Isaac Norris De Haven (1847-1924)

Portrait of I. N. De Haven
Isaac Norris De Haven
Academy Archives, Coll. 457, 5009

Isaac Norris De Haven is one of the dedicated amateur birders and sportsmen who have made substantial contributions to the Academy’s ornithology collection. His bequest of 523 specimens to the Academy, presented by his two sisters after his death, was the result of decades of convivial weekends and vacations spent in pursuit of waterfowl and other birds along the mid-Atlantic coast. These fine specimens demonstrate the important role that non-scientists, and particularly hunters, have played in advancing the Academy’s work and building its collection.

De Haven was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Jesse De Haven, a prominent naval commander who took part in U.S. scientific expeditions in the Pacific and the Arctic Circle. De Haven attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps but a bout of typhoid fever kept him from passing the physical exam necessary for admittance to the Naval Academy. Instead, he studied mechanics, gaining expertise in marine and stationary engines and making a career as an engineer, designer, and executive. An immense lathe that he built with business partner William H. Thorne was displayed alongside the Corliss Engine and other powerful machines at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, which marked the emergence of the U.S. as a global industrial power. He spent the latter part of his career as an executive at the Overbrook Steam Heating Company.

Red-headed Woodpecker specimen
Red-headed Woodpecker
(Melanerpes erythrocephalus erythrocephalus)
ANSP 78176

De Haven’s skill with machinery was counterbalanced by an enthusiastic interest in nature, and especially birds.  As a child, he read widely about natural history, consulting Alexander Wilson’s seminal guide to North American birds and preparing his own specimens while attending private high school in Philadelphia. De Haven dreamed of one day qualifying for Academy membership, like his maternal grandfather, John C. DaCosta, a goal he realized in 1896. By then, he had become friendly with several Academy scientists through his involvement with the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC). In a fond obituary in Cassinia  (vol. xxv, pp. 6-9, 1922-4), the DVOC’s journal, Academy Curator Witmer Stone recalled De Haven’s first appearance at an 1891 DVOC meeting, which he attended after reading an announcement in the newspaper. De Haven, who was older than the other members, was nonetheless immediately admired for his “enthusiasm and energy.” He served as DVOC president from 1897-1898, and was an associate of the American Ornithological Union between 1893 and 1908.

Although he was not able to pursue a career in the U.S. Navy, De Haven did not confine himself to dry land, hosting friends and fellow DVOC members on his cat-boat, the Widgeon, to hunt water-birds along the coast of Atlantic City, NJ. In a 1909 article for Cassinia, De Haven reminisces about the ample game and shellfish on the Jersey Shore before booming tourism and increased development decimated wildlife and marred the landscape. This perceived decline of the area’s natural bounty led De Haven to sell his boat and pursue game in wilder coastal zones of Virginia and North Carolina, eventually buying a cabin in Cape Charles, VA. He never married, and lived most of his life with his two sisters in Ardmore, PA. 

Stone, in his Cassinia obituary, recalled De Haven’s larger-than-life personality:

“We can picture him in memory… striding across the brown marshes in pursuit of small marsh sparrows which his unerring gun brought down in ample series; or seeking the nests of Laughing Gulls with shouts of exultation; and then we can recall his deep booming voice at the Club meetings, as he reviewed the results of our field work at the shore for the benefit of those who were not of the party.”

Entirely from eastern North America, the DeHaven Collection includes at least 525 study skins from most taxonomic groups. Specimens come primarily from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia, with a few study skins coming from Florida and North Carolina. All appear to have been collected between 1892 and 1897. Birds were collected throughout the year so there are very excellent series of breeding and wintering specimens from this region. Particularly impressive are the spectacular series of Ammodrammus sparrows collected in New Jersey and breeding warblers from Pennsylvania. One of the most historically notable collections is that of the Red-Headed Woodpecker (ANSP 78176-78179) from Overbrook, Pennsylvania. This species is now extinct from this region of the country due to habitat manipulation over the last century. Such a collection is of great importance to science. DeHaven’s specimens offers us a phenomenal picture of the bird life and habitat quality of this region in the 1890’s and how it has been altered.

The more than 500 birds in the Academy collection stand as testimony to De Haven’s energy and enthusiasm, his skills as a birder and hunter, and his deep friendships with Witmer Stone and other Academy staff and scientists.