Charles Aiken - CSPM

Charles Aiken

Today most bird lovers do not shoot and stuff birds to study them, but naturalist Charles Aiken and his contemporaries did. Aiken was so devoted to the study of local wildlife that he opened the Aiken Museum in downtown Colorado Springs. In 1907, General Palmer purchased Aiken’s 4,700 bird specimens and donated them to the Colorado College Museum. Additionally, historian Steve Ruskin has traced Aiken’s specimens to collections at the Smithsonian, AMNH, and the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History.

– From the CSPM Curator of History

The 21-year-old Charles Edward Howard Aiken already had a longstanding interest in birds and had been apprenticed to a taxidermist before moving to the Pikes Peak region in October 1871. In the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed the family home and business, the Aikens bought a sheep ranch near Turkey Creek along present-day Colorado Highway 115, about 20 miles south of Colorado Springs.

By exploring birds wherever he roamed, Aiken gained deep insights into the avifauna from the Midwest to the Southwest. In the first year of his Colorado residence, he encountered 115 different local species which he described in an 1872 paper co-authored with Charlie Holden for the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History. Two years later, having garnered a reputation as a regional authority, he served as assistant ornithologist on the governmental Wheeler Survey along the Colorado-New Mexico border and most of his skillfully prepared taxidermy specimens from this expedition were sold to the Smithsonian. Forays into different parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona resulted in two additional publications: The Birds of El Paso County (1914), and Birds of the Southwest (1937, appeared posthumously). The former was co-authored, the latter edited by fellow ornithologist and Colorado Springs resident, Edward R. Warren.

By 1907, Aiken’s bird collection numbering 4,700 specimens was acquired by General William Jackson Palmer and donated to Colorado College, where he had secured a professorship for noted British ornithologist William Lutley Sclater, husband to one of Queen Palmer’s half-sisters. Sclater’s personal survey of the regional avian population and of Aiken’s prodigious collection, brought about the 1912 publication of the two-volume A History of the Birds of Colorado.

Charles ran the “Aiken Museum” in downtown Colorado Springs, a combination taxidermy and curiosity shop, and though his fascination with winged creatures never waned, his later interests included paleontology, evolution, and dog breeding, among others. A great honor was bestowed on Charles when the prestigious American Ornithologists’ Union, precursor to the American Ornithological Society, made him “Life Associate” at age 76, after he had allowed his membership to lapse. He lived to 85 and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery.

The tributes did not end with his death. A Nature Conservancy preserve, Aiken Canyon, was established in 1993 in an area Charles had explored as a young man from the nearby family ranch. It remains one of El Paso County’s top birding hotspots. The Aiken Audubon Society of the Pikes Peak region commemorates not only his name, but its logo “Wes” is modeled on the regional subspecies of a Western Screech Owl named for Aiken, Megascops kennicottii aikeni.

Generously Submitted by Tanja Britton, CSPM Volunteer Educator

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