A Bird’s Tale

Olin Sewall Pettingill: Author, cinematographer…and Mainer

Wed, 11/30/2016 - 10:45am

We have written in these pages before about some of the past ornithologists that have lived in and been inspired by the birds and other natural wonders of our state. John James Audubon had a connection here, as did famed field guide artist and author Roger Tory Peterson, and even James Bond, whose book “Birds of the West Indies” was said to have been the source for the name of Ian Fleming’s famous spy. The real James Bond summered on Mount Desert Island and also wrote a short book on the birds of the area.

But one Maine-born ornithologist that fewer people may have heard of is Olin Sewall Pettingill Jr. Born in 1907 in Belgrade and preferring to be called Sewall, he spent much of his formative young life in Maine, including summers at his grandparent’s farm in Belgrade and a year at Kents Hill School in Mount Vernon.

Sewall’s interest in birds was guided and focused when he attended Bowdoin College and studied with another well-known Maine ornithologist, Alfred Gross. While there he began learning about photography and videography, and traveled with Gross to document the last three remaining heath hens on Martha Vineyard before they became extinct a few years later.

Pettingill went on to attend our graduate school alma mater, Cornell University, where he completed a doctorate in 1933 on the American woodcock under the supervision of another famed ornithologist, Arthur Allen, the founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Sewall taught at Carleton College in Minnesota for 17 years. While there he wrote an ornithology textbook for use in his own ornithology class. That book, “Ornithology in Laboratory and Field,” was published and updated in multiple editions over decades and was one of the most widely used ornithology textbooks in North America. Our copy was given to us years ago by Dr. John Mudge, the former biology professor at the University of Maine at Farmington who used it in his courses there.

Birders today take for granted the proliferation of birding site guides that help birders find birding locations with ease. But back in Pettingill’s time, those books didn’t exist. Sewall himself was the pioneer, writing two 700-page volumes, “A Guide to Bird Finding East of the Mississippi” and “A Guide to Bird Finding West of the Mississippi” in the early 1950s. Having worked on site guides ourselves for more restricted geographic regions, the immensity of the region he covered in these guides is impressive. For years these books were the key resources used by North American birders to guide them to birding hotspots when they visited new areas of the country.

If all this writing was not enough, Sewall was also a pioneer in bird and wildlife cinematography. He produced a number of bird and wildlife movies from his own footage and contributed to a number of other movies from the 1940s through the 1970s. Some of his photography and filming took place in remote regions including in the Falkland Islands, New Zealand, Iceland, northern Canada, and many other locations. He was a popular speaker on the so-called Audubon Screen Tours when filmmakers like himself showed their films and narrated them. In fact, one of us (Jeff) had the opportunity as a teenager to see Pettingill present one of these movies in Farmington.

Sewall went on to become the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 1960, where he remained until his retirement in 1973. He continued to update his many books and write some new ones throughout his retirement years, spending much of his time at a family home in Wayne, Maine. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 94.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds.”