Theodore Roosevelt's Snowy Owl

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Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl collected by Theodore Roosevelt
© AMNH/ C. Chesek

In 1867, two years before this Museum was founded, eight-year-old wildlife enthusiast Theodore Roosevelt Jr. created his own Roosevelt Natural History Museum in his family’s New York City home. The collection included the skull of a seal acquired from a fishmonger, birds’ nests, insects, and mouse skeletons, and it soon expanded to include some 250 specimens—items Roosevelt later donated to the Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.

An avid student of the natural world, young Roosevelt spent long hours studying animal anatomy, behavior, and habitats, compiling notebooks and sketches of what he saw, and reading scientific texts. His special interest was birds.

By the time he was in his teens, Roosevelt was able to identify most species in the northeastern U.S. by their song, flight pattern, courtship behavior, and plumage. During summers on Long Island and family trips around the world, Roosevelt collected hundreds of specimens. He collected and mounted this Snowy Owl near Oyster Bay, Long Island, in 1876, the same year he entered Harvard. Intent on becoming a naturalist, he was already gaining a reputation as a skilled amateur ornithologist.

By graduation, however, Roosevelt turned to politics; at age 23, he became the youngest man to be elected to the New York State Assembly. But his passion for natural history remained even as his career advanced. He kept in touch with a network of naturalists, including Frank M. Chapman, the Museum’s long-time curator of ornithology, whose concern for endangered birds Roosevelt shared. “I would like to see all harmless wild things, but especially birds, protected in every way,” he wrote to Chapman in 1899, as millions of birds were being routinely slaughtered to provide feathers for the ladies’ hat trade.

When Roosevelt became president, Chapman appealed to him to protect Florida’s Pelican Island, home to spoonbills, herons, and egrets, whose plumes were especially prized. At Chapman’s urging, Roosevelt declared Pelican Island the nation’s first federal bird reservation in 1903. In 1911, Roosevelt gave the mounted Snowy Owl to the Museum, and it was later exhibited in the Museum’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, where it is now on view.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.