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The Phelpses and the Birds of Venezuela

Venezuelan Ornithology would not have reached the degree of advance that it has today, when it is the best known of all branches of Venezuelan Zoology, without the fantastic contribution of this father-and-son team. Their contributions include assembling the country’s best scientific collection of birds, as well as the best ornithological library in Latin America and the Caribbean, writing the first List de Birds with their Distribution ever published for Venezuela and one of the first for the countries of South America, describing more than 250 species and subspecies new to science, developing almost all the existing information on geographic distribution of birds and a significant contribution to Venezuelan geography.

William Henry Phelps was born in New York on June 14th 1875. While still a student at Harvard University, and following advice from his friend Lt. Wirt Robinson, who had visited Margarita in 1895, and from his mentor Dr. Frank M. Chapman, in the summer of 1896 he embarks on a journey of ornithological exploration to Venezuela. He touches at Puerto Cabello and La Guaira, to finally set out inland from Cumaná. After a long trek through the states of Sucre and Monagas, he ends by becoming totally fascinated with the country and its birds. In the village of San Antonio de Maturín, he meets a family of British settlers, the Tuckers, and quickly falls in love with one of the daughters, Alicia Elvira.

He returns to the United States with a small haul of specimens that he will eventually, a couple of year later, deliver to Chapman at the American Museum of Natural History. Upon his return, those birds will be the source of his graduation paper and his first publication, which includes a contribution by Chapman – Birds observed on a collecting trip to Bermudez, Venezuela. By W.H. Phelps. With critical notes and descriptions of two new species, by F.M. Chapman (1897, Auk 14: 357- 371).

Once he finishes his studies, graduating Summa Cum Laude from Harvard, Phelps returns to Venezuela in 1897, to marry and settle in San Antonio de Maturín. In the small Monagas town, he begins his business ventures selling coffee, and his first two children are born, John and William Henry Jr., who was born on December 25th, 1902. This second son, known to all as “Billy”, will eventually become his foremost teammate and collaborator in all matters concerning ornithology.

The turn-of-century Venezuela that Phelps encounters, for the most part a rural and untouched country, offers an infinity of possibilities to this ingenious and enterprising spirit. With years of constant labor, he developes a series of business ventures, and ends up building a comfortable fortune. He pioneered car imports to Venezuela, as well as sewing machines, victrolas and music players, refrigerators and home appliances. He set up the first commercial radio station and years later, the first television station. Always the innovator, he introduced in Venezuela, for his employees, the “English Saturday” of only a half-day, and the cooperative saving system, where the company duplicated monthly saving deposits made by the employees, and for his clients, installement payments.

He also promoted a variety of very popular and amusing initiatives, like the election of the National Bird, where his candidate, the Cock-of-the-Rock, suffered an absolute loss to the Troupial, which was the hands-on winner, and the development of Venezuelan baseball, where he was one of the pioneer advocates of what eventually became the national sport.

Until 1937, when he turned 62, his life was one of intense dedication to his companies. But he always looked forward to the moment when he could give himself entirely to the birds of Venezuela that had become his life’s passion. That year he decided to retire, leaving the companies in the hands of his three sons and putting his financial means at the service of the “Scientia Amabilis” — Ornithology.

On the very first day after retiring from the world of business, Phelps sets out to establish the organizational bases and begin building an ornithological collection that will allow him to study the species that occur in Venezuela and their distribution. “Retirement” was just the starting shot - he begins to work immediately, with incredible energy and diligence, towards that goal, setting out on a series of expeditions to the most remote places of Venezuelan geography. He began with Auyantepui, which he explores in 1937, in a joint expedition with the American Museum of Natural History. That legendary expedition took four months, and though the logistics were extremely complicated, it was a complete success. Participants included the Phelpses, father and son, Drs. George H. Tate and James A. Dillon, AMNH specialists in mammals, and ornithologists William F. Coultas and E. Thomas Gilliard.

After Auyantepui followed, from 1939, expeditions to Apure, to the mountains of Perijá on the border with Colombia, and to several localities of Lara and the Andean states. In 1940, he visits the south of Zulia State and again the Andes from Táchira to Lara. The entire year of ‘41 is given over to the Andean states, exploring localities in Mérida, Barinas, Táchira and Zulia. In ’42, he extensively explores the region around Lake Valencia, and that very same year, makes two expeditions to the south, one to the Nuria Plateau, and the other to the Paragua River and the Cerro Tigre, to then close the year with a trip to Lara. In ‘43 he visits Aragua State, and later the region of the Cataniapo River in the State of Amazonas. In ‘44 he climbs Ptari-tepui. And in ‘45 he returns to the region of the Paragua River and the Cerro Guaiquinima, but he became ill and was obliged to remain below, unable to climb the enormous tepui. He was 70 years old. Many of these expeditions lasted three to four months.

