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Baldwin Bird Research Laboratory

Samuel Prentiss Baldwin, the "Birdman" of Cleveland

Why have more people not heard of Samuel Prentiss Baldwin, the “Birdman” of Cleveland? Baldwin was born in 1868 and, as a young man, initially pursued a legal career. About midway through his life, however, he opted for a switch to ornithology. This by no means sprang out of nowhere; for much of his life, Baldwin had cultivated this interest during his spare time, inspired by the wonderful opportunities for studying birds in their natural woodland habitat on the eastern edges of Cleveland. It was around 1906, however, that he started down the path of ornithology on a professional level and truly devoted himself to this rather niche discipline. From here it was just a short step to establishing what would become his main haunt, the Baldwin Bird Research Laboratory on his Gates Mills property in 1914, taking advantage of its prime bird habitat.

In 1899, Samuel Prentiss Baldwin and his wife Lillian Hanna Baldwin, newlyweds, acquired a 450-acre forested farm called Hillcrest in the village of Gates Mills. It was at Hillcrest, as well as in the winter resort colony of Thomasville, Georgia, that the lawyer-turned-ornithologist began conducting his pioneering studies on wild birds. His achievements through his lab were considerable. Baldwin pioneered new methods for the study of bird migratory habits and physiology that became noted by the greater international ornithological community. Foremost among these achievements was his innovation of tracking bird migration through marked bird-banding.

Baldwin trapped and tagged birds before their migration, usually in their juvenile phase for the sake of their own well-being and for most efficient study, and tracking departures and re-arrivals and their timing so as to be able to understand breeding patterns. This enabled a new discovery: that the birds primarily studied, House Wrens, did not mate for life as previously hypothesized. Baldwin’s discovery was recognized by the Biological Survey of 1920. In addition to his pioneering research on bird migration and breeding patterns, Baldwin also made discoveries related to the regulation of their body temperature and further solidified that birds were, beyond a doubt, warm-blooded, just as their dinosaur ancestors were believed to have been. He used special lab tools to measure these temperatures not only from early adolescence in the bird life cycle, but from the embryo itself. To top that off, he published a book on that same topic, titled "Physiology of the Temperature of Birds."

By the 1920s, his Baldwin Bird Research Laboratory on the Gates Mills property was a focal point in the rapidly developing field of ornithology. The vast majority of articles about Baldwin and his work are found in publications from the late 1920s through the 1930s, when he made his most substantial impacts in the field. His bird-banding innovation was sufficiently well-known for him to earn an honorary degree in Sciences from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He also was one of five American delegates to the Canadian National Museum exhibition in 1926. Finally, he was instrumental in collaborative work with Western Reserve University in the study of and experimentation on bird embryos. In his time, Baldwin was a figure of no small importance in the world of ornithology – and even science in general – and deserves more modern-day recognition.

Following Baldwin’s death in 1938, his wife Lilian deeded the S. Prentiss Baldwin Bird Sanctuary in his memory to the village of Gates Mills. Later, in the 1960s, an ordinance designated all of Gates Mills a bird sanctuary, and although a Cardinal appears on the village's "Bird Sanctuary" signs that mark the village limits, Samuel Prentiss Baldwin might wish it were a Wren.

