Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, March 7, 2021

George Miksch Sutton, Scientist, Artist, and a Wonderfully Generous Man

Back when I was a fairly new birder in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1977, one of my dear friends found out how fascinated I was with baby birds, and brought to a Madison Audubon meeting a wonderful monograph, The Juvenal Plumage and Postjuvenal Molt in Several Species of Michigan Sparrows, by George Miksch Sutton of Cornell University, which had been published in 1935 as that year’s Bulletin No. 3 by the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan. The information was detailed and interesting, but what made the monograph exceptional were Sutton’s life-sized paintings of 8 of the species. I’d never seen anything so charming! This was my friend’s only copy, so no way could I ask to borrow it. But those lovely illustrations were seared into my mind’s eye.  

The monograph said Dr. Sutton was at Cornell University, so I wrote him a fan letter in care of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I’d already read the Harris’s Sparrow entry he’d written for Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds, so I told him how much I’d enjoyed reading that and his monograph. I also wondered if he’d ever painted my favorite sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow. But the bulk of my letter was pretty much my gushing over his baby sparrow drawings.  

I didn’t really expect to hear back from him, and as it turns out, he had been based at the University of Oklahoma since 1951, but a couple of weeks later, after Cornell forwarded him my letter, he sent me a wonderful letter back, noting, “Alas, I have never drawn a Le Conte’s Sparrow – certainly one of the most beautiful of the family.” He mentioned some of the other juvenal birds he’d painted, and actually sent me his personal copy of the juvenal sparrow monograph and a couple of other papers he’d done with baby sparrow illustrations. He said that they were his only copies, so asked that I return them when I was done with them.  

This was in the days before it was easy to get color photocopies, but Russ found a place on campus to make copies of the illustrations for me—we framed four of them and hung them in our apartment—they were among the very first pictures we hung when we moved to our house on Peabody Street, too.  We sent Sutton’s work back to him by registered mail three days after it arrived—I couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to it! I still have his letter and the hand-addressed envelope it all came in. 

George Sutton was 79 when we had this limited correspondence. I never had the good fortune to meet him; he died just five years later in 1982. In 1991, I attended a joint meeting of the Wilson and Cooper Ornithological Societies in Norman, Oklahoma, where I presented a paper about the daytime warbler migration along Lake Superior, for which I was somehow lucky enough to be awarded the Frances F. Roberts Award, which included a wonderful thing, a copy of Sutton’s beautiful Portraits of Mexican Birds: Fifty Selected Paintings. Receiving that was a genuine thrill. 

A couple of years later, at another ornithological meeting, I chanced upon a copy of Sutton's baby bird monograph at the used book sale—I of course snapped that up!  

In 1998, perhaps to mark the centennial of Sutton's birth, the University of Oklahoma Press published a new book, Baby Bird Portraits, which included a lovely selection of Sutton's watercolors that are housed at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I put that on pre-order the moment I heard it was coming out. Paul Johnsgard wrote the species accounts for the birds. They used six of the eight paintings from the monograph, using different, but equally charming, illustrations of Sutton's Northern Cardinal and Song Sparrow. 

As thrilled as I am that the publishers put 32 of Sutton's baby bird paintings in a book, which includes wonderful illustrations of a lot of non-sparrows too, I was overall disappointed because most of the paintings are enlarged. Sutton had gone to great pains to make his baby bird portraits life sized, which was part of the charm, as well as an important scientific element, of his monograph. There seems little rhyme or reason in the magnifications of the illustrations in Baby Bird Portraits—the only ones reproduced smaller than the originals are the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, reproduced at 0.95 x the original, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, reproduced at 0.96 x the original, and one of the drawings of two Northern Cardinals, which may actually be close to life-size on the cover but in the book is 0.77 x the original. Some of the tiny baby sparrows are reproduced in the book at more than double life size, and because the sizing shifts dramatically from one page to another, the really over-sized ones are disconcerting, like a bird version of the movie Honey I Blew Up the Kid. I'm very glad I have Sutton's Baby Bird Portraits, but feel sad that he could not have overseen the printing. 

I’ve been thinking about Sutton a lot lately because the Oklahoma birding listserv was discussing a poem he had written that originally appeared in an out-of-print book and was reprinted in Audubon in 1985, three years after his death, titled “Forever and Ever, Amen.” It’s a gorgeous poem with a lot of resonance for me. We’ve been asked if we use the poem, to quote it in its entirety, so that will be tomorrow's post.