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The Father of Texas Birding

Edgar Kincaid, the quirky editor of The Bird Life of Texas, mentored a new generation as he birded along the roads less traveled.

By Suzanne Winckler

Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr. was the quirky and beloved father of 20th-century birding in Texas. He and his colleagues – including a covey of young birders he took under his wing in the 1960s – elevated birdwatching from a pastime associated with pith-helmeted spinsters to an exacting exercise that revealed the exquisite beauty of nature and at the same time measured the status of Texas' avian populations. For him, birdwatching was both science and high art, and the world around him a laboratory and museum.

Kincaid earned a bachelor's degree in botany at the University of Texas but was a largely self-taught ornithologist and ecologist. He had an almost intuitive grasp of the dynamic between organisms and their environments and understood all too well how easy it is to tip that delicate balance.

He was a lonely prophet, forecasting the decline of many bird species well before academically trained ornithologists would amass the data to prove his point. Many of his predictions can be read in The Bird Life of Texas, published in 1974 by the University of Texas Press. The treatise, originally written by Henry Church Oberholser in the early 20th century, was edited over a 14-year period by Kincaid and various helpers, of whom I was one. Because he foresaw a world with ever more people and fewer birds, he was not what you would call a happy person. A tall, stooped man whose craggy features made him appear much older than his years, Kincaid seemed to bear the burden of the biologically compromised planet on his shoulders.

Gloom notwithstanding, Kincaid possessed a zany wit and a madcap sense of adventure, which explains why so many young disciple-birders swarmed to him. He was the antithesis of normal. While he became increasingly reluctant to travel in later years, in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, he roamed the byways of Texas and Mexico, chronicling birds in their habitats, and to be in his entourage on these outings was a gift beyond measure. It is no exaggeration to divulge that two trips I made with Edgar and associates – one to the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona in July 1969; the other to Rancho del Cielo in Tamaulipas, Mexico, in July 1970 – put my callow and rather humdrum life on a different and far richer course.

Kincaid was born on December 30, 1921, in Physicians and Surgeons Hospital in San Antonio, his mother and father, Lucile and Edgar, Sr., having come in from the ranch near Sabinal in anticipation of his birth. He grew up on the ranch, but spent many weekends in San Antonio with his paternal grandparents, James Madison and Ethel Fenley Kincaid. He also regularly visited his maternal grandparents, Richard Alexander and Ray Park McKee, in Velasco on the Texas Gulf Coast. Edgar was an only child, and perhaps because he spent so much of his youth in the company of adults, many of whom were advanced in age, he always displayed a wonderful kindness and respect for elders.

It was a fertile environment for a bright, curious boy. Edgar had literally thousands of acres to roam on what was essentially his own private preserve, and he was surrounded by loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Besides love there was culture. The Kincaids and McKees put a high premium on the life of the mind – on education, discourse, literature, music and travel.

As a young woman fresh out of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Edgar's mother-to-be, Lucile, came to teach school in Sabinal, where she would meet and marry Edgar Sr. All three McKee sisters graduated from Southwestern at a time (the early 1900s) when few people, especially women, contemplated a college degree. Lucile's older sister, Bertha, in describing college many years later captured the family's matter-of-fact attitude toward education: "[My parents] decided that I would graduate from Southwestern – I was the oldest, I would be the first in line to go. I would graduate with honors, and I grew up knowing I would."

Not surprisingly, there was among Edgar's extended family a great reverence for books. Bertha attributed a lack of feminine social skills as a freshman in college to her passion for reading. "I cared for nothing but books all my life," she said. "I couldn't talk anything but books and I learned that wasn't what you did."

Edgar, too, grew up with book lust. The next best thing to a bird was a bird book. He once wrote: "How does one distinguish a truly civilized nation from an aggregation of barbarians? That is easy. A civilized country produces much good bird literature."

According to a story he told often, a book would seal Edgar's bird-besotted fate. On one of those weekend visits to San Antonio, when he was about six years old, he was with his mother, shopping in Joske's. On a display table in the book department, Edgar spied a book with a singing eastern meadowlark on the cover. Meadowlarks were already one of his favorite ranch birds, and the vivid yellow of its breast was and would remain his favorite color. "I threw such a tantrum there in Joske's," he was fond of recounting, "that in order to calm me down, Lucile bought me the book." It was the Burgess Bird Book for Children, the first in a collection that grew to more than 1,000 volumes, now housed at Texas A&M University.

As idyllic as his life seems from afar, it was punctuated with tragedy. Young Edgar and his parents were in a harrowing accident in which their car was struck by a truck hauling pipe. He almost died. (In ghoulish moments, he would pull back his snow-white hair to show friends the tidy scar ringing his scalp where the top of his head had been opened like the lid of a tin can). A liability lawsuit ensued, during which Edgar had to take the stand and at which point he developed a lifelong antipathy toward lawyers. Then, when he was 14, out of the blue, his beloved mother died unexpectedly of heart failure at age 42.