Images

The Baldwin Bird Research Laboratory It may look quite ordinary, but this unassuming house in the woods of the Chagrin River Valley was the home base for one of the world's great ornithologists and the site of pathbreaking research in the 1920s-30s. Source: S. Charles Kendreigh, "In Memoriam: Samel Prentiss Baldwin," The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology 57, no. 1 (January 1940): 1-12. sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v057n01/p0001-p0012.pdf.
Samuel Prentiss Baldwin The “Birdman” himself. Though he originally pursued a legal career, his amateur interest in ornithology eventually developed into his true calling and a subsequent career for him. Following this, and through innovations developed in his Baldwin Bird Research Laboratory, he became renowned in the larger ornithological and broader scientific communities. Source: S. Charles Kendreigh, "In Memoriam: Samel Prentiss Baldwin," The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology 57, no. 1 (January 1940): 1-12. sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v057n01/p0001-p0012.pdf. Creator: S. Charles Kendeigh Date: ca. 1938
Hillcrest, the Prentiss Estate in Gates Mills In his book on country estates, Knight wrote that, unlike many country homes that were "city mansions ... out of harmony with the rural environs, Baldwin's Hillcrest was suited to its setting. As he saw it, "a Maine farm house has been lifted up bodily and transplanted to the picturesque hills of Gates Mills." In fact, the Baldwins recreated many of the features of New England homes that they liked. Source: Thomas A. Knight, The Country Estates of Cleveland Men (Cleveland: Thomas A. Knight, 1903), 109, Cleveland Public Library Date: 1903
Hillcrest, Prentiss's Estate in Gates Mills This map shows the Gates Mill estate, called Hillcrest, where Samuel Prentiss Baldwin operated his bird research lab. The land surrounding it was full of the natural habitat for many songbirds that proved instrumental to Baldwin’s studies. Source: G. M. Hopkins. Cuyahoga County Atlas. Philadelphia: G. M. Hopkins, 1927. Cleveland Public Library. Date: 1927
Baldwin's Station A in Thomasville, GA In 1915-17, Baldwin conducted research at four stations (marked A–D) on a plantation in Thomasville, Georgia. This plantation was almost certainly among those owned by Marcus A. Hanna of Cleveland, whose sister Lilian Hanna married Baldwin in 1899. In fact, they were married in Thomasville but returned to Cleveland to live. Before Florida became a more favored place to "winter," many wealthy northerners had winter homes in Thomasville. Quail hunting was the most favored activity – a real contrast to Baldwin's bird interests. Source: S. Prentiss Baldwin. Scientific Publications of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Vol. I, No. 5: Bird Banding by Systematic Trapping. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1931. Smithsonian Libraries. www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/122679#page/16/mode/1up. Creator: A. W. Moller
Safe Handling of a Brown Thrasher A safely-caught bird. While not a House Wren, this live thrasher specimen demonstrates Baldwin’s handling of bird-catching in preparation for banding. From a captured specimen such as this one, he could not only band a bird prior to migration but also take it into his lab for the purposes of studying temperature physiology. Source: S. Prentiss Baldwin. Scientific Publications of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Vol. I, No. 5: Bird Banding by Systematic Trapping. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1931. Smithsonian Libraries. www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/122679#page/16/mode/1up. Date: ca. 1930
Eastern House Wren This was Baldwin’s favorite species of bird, and the one around which he conducted his studies. He even suggested that the Ohio House Wren could be a new subspecies of House Wren. In this photo the wren stands on the trap-perch of a nesting box. It has an aluminum identification band on its left leg and a celluloid band indicating its sex around its right leg. Source: S. Prentiss Baldwin and S. Charles Kendeigh. Scientific Publications of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Vol. III: Physiology of the Temperature of Birds; Contribution No. 21 from The Baldwin Bird Research Laboratory, Gates Mills, Ohio. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1932. www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/122946#page/14/mode/1up. Date: ca. 1932
Nest Box Outside Laboratory This photo shows the nest box of an Eastern House Wren. Thermocouple wires connected the nest with a recording potentiometer that Baldwin set up inside the laboratory. The larger box to the right of and below the next box provided shelter for a thermograph that recorded air temperature. Source: S. Prentiss Baldwin and S. Charles Kendeigh. Scientific Publications of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Vol. III: Physiology of the Temperature of Birds; Contribution No. 21 from The Baldwin Bird Research Laboratory, Gates Mills, Ohio. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1932. Smithsonian Libraries. www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/122946#page/14/mode/1up. Date: ca. 1932
Banding a Bird An example of a bird band-tag that Baldwin would attach to a bird, usually a juvenile, before it migrated southwards for mating. These tags would be collected as soon as possible upon specimen’s, often a House Wren, return for the purpose of calculating migratory and mating patterns. Tools such as these helped with Baldwin’s discovery that House Wren’s among others, did not mate for life. Closest to scale that I could obtain. Source: S. Prentiss Baldwin. Scientific Publications of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Vol. I, No. 5: Bird Banding by Systematic Trapping. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1931. Smithsonian Libraries. www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/122679#page/16/mode/1up. Date: ca. 1931
Bird Sanctuary Sign All welcome signs marking the corporate limits of the Village of Gates Mills denote the village as a bird sanctuary. While that did not become a village-wide designation until 1966, it certainly owes some credit to Lilian Hanna Baldwin's decision to will her property as a bird sanctuary upon her death in 1948 as a tribute to her husband's lifelong passion. Source: Cleveland.com Date: 2019

Location

Metadata

Michael Finocharo, “Baldwin Bird Research Laboratory,” Cleveland Historical, accessed October 5, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/930.