps came from the phone-calls and letters he received from bird watchers across Canada.

In 1976 Godfrey officially retired but maintained his interest in ornithology, becoming Curator Emeritus of the National Museum, and in 1993, a Research Associate. He was associate editor of Canadian Field-Naturalist from 1947 to 1976 and from 1990 to 2002. He died in 2002, at the age of 92.

Author: Jeff Schering

Sources:

Gosselin, M., & Huston, S. (2003). In memoriam: W. Earl Godfrey, 1910-2002. The Auk, 120(1), 196-198.

Interview with Dr. Godfrey by Jason Berkowitz in July, 2001.

Photo credit: P. McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen

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