Who was Charles Aiken?

Wes the Screech OwlThe name “Aiken” seems to pop up all over. There is the Aiken Audubon chapter with its logo, Wes, based on the Aiken (a.k.a. Western) Screech Owl. There’s Aiken Canyon and the subspecies Junco hyemalis aikeni. Just who was this Aiken that we commemorate in so many ways?

Charles Edward Howard Aiken himself says it best, “Most of the early information concerning Colorado birds developed from my investigations.”

Born in Vermont, on September 7, 1850, Charles was the oldest of five surviving children born to James Edward and Harriet Ann Howard Aiken. They relocated to Chicago when he was a young boy. At the age of 18, he began to study birds according to the methods of that time—by shooting and collecting them. When the Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed his father’s business, the family moved to Colorado Springs. Charles took up residence on a ranch his father purchased in Turkey Creek Valley, the present site of Aiken Canyon. He eventually owned a taxidermy business and a house at Weber and Huerfano Streets in Colorado Springs.

In 1871, little was known about the birds of the West. Over the next 65 years Aiken contributed greatly to western ornithology through his repeated journeys through Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, making notes and collecting and mounting bird and other animal skins. You can find an online version of Aiken’s The Birds of El Paso County, Colorado, published in 1914.

Aiken was a skilled naturalist. “His hearing was keen, and he could not only recognize the notes of birds when heard, but could imitate them closely by whistling. He was well acquainted with the habits of birds and various other animals. He had a sharp eye for the variations in plumage and other characteristics of birds.”*

An article that appeared after his death in 1936 includes a description of a May, 1878 trip to Horse Creek, about 75 miles east of Colorado Springs: “He mentions Skylarks (Horned Larks), Grass Finches (Vesper Sparrows), Meadowlarks, White-winged Blackbirds (Lark Buntings), these in large flocks. Mountain Plover were not seen the first 15 miles but became common as they proceeded eastward. Small flocks of Brewers Blackbirds haunted all the ranches. Pond Creek and Horse Creek were each the home of two or three pairs of Whitenecked Ravens. Other species were observed wherever there were trees or bushes. Along Horse Creek were water holes and marshy places, where shore birds of several species were seen.”*

In 1907, Aiken’s collection of bird skins was sold to Colorado College. By the time of his death, the collection numbered over 5,700 skins, in addition to a number of mounted specimens, as well as nests and eggs. The collection includes an exceptionally complete series of Juncos subspecies. Junco aikeni was named after him. Aiken joined the AOU in 1898, but eventually allowed his membership to lapse. However, in 1926, at the age of 76, he was made an Honorary Life Associate, a gesture which meant a great deal to him. It’s clear why he means a great deal to Colorado birders today.

—Leslie Holzmann

*Quotes from The Condor, Volume 38, Number 6, November-December, 1936 Journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society Photo: Special Collections, Tutt Library, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO

A History of Ornithology in the Pikes Peak Region

Ornithology in the Pikes Peak region is an intriguing field of study for enthusiastic amateurs and dedicated professionals alike. Its rich history owes much of its current vibrant state to pioneering individuals like Charles Aiken, William Sclater, and W.W. Arnold, whose efforts continue to impact and guide future generations. Aiken’s singular efforts were so essential to the study of birdkind and wildlife in Colorado that his name graces the Pikes Peak Region’s chapter of the National Audubon Society. His connections with Sclater and Arnold helped build a sturdy foundation for birding that perpetuates to this day.

Charles Aiken convinced his family to move to Colorado Springs in 1871 after the Great Chicago Fire, with glowing accounts of life in the west. Already keen in the study of birds, he participated in the extensive survey of the west undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As an assistant naturalist and ornithologist to the expedition, he lent his expertise to the study of nature in the west, and throughout his life continued these endeavors professionally and privately. Aiken contributed a tremendous catalogue of information and classification of the birds native to Colorado Springs, the state of Colorado, and countless other regions.  

Charles Aiken’s curio shop and museum allowed others in the growing community to learn about and appreciate the singular traits of Colorado’s birds. Aiken was a skilled taxidermist and artist, and his sketches and mountings allowed for the study of specimens in great detail. His meticulous journals documented the behaviors and habits of his subjects, and through his relationships with the Smithsonian Institution and Colorado College as it established itself as an institution, he was able to share his findings with the greater community of Colorado and the world. Aiken’s work would become the nucleus of ornithological study in Colorado Springs. Town founder General William Jackson Palmer eventually acquired from Aiken an extensive collection of 4,700 specimens that was donated to Colorado College. Aiken’s long and impressive career as a naturalist and ornithologist would inspire contemporaries and succeeding generations to build on his work. 

William Sclater’s work at Colorado College, as well as his publishing of important works like A history of the Birds of Colorado, made Colorado’s unique wildlife even more accessible. The patronage of General Palmer, who himself held a keen interest in the birds and wildlife of Colorado, allowed Sclater to expand on the many natural curiosities Aiken had spent a near lifetime exploring. Sclater’s work contributed even more to ornithological study in Colorado and enhanced a long and distinguished career for the Englishman who for a time called Colorado Springs home. Sclater’s home in Colorado Springs, built for him by General Palmer, can still be visited today. It is located at the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site and is named “The Orchard House”. Tours of the home can be scheduled and Sclater’s time in Colorado Springs re-lived. 

Dr. William W. Arnold, a physician and contemporary of Aiken’s, went so far as to establish a hospital for disabled birds. A remarkably compassionate man and a dedicated environmentalist in a time when that ism was still defining itself, made it his life’s work to not only care for nature’s creatures but to educate others, especially children, about protecting wildlife. 

The first iteration of the Aiken Audubon Society, the Aiken Ornithological Society, formed in 1950, and was active in continuing the work of naturalists like Aiken, Arnold, and Sclater in Colorado Springs. Becoming a chapter of the National Audubon Society in May 1971, it is fitting that the Aiken Chapter was adopted by the national Audubon Society in the centenary of Charles Aiken’s family relocating to Colorado. The Pikes Peak Region’s Aiken Audubon Society carries on the tradition of educating others as its forebearers did, offering field trips, newsletters, awarding research and conservation grants, and advocating for conservation efforts of natural habitats.

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