The Birders of Bowdoin

Bowdoin students in the Bay of Fundy


A handful of birders have left the nest that is the College and soared to great heights in the field of ornithology. Nicole Wetsman ’16 writes of some of those who have spread their wings.

As a well-known and rigorous academic institution, Bowdoin can cite a long list of professors and graduates who have contributed prolifically to their fields. While some are well known and heralded by the college — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to name a couple — others are not so well known within the Bowdoin community. Especially those who have devoted their careers to birds.

Despite its lack of fanfare, ornithology has a long history with the college — beginning with the collections and scientific interests of college founder James Bowdoin III. Since then, Bowdoin has employed and taught scientists who went on to greatly impact the discipline.

Bowdoin has had three ornithologists on its faculty — Alfred Gross, Chuck Huntington and current professor Nathaniel Wheelwright — and has graduated dozens of ornithologists.

“I cant imagine very many schools this size that have produced as many ornithologists as Bowdoin has,” said Wheelwright.

To read about some of the significant ornithologists Bowdoin has produced, click on their portraits below. (While this article highlights a few of the Bowdoin graduates who went on to pursue ornithology, it is by no means a comprehensive list. Dozens of Bowdoin graduates have gone on to pursue graduate work in zoology, ecology and other scientific fields.)


Charles Otis Whitman (1842-1910) was born and grew up in Woodstock, Maine. Like many other prominent ornithologists, his interest in the subject began at an early age. By 17, he had amassed an impressive collection within two massive glass cases; according to his cousin, “they attracted much attention among ornithological students.” Continue reading.



Nathan Clifford Brown (1856-1941) grew up surrounded by birds, both in the orchards on his father’s estate in Portland, Maine and at his father’s summer home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. At the age of 15, Brown shot his first game; in the same year, his parents demonstrated their approval of his interest in ornithology by giving him the new edition of The Birds of New England and Adjacent States by E. A. Samuels. Continue reading.



Olin Pettingill (1907-2001), referred to mainly as “Sewall,” is one of the country’s most distinguished ornithologists. As a teenager growing up in Belgrade, Maine, Pettingill said he performed “marginally well in school,” yet he refused to consider any college other than Bowdoin. Continue reading.



Alfred Gross (1883-1970) was a professor loyal to Bowdoin. Although he was offered a post at a university claiming to carry far more prestige than Bowdoin, he turned it down, saying, “I would never lean on any institution for prestige. …” Continue reading.



Charles (Chuck) Huntington arrived at Bowdoin in 1954, just after Gross’ retirement from the College in 1953. He served as director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island for 34 years, and his study of the population of Leach’s storm petrels on the island is one of the longest running scientific studies undertaken. Continue reading.


Nat Wheelwright, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Natural Sciences


Nathaniel Wheelwright joined the Bowdoin Faculty in 1986. Wheelwright had a connection to Bowdoin before even arriving, as research he had done on the Fork-Tailed Storm Petrel cited Chuck Huntington’s studies on Kent Island. Continue reading.


  1. Erik Jorgensen '87 says:

    Every time I fill my feeders, I think of Chuck Huntington, for what he taught me (and how he instilled in me a passion for birds) back in 1984, during my second semester at Bowdoin.

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