Otto Widmann in 1883. [Wilson Bulletin, September 1927]
Bachman’s warbler. [John James Audubon, The Birds of America (7 vols., 1840–1844), plate 108]
The Carolina parakeet. [John James Audubon, The Birds of America (7 vols., 1840–1844), plate 278]
A 1928 letter from Otto Widmann to Joseph Ewan, a student in Los Angeles who was later a botanist, naturalist, and science historian at Tulane University. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Otto Widmann Collection (C4001)]
The pileated woodpecker. [John James Audubon, The Birds of America (7 vols., 1840–1844), plate 257]
The yellow-billed cuckoo. [John James Audubon, The Birds of America (7 vols., 1840–1844), plate 275]
Founders of the St. Louis Zoological Society, 1910. Pictured, left to right: Otto Widmann, Professor J. F. Abbot of Washington University, shirt manufacturer Cortlandt Harris, herpetologist Julius Hurter, and taxidermist Frank Schwarz. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection, N21153]
Otto Widmann in 1921. [Wilson Bulletin, September 1927]

            Otto Widmann published the Preliminary Catalog of the Birds of Missouri, the first comprehensive book on the state’s birds, in 1907. Born in Germany in 1841, Widmann arrived in St. Louis in 1867. In essays and speeches throughout his long life, he admonished Missourians to protect the state’s birds and preserve the landscapes in which they thrived. Although he received honors and praise for his research, he preferred to describe himself as just a bird lover.

            While earning his living as a pharmacist, Widmann began his field studies along the banks of the Mississippi River, where bird life abounded. At the mouth of St. Louis’s River des Peres, he hiked through deep woods, where he rarely met another human being, but encountered many species of birds, including owls, hawks, and the graceful, high-flying Mississippi kite.

            By the 1880s, Widmann had become a respected ornithologist, contributing articles to prominent scientific journals. During that decade, he participated in a cooperative study of the Mississippi River flyway under the supervision of Wells Woodbridge Cooke (1858–1916), a young man who would become an eminent authority on bird migration. Widmann collected data in St. Louis, while Cooke made observations in Jefferson, Wisconsin, and they presented their findings in a joint report on the movements of various species along the river. Through their cooperative efforts, Cooke and Widmann identified more than 130 species of birds at observation points along the river in Missouri and Wisconsin.

At the age of forty-eight, Widmann retired from the pharmacy business and devoted his time to ornithology. With his wife, Augusta, and their growing family, he moved from the city to a wooded four-acre property in the outlying community of Old Orchard (which later became part of Webster Groves). Scattered among the trees on his land were dozens of white birdhouses that sheltered wrens, martins, bluebirds, and sparrows. As the years went by, Augusta took increasing interest in her husband’s studies, often accompanying him on field trips.

            Beginning in the 1890s, he ventured far from St. Louis, exploring various regions in the state. He was particularly fascinated by the Bootheel of southeastern Missouri, a wide, flat, swampy stretch of woodlands bordering the Mississippi River. When he first visited the area, he marveled that, with the exception of a few ridges, the whole region consisted of wetlands and forests. In the tree-covered swamps, he observed vast numbers of birds, including uncommon varieties like the pileated woodpecker and the yellow-billed cuckoo. One of his most important discoveries, in 1897, was the first nest and eggs of the Bachman’s warbler that had ever been identified in Missouri. Sadly, by the late 1950s the bird had disappeared from Missouri and was possibly extinct.  

In 1902, Widmann suffered a dramatic setback. While he was away on a trip to Germany, his home in Old Orchard burned down. Lost in the blaze were books, notes, a series of diaries covering twenty-five years of research, and the unfinished manuscript of his planned catalog of the birds of Missouri. This discouraging blow prompted a return to the city. In his new residence, with the help of his wife, he recovered from his dejection, slowly reassembled his materials, and resumed his life’s work.

