Who was Ralph Hoffmann? Ralph Hoffmann was not the founder of the Hoffmann Bird Club. He was, however, the author of the first proper bird field guide. In 1904, a young schoolmaster and Latin scholar, Ralph Hoffmann, published A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York.
The text was unprecedented; it focused on field marks, behavior, habitat, call notes, and songs, even providing a refined phonetic system to help identify songs. He offered comments following the description of each bird, which included comparisons to similar species. Everything in the book was geared to bird identification in the field.
Hoffmann was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1870. He graduated from Harvard at age twenty and married at age twenty-three. In 1919, Hoffmann accepted a position at the Cate School for Boys in Santa Barbara. He began, almost immediately, his research into the birds of the area. In 1927, Hoffmann published Birds of the Pacific States, which went to an even greater extent than his first guide to refine the phonetics of bird songs.
Hoffmann retained his amateur status, and only in the last decade of his life did he leave teaching and then assume the directorship of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Hoffmann is remembered today in Santa Barbara, particularly in connection with the museum. A plaque there memorializes Hoffmann as “a student of flowers and birds who welcomed the children and made the museum a center of inspiration for all lovers of life and beauty.” Hoffmann is also honored at Berkshire Community College, where the Environmental Center has been named after him.