Earth Notes: Edgar Alexander Mearns

Jun 14, 2017

On a cloudy, windy day in June 1887, Edgar Mearns climbed Mount Humphreys, Arizona's highest peak. Taking shelter behind a pile of stones, he was joined by a broad-tailed hummingbird—a fitting companion for one of America's greatest ornithologists.

Edgar A. Mearns
Credit Smithsonian Institution Archives

Mearns stood only five foot, four inches, but was energetic and tough. Upon completing his training as a surgeon in New York, he joined the U.S. Army, choosing Fort Verde in Arizona Territory for the chance to study the birds. Though considered a desolate place, to him it was a fascinating world of discovery.  

General George Crook ordered Mearns to accompany expeditions to the Grand Canyon and other areas during the so-called Indian Wars. When not tending soldiers, Mearns used the ambulance to carry bird, plant, and mammal specimens.  

He wrote about camping in the mountains of northeast Arizona, where he enjoyed the dawn songs of hermit thrushes. He followed a stream into a canyon, describing towering spruce and aspen and delicate wild violets, strawberries, and columbines. He startled a brilliant red-faced warbler from its nest, the first nest of this species found by a naturalist.

Edgar Mearns had the mind of a scientist but the heart of a poet, sensitive to the beauty of the natural world.