Booth and Birds

In a corner of George Booth’s Old Country Office, there is a door that opens into a blank wall. I became curious about this door to nowhere last year when I was setting up the Center’s holiday display, and so this year’s Christmas scene is inspired by the door’s original purpose.

Around 1919, Booth purchased a blue and yellow macaw and named him Mack. Mack, like all parrots, enjoyed chewing things—Booth’s picture frames, furniture, and the walls themselves. Booth thought getting a second macaw, which he named Jack, might calm Mack’s chewing, but alas, he simply doubled the trouble.

In early 1920, Booth added a flat-roofed glass walled aviary outside of his office to give Mack and Jack their own space (and save the furniture). It was bound by the exterior walls of the office, living room, and library. Accessed through a door left of the fireplace, Mack and Jack were joined by canaries in the aviary, and according to Henry Booth’s memories, every time the canaries sang or the telephone rang, the macaws’ squawk would fill the house.

This ca 1925 view of Cranbrook House shows the exterior window of the aviary, covered with a cabana striped awning, between the bay window of the office and the library wing. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Eventually, the Booth’s gave Mack and Jack to the Belle Isle Zoo. The canaries remained for a time, cared for by one of the maids, Harriet. When she retired, the aviary was disassembled and the window was reused as a kitchen window for Brookside School, where it remains.

For my holiday display, I’ve opened the door to the aviary and staged a scene as if Mack and Jack were just here: destroying a book and leaving their feathers all around. You can find the canaries enjoying themselves around the Christmas Tree.

IMG_0798Also on display in the office, is a series of birds that Booth could have seen on his many walks around the Cranbrook estate–hawks, cardinals, robins, and plenty of ducks (on loan to me from Cranbrook Institute of Science). All are native to Michigan, except for the pheasant which would have been introduced to the area by early settlers. Pheasants, however, love fallow fields and run-down farms—exactly what the land which became Cranbrook was when Booth purchased the property in 1904!

IMG_0799Alongside the taxidermy I’ve included pieces from the Cranbrook Archives: early copies of Institute bulletins on the Birds of Michigan, original artwork from an ornithogist working at Cranbrook in the 1930s, and photographs and short biographies of other bird-related Cranbrook people, like W. Bryant Tyrrell, Walter P. Nickell, and Edmund J. Sawyer.

Come and see the Office display this weekend (December 1-3) for the House and Gardens Auxiliary’s Holiday Splendor event (Friday, 10-4pm, Saturday 9-4pm, and Sunday 12-4pm), visit it with me next Wednesday before or after the Center’s Järnefelt Piano Trio: Jean Sibelius Concert, or at any of the other Cranbrook House events before January 8th.

Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2018 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

A Love for Teaching: Cranbrook’s “Bird Man”

On a cold January day, it’s nice to think about the grandeur of Spring – warmer days, flowers blooming, and birds chirping. There are several places in the Archives we could look for signs of Spring, but today we remember Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS) naturalist and ornithologist, Walter P. Nickell (1903-1973).

Born in 1903, Nickell worked at CIS for 33 years. During this time he banded over 160,000 birds in the contiguous United States, Mexico, Canada, and British Honduras. He also recorded notes on more than 50,000 nests – primarily in Michigan. In 1964 Central Michigan University awarded Nickell an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and in 1968 Nickell was awarded Cranbrook’s Founders Medal.

Bird Nest Studies, 1951

Bird Nest Studies, 1951.

In addition to developing numerous exhibitions at CIS and publishing more than 130 scientific articles, Nickell is well-known for his enthusiasm for teaching. During his tenure at CIS he lectured on natural science at local schools and colleges, including the University of Michigan. He also led junior and adult groups on numerous natural science expeditions.

Student fossil exhibition

Students on a fossil exhibition, 1956.

In a 1959 address delivered by Nickell at the Mid-Winter Science Teachers Institute of the Metropolitan Detroit Science Club, he said: “We must seek ways by which education can be made an adventure, a dramatic procedure, a thrilling experience with most of the elements which have always impelled the discoverers, the explorers, the inventors and the researchers.”

Detroit Free Press, 13 Jan 1973

Detroit Free Press, 13 Jan 1973.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

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