It is possible that her loss explains two unswerving attributes of Edgar's. He was a confirmed bachelor – no woman could ever live up to his mother – yet he adored women and held them in far higher esteem than men. He was a feminist long before the term came into parlance. He surrounded himself, albeit at a bachelor's arm's length, with women of all ages. He was kind, courteous (what genteel manners he had!), generous and supportive of countless women, and, in turn, they nurtured him as best they could, given his reclusive bachelor habits. Through his respect and friendship, he empowered a number of young women, including me, to make our ways in what was, even in the 1960s and '70s, a man's world.

Case in point: Kathleen Collins, now a teacher in Austin, was hanging wallpaper in the 1970s. In a card dated May 18, 1979, she wrote: "Casso [a name for Edgar that will be explained momentarily], I worked for a new builder this week, who, unlike yourself, was very skeptical of the capability of females. He was nervous as a cat, and hesitant about my doing the job. But I finished Friday and he told me I did a fine job and would I work for him next time! Yea for me and females everywhere!"

After Lucile's death, the closest and dearest woman to Edgar was Aunt Bertha, his mother's elder sister and the wife and amanuensis of the scholar, folklorist and raconteur J. Frank Dobie. Since they had no children of their own, Edgar became their de facto son. He lived with them in their comfortable, two-story, white-frame, book-stuffed bungalow at 702 East 26th Street on the edge of the University of Texas campus. J. Frank and Bertha would both die at home – he on September 9, 1964, at age 75; she on December 18, 1974, at age 84. Edgar lived barely another 10 years, dying at the untimely age of 63 on August 9, 1985.

Kincaid's most tangible ornithological legacy lies in the two volumes of The Bird Life of Texas. Each range map for the book's 545 species represents a massive behind-the-scenes effort on the part of Edgar and his birding minions who fanned across the state to, in his words, "bird the underbirded counties." Since birdwatchers have always tended to concentrate their efforts looking for specialties and rarities (like the golden-cheeked warbler in the Hill Country or the whooping crane near Aransas) or for conspicuous beauties (like the majestic coastal wading birds), most of Texas' 254 counties were underbirded, until Edgar et al. came along.

Always careful to give credit where credit was due, Kincaid explained the fact-finding mission in the introduction: "The senior editor [Kincaid] and his associates – chiefly Ruth Black, Bertha McKee Dobie, Carolyn Sue Coker, V. L. Emanuel, Frances Gillotti, Anne LeSassier, G.F. Oatman Jr., J.L. Rowlett, Rose Ann Rowlett and Dan Scurlock – drove, alone or in parties, some 400,000 miles in the 243 underbirded counties, gathering records to fill in the blank spaces on the maps." Even today, these range maps are the best "snapshots" of the breeding, wintering and migratory patterns of Texas birds.

The other stroke of Kincaidian brilliance in the BLOT (as those of us who worked on the book so lovingly called it) was the inclusion of a "Changes" section for those species that, as he wrote, "have historically or recently undergone major changes in status or distribution – usually this means a decline." The "Changes" sections display Kincaid's flare for writing, the sum of his years of observation, and his passion for his subject, and taken together they represent a clarion call to conserve habitat in order to conserve birds.

Edgar's other gifts are less tangible. His pebble in the pond continues to ripple outward. Those who were most touched by him have scattered across the country, variously involved in ecotourism, conservation, teaching, resource management, environmental policy and politics, landscape and bird photography, bird art, environmental writing and publishing, and (perhaps most importantly) relishing the pleasure birds bring to daily life. They, in turn, are touching others.

For many of us, his crowning gift was the bestowing of a bird name. It all began in December 1960 on a rollicking trip to Mexico – the party included the young Frank Oatman, John Rowlett and sister Rose Ann Rowlett, on their first trip to Mexico, with Edgar and two lovely, avid birding adult women, Elizabeth Henze and Maggie Schwartz, in the role of chaperones. On the trip, a rambling conversation ensued with regard to the particular "bird" traits that various friends and associates manifested – some, I am told, not always positive, since Homo sapiens can be a cruel species. By the trip's end, bird names had been assigned to each member of the group and a tradition was born.

Edgar was self-christened the Cassowary, a large, flightless bird of Australia and New Guinea known for its bellicose behavior (yet another example of Edgar's perpetual efforts to conceal his very gentle nature). His name later evolved to either the World's Oldest Cassowary or simply Casso.

The tradition was well-established when I arrived on the scene in the early 1970s, so I cannot begin to plumb the nuances of its evolution. I am just glad to be part of it. There are no hard and fast rules to the process, although until his death, we always petitioned for Edgar's approval of a bird assignation. I suspect there are a few hundred people with bird names still living across the planet. I know the tradition spread to California birders. I do not know if it remains a habit among birders in Texas. As for me, I am a greedy person with multiple personalities. For the historical record, I am the Brown Pelican, the Dipper and the Yellow-eyed Junco, and to prove I'm never satisfied, I always wanted to be the Yellow-breasted Chat.

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