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He was born to Joshua Belding and Rosetta Cooley Belding on 12 June 1829 at West Farms, Massachusetts, but later moved to Kingston, Pennsylvania when he was about 7 years old and finally to California. He spent many years on whaling ships, but became fascinated by birds after acquiring his first bird book in 1876.
By then he retired in Stockton, California and became a foremost authority on the avifauna of California and Baja California. He died on the 22 November 1917 and is buried in Rural Cemetery in Stockton, California.
In addition to his work as a self-taught ornithologist, Belding made a contribution to Baja California anthropology. In 1882-1883, he joined with the Dutch anthropologist Herman ten Kate in exploring the Cape Region at the peninsula's southern extremity. In 1885, Belding published an article describing their largely unsuccessful efforts at locating descendants of the region's native Pericú inhabitants and their more successful discoveries of caves containing distinctive secondary, painted burials.
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