Tracing the Transformation of Bird Watching to a Mainstream Pastime
Allan Cruickshank was a renowned National Audubon Society lecturer, photographer and author who co-published several books and field guides with his wife, Helen. Along with his cohorts--most notably bird guide author and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson—he transformed bird and nature watching from a fringe interest to a popular, easy accessible, mainstream pastime.
Allan Cruickshank was a renowned National Audubon Society lecturer, photographer and author who co-published several books and field guides with his wife, Helen. Along with his cohorts–most notably bird guide author and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson—he transformed bird and nature watching from a fringe interest to a popular, easy accessible, mainstream pastime.
Cruickshank moved to Florida in 1952 and led the Cocoa, Florida, Christmas bird count for over two decades. This annual citizen science survey provides valuable information on local bird populations.
Sports Illustrated printed several articles on Cruickshank’s bird watching prowess, including documenting his success as the leader of the Cocoa initiative. The count areas included what is now part of the Kennedy Space Center, and the resulting positive publicity influenced NASA to preserve much of the space center property as a refuge, which eventually became the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2011 I started a research project to celebrate the semicentennial of Merritt Island. Bolstered by a grant from American Public University System (APUS), I posited that the creation of the refuge was the result of the work of many but was significantly influenced by the Kennedy administration’s culture of conservation and the championing of Cruickshank.
In 2015, I furthered the research project by focusing on Cruickshank. APUS provided another grant allowing me to visit the Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI) in Jamestown, N.Y. and the archives of the University of Florida Natural History Museum. At the RTPI, there were several correspondences between the Cruikshanks and Peterson, including an invitation to join the 1955 Cocoa project. The number of birds recorded at that time was the highest in the nation and the first of 11 straight years that Cocoa retained this title.
Perhaps the most intriguing discovery was the separate diaries Allan and Helen maintained during their first trip to Florida in 1937 for their honeymoon. The diaries reveal a hard- working, intense expedition focused on birds and flora.
This would be one of many trips the couple would take to record the wild world. They would later make several trips to Florida, one of the outcomes of which was the 1948 book, Flight into Sunshine, Bird Experiences in Florida, written by Helen and accompanied by Allan’s photos. Eventually, they made Florida their permanent home.
The diaries reveal a couple that would tolerate hardship to see and photograph nature. Stories of waiting for hours in a blind to capture the perfect shot or collecting and transporting road kill to attract vultures illustrate their willingness to get it right. The stories from these parallel logs will be compiled into a monograph and offered to Florida-based nature organizations for publication.
Another find at the University of Florida was a 35mm film, “The first X-mas bird count at the Merritt Island Sanctuary.” This 1963 vintage film is undergoing transfer to a digital format. What it reveals remains to be seen, but the film canister notes, “Stars Allan Cruickshank.” The film will be shown to some local nature-based organizations and, hopefully, will be featured statewide.
This research unearthed materials that apparently have not been seen for many years. Assessing this information and bringing it forward to a wider audience should help to further the legacy of the Cruikshanks.
About the Author
Charles Venuto is the Director of Environmental, Health & Safety for Delaware North Parks & Resorts at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and an adjunct professor of Environmental Science at American Public University (APU). He has assembled a monograph on the history of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge that surrounds the Kennedy Space Center. His research began toward the end of his 30 year career as the Environmental Manager for the contractor responsible for operating the Space Shuttle. His research revealed facts and information that posits the important roles the Kennedy Administration played in the modern environmental movement. He received funding from APU to further his research at the National Achieves, the University of Florida Natural History Museum, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and the John F. Kennedy Library. He received an Ed.S. in Science Education from Florida Institute of Technology, a M.S. in Environmental Policy and Management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a M.S. in Environmental Science from Florida Institute of Technology.