June 2020

Vol. 48, No. 3

Frances Hamerstrom, a Flamboyant Ornithologist

William E. Davis, Jr.

Frances Hamerstrom's research helped preserve the Wisconsin population of Greater Prairie Chickens. Photograph by Gregory Smith.

Fran Hamerstrom was born Frances Flint in December 1907 to a prominent and wealthy Boston family. Her father was an international criminologist and Frances spent four of her early years in Europe, where she became fluent in French and German. Her parents intended to bring her up well educated and well connected so that she could marry into prominent social circles. Early in life Frances decided her future would be otherwise as she developed a fascination for the natural world. She was unconventional from an early age, becoming, for example, a cigarette smoker at age six, reacting perhaps against an authoritarian father. Also at age six, while in Europe, she captured a hare, which became her first pet, and saw her first Golden Eagle.

She was given to impulsive behavior, as shown in her response to the words of her European governess while on an outing.

"Look! There is the King! See he is under those trees." I had never touched a king. I broke away from Fräulein Lehman and ran full speed to touch that king. I ran so fast that I bumped into him! He turned around, and looked at me and said, "Excuse me." So the only king I ever touched apologized to me. (Hamerstrom 1994, p. 12.

The looming war in Europe sent the family back to Boston in 1914 where Frances continued her exploration of nature. She dissected a Blue Jay.

… I went alone to the grave and dug the bluejay up. I took it to the tree where I kept my razor blades; selecting one of the least rusty blades, I opened the bluejay. It had a heart. It had lungs. And yes, a very shiny liver. (Hamerstrom 1994, p. 24.

By age eleven she had made a substantial collection of insects and was reading Charles Darwin. She visited the Boston Museum of Natural History and was entranced with the collections, particularly of insects. She was not happy with her somewhat tyrannical father and a mother she considered a weak person, and she didn't trust adults in general. She had hideaways in treetops and eventually a secret garden around which she planted poison ivy to keep grown-ups away. Here she spent her time tending and enjoying her wild pets, which included mice, fish, turtles, squirrels, snakes, and a variety of birds. Unbeknownst to her parents she also had become the owner of a BB gun and a .22-caliber rifle that she hid under the stables. She raised and trained an American Kestrel that a neighbor had given her. Many nights she would climb out her window and spend the night sleeping outdoors, using a horse blanket on chilly nights, "There is a magic to lying alone under the sky, listening to the sounds of small creatures, and finally drifting to sleep." (Hamerstrom 1994, p. 47) Clearly she was not grooming herself for life in high society but rather for a life of research in natural history.

Education and marriage

Fran was given a good education, spending nine years at Milton Academy, although she did not graduate, and eventually continued on to Smith College. Things did not go smoothly there and she flunked out after sophomore year, having received 3 A's and three F's—she didn't bother to go to classes that she found boring.

She got a job as a fashion model in a Boston department store and became rather social. One weekend in the fall of 1928, at a Dartmouth College house party, she met Frederick N. Hamerstrom, Jr. Hammy, as he was called, moved from Dartmouth to Harvard University, while Frances took a trip to California and visited Hollywood where she had a chance meeting with Gloria Swanson and was offered a contract by Warner Brothers, which she turned down. During the next two years they spent a great deal of time hunting ducks and they both became proficient at it. They had become engaged on their third date and were secretly married in Florida by a justice of the peace in February 1931. Thus began 59 years of marriage and one of the greatest research partnerships imaginable. They had a formal wedding in June to make her parents happy.

