McAtee, Waldo Lee

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(b. Jalapa, Indiana, 21 January 1883; d. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 7 January 1962)

ecology, Ornithology.

McAtee was the first child of Anna Morris and John Henry McAtee, a carpenter, who subsequently moved the family of three boys and three girls to industrial Marion, Indiana. Assisted by loans, McAtee attested Indiana University, taking an A.B. (1904) and an A.M. (1906). He married Fannie E. Lawson of Oxford, Indiana, on 13 September 1906; they had two sons, one of whom died in infancy, and a daughter. McAtee joined the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey in 1904 and remained a government scientist, in Washington, D. C., for his entire career. A pioneer in studies of the food habits of common farmland birds, he directed the Biological Survey’s economic ornithology research. He was a competed taxonomic and acting custodian of hemiptera at the U.S. National Museum from 1920 to 1942. Possessed of rugged health and a love of the outdoors. McAtee was active in fieldwork; he also wrote and edited numerous bulletins and agricultural pamphlets. After retirement he moved in 1950 to Chapel Hill, turning to the study of dialect and “Hoosier” pioneer literature. Indiana University granted him an honorary D.Sc. in 1961.

McAtee indulged his philosophical and literary bent with a holiday custom of privately printed booklets of his short poems, epigrams, and parables, expressing his philosophy of honesty, equality, and fairness. Reacting to a fundamentalist church up-bringing, he was a professed agnostic and critic of the hypocrisy he saw in organized religion. He opposed what he called “kowtowing” and considered himself unsociable, resisting the mixing and politicking inherent in a government position. Nonetheless, he belonged to more than thirty organi Nations. His religion was a love of nature and conservation, expressed in part in active membership in various ornithological, entomological, botanical, and scientific societies. He also joined three societies of folklore and dialect, and the Freethinkers of America. He was most active in the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), serving as treasurer from 1920 to 1938. An organizer and charter member of the Wildlife Society, he was founding editor, in 1937, of its Journal of Wildlife Management. His critical and forthright personality made professional relationships often prickly, but these same traits engendered widespread respect for his honesty and integrity embroiled in vitriolic scientific controversy.

McAtee’s serious scientific interests were sparked in 1899 by a series of letures given in Marion by the famous ornithologist Frank M. Chapman. Immediately McAtee began to keep careful field notes on the local fauna, and then he entered zoology studies at university. While a student he worked as curator of birds at the Indiana University Museum. Chapman was a great proselytizer for not only the pleasure of bird study but also the value of birds, and McAtee following his lead in early research. The thesis he submitted in 1906 to Indiana University has already been published as Bulletin 23 of the Biological Survey, Horned Larks and Their Relation to Agriculture. This marked the beginning of his prolific research and publication in economic ornithology, a subject for which he was the recognized authority from the 1920’s to the 1940’s

In the 1880’s Stephen A. Forbes in Illinois and Francis E. L. Beal in Iowa had begun the analysis of the stomach contents of birds, to determine their food habits systematically. Important to both was showing the economic impact on agriculture of insectivorous birds. Applied ecology was appearing all over the United States with various state agricultural and entomological commissions, and within the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA). Economic ornithology became a USDA division in 1886, largely as a result of pressure from influential members of the AOU; C. Hart Merriman moved from heading the AOU research committee to the new USDA post, as did Beal, who initiated a massive program of bird stomach contents analysis. The Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy was reorganized into the USDA Bureau of Biological Survey in 1905, at which time McAtee was assistant biologist to Beal. McAtee eventually headed the food habits research from 1916 to 1934, becoming head of his own new division, Food Habits Research, in 1921. With the food of most American birds poorly known, the researches of Beal and McAtee, published in a long series of jointly and singly authored USDA bulletins, were basic advances in ecology.

Bird insectivory was a contentious theoretical point because the debates about Darwinian natural selection so often depended on the evidence drawn from the phenomenon of protective coloration in insects. The theory that selection by birds created camouflage or protective mimicry in their prey was used by Edward B. Poulton of Oxford to vigorously defend Darwinism at the turn of the century, but the trouble was that naturalists were not agreed that birds ate butterflies, the standard example, or avoided supposedly protected insects. Poulton and G. A. K. Marshall instigated the collating of evidence from naturalists all over the world and claimed great support for their contentions that predators avoided the protectively colored insects.

McAtee meanwhile had been reviewing the Biological Survey data, and in 1912 he published an attack on the selection theory; this significant claim was that naturalists’ conclusions about food preferences drawn from anecdotes were worthless and that experiments with captive birds were misleading. Thus his stomach analyses provided the only rigorous data, and they appeared to deny the protective value of coloration. The debate simmered for twenty years only to blow up in 1932, with the publication of McAtee’s major work, based on 80,000 stomach analyses.

McAtee engaged Poulton and other British zoologists in a long-running and at times acrimonious exchange. He agreed that the effectiveness of protective coloration was a crucial support for Darwinism. Long an opponent of excesses and contradictions and a lack of rigor within Darwinism, he thought he had demonstrated the nonexistence of selection for protective coloring in nature. He argued that birds took their prey on the basis of the abundance of the insects. His opponents pointed out that from his aggregate lists of insect species found in bird species, nothing could be concluded about preferences without actual data on insect abundances. It was remarkable that such a massive quantitative research effort, however useful for agriculture, had been statistically naive and was useless for the biological question of selection in nature. McAtee’s distrust of mathematics and statistics, despite his quantitative approach and versatility as a nauralist, left him out of the mainstream of ecology after the 1930’s.

Nonetheless, the economic ornithology research program, including McAtee’s steady promotion of wildlife conservation and the widely disseminated government publications, had lasting importance by promoting the value of birds. These efforts were directly influential in the passage of a succession of bird and wildlife protection laws in the United States between 1900 and 1930.


I. Original Works. McAtee wrote nearly 1,000 scientific papers, of which many were USDA bulletins on food habits and conservation. His major work was “Effectiveness in Nature of the So-called Protective Adaptations in the Animal Kingdom, Chiefly as Illustrated by the Food Habits of Neartctic Birds,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 85, no. 7 (1932). Never published were two book-length manuscripts, a critique of Darwinism and a compilation of folk taxonomy of American birds.

McAtee left a complete set of his diverse publications and autobiographical material at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There are correspondence and reminiscences of the Biological Survey in the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division, and a set of papers concerning his research in the American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia. His records and letters on AOU business are in the Witmer Stone Papers, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.

II. Secondary Literture. An obituary drawing on McAtee’s autobiographical fragments is E. R. Kalmbach, “In Memoriam: W. L. McAtee,” in Auk, 80 (1963), 474-485.

William C. Kimler