            The Widmanns continued their field trips throughout the state. In May 1906, they traveled on the new branch of the Iron Mountain Railroad to Branson. He correctly predicted that the town would grow and prosper, but as a nature lover he placed a higher value on the nearby White River and its steep bluffs. During their four-day visit to the area, the Widmanns observed eighty-four different kinds of birds, including numerous hummingbirds, hovering around wildflowers rarely seen in other places.

            Widmann relied on numerous friends and colleagues in St. Louis and other areas of the state to collect data for his Catalog. For example, James Newton Baskett of Mexico (Audrain County) in north-central Missouri was an avid bird-watcher and the author of several children’s books, including The Story of the Birds, first published in 1897. Widmann’s longtime friend John Kastendieck of Billings (Christian County) in southwestern Missouri amassed a large collection of mounted birds of the Ozarks. Philo W. Smith of St. Louis collected birds’ eggs from all around the state. Another local associate, Frank Schwarz, was a taxidermist and, like Widmann, a member of the Naturalists’ Club.

            Widmann’s Catalog earned praise as a well-crafted and much-needed summary of bird life in the state. The book included a lengthy entry on the Carolina parakeet, which had already vanished from Missouri. These flashy birds with green, yellow, and red feathers and strident voices appeared frequently in wooded river bottoms until the late 1850s, when the sight of them became rare. Widmann had second-hand reports of a few sightings in the Ozarks after 1890, but by the mid-twentieth century the species was extinct. The cardinal, by way of contrast, was a hardy bird that thrived in the state. According to the Catalog, the brilliantly colored redbird was “A common resident in all parts of Missouri, very common in most of southern Missouri, the Ozark region as well as the prairie and swamp lands.”

            After the Catalog appeared in print, Widmann continued his fieldwork and writing. In the summer of 1908 he made twenty visits to the Missouri Botanical Garden (Shaw’s Garden), observing and recording the birds that made appearances there. Forty species had nests in the Garden; another six species visited regularly, and twenty species were transients. Residents included quail, doves, cuckoos, woodpeckers, blue jays, crows, meadowlarks, and sparrows.

            Through all his years of studying Missouri’s birds, Widmann relied on the supportive presence of Augusta. As they grew older, he wrote in his brief “Autobiography,” they lost their ability to walk for long distances on rough terrain. Trains and automobiles allowed them to continue their travels, but they had to limit their movements to places that were easily reached and provided places to rest. On May 18, 1921, a few months after Widmann gave a well-received talk on chimney swifts to the Naturalists’ Club, his wife passed away, and he relied afterward on the companionship of his children and grandchildren.

            On his ninetieth birthday in 1931, Widmann received an honorary life membership in the St. Louis Bird Club, which he had helped to organize. Ornithologists from many parts of the world sent congratulatory telegrams. He also received a letter from President Herbert Hoover. An article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that his publications on Missouri birds were widely known and that his essay on the birds of Shaw’s Garden was studied in the public schools.

Widmann died in his home in St. Louis on November 26, 1933, with family members in attendance. In spite of his advanced age, he remained active until a few weeks before his death, participating in field trips with the St. Louis Bird Club. When friends approached him with the idea of forming a new organization to be called the Widmann Bird Club, he protested, saying there was no need for more clubs, just more members. By all accounts, he was a modest and retiring man who deflected overblown praise and described himself as just a bird lover.

Further Reading

McKinley, Daniel. “The Carolina Parakeet in Pioneer Missouri.” Wilson Bulletin 72, no. 3 (September 1960): 274–87.

Palmer, T. S. “In Memoriam: Otto Widmann.” The Auk 71, no. 4 (1954): 454–57.

Robbins, Mark B., and David A. Easterla. Birds of Missouri: Their Distribution and Abundance. Illustrations by David Plank. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.

Stepenoff, Bonnie. “Otto Widmann and the Birds of Missouri.” The Confluence 11, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2020): 46–59.

Widmann, Otto. “The Autobiography of Otto Widmann.” Wilson Bulletin 39, no. 3 (September 1927): 146–55.

———. Preliminary Catalog of the Birds of Missouri. St. Louis: Academy of Science, 1907.

Widmann, Otto, Collection. C4001. State Historical Society of Missouri.

Published July 11, 2023

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