That fall she and her new husband enrolled in the Game Conservation Institute in Clinton, New Jersey. Frances was the only woman among the 40 students. At an American Game Conference in 1931 they heard Aldo Leopold speak and were so impressed that they vowed to become involved with this impressive and inspiring man. Fran and Hammy moved to Ames, Iowa, where they worked under Paul Errington at Iowa State College. Fran received a BS in biology in 1935 with a minor in veterinary medicine and was awarded the prize of the Women's Honorary Society as graduating woman of the year. Hammy received a Master's degree in 1936. They had become good friends with Aldo Leopold, who was a bold proponent of research-based game management, which in 1939 led to Fran and Hammy joining Leopold in taking on a Greater Prairie Chicken research project that would lead to further advanced degrees at the University of Wisconsin. Hammy, with Fran's assistance, took the primary responsibility for the prairie chicken research while Fran studied dominance in winter chickadee flocks. She published her results in 1942 in the Wilson Bulletin. Fran was Aldo Leopold's only female graduate student, graduating with her masters in 1940. Fran and Hammy moved to Michigan but still returned to their prairie chicken booming grounds in spring.

In 1940, the couple had a son, Alan, and in 1943, a daughter, Elva. Fran took the pregnancies in stride with her usual formidable energy. A friend, Bill Longenecker, described her on a day of hunting, "She was eight months pregnant. We pushed through brush, waded ditches, climbed fences, pulled ourselves through mud. I have never been so tired in my life. When we finally got back to the house, there was Hammy, calmly typing away while she got supper." (Corneli 2002, p. 267)

The looming threat of European war disrupted their plans and as World War II flared, Hammy joined the Air Force, which put an end to their prairie chicken research until after the war. Following the war's end Fran and Hammy joined an initiative sponsored by the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) to send aid to European ornithologists who were in a bad way following the war. Fran had close ties to German ornithologists and was deeply involved in the AOU's efforts to send food and clothing to those who badly needed help. She was made a corresponding member of the German Ornithological Society for her efforts. In 1949, Fran and Hammy took positions with the grouse project of the Wisconsin Conservation Commission and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, positions for which they were eminently qualified. The jobs were to begin in the fall so Fran and Hammy took a spring trip to Germany to study grouse and then returned to a research appointment that was to last for decades.

Research in remote Central Wisconsin

In 1950, the Wisconsin Greater Prairie Chicken population was shrinking and it became the job of Fran and her husband to band or otherwise mark as many chickens as possible, follow these birds through their spring booming—the annual event where groups of males display and boom to attract females—and throughout the year to learn enough about their basic biology to allow for the making of management plans that could stop the decline. This meant trapping and banding birds in winter so that there would be marked birds for the spring booming. One way of marking chickens to facilitate individual recognition was imping, the removal of part of a prominent feather and replacing it with a brightly colored dyed feather, or a feather from a Northern Cardinal or Blue Jay.

Fran and Hammy needed a base of operations and eventually settled into a pre-Civil War farmhouse with 240 acres of land in Plainfield, Wisconsin. The house needed substantial repair but had a large attic that got an excited Fran to say, "Think of it Hammy! We could bunk crews in this room." (Corneli 2002, p. 146) This was to be their home for the rest of their lives and the bunkhouse for some 7,000 "gabboons," the folks who helped collect data on the prairie chickens during booming season or helped Fran with her ongoing raptor studies. The house had an outhouse, water from a hand pump, a pear-shaped tin bathtub, and it was heated by firewood—not exactly loaded with modern conveniences. They did replace the broken windows and had the house wired for electricity. Then they set up their trapping stations and during that first winter banded 300 prairie chickens, traipsing across the prairie and marsh on snowshoes.

With the booming season approaching, Fran sent out hundreds of letters soliciting help tending the blinds and watching the booming grounds for the six-week booming season. They got over a hundred volunteers, the first of the gabboons, a pattern that was to continue for more than 20 years. After that first season they never had a problem getting volunteers—the word got around. Fran also used volunteers in her ongoing raptor studies. Fran cooked most of the meals and specialized in piecrust. One guest recalled: "‘Lovely crust, Fran,' I murmured. ‘Lard, I suppose?' ‘Bear grease!' she announced triumphantly. ‘It makes the best crust.'" (Corneli 2002, p. 175.

