Back To Index Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson
The Fish Man
I had heard a lot about Milton Trautman before I ever met him. As a matter of fact, I purchased his book, The Birds of Buckeye Lake, Ohio, at the Bibliophile, which used to be adjacent to Long's Book Store at Fifteenth and High.
I referred to that book so often, I probably succeeded in reading it a hundred times. In my opinion, it was - and still is - one of the finest regional studies of birds ever written. My only complaint with the book is a nagging suspicion that once in a while Milt played a little loose in estimating the numbers of birds present in the area at any given time.
Od course, it's true that we used to see more birds. A lot more. That's true. And once in a while there used to be a truly big wave of migrants. But 50 mourning warblers in one day? Forty-five gray-cheeked thrushes? Fifty least flycatchers? Sixty phoebes? Fifty-five Canada warblers? Those would be once-in-a-millennium numbers even for favored spots on Lake Erie. Oh, what the heck!. Who's to say how many birds he saw?
I think what Milt actually did was project the numbers for the entire Buckeye Lake area based on the numbers he would see himself. We all probably engage in this type of calculation from time to time. I know I do. For instance, if I see ten scarlet tanagers at Green Lawn Cemetery in one morning, I'll sometimes say to a companion: "I wonder how many scarlet tanagers are in Franklin County right now?" I'll try to answer my own question. "Two thousand?"
Not content with such small potatoes, I'll continue, "I wonder how many scarlet tanagers are in Ohio right now?" And my companion will think this over and finally say, "Oh, probably about 175,000." At this point we'll both break down laughing, knowing full-well that our little exercise in practicing omnipotence is pure guess work.
I've been nit-picking. I know the book has been long out of print, but if you ever see one in a used book store, grab it. The Birds of Buckeye Lake, Ohio is a classic.
Although Milt had a life-long interest in birds and frequently was out chasing them all over Ohio with his birding buddies, he is known mostly as an ichthyologist, and as the author of The Fishes of Ohio, published by The Ohio State University Press, in 1957, with a revised edition published more recently.
The Fishes of Ohio is a taxonomic and nomenclatural masterpiece of things piscatorial. Aside from descriptions, distribution maps, and a key to the 172 species of fish found in the state, it is a veritable storehouse of additional information on glaciation, climate, topography, historical accounts, and a fine glossary of technical terms. The only short-coming might be the lack of life histories and behavioral accounts. But, then, maybe that's another book.
Milt was an old-time naturalist and was as often in the field with a fish net and a gun as he was with binoculars. In 1972, he estimated that he had collected more than 2,757 bird specimens and 60,000 fish specimens. From time to time, his bird collecting activities proved to be a sore point among many of his associates and birders. This was especially true when a really rare bird just upped and disappeared before many people had a chance to see it. This happened a lot and as people became more environmentally aware, a lot of rare bird sightings were never widely reported for fear they would fall prey to Milt's shotgun.
It would be a great oversight not to mention his wife Mary, nee Auten, who was a talented and tireless assistant to all of her husband's projects, and co-author of more than a few. Mary received a Ph.D. in entomology and zoology from the Ohio State University in 1933, a number of years before she met Milt.
Although Milt never received a university degree, during his lifetime he was awarded a number of academic positions and honorary titles.
I can't resist telling this one story about Milt. Back in 1960 several of his birding buddies were on their way home from a trip to the Rocky Mountains when they stopped to examine a black-billed magpie that had been killed by a car.
The specimen was in good condition so they kept it. Not many miles down the road they stopped in a small town where they were able to purchase a supply of dry ice. They put the magpie in a paper sack with the dry ice and continued on their merry way. Somewhere between eastern Colorado and Ohio they hatched a nefarious plot, which I have always called the Great Magpie Caper.
Hours before arriving home they took the dead magpie out of the sack so it would thaw out. Then, they drove quietly by Milt's house, tossed the dead bird in his driveway, then sped away, barely able to contain their mirth.
You can guess what happened next. Milt found the bird, considered it a legitimate stray that had accidentally wandered into Ohio, skinned it, attached a label to it, deposited it in the state collection, and included the record in his and Mary's Annotated List of the Birds of Ohio. You can find it there today under "Accidentals or Very Irregular Visitors." Very irregular, I would say.
Mary passed away in 1986, Milt died in 1991. I don't think he ever knew the truth about the magpie. But I can almost hear his high-pitched, scratchy voice declaring, "Well, that's one of the dumbest things I ever heard of."
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