Great Grandfather's Butterflies: Background Research
Samuel Hubbard Scudder
Samuel Hubbard Scudder was clearly a man who loved butterflies. He was
born (1837) and died (1911) in Boston. He attended Williams College and
then Harvard. He seems to have had immense curiosity and incredible energy.
Most of his personal ramblings were in New England, and his works are
spiced with the recollections of various trips and experiences in the
region. He published several popular books on butterflies including A Brief Guide to the Commoner Butterflies of the United States and Canada
(1893), Frail Children of the Air: Excursions into the World of Butterflies
(1897) and Everyday Butterflies: A Group of Biographies
Has magnum opus
on butterflies was the three-volume, self-published Butterflies of the United States and Canada with Special Reference to New England
(1889). While Scudder clearly knew his butterfly taxonomy and
contributed much original work on butterfly systematics, his works are
also replete with the simple joy of butterflying. The Butterflies of United State and Canada,
for example, intersperses detailed species accounts with a diversity of
essays (so-called "Excursus") on such themes as 'favorite butterfly
haunts', 'friends and associates of caterpillars', and 'butterflies as
He was, of course, not alone. He gives much due to a predecessor (in
both butterfly studies and as a librarian at Harvard), Thaddeus Harris
(1795-1856). Much of Harris' work focussed on agriculturally-relevant
insects, and his tome was a Treatise on Some of the Insects Injurious to Vegetation
, which included a detailed section on butterflies, not all of whom were pests.
Thaddeus Harris as portrayed in the frontpiece of the third volume of Scudder's work.
Closer to home (Washington County, in fact), Asa Fitch, a contemporary
of Harris' and New York State's first State Entomologist, focused his
work on pest insects, some of which happened to be butterflies. One
interesting account describes the abundance of the Mustard White. In
1870, Fitch wrote, "“…these plants [cabbage and turnip] being grown so
extensively in all our gardens furnish it an abundant supply of
nourishment, whereby its numbers are now greatly increased. I think …
these butterflies are ten fold more numerous than they were forty years
ago. … they are threatening to become a formidable evil.” Today, the
Mustard White is quite rare; we have never seen one in the County, and
it is a "critically imperiled" species in Massachusetts. At least in
terms of its role as a pest, It has been eclipsed by the Cabbage White.
The Mustard White from Charles Maynard's book on New England butterflies.
Fitch was succeeded in his state post by Joseph Lintner, a man with whom
Scudder evidently exchanged correspondence. Some of Lintner's most
interesting butterfly papers are his "Calendar of Butterflies
in which he documents a series of visits he made across the season to
various sites in the Albany area. His notes describe "flocks" of Karner
Blues and a record of the Regal Fritillary, a species now extinct in
The Regal Fritillary, as painted by the pioneering John Abbott.
The Comstocks, Anna Botsford and John Henry, were a wife/husband team
who were active in and around New York State. They were based at Cornell
for several decades, where Anna Botsford was that university's first
woman professor. Her Handbook of Nature Studies
became a key textbook in the outdoor teaching of natural history (aka The Nature Studies Movement). John
Henry Comstock was a respected and well-published entomologist whose
fascination with insects was spawned by Harris' work. Since they
co-wrote their butterfly book, How to Know the Butterflies
it is hard to know whose childhood reminiscences are reflected in it,
but given his somewhat traumatic upbringing (the death of his father,
their migration from Wisconsin to NY, and his mother's subsequent
illness), they probably are derived from her apparently more peaceful
youth on a western NY farm.
A modern-day Red Admiral - this species has recently flown through in tremendous numbers.
For more on today's butterflies
, we've put together a web page
listing the butterflies we know of from the County and some useful tools and links. I'd especially recommend Sharon Stichter's web page(s) on Massachusetts butterflies
; she has done a nice job of juxtaposing historical and contemporary information in stimulating ways.
While we can compare historic and modern species lists, it is more
difficult to compare abundances. Were the dramatic abundances that the
earlier writers described rare but memorable occurrences, the likes of
which might still be recounted if one were to pick and choose from a
lifetime of butterflying, or were they instead, as I have suggested,
just the 'tip of the iceberg' and indicative of historically higher
abundances? I wonder if the answer to that question is even knowable.
We'd be glad to ID any photos you'd care to submit of butterflies (or
moths) around the County. Let us know if you'd like any tips on hunting
butterflies with a camera.
In addition, if any of you have old insect collections lurking in your
attics, we'd much appreciate looking at them - they can give clues to
past natural history.