The routine during booming season was described by Professor John Emlen. He described participating in the booming season studies as a "superb introduction to prairie chicken biology and conservation." He valued the demonstration of the importance of note taking, the precise arrangements for pre-dawn transportation to a blind, and the encouraging tone. They were, he wrote, "sent to bed with a warm pat on the back. After from four to five hours of unforgettable watching and listening … all were returned to HQ for a round up of reporting…." (Corneli 2002, p. 180)

The Hamerstroms' research and conservation management recommendations were not received well by some of the local folks and precipitated what was referred to as the "Prairie Chicken War." Fran and Hammy eventually prevailed, but newly introduced mechanized farming practices and the planting of trees in prime chicken habitat were ongoing problems. In 1962, Fran and Hammy began to spend part of their winters in Texas and Mexico following an incident where Hammy had problems after an episode of snowshoeing in the cold. As Fran explained.

A hard winter came in 1962. Someone tightened the bindings on his snowshoes; Hammy didn't adjust them: he didn't expect to be out long. When he came in his toes looked exactly like expensive purple grapes. Dr. Garrison feared amputation, and insisted on winters in a warmer climate. (Corneli 2002, p. 202)

They wintered for 15 years at the Welder Wildlife Refuge in Texas with camping trips into Mexico. They also made trips to most of the International Ornithological Congresses (IOC), for example in Switzerland in 1954, and spent three months in Europe in 1958 that included the IOC in Helsinki. They made visits to the Max Planck Institute and to Conrad Lorenz in Austria and they also studied grouse in Lapland. Fran, who kept lots of injured birds around the house, brought her Great Horned Owl to the IOC at Cornell in 1962.

The prairie chicken research reaped results. In their 22 years of research, they followed long-term population fluctuations, turnover rate and densities in various areas, daily and seasonal prairie chicken movements, and survivorship of cocks, hens, and young birds. All these variables were in the context of habitat quantity and quality that allowed them to create working management plans that stabilized Wisconsin's prairie chicken population and saved it from extinction. As part of their research, they played a role in a diverse group of organizations including the Raptor Research Foundation, the North American Falconry Association, and the Wisconsin Society of Ornithologists. Fran was chairman of the Legislative Committee of the National Association of Falconers of America from 1963–1970. In 1971 they retired but continued doing research, with Fran concentrating on her raptors. Fran said at the time, "We aren't retired! We're just concentrating on our own work." (Corneli 2002, p. 247).


Frances's publications generally fell into one of four categories: (1) more than 40 papers published in professional journals (e.g., Hamerstrom 1968, 1969, 1974, 1979); (2) popular articles of about the same number; (3) reviews and committee reports, about 70 of which dealt with raptors; and (4) books that were published over a period of 25 years. She was a gifted storyteller and most of her books abound with stories of her experiences. She also had a new task in life.

After fulfilling the scientist's task of writing papers for specialists, Fran had a new mission, one that Conrad Lorenz had practiced, to ‘reach out to the larger audience and change the ordinary person's view of the world. … [it is] the scientist's duty to tell the public in a generally intelligible way, about what he is doing.' (Corneli 2002, p. 250.

Most of her books show a personal, autobiographical touch. For example, Birding with a Purpose: of Raptors, Gabboons, and Other Creatures (1984), she talks at length about her childhood experiences.

My family graciously gave me a vacant maid's room for my hobbies. It contained my insect collection, my mammal collection, my bird collection, my egg collection, arsenical soap for preserving skins, and things that I just happened to like: for example, a doll's bureau with a secret compartment for hiding small objects. Dolls were not part of my world. (Hamerstrom 1984, p. 4)

She also tells of her experiences devising raptor traps and her adventures trapping Barred, Hawk, and Snowy owls, and various hawks and eagles, including one notable experience when, on a Canadian hawk-banding expedition, a man stopped his car and picked up a trap that Fran had set by the road. Fran leapt out of her car and shouted, "That's mine!" The man with the trap, who was a Mountie, "… tried to hand me the trap, but his fingers were caught in the nooses and he couldn't free himself. Thus it came to pass that we made the largest catch on record: A Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officer (estimated weight 186 pounds)." (Hamerstrom 1984, p. 120.

