Leading Ornithologist : Jean Delacour, 95, Dies; Led L.A. Museum

Times Staff Writer

Jean Delacour, French-born former director of the Los Angeles County Museum who was regarded by many as the leading ornithologist in the world, has died at age 95.

Delacour died Tuesday at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. A memorial service was held Friday at Holy Cross Cemetery.

At one time he owned the world’s largest private zoo and aviary, on his 12th-Century ancestral estates in Normandy. The Nazis bombed the castle, Chateau de Cleres, during their invasion of France in World War II and it had to be rebuilt.


German soldiers had killed and eaten many of the rare waterfowl Delacour had collected.

From Rich Family

During the war, Delacour, whose family was one of the richest in France, served as a liaison officer between the French and British armies. He dropped out of sight with the fall of France and was not heard from by fellow scientists in the United States for a year.

Delacour came to the United States in 1941, serving as a technical adviser to the Bronx Zoo and a research associate of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was naturalized in 1946. He took over as director of the Los Angeles County Museum in February, 1951, (before the Museum of Art became a separate institution) and retired in October, 1960.

“He was the pre-eminent living ornithologist,” said Ralph Schreiber, curator of ornithology at the County Museum of Natural History. “His work in early exploration, conservation, bird behavior and work in ornithological parks is classic work that will be referred to forever.”

Delacour was the author of four major books in his field, as well as numerous articles in scientific and popular publications. He was conceded by many experts to be the world’s foremost aviculturist, or breeder of birds in captivity, and was an adviser to numerous zoos, including those in Los Angeles and San Diego.

“Probably his major contribution,” Schreiber said, “was leading expeditions into Indochina.”

By 1951, he had led seven such treks, bringing out 50,000 rare bird specimens and 15,000 rare mammals.

Since his retirement, he had continued to work with ornithological and conservation societies, some of which he organized. He was, for instance, founder of the International Council for Bird Preservation in 1922. He also established, in 1920, a major French ornithological journal, L'Oiseau, which he edited until the war in 1940.

His Normandy estates, which were restored to become a major zoological park and where he spent his summers, have been willed to the French government, Schreiber said. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Delacour lived at the California Club in Los Angeles during the winters.

The famed ornithologist was born in Paris and attended a Jesuit school there. He was certificated by the University of Lille in 1914. He never married and had no brothers or sisters. He was buried next to his mother at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Schreiber said a new bird hall is being designed at the Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park and that a memorial fund for that hall has been established in Delacour’s name.