(b. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 9 September 1842; d. Baltimore, Maryland, 25 December 1899)
Elliott’s father, Samuel Elliott Coues (pronounced Koos), a merchant and admirer of the “mysteries of nature,” moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Patent Office when his son was eleven. There the boy, already interested in natural history—especially birds—became acquainted with Spencer F. Baird and the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Coues prepared for college at Gonzaga Seminary, then attended Columbian College (now George Washington University), from which he received an A.B. (1861), honorary M.A. (1862), M.D. (1863), and honorary Ph.D. (1869).
During the Civil War and until 1881, Coues served as assistant surgeon in the army. He collected, studied, and published extensively on birds during his peripatetic military assignments, which included Fort Whipple, Arizona; Fort Macon, North Carolina; Fort Randall, Dakota Territory; and, still on army assignment, as naturalist for the Northern Boundary Commission (1873–1876) and for the Hayden survey (1876–1880). From 1877 to 1886 he was professor of anatomy at Columbian College. He devoted seven years to the editorship of natural history subjects for the Century Dictionary. Coues married Jane Augusta McKenney in 1867, and after her death he married Mary Emily Bates in 1887. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences; and, in addition to honorary membership in many scientific societies, he was a founder and very active member of an early conservation group, the American Ornithologists’ Union.
Coues’s youthful knowledge of eastern ornithology, which first appeared as a significant monograph on sandpipers when he was eighteen, enabled him to make the most of his extensive travels in the unknown western territories, so that as early as 1872 he presented the deservedly popular and immensely useful Key to North American Birds. This innovation in identification presented the system of the artificial key, then common only in botany, and also represented a complete taxonomic revision, modified in successive editions to 1903. A correlative of the Key was Coues’s meticulous Check-List of North American Birds (1873, 1882), the first since that of his mentor Baird in 1858. A distinctive feature of the Check-List d was Coues’s corrections in the orthography and pronunciation of original scientific names, a change he was unable to impose on taxonomy. He was a leader in the trend of his era toward reducing the great number of species names to varieties, especially in local forms. In his few but worthy publications on mammals, he did this with less lasting success, in part because considerable anatomical work was yet to be done. A lucid writer with a charming style, second only and successor to Baird in ornithology, Coues presented a great deal of information on the behavior and life histories of birds and even made interesting his detailed collecting manual, Field Ornithology (1874), incorporated into later editions of the Key Rather a compulsive compiler, he tried nobly to gather a complete bibliography on ornithology but gave up after publishing the parts of it on North America, Central and South America, and Britain (1878–1880).
In the 1890’s Coues checked and annotated manuscripts of several American western explorations, most usefully the journals of Lewis and Clark and of Zebulon Pike, as well as several previously unpublished accounts. In his meticulous fashion, he retraced the explorers, routes and enlarged considerably upon their natural history observations.
1.Original Works. Coues’s extensive publications—almost 1,000, both technical and popular—are delightfully readable. A bibliography of his principal works, excepting popular ones, is given in Joel A. Allen’s “Biographical Memoir” (cited below). The five editions of Key to North American Birds stand as Coues’s lasting monument. The posthumous 5th ed. (2 vols., Boston, 1903), almost completed at the time of his death, incorporated a history of ornithology, collecting methods, bird anatomy, and nomenclature, as well as identifications and life histories.
Two regional monographs deserve special mention: Birds of the Northwest: A Hand-book of the Ornithology of the Region Drained by the Mississippi River and Its Tributaries U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Miscellaneous Publication no. 3 (Hayden, Wash., 1874), resulting from the Hayden survey; and Birds of the Colorado Valley: A Repository of Scientific and Popular Information Concerning North American Ornithology, U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Miscellaneous Publication no. 8 (Hayden, Wash., 1878), a remarkably complete treatise on the bird life of the entire Colorado River drainage. The various parts of the intended ornithological bibliography (cited in Allen) were published in 1879 and 1880 in various locations.
Among Coues’s publications on mammals, the most worthy, resulting from the Hayden survey, are Fur-bearing Animals: A Monograph of North American Mustelidae, U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Miscellaneous Publication no. 8 (Hayden, Wash., 1877); and Monographs of North American Rodentia, U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories (Hayden, Wash., 1877), Miscellaneous Publication no. 11.
Many other significant publications are cited in Allen, including the annotated accounts of western explorations.
II. Secondary Literature. His colleague Joel A. Allen gives a detailed account of Coues’s life and an analysis of his ornithological and other accomplishments in “Biographical Memoir of Elliott Coues,” in National Academy of Sciences. Biographical Memoirs6 (1909), 395–446. Allen also wrote memorials for Science, 11 (1900), 161–163; and Auk (1900), p. 91. A brief effusive biography of Coues, is in Donals Culross Peattie’s A Gathering of Birds (New York, 1939), pp. 267–276. Coues’s participation in early conservation is referred to in Peter Matthiessen’s Wildlife in America (New York, 1959), pp. 152–181.
Elizabeth Noble Shor