In her book An Eagle to the Sky (1970), Frances recounts her adventures raising Golden Eagles, training them, and learning from them. The first was a female named Chrys who developed the notion that Fran was her mate. Fran helped her through nest building and took turns tending the eggs with her.

I ran to the nest with the warm hot water bottle, and when I stayed at the nest Chrys reacted as though I had finally come to my senses. She stepped off the nest, I put the water bottle on the eggs, and Chrys pounced on a dead chicken and ate it. …Now that I realized it was my duty to relieve Chrys at the nest, I took my turn day after day. (Hamerstrom 1970, p. 11)

Eventually Fran provided chicks—very young Red-tailed Hawks—for Chrys to brood. Fran got a second adult eagle, a male named Grendel, in hopes of providing a partner for Chrys, and a series of stories relate the trials and tribulations of this unsuccessful matrimonial attempt:

On March 4, Grendel started nest building … I stroked his neck and we both held onto the same stick with excitement rising. Suddenly it came to me: to stimulate a male eagle, behave like a female eagle. I turned my back and crouched. Calling and trumpeting, Grendel mounted me. He jumped to my lower back. I could feel his talons through my thin summer jacket as he trod his way upward to my shoulders. (Hamerstrom 1970, pp. 38–39)

Sadly, Chrys never accepted the advances of Grendel. Fran rescued another female eagle, Nancy, and rehabilitated her and released her back into the wild. It is a moving story of the mutual friendship between Fran and Nancy.

Strictly for the Chickens (1984) is a largely autobiographical series of stories highlighting her quarter-century of research on Greater Prairie Chickens. In an introductory author's note Fran expresses her thanks, "to about 7,000 ‘boomers' [gabboons] who helped by reading numbered bands on legs of chickens and brightened our lives for some twenty-five springs." She further gives thanks "to a Lady named Luck who helped spring me from a cultured, but narrow, background into the wide, wide world of other real people—from other walks of life and opportunities that round out our beautiful world." In one paragraph Frances summed up what she and her husband were trying to do:

We tried to explain to our neighbors, to Indians, to everyone what we were doing and why: that this great region was to become public domain and that the wildlife would be managed so the sandhill cranes (then rare) would trumpet over the marshes each spring, the prairie chickens would boom in early mornings, the fur harvest would be planned, and the deer would be held down so they would not overbrowse their range. We tried to teach conservation. (Hamerstrom 1980, p. 7)

In a brief sentence ,Fran describes the life-changing decision the she and Hammy made: "Together, joyously, but not without trepidation, we had made the decision to burn our bridges behind us, cross the Rubicon, and take to a life as biologists in a wilderness." (Hamerstrom 1980, p. 8.

Is She Coming too? Memoirs of a Lady Hunter (1989) is Fran's compendium of hunting stories and her constant attempt to become an equal in a "man's sport." For example, at age 15 she was invited by one George, a college man, to go duck hunting but he was having second thoughts and asked if she were sure she wanted to go. Fran responded, "I'm sure. I'll bring my Crescent." The man replied, "Crescent?" and Fran responded, ‘"My Crescent is a 20-gauge double barrel. On a good flight day I find that a twenty's all I need unless somebody' I looked at George appraisingly, ‘unless somebody keeps blasting away out of range."' (Hamerstrom 1989, p. 3) The book is a wonderful series of stories about her climbing out her second story window to go hunting, swimming naked to retrieve a duck she had shot, the trials and tribulations of being the only woman at the Game Conservation Institute, and many others. The book, like many of her others, was illustrated by her daughter Elva Hamerstrom Paulson.

