Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

February 2016

Vol. 44, No. 1

Edith F. Andrews: Venerable, Inspirational, and Beloved

Wayne R. Petersen


Edith with the Bausch+Lomb scope—eventually held to the tripod with pipe strapping—that her husband Clint bought, in a signature departure from his usual frugality, shortly after they were married in 1953. Photograph by Beverly Hall.

Edith Folger (later Andrews) entered the world in New Jersey on October 29, 1915. For the sake of context, 1915 was three years before the end of World War I and also three years ahead of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The excesses of market hunting were still in their final throes when Edith was born, and the last Nantucket occurrence of the now extinct Eskimo Curlew was less than 20 years previous. Fortunately, in the years following Edith’s birth, a general interest in birds and ornithology was growing exponentially, and with this growth, so too was Edith’s interest, and eventually her influence.

The daughter of an engineer and a teacher, Edith had a curiosity about all things living that began at an early age. But it wasn’t until high school, when she was captivated by a Black-throated Green Warbler that she identified from a picture in a book about birds, that her passion for birds began. Following her graduation from Pennsylvania State University in 1938, a family excursion brought Edith to Nantucket for the first time. It was then, from Folger Hill—an island feature whose name derived from her family name—that she first observed a Northern Harrier and visited the home where astronomer Maria Mitchell was born in 1818. This initial exposure to the life of Maria Mitchell was to have lasting ramifications for Edith.

With a newly minted degree from Penn State, Edith decided to take a course in museum work at the Buffalo Museum of Science, which was then under the direction of Chauncey Depew. Thanks to Depew’s connection with Margaret Davis, president of the Maria Mitchell Association at the time, Edith landed a summer job teaching nature classes to children there. When Nantucket High School’s science teacher was drafted on the heels of the United States’ entry into World War II, Edith was offered a job teaching high school biology, chemistry, and physics. Once she became a year- round resident of Nantucket, her interest in the island’s birdlife grew stronger. By 1942, Edith assumed a seminal role in organizing the island’s first bird club, an entity that quickly added three new species to the Nantucket bird list, including the first specimen record of Scarlet Tanager for the island.


Edith banding at Mothball Pines, Nantucket. Photograph from the Collection of Edith Folger Andrews.

Following World War II, Edith entered graduate school at Cornell University where she received a Master’s Degree in Biology, specializing in ornithology under the great Arthur A. Allen, founder of the world renowned Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Upon completion of her graduate degree, she resumed her involvement with the Maria Mitchell Association. Her careful bird recordkeeping soon resulted in an invitation from the prominent Harvard University ornithologist, Ludlow Griscom, to co-author The Birds of Nantucket in 1948.

While working with Griscom on The Birds of Nantucket, during the academic year she also taught biology and nature study at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. But in 1953, she returned to Nantucket for good in order to marry her long-time sweetheart, Clinton Andrews—a Nantucket native, commercial fisherman, and outstanding field naturalist. One of the young couple’s first joint projects was the initiation of the Nantucket Christmas Bird Count, an annual event Edith compiled for many years and which is still in existence today.

In 1963, Edith and her family relocated to the University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station. Here the Andrews were able to influence and share their combined expertise with legions of visiting UMass students through the years. They also hosted and rehabilitated a cadre of orphaned or injured birds including such well-known celebrities as Owlbert the Barn Owl, Mycroft the meadowlark, and a series of murres known as Ptolemy One, Two, and Three.

About the time that Edith moved to the UMass Field Station, she began banding birds in earnest. In 1973, she officially became the Maria Mitchell Association’s staff ornithologist, although she switched back and forth between staff ornithologist and curator of birds for about a decade. Eventually the Maria Mitchell Association’s bird collection, under Edith’s curatorship, was moved to Hinchman House; the collection now contains over 1500 specimens and is officially named the Edith F. Andrews Ornithology Collection.

She also served as Curator of the Mitchell House for several terms totaling approximately 20 years. No matter what position she held at the Maria Mitchell Association, she worked on birds the entire time she was involved with the organization, from the 1940s through the 2000s.

In the early 1980s, Edith rented a cottage in the Mothball Pines near Cisco Beach for the purpose of maintaining a bird banding station—something she did for many years thereafter. At the time of her passing, Edith had banded more than 55,000 birds, including individuals she banded at her Madaket home. The Nantucket banding station is also one of more than 400 banding stations all over the country that are part of a national Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) network. Because many of the birds that Edith banded carried ticks, she routinely collected these for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Lyme disease research program. Not surprisingly, among the thousands of birds that passed through Edith’s hands were a number of local rarities. Few were more unusual than the first Allen’s Hummingbird ever to be recorded in eastern North America away from the Gulf of Mexico in 1988.

Through her many years of educating, mentoring, and inspiring beginning and expert birders alike, Edith’s insistence on precision in all things ornithological, her warm personality, her engaging laugh, and her gentle demeanor will never be forgotten by all who were privileged to know her. Her extraordinary accomplishments were professionally recognized when she received Mass Audubon’s most prestigious award—the Allen H. Morgan Award—in 1994, the Maria Mitchell Association’s Women in Science Award, and admission as an Honorary Member into the Nuttall Ornithological Club in 2000—the only woman to be so recognized.

Without a doubt, many outstanding Massachusetts birders have been indebted to Edith Andrews and her numerous contributions. Among these in no particular order are Simon Perkins, Dick Veit, Vern Laux, Edie Ray, Steve Arena, Craig Jackson, Marcia Litchfield, Chris Floyd, Ken Blackshaw, Johnnie Fisk, John Dennis, Ginger Bladen, Larry Jodrey, Jerry Soucy, and certainly a host of others.

Edith, may the wind always be beneath your wings!

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