BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 January 2018
The year that ended yesterday was an historic one for ornithology, with the first meeting of the newly formed American Ornithological Society (AOS) in East Lansing, Michigan. As a student of the history of ornithology, I know how hard it is to predict the future of our discipline (i.e. impossible), or to even guess correctly how well research published during the past year will be regarded 10, 50 or 100 years from now. In 1981, Bill Gates is alleged to have said that he did not see why anyone would ever need more than 640 kb of memory in a personal computer. While that story may be apocryphal, it undoubtedly resonates because it reflects our personal experience with crystal ball gazing.
Even so, it is hard for me to imagine that the new AOS is not a move in the right direction, maybe eventually embracing ornithological societies throughout the western hemisphere. We have already reaped some of the benefits of that merger in the new journal structure, new websites and social media, and new initiatives for funding and outreach. More on the 2017 AOS conference below, but first a very personal listing of a few events in 2017 that made news in ornithology.
The history of ornithology is, in my opinion, best viewed through the lives of people who study birds, as it is they who made the discoveries and often inadvertently set a course for the future. The Auk and The Ibis, as well as other journals, regularly publish formal obituaries of ornithologists, but I am hoping in the future that we can publish some more personal accounts on this blog. Sometimes—but too rarely—personal accounts do get published in our journals (see for example, Jon Ahlquist’s obituary for Charles Sibley).
I am also hoping that many senior ornithologists will contribute their own memoirs to a series we will be launching this year at the AOS meeting in Tucson. I did not know personally all of the ornithologists who died in 2017, but each of the following influenced me and my research in profound ways: Amotz Zahavi (b 1928), Patrick Bateson (b 1938), Wesley (Bud) Lanyon (1926), Harry Carter (b 1956), François Vuilleumier (b 1938), and Chandler Robbins (b 1918). All of them have or will likely soon be remembered in more formal obituaries in the journals—I have listed a few under Sources, below—but I would be happy to publish more personal accounts on this blog. Send me an email if you are interested in contributing.
Birds were on the covers of the highest profile journals of general science (Science, PNAS, but—notably—not Nature) and biology (Current Biology, Proceedings of the Royal Society B) no less than 8 times in 2017, reflecting the continuing interest and influence of ornithology.
I estimate that there were about 21,000 papers published on birds in 2017. That’s more papers than were published on birds from Aristotle to the beginning of the 20th century. Clearly nobody could (or would want to) keep abreast of the ornithological literature the way that Elliott Coues, Alfred Newton and Casey Wood once did in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That makes me wonder if scientists now rely more than ever on books and review articles to get a sense of their discipline.
At the inaugural meeting of the AOS, in early August 2017, the slide show below was used to introduce the society and conference. Jen Owen (Michigan State University) put this show together to show some of the early history of the AOU and COS, and their development that culminated in the modern AOS.
My first AOU meeting was in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1966 when I was still a teenager. I travelled from Toronto to Duluth with my Royal Ontario Museum friends and mentors, Jim Baillie and Rolph Davis, in Rolph’s brand new Ford Mustang, getting stopped only once for speeding! While I felt very welcome at that conference, and learned a lot, I was taken aback that there were so few young people there and so few women (see also here). That was the year that the AOU first offered their Marcy Brady Tucker Award to provide travel subsidies ‘to assist a few promising young ornithologists’ to attend the annual meeting. I am not sure how many awards were given in 1966 (I did not apply) but I feel that was the beginning of a new era for the AOU.
I have not been to all of the AOU meetings in the intervening 50 years, but the 2017 AOS meeting was certainly one of the best of a very good lot. I was particularly impressed with the quality of the science and both the abundance and enthusiasm of young ornithologists in attendance. The three presentations by winners of our early professional awards—Michael Butler, Richard Ton, and Nancy Chen—were absolutely outstanding, for example. I sat in front of a well-known geneticist who said ‘wow’ twice and gasped once during Nancy Chen’s talk!
It would not be much of a stretch to predict that the 2018 meeting in Tucson will also be excellent.
Ahlquist JE (1999) Charles G. Sibley: A commentary on 30 years of collaboration. Auk 116:856–860.
- Brush A (2017) François Vuilleumier, 1938–2017. The Auk 134: 776-777.
- Clutton-Brock T, Ridley A (2017) Obituary: Amotz Zahavi 1928–2017, Behavioral Ecology 28: 1195–1197, https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arx115
Davies N (2018), Sir Patrick Bateson 1938–2017. Ibis 160: 253–254. doi:10.1111/ibi.12550
- James FC (2017), Chandler Seymour Robbins (1918–2017). Ibis 159: 940–941. doi:10.1111/ibi.12518
- Sheppard JM, Dawson DK, and Sauer JR (2017) Chandler S. Robbins, 1918–2017. The Auk 134: 935-938.
IMAGES: all of the images in this slideshow are in the public domain, or in the archives of the AOS History Committee. They are used here for educational purposes and may not be copied or used without permission from Jen Owen and/or the AOS History Committee.