Frances wrote several children's books, including Walk When the Moon is Full. As with most of her books it is an autobiographical story. It describes a dozen walks when the moon was full, one from each month of the year, which Fran took with her young children, Alan and Elva, mostly exploring their 240-acre farm. Several of Fran's books were more professional in orientation, including Harrier, Hawk of the Marshes: The Hawk That is Ruled by a Mouse (1986), but it still contains stories and describes situations in Fran's usual dynamic style. Her biographer, Helen Corneli, wrote that this book: "… is the very footprint of Fran Hamerstrom: her persistence and practicality, her curiosity, her innovative approaches, and her self-confessed foibles." (Corneli 2002, p. 233) The book describes her trapping and banding raptors, the disastrous DDT-era effects, and her scientific results, including, as she states in the Prologue: "Appendices at the end of this book contain original data, and dry technical material—not of interest to all." When Fran wanted to find out what chemicals the spray planes were spraying, she would go at night to the airport to find out: "… I sometimes put on dark clothes, armed myself with a pen light, and copied labels on containers. I kept these little excursions secret from Frederick and the gabboons, and hid my eco-snoop notebook so they wouldn't find it and want to come, too." (Hamerstrom 1986, p. 91.

She was appalled at the attitude of the local Agricultural Station people, recalling a visit to their office to try and find out who was spraying what. After their discussion, the Ag person said, "Now I have a question for you. You're Mrs. Hamerstrom—the one who catches all those hawks and lets them go…. Why do you let them go?" (Hamerstrom 1986, pp. 89–90) The level of ignorance concerning pesticides by the local folks was appalling. Fran had noticed a plane spraying a herd of dairy cattle so went to the farmer to ask why. When confronted the farmer replied: ‘"Flies,' he resumed. ‘I hired that plane to spray my cows.' For a moment I was too astonished to ask another question. At last I said, ‘What are they spraying with?' ‘DDT. It keeps the flies off.'" (Hamerstrom 1986, p. 75.

Birds of Prey of Wisconsin (1983) is a straightforward book, lavishly illustrated by her daughter Elva. There are general sections on, for example, migration, and species accounts for all the hawks, vultures, eagles, and owls. But the Field Key for each of these groups begins with a size key: HUGE, NOT HUGE, ABOUT CROW SIZE, ROUGHLY ROBIN-SIZED which is rather Franesque, as is the beginning of the introduction of the falcons: "Some people, especially the British, do not consider falcons hawks. Who knows why?" (Hamerstrom 1983, p. 26)..

Toward the end of her life Fran wrote her autobiography My Double Life: Memoirs of a Naturalist (1994). It is a delightful romp through a most interesting life. When asked about wild animals she has handled besides birds she replied: "I've handled a fresh-caught adult badger, and been bitten by raccoons, dogs, cats, muskrats, mice, and an adder." (Hamerstrom 1994, p. 133) Her tenacity and indomitable style and flair for the dramatic is evident in her description of her catching of more American Kestrels than she had anticipated.

Trapping was fabulous. I set two small balchatris—little cages baited with mice—by the roadside and caught two birds before I could get the car turned around. … I put one kestrel in my purse, leaving the top slightly open, and looked around for something to put the next one into. … All I could find was my raincoat and I feared the kestrel might smother in that, so I took off my shoes and socks and put the bird in a sock. By then I had caught three more birds! I slipped one of these into the other sock and then—holding two kestrels in one hand—put on the raincoat, took off my slacks, and fastened the remaining two birds into the pants legs. The sun was getting fairly high and the heat was beginning to beat down. Common sense should have suggested that it was time to quit and go home, but I never gave it a thought. Another kestrel was working one of the traps, and there were two more sitting on a wire just down the road. I baited and set out another balchatri and caught three more. I muttered ‘damn female clothes.' My slacks had no pockets—but my shirt did. Looking carefully up and down the road to make sure no one was in sight, I took off my raincoat, took off my shirt, and hastily donned the raincoat again. It was all I had on. A kestrel apiece went into each pocket of my shirt, and I tied one into a sleeve. (Hamerstrom 1994, pp. 295–296)

Her facility with French and German became important in her raptor and grouse work as she was a co-translator of a classic book, Bird Trapping and Bird Banding: A Handbook for Trapping Methods All Over the World (1991) originally published in German by Hans Bub. She also published reviews of more than a hundred books and professional papers, mostly of European origin (Bildstein 1999).

