Beck, Rollo Howard, 1870-1950

Alternative names

Hide Profile

Ornithologist, explorer, taxidermist, farmer. Born Rollo Howard Beck in 1870. Travelled extensively throughout the South Pacific. Co-founded Cooper Ornithological Club. Rediscovered long-lost Hornby petrel in Peru. Married Ida Menzies in 1907. Led expedition to Galapagos Islands for California Academy of Sciences in 1905-06 aboard schooner "Academy." Died in 1950.

From the description of Rollo Beck papers. 1885-1985 1886-1924. (California Academy of Sciences). WorldCat record id: 26253863

Biographical note

Rollo Howard Beck was born August 26, 1870, in Los Gatos, California. When he was six, his family moved a few miles to Berryessa, now a district of San Jose, California. Over an active career that lasted nearly 60 years, Beck became the best known bird and reptile collector of the time, despite having only completed school through part of eighth grade.

After leaving school Beck went to work for several local farmers, one of whom was also an amateur ornithologist. From him Beck learned to prepare skins and to identify birds using Elliott Coues' Key to North American Birds. He joined both the American Ornithologists' Union and Cooper Ornithological Club (now Society) in 1894, establishing lifelong contact with other ornithologists both locally and nationally.

In 1897 Beck joined the Webster-Harris Expedition, financed by the Hon. Walter Rothschild. This trip went to the Galápagos where Beck learned a great deal about finding and collecting tortoises and birds, Rothschild's twin passions. In 1901 and 1902 Beck financed two more collecting trips to the Galápagos Islands, searching for specimens to sell to Rothschild and to others.

The first expedition Beck led for the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) was a three and a half month collecting expedition to the Revillagigedos Islands, off the coast of Baja California, in 1903.

In 1905, CAS asked him to lead an expedition to the Galápagos. A ship, three fulltime crew and 7 other collectors who also served as sailor-scientists were assembled by the Academy. The expedition was gone for 17 months and was in the islands for a year and a day - the longest Galápagos collecting expedition. They returned with 76,000 items – birds, tortoises, insects, reptiles, snails, marine mammals, plants and rocks. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which destroyed almost everything held by the Museum, occurred while they were gone, so their collections formed the basis of the new California Academy of Sciences.

Beck married Ida May Menzies in August 1909. They lived in Berryessa and Pacific Grove, California for the next few years.

From 1907-1912 Beck collected water-birds inland and sea birds along the California coast and out to sea for CAS and also for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California, Berkeley. He invented "chumming" for sea birds. Taking some meat scraps with him in a small boat he would row due west for a few miles, tossing out scraps every so often. He would then reverse course, collecting the sea birds that appeared along this food-rich track. He established records for many sea birds which hadn't been previously recorded in northern California.

In 1911 he was employed to go to Alaska for a five and a half month trip with A.C. Bent and Alexander Wetmore, both notable ornithologists. There they collected around islands and around Nome. Again in 1919 he was asked by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) to collect in Alaska.

Beck worked for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) from 1912-1917, collecting all around the coast of South America and offshore islands, and through the Caribbean. Mrs. Beck accompanied him for much of the time in spite of her chronic seasickness. In 1920 the AMNH asked him to lead the Whitney Expedition to the South Seas. Again Mrs. Beck accompanied him and he led this expedition until 1928. Immediately after leaving this expedition Mr. Whitney asked him to continue to collect New Guinea, alone. The Becks spent another 9 months doing this, and then returned to California in 1930.

In 1924 he had purchased a fruit farm in Planada CA, near Merced. After returning from the Whitney Expedition he spent the rest of his life farming and observing and collecting birds in central California. He died November 22, 1950, at age 80. Ida Beck stayed on the farm for several years, then moved to San Jose CA to live with relatives. She died in 1970, age 87.


  • 1870: Rollo Howard Beck born
  • 1894: Joined American Ornithologists' Union and Cooper Ornithological Club
  • 1897: Hired by the California Academy of Sciences to collect birds in the Channel Islands, CA
  • 1897: Hired as member of Rothschild Expedition to the Galapagos Islands
  • 1897 - 1910 : Intermittently affiliated with the California Academy of Sciences as a field collector
  • 1903: Revillagigedos Islands Expedition for the California Academy of Sciences
  • 1905 - 1906 : Galapagos Expedition for California Academy of Sciences
  • 1909: Marriage to Ida Menzies
  • 1910 - 1912 : Affiliation with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
  • 1911: Interrupting his affiliation with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, he made a collecting trip to Alaska with A.C. Bent and Alexander Wetmore
  • 1912 - 1917 : Brewster-Sanford Expedition, South America and the Caribbean, for the American Museum of Natural History
  • 1912 - 1929 : Affiliation with the American Museum of Natural History
  • 1919: Collected in Alaska for the American Museum of Natural History
  • 1920 - 1929 : Leader of Whitney South Seas Expedition for the American Museum of Natural History
  • 1930 - 1950 : Farmed in central California. Observed and collected birds for the California Department of Fish & Wildlife
  • 1950: Died

From the guide to the Beck (Rollo Howard and Ida Menzies) collection, 1885-1985, (California Academy of Sciences, Special Collections)

Place Name Admin Code Country
South America
Galapagos Islands
South America.
Samoan Islands
Galapagos Islands
Galapagos Islands.
New Guinea.
South America
New Guinea
Scientific expeditions
Scientific expeditions--New Guinea, Dutch
Scientific expeditions--South America
Scientific expeditions--Alaska
Scientific expeditions--Galapagos Islands
Scientific expeditions--Oceania
Birds--Collection and preservation
Zoological specimens--Collection and preservation


Birth 1870-08-26

Death 1950-11-22




Ark ID: w6zc986q

SNAC ID: 65962467