Theodore Roosevelt's White House Bird List

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 1 2013 11:15 AM

Theodore Roosevelt's White House Bird List

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In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt compiled this list of 93 species of birds that he saw around Washington, D.C., during his presidency. (This is the first page of three. You can see the complete list here [PDF].)

Roosevelt, an avid natural historian, was a bird-watcher from an early age.  In 1877, at age 19, he co-authored an article titled “Summer Birds of the Adirondacks,” which was his first publication. Throughout his political career, he maintained friendships with ornithologists, and took bird-watching trips in the course of his official duties.

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By the end of his administration, he had spoken publicly against the practice of killing birds to make fashionable hats, and had established several national protected areas for birds to use as refuges.

Roosevelt wrote this list from memory, as a favor to Lucy Maynard, who was then updating her 1902 book on Washington, D.C., birds. He provided asterisks next to the birds that had been seen near the White House and made an additional note when he had observed birds nesting on the grounds.

On this first page, Roosevelt notes that the White House sparrow hawks dined “largely, thank Heaven, on English sparrows.” English, or “house,” sparrows were not native to the Americas but were imported in the second half of the 19th century, on the theory that they would kill insects and comfort homesick immigrants with a touch of the Old Country.

The birds soon expanded their range and proved to be hardy beyond all prediction, reproducing prolifically, devouring crops, and driving away native songbirds.

By 1908, the English sparrow was a confirmed outlaw, and any right-thinking birder would have shared TR’s low opinion of its merits.

TR's Bird List

Theodore Roosevelt, "President Roosevelt's List of Birds Seen in the White House Grounds and about Washington." Three printed sheets, 1909. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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