Stanwood, Cordelia (1865–1958)

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Stanwood, Cordelia (1865–1958)

American ornithologist. Born Cordelia Stanwood in 1865 in Ellsworth, Maine; died in 1958 in Maine; educated at a New England teachers' college; never married; no children.

Became fascinated by birds and began taking notes and photographs; published many articles in Bird Lore, attracting the attention of other ornithologists; her meticulous notes and over 900 photographs served as a major contribution to ongoing studies of North American bird life.

Born in 1865 and raised on her family's 40-acre estate in Ellsworth, Maine, Cordelia Stanwood left home as a young woman with the intention of devoting her life to teaching children and earning a sufficient living to send money home to her parents. Unfortunately, she lacked the proper teaching credentials, and her salary was substandard; she could barely pay for the necessities. By the time she reached her late 20s, she had nonetheless saved enough money to enroll at a New England teachers' college with the hopes that a teacher's certificate would qualify her for the standard wage in her field. When Stanwood graduated, however, the job market had become saturated with younger graduates, and she was forced to take a job in Providence, Rhode Island, at even less money than she had earned before. In 1901, depressed and feeling there was no way out of her constant state of poverty, the 36-year-old Stanwood suffered a nervous collapse and was sent first to a Boston sanitarium and thence home to her parents' house in Maine.

Stanwood's occasional fits of hysteria, which served to alienate her from her father, were eventually eased by her growing fascination with the birds that lived on her parents' property. In 1906, she began taking a series of detailed notes of her observations while on walks in the woods, noting particularly birdnesting behavior, nest building, and variations in bird song. While Stanwood's personal behavior became increasingly eccentric, her passion for observation and for recording her observations of birds in minute detail inspired the budding ornithologist to write articles on birds that were published in a variety of periodicals, including Bird Lore. These pieces caught the attention of several well-known professionals in the field of ornithology who began lengthy correspondences with Stanwood, requesting information on her observations that she willingly shared.

After the death of her father, Stanwood supported herself and her mother with the money made from her writing, needlework, and a small amount of farming she did on the family acreage. Using money from an inheritance left her by an aunt, Stanwood purchased a camera equipped with a tripod and a telephoto lens and learned the art of nature photography. Able to sit for hours in order to get a good photograph, Stanwood was selling her photographs to magazines and field guides by 1920. After the death of her mother when Stanwood was 67, she became totally obsessed with birds, and supported herself in a minimalist fashion by selling stationery items door to door; otherwise, all her time was spent photographing or observing birds. By 1955, Stanwood's ability to support herself through various odd jobs had diminished to the point that she was forced to move from her family's Maine home into a state-run nursing facility, where she died at the age of 93. Her family estate later became the Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Norwood, Vera. Made From This Earth. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1993.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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Stanwood, Cordelia (1865–1958)

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