Back To Index

Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

---Birds on line---

A Man of Wit
and Exuberance

Harold Burtt died at the Riverside Village retirement center in Columbus, Ohio, August 15, 1991. He was 101 years old. His long and rewarding life spanned two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts, including the terms of 19 presidents. As a young boy he remembered people talking about the Spanish-American War and the assassination of President William McKinley and, appropriately enough, he cast his first presidential vote&emdash;in 1912&emdash;for Theodore Roosevelt, the conservation president.

Although plagued with a few physical disabilities during his last years, his mind remained sharp as a tack. I was supplying him New York Times crossword puzzles when he was 99 years old, so he must have been doing something right. He had a bird feeder outside his window which he kept stocked with seed, and he continued to read books and a wide selection of newspapers and magazines.

Burtt joined Ohio State University's psychology department in 1919. That was after receiving his master's and doctoral degrees in experimental psychology at Harvard University. At Ohio State, he became chairman of the department in 1938 and retained that position until 1960.

Back in those days, the young professor rode a Harley to and from his classes and around the campus. His versatility extended to helping coach the polo team and, in the winter, ice skating on Mirror Lake and the Olentangy River. He was also an accomplished ragtime piano player, not to speak of possessing a sense of humor and a prowess at spinning a good story&emdash;social accomplishments he retained almost to the end, much to the delight of the ladies and gentlemen at the retirement center.

It wasn't until mid-life that Burtt developed an interest in natural history and, for some odd reason, he first developed an interest in mosses and, in typical fashion, he threw himself into the subject with great vigor.

In the process of his botanizing, sometimes in the company of his friend Floyd Bartley, he became proficient at recognizing many of the birds he encountered.

After his retirement, Burtt assisted Maurice Giltz, OSU professor of biology and ornithology, in a 13-year project that involved trapping blackbirds on the university farms&emdash;what is now called the West Campus. In a clearing in a little grove of trees with a nearby pond, the two men constructed a walk-in framework covered with chicken wire about 36' long, 12' wide, and 6' high. The chicken wire on top of the structure had a number of long narrow openings in the center designed so birds could drop into the cage but could not easily escape. Cracked corn and pans of water were the lures.

During the course of the research, over 190,000 birds were banded, mostly European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Grackles, and Mourning Doves, although a pair of Mockingbirds that nested nearby were frequent visitors and, on once occasion, a Loggerhead Shrike found itself in the trap, much to the consternation of the other captured birds.

Over 30 papers were published relating to this project, including the interesting fact that the Starlings tended to migrate in northeast or southwest directions similar to their European compatriots.

In 1967, Burtt's book, The Psychology of Birds, subtitled "An Interpretation of Bird Behavior" was illustrated with the pen and ink drawings of Peter Parnall and published by the Macmillan Company. The book examines the various methods of studying the actions of birds and has chapters on instinctive versus learned behavior, family adjustments, the pecking order, how birds communicate, the stability and instability of mated pairs, sex deviations, personality and intelligence, and much more.

One of the most interesting chapters is on personality and intelligence in birds and the author quickly reminds us that there is a wide spectrum of difference in these qualities, as well as many others, depending not only on species, but on individuals as well.

The late Dr. Gene Good, a friend and colleague, called Burtt a man of wit and exuberance. Truer words were never said.


---Birds on line---

Birds of a Feather index

© Tom Thomson. All rights reserved.
To seek permission to use the text in any form, including electronic, contact the author at