The Cassowary died 31 years ago today: The genius life and sad death of an Austin ornithologist

Edgar Bryan Kincaid Jr., a scholar who spent his life studying birds, is shown in a 1967 photo. Kincaid never went into the field without a tie. Photo by Rose Ann Rowlett.

Edgar Bryan Kincaid Jr., seen in a 1967 photo, devoted his life to studying birds. Some called him the Father of Texas Birding. Among his unusual traits: He never went into the field without a tie. Photo by Rose Ann Rowlett.

The man took the name of a bird. An exotic, large and flightless bird with terrible claws on its feet that could disembowel hunters, developers and trespassers of all kinds.

But when the intruders came, the Cassowary was helpless. Three men in masks and gloves forced their way into his cluttered home, tying him up and threatening him with a shotgun before stealing a watch, a radio, some cash, a car.

The Cassowary died a few days later — 31 years ago today. With his mysterious death, Austin didn’t just lose an eccentric 63-year-old man, but Texas’ leading ornithologist and a father figure to bird watchers and enthusiasts across the state.

Edgar Bryan Kincaid Jr. was born to a wealthy South Texas ranching family, but came to Austin to study at the University of Texas and never left. By the time of his death, he was recognized as one of the city’s greatest and most unusual minds.

Taking the name of a bird — and bestowing bird names upon his friends … Brown Pelican, Hermit Thrush, Western Grebe — was certainly unusual. But the Cassowary earned his reputation as a genius through his intensive study and photographic memory of birds.

Kincaid’s masterwork was to edit “The Bird Life of Texas” over more than a decade, which was no mean feat. Harry C. Oberholser had begun the work in 1901 and carried on for decades. By the beginning of World War II, Oberholser’s manuscript was more than 3 million words on more than 11,750 pages.

When Oberholser died in 1963, Kincaid was brought in to bring the work to light. He trimmed it by two-thirds — reducing the bibliography, for example, to 30 pages from 572 — and the two-volume work was published by the University of Texas Press in 1974.

Despite his fierce avian avatar, Kincaid was known to be a gentle, some say timid, aristocratic scholar. Supported, but unspoiled, by his family’s wealth, he lived with his aunt and uncle (Bertha McKee Dobie and famous Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie) in Austin until their death, then lived in their home until his. He would lead trips into the field dressed in an overcoat, tie and loafers. Kincaid was thoughtful and precise and his colleagues appeared to spare no praise when it came to his scholarship.

But as a scientific observer, as a bird watcher, perception was his genius — and Kincaid could see a future that he did not like. That future grew nearer with every highway, every paved development. Close friend and UT philosophy professor Charles Hartshorne remembered in his memoir one of Kincaid’s great quotes: “The two strongest forces in the universe are the condensation of things you don’t want and the evaporation of things you do want.”

That evaporation of bird habitat was too much for Kincaid to bear. He quit taking trips. He didn’t leave Austin. Finally, he became reclusive, afraid to leave the Dobie house, taking refuge in growing piles of clutter — notes, books, newspapers — and sleeping in a down sleeping bag on the floor.

Friends looked after Kincaid as best they could. But he was alone that night of August 9 when his worst fear was realized. He was not physically harmed in the robbery. Eventually, he untied himself and went to stay with close friends. A few days later he was found dead.

Kincaid had been in poor health for several months and the Travis County medical examiner’s office ruled that his death resulted from a fever. Officials abstained from connecting his death to the robbery.

Kincaid was buried beside his mother in San Antonio. His simple tombstone gives his birth name, the years of his birth and death and, at the bottom: “Cassowary.”

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