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

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