Biography of Harry Church Oberholser

Harry Church Oberholser (1870-1963) was one of the most eminent ornithologists in the United States. His work as an exact observer of minute differences between various types of birds made him especially noted as a taxonomist during the era when descriptive ornithology was in its heyday. His sixty years in the field of ornithology allowed him sufficient time to complete many significant projects, which included creating large collections of bird skins, developing an index of two million cards on North American bird distribution and migration, promoting and supervising bird banding as a data-gathering activity for scientific inquiry, and establishing an annual waterfowl census for the United States and Canada.

Oberholser was born in Brooklyn New York, in 1870. In 1877 he and his family moved to Newman Springs, New Jersey. In 1890, the family migrated to Wooster, Ohio, where Harry managed his father's retail store.

In 1895, Oberholser was selected from a field of applicants to be an ornithological clerk in the United States Department of Agriculture, Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy (later known as the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior). He remained with the organization for forty-six years and eventually became Senior Biologist. During his tenure he took frequent leaves of absence and sabbaticals in order to accomplish projects in distant areas, further his education, and teach and lecture. One of his duties while in Washington was to identify feathers and bones held as evidence of violations of Federal law; he was thus important in providing state's evidence in the courts during the time when the Federal government began to regulate the conservation of wildlife resources.

Although poor health had prevented him from attending Columbia University in 1888, he revived his educational pursuits at George Washington University in Washington, D. C., where he received his B.A. and M.S. degrees in 1914 (also getting married the same year) and his Ph.D. in 1916.

Dr. Oberholser taught at the Biltmore Forest School in North Carolina from 1904-1910. He lectured at the American School of Wildlife Protection at McGregor, Iowa, from 1919-1939 and was a professor of zoology at American University from 1920-1935. In 1928, he established the annual winter waterfowl census; the same year he began his long association with Cleveland, Ohio, when he served as an advisor to the Department of Ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

In 1941, he retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History immediately appointed him Curator of Ornithology, while Dr. Aldrich, who had held that position, went to Washington as Oberholser's successor. While Curator, Dr. Oberholser expanded the museum's bird collection from 11,000 to 53,000 specimens; he also served on the Board of Managers governing the museum.

Olberholser was active in local Cleveland organizations such as the Cleveland Bird Club (later the Cleveland chapter of the Audubon Society) and the Bird Research Foundation. After resigning from the museum in 1947, he continued to live in Cleveland Heights, editing manuscripts and books for himself and others until his death in 1963.

During his life, Dr. Oberholser was a member of nearly forty societies, including the American Ornithologists' Union, the Bombay Natural History Society, the Audubon Society, and the Biological Society of Washington.

His most extensive work, The Bird Life of Texas, was begun in 1900 when he started a three-year series of treks across the Lone Star State to research birds. He wrote and rewrote drafts of this book, continuing in this work until his death. This, his major publication, was printed in 1974 by the University of Texas in a two-volume edition illustrated by the famous nature artist, Louis Agassiz Fuertes.