Rewards for a lifetime of research

Fran and Hammy twice won the National Wildlife Society Publication Award and won the National Wildlife Federation's Distinguished Service Award for Conservation in 1971. Fran received an honorary doctorate from Carroll College in 1961. Fran received the Notable Wisconsin Authors Award from the Wisconsin Library Association in 1992. Both Fran and Hammy were inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 1996. The accomplishments of Fran Hamerstrom were many and varied, as extolled by Robert Rosenfield in his 1998 Memoriam to her: "Fran will be sorely missed and remembered fondly by the many, many assistants, artists, biologists, readers, and friends that she touched. She left our world a better place for her efforts and truly was one of Wisconsin's treasured natural resources."

The end of a remarkable career

After they had "retired" the Hamerstroms expanded their travel and visited such far-flung places as Siberia, Sri Lanka, Australia, India, and Indonesia. They continued their active life until 1989 when Hammy died of pancreatic cancer. They had been married for 59 years and had been a formidable research team. Fran continued for nine years more in her usual dramatic style, traveling to Zaire to go hunting with a tribe of Pygmies and making several trips to the rainforests of Peru with native guides, on one of which she broke her hip and had to be evacuated by canoe (New York Times 1998). From these and other travels she drew a strong conservation message:

I am going back to the rain forests. Pygmies and Indians, among the oldest races of mankind, have lived in forests and jungles since time immemorial and have not destroyed their habitat. No white people can say the same. Also, wherever I have gone in my far, wide travels in ‘civilized' countries, in each I have encountered overpopulation with its twin horrors: human misery and despoliation of the environment. If we are to preserve this beautiful world of ours, with its creatures great and small and their wondrous homes, we must have fewer people on earth, we must have fewer children, or the beauty of the wild will be gone … (Hamerstrom 1994, pp. 315–316.

Fran died in 1998 at age 90, having lived a remarkable life. I met Frances Hamerstrom back in the 1980s, probably at an AOU meeting. It was at a break between paper sessions and I struck up a conversation with her. She was animated, forceful, dramatic, and exuberant as she spoke, waving a hand around with a cigarillo held between her fingers. We had a long talk and I will always remember her as the "flamboyant ornithologist."

Literature cited

  • Bildstein, K. L. 1999. In Memoriam: Frances Hamerstrom, 1907-1998. Auk 116:1122-1124.
  • Bub, Hans. 1991. Bird Trapping and Bird Banding: A Handbook for Trapping Methods All Over the World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Corneli, H. M. 2002. Mice in the Freezer, Owls on the Porch: The Lives of Naturalists Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1942. Dominance in Winter Flocks of Chickadees. Wilson Bulletin 54:32-42.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1968. Ageing and Sexing Harriers. Inland Bird Banding News 40: 43-46.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1969. A Harrier Population study. Pp. 367–383 in J. J. Hickey, ed., Peregrine Falcon Populations: their biology and decline. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1970. An Eagle to the Sky. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1974. Raptor Management. Pp. 5–8 in Frederick N. Hamerstrom, Jr., B. E. Harrell, and R. R. Olendorff, eds., Management of Raptors. Vermillion, South Dakota: Raptor Research Report Number 2.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1975. Walk When the Moon is Full. Trumansburg, New York: Crossing Press.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1979. Effect of Prey on Predator: Voles and Harriers. Auk 96:370–374.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1980. Strictly for the Chickens. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1983. Birds of Prey of Wisconsin. Wisconsin: Department of Natural Resources, and Madison Audubon Society.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1984. Birding with a Purpose: of Raptors, Gabboons, and Other Creatures. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1986. Harrier, Hawk of the Marshes: The Hawk That is Ruled by a Mouse. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1989. Is She Coming too? Memoirs of a Lady Hunter. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
  • Hamerstrom, F. 1994. My Double Life: Memoirs of a Naturalist. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • New York Times. 1998. Frances Hamerstrom, Author and Biologist, is Dead at 90. September 7, Section A, Page 14.
  • Rosenfield, R. 1998. In Memoriam: Frances Hamerstrom. Passenger Pigeon 60: 407–410.

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