In gradual stages, the Phelps Collection starts exploring each of the large “cerros” (mountains) and “tepuis” (table mountains) of the Guayana Shield (Auyán, Guaiquinima, Chimantá, Roraima, Cuquenán, Sororopán, Uaipán, Aprada, Ptari, Duida, Marawaca, Uei, Urutani, Paraque, Parú, Neblina, Jaua and Sarisariñama), and in the same systematic manner, beginning in 1940 and until the late 1950s, Phelps sets out to do ornithological explorations of each of the Venezuelan islands on the Caribbean Sea.

Other ornithologists, such as the above-mentioned Gilliard y Coultas, of the AMNH, are invited to join the expeditions, as well as researchers from other disciplines, such as geographer Charles Hitchcock and botanist Bassett Maguire. On the other hand, Phelps hired and personally trained a staff of fieldmen for the expeditions. Among those early collectors are some whose names are nowadays legends in Venezuelan ornithology: Fulvio Benedetti, Alberto Fernández Yépez, Ramón Urbano, Manuel and Gladys Castro, occasionally, Capitan Felix Cardona Puig Another important addition to the staff was the Collection’s first Curator, Puertorican ornithologist Ventura Barnes, who was an extraordinary field man, and was often accompanied by his wife Carmiña, perhaps the first woman to participate in significant ornithological field work in Venezuela.

Bit by bit, a collection of thousands of specimes begins to emerge from the expeditions, and the Phelpses take on the careful task of studying and organizing them. In 1938, few months after his retirement, Phelps legally establishes the Phelps Fundation, with the mission of increasing, preserving and studying what had already come to be known as the Phelps Ornithological Collection. Side by side with the Collection, father and son had also begun to develop an ornithological library, focusing almost exclusively on the materials needed to study the birds, the geography and the botany of Venezuela. Today, the Collection contains some 82.000 specimens and the Library is considered the best ornithological library in Latin America. From the begining, Phelps established meticulous rules for registering data, which are followed to this day, and first-time visitors are always surprised by the quality of the information in labels, catalogs, and archives that the Collection houses.

Throughout his ornithological work, Phelps built relationships of friendship and collaboration with the most important research centers in North America, Europe and the neighboring countries of Venezuela. He was an indefatigable correspondant - his personal archives contain voluminous correspondence with all the researchers of his time that worked in Ornithology in South America and the Caribbean – F.M. Chapman, J. Berlioz, B. Conover, K.H. Voous, R. ffrench, J.T. Zimmer, E.T. Gilliard, E. Schäfer, G.M. Sutton, A. Wetmore, A. Dugand, V. Barnes, D. Snow, J. Bond and others – as well as researchers in Germany, France and England. Many of those researchers became friends, and the presence of a guest at Phelps’ home in Caracas is a frequent event.

William Henry Phelps described 239 new bird taxa, including species and subspecies. Some of his co-authors for these descriptions were Chapman (1 ssp.), Berlioz (1 ssp.), Gilliard (1 sp. y 23 sspp.), Wetmore (5 sspp.), and J.T. Zimmer (4 spp. and 67 sspp.), but his main collaborator in all kinds of publications was his son W.H. Phelps Jr., with whom he described all the other taxa, and wrote and organized a publication that became a scientific milestone, and was among the first of its kind for a Latin American or Caribbean country — the “Lista de las aves de Venezuela con su distribución”, which came out in two volumes, Non-Passeriforms (1958) and Passeriforms (1st edition 1950; 2nd edition, revised, 1963).

As a person, William H. Phelps had a mischievous sense of humor and was invariably generous, responsible and affectionate to his family, his friends and his employees. He abhorred wasted time, and was idle not a single minute of his long life. When he took Venezuelan citizenship in 1947, he still spoke Spanish with an unmistakable American accent, but he enjoyed widespread respect and appreciation. Some of the many honors he received include an Honoris Causa Doctorate from Venezuela’s Central University, France’s Geoffroy St. Hilarie Medal, and the prestigious American Ornithologists’ Union Brewster Medal.

William Henry Phelps’ life could be summarized with two words – industriosity and integrity. Every initiative he undertook in life, he undertook with enthusiasm, carried on with unflinching tenacity and order, and developed with the greatest decency, generosity, and pulchritude. Thanks to those remarkable qualities, he built for Venezuela an ornithological legacy with no equal in any other Latin American country – Venezuelans are indebted to him for the fact that the largest and most important collection of Venezuelan birds is accessible to Venezuelan researchers and students, since it is found in the country and not elsewhere, as occurs in many of the other South American countries. We also owe him the largest share of the wide knowledge that we have today about the species that occur in our country and their distribution.

William Henry Phelps died at 91 years of age, on the night of December 9th, 1965. That same afternoon, he had been discussing details of a new publication with his editor.

At his death, Billy takes on the direction of the Phelps Fundation and the Collection. He had studied at Princeton University, where he received a Bachelor of Science in 1926. In 1941 he married Kathleen Deery, an Australian lady who had settled in Venezuela a few years before. Kathy soon became an enthusiastic and efficient expedition participant, helping in skin preparation and painting charming watercolors of the birds. With her as indefatigable companion, he continues the task of ornithological exploration that his father had begun, and maintains the contacts with researchers and institutions abroad.

One of those contacts is the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, whose Director-Curator, Dr. Rudolph Meyer de Schauensee, had written several important publications on the birds of South America (The Birds of Colombia, 1964; Species of Birds of South America, 1966; A Guide to the Birds of South America, 1970). With this expert company, Billy embarks on the task of creating a book that will equally serve researchers and the general public, that will place knowledge of our wonderful avifauna in the hands of both Venezuelans and people abroad. The Guide is published in 1978, masterfully illustrated by Guy Tudor. It was the first of its kind for South America, and the publication came out in two versions: an English language edition, published by Princeton University Press, where the authors were Meyer de Schauensee & Phelps Jr., and a Spanish language edition, published by Gráficas Armitano, where the authors were Phelps Jr. & Meyer de Schauensee. Of this second version, a re-edition was published in 1994, which included a Supplement by Miguel Lentino actualizing the information.

Billy also continued with the taxonomic studies. His publications of new taxa include the 137 he wrote in collaboration with his father, and those written in collaboration with Wetmore (2 sspp.), Dickerman (4 sspp.), and Aveledo (9 sspp.).

The expeditions in which he participated include the one to Auyantepui in 1938; Cerro Roraima in ‘43, Ptari-tepui in ‘44, Cerro Guaiquinima in ‘45, two in ‘46: Chimanta-tepui and the cerros Paraque and Sipapo; Cerro Yaví in ‘47, two in ‘48: Aprada-tepui y Uaipán-tepui; Cerro Parú in ‘49; two in ‘51: Cerro Camani and Cerro Guanai; the expedition to Neblina in 1954; Cerro Jaua in ‘67 and the tepuis of Jaua and Sarisariñama in 1974. Kathy accompanied him to all these expeditions (except Auyan-tepui), keenly taking on her share of the work, and facing the difficulties and hardships with undeviating good humor and courage.

Billy was a passionate conservationist. He was an important factor in the creation of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a faithful supporter of the Venezuelan Audubon Society, and an active President of the Panamerican Section in the International Council for Bird Preservation, what is known today as BirdLife International. He became Research Associate of the Dept. of Ornithology at American Museum of Natural History, and was elected to the Board of Trustees from ‘55 to ‘59. He was also elected member of many ornithological and scientific organizations, such as the Permanent Executive Committee of the International Ornithological Congress, the American Ornithologists’ Union, the British Ornithological Club, and the French Ornithological Society. His father had been elected Chair of the Venezuela Academy of Sciences. When the father died, the son was elected to occupy the same Chair. In 1963, he was awarded the Medal of the Explorers Club, and in 1968, the Medal of the David Livingston Centennial by the American Geographical Society.

William H. Phelps Jr. died on August 13th, 1988. At the time of his death, the Phelps Collection had reached 76.300 skins. The Library had more than 6.000 monographs, 5.500 reprints, and was regularly receiving some 33 journals and serials. Father and son had managed to gather complete collections of the majority of these journals. The Phelps Collection had carried out some 15 expeditions to the tepuis, cerros and rivers of the State of Bolívar and about the same number to the State of Amazonas, 10 trips to various places in the Llanos, more than 20 to different localities along the entire length of the Andes from Lara to Táchira, some 4 expeditions to the mountains of Perijá and at least three to the south of Lake Maracaibo, innumerable outings all over the Coastal Cordillera, the Caribbean coast and the north-central lowlands, a number of expeditions to the mountains and lowlands of Monagas and Sucre, and had explored the Delta of the Orinoco at least four times. More than 50 visits had been made to the Caribbean islands. No corner of Venezuela, literally, had been left unexplored, and the task that father and son had set for themselves was done. Now, it only remained for the coming generations to continue building on the formidable bases of the collection that they had built.

Clemencia Rodner & Margarita Martínez
Phelps Ornithological Collection
Caracas, March 2006.

The father and son team, La Blanquilla 1946
W. H. Phelps Jr. and Katherine Phelps
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