BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 31 December 2018
When I first began to take a serious interest in the history of ornithology, about 20 years ago, there were very few books on the topic. In 1975, Stresemann’s Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present was translated into English from the original 1951 German edition. Ernst Mayr added a chapter to that to bring it more or less up-to-date with respect largely to North American research, but besides some excellent edited works there was little else. This past year, in contrast, has seen the publication of a dozen books—including three fascinating biographies—that have tapped the rich history of our discipline.
Months ago (see here), I fully intended to read and review on this blog each of those books by the end of the year. But here it is, the last day of the year, and I have barely started. Here, then, is a brief roundup up my holiday readings, both books and online, relevant to the history of ornithology, all published in 2018 except McGhie’s book on Henry Dresser, published in the closing days of 2017.
- Bargheer S (2018) Moral Entanglements : Conserving Birds in Britain and Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This is both an historical account and a sociological analysis of two contrasting national approaches to the conservation of birds. While this is an interesting, somewhat stereotypical comparison of two cultures, I am not convinced that we learn very much about the needs of conservation now by looking at the moral underpinnings of conservation past. Thought provoking, at the very least.
- Birkhead TR (2018) The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury. Francis Willughby is little-known today, in part because he died in 1672 at the age of 36, before he wrote anything of note about birds. But with his friend and tutor, John Ray, Willughby tried to revolutionize natural history in the 17th century. After Willughby died, Ray published Ornithologia Tres Libris based on Willughby’s research and ideas. Birkhead argues well that Willughby was the first true ornithologists and their book the first encyclopedia of ornithology. This is Willughby’s story, told as an engaging narrative, with surprising insights into his work and achievements
- Brush MJ, Brush AH (2018) Mark Catesby’s Legacy: Natural History Then and Now. Charleston, SC: The Catesby Commemorative Trust. This is an unusual but very engaging book by the illustrator Martha Brush and her husband, Alan, who was editor of The Auk in the 1980s. It’s unusual because rather than just write about Catesby and his work, the Brushes traced Catesby’s travels, explored his writings, and assessing how the world that Catesby saw has changed in the past 250 years. And rather than reproducing Catesby’s (not very good) illustrations, Martha Brush has included 32 (very good) watercolours of species that Catesby described. While based on and inspired by Catesby’s work, the Brushes have made this book their own in a way that makes a unique connection between ornithology past and present.
- Davis Jr WE, Boles WE, Recher HF, editors. (2018) Contributions to the History of Australasian Ornithology. Volume IV. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 23. This is the fourth volume in this series of Nuttall Club publications on the history of ornithology in the Australasian region, begun in 2008. I have not seen this one yet but I expect that, like the others, it will be detailed scholarly, and useful.
- Dee T (2018) Landfill. Dorchester, Dorset: Little Toller Books, . An engaging account of the long association between gulls and humans in cities, inspired by the author’s experience banding (ringing) gulls at a landfill in Essex, UK. With gulls as his guide and inspiration, Dee takes us on a voyage through the Anthropocene and our long and bizarre association with waste.
- Johnson KW (2018) The Feather Thief: Beauty, obsession, and the natural history heist of the century. London: Hutchinson. This is the true story of concert flautist Edwin Rist who stole almost 300 valuable bird specimens from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2008. Rist broke into the museum late one night and loaded up a suitcase with birds of paradise, cotingas, and other rare and colourful birds all so he could harvest their feathers to make expensive flies for salmon fishing. Rist was only 20 at the time and planned to sell the feathers for hundreds of thousands of dollars in part to fund his purchase of a golden flute. Johnson weaves this story around the origins of these specimens, many collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, and the obsessive fraternity of elite fly tiers. This is an easy read that is one many year-end best-books lists.
- Lewis D (2018) Belonging on an Island: Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawaii. New Haven:Yale University Press. Focused on 4 birds — Small-billed Moa-Nalo, ‘O‘o, Palila, and Japanese White-Eye, Lewis describes the history of research and conservation of birds in Hawaii.
- MacGhie HA (2017) Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, books and business. Manchester: Manchester University Press While the focus here is on the life of Henry Dresser, from Manchester, UK, this book is a superb window on the state of ornithology and ornithologists in the late 1800s. I have a written a full review for the January 2019 issue of The Auk: Ornithological Advances. See also here.
- Moss S (2018) Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got their Names. London: Faber & Faber. Even though at least a dozen other books have been published on the origins of bird names, dating back to at least 1885 (see here), this one is surprisingly fresh, interesting and useful.
- Mynott J (2018) Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mynott has produced an incredibly detailed, scholarly, and wide-ranging survey of man’s relations to and knowledge of birds in ancient Greece and Rome in particular. This is as much a cultural as an ornithological history of a long neglected aspect of ancient civilizations.
- Ogilvie MB (2018) For the Birds: American Ornithologist, Margaret Morse Nice. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Every professional ornithologist knows about Nice’s pioneering research on song sparrows, and many have read her autobiography, but this is the first comprehensive biography of this amazing woman. Ogilvie has tapped a wide range of resources to produce this definitive, interesting and thoroughly readable account. I will be reviewing this book in detail in a forthcoming issue of Birding magazine. Highly recommended.
- Olina GP (2018) Pasta for Nightingales: A 17th century handbook of bird-care and Folklore. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. This is the first English translation, by Kate Clayton, of some parts of one of the classics of early ornithology written ins 1622. Illustrated with contemporary watercolours from Olina’s day, but disappointingly superficial.
ALSO WORTH READING
- Biodiversity Heritage Library: a vast and growing collection of historically significant works on all aspects of biology. In addition to the earliest years of ornithological journals like the Auk, The Ibis, The Condor and The Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, among others. This is a very convenient and rich resource of rare old books on birds. [see here]
- Birding New Jersey—The Experience of Birding: This excellent blog, written by Rick Wright, often has posts relevant to the history of ornithology. In 2018, for example Rick wrote about the origins of some common and scientific names of birds, when the first Whooping Crane was purchased for the London Zoo (1858), the superb contributions to ornithology by the virtually unknown François Levaillant and Magnus von Wright, and the early exploits of both Audubon and Vieillot. [see here]
- Matthew R. Halley’s website