Before Earth Day, before the Endangered Species Act, before Silent Spring, the National Audubon Society was perhaps the primary face and force of bird and other environmental conservation in North America. In the early to mid-20th century, the Society sent biologists to study birds with declining populations, and Robert Porter Allen (1905–1963) worked with some of the long-legged wading birds: American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), and Whooping Cranes (Grus americana). In 1942, according to this book, the number of Whooping Cranes in the wild was 15 (fifteen); no wonder that some biologists at the time considered the species doomed and not worth a major conservation effort (p. 36).
Kathleen Kaska, “writer of fiction, nonfiction, travel articles, and stage plays,” had access to Allen's journals and correspondence, which allowed her to populate this biography with detailed accounts of activities down to the hour. Some of those hours were hair-raising, for Allen endured great privation and danger, especially in the search for the crane's nesting area in northern Canada, unknown until 1954 and most difficult to find in the vast boreal plains.
Kaska has done a good job with Allen's life, creating a compelling personal story and introducing the reader to the larger world of ornithology at the time, as Allen, an AOU Fellow (elected 1955), was a collaborator and colleague of a pantheon of ornithologists from that era (e.g., Roger Tory Peterson, Olin Sewall Pettingill, Frank Chapman). Alexander Sprunt IV contributed a memoriam to Allen in The Auk (1969, 86:26–34). Allen was awarded the AOU's Brewster Medal for ornithological achievement in 1957 and the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing in 1958. Kaska fills around these dry details with a narrative occasionally tedious, but sometimes worthy of an adventure novel; an epilogue summarizes Whooping Crane conservation since Allen's death, including the brilliant use of ultralight aircraft to train the artificially reared Eastern Migratory Flock to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. There is a thorough bibliography of Allen's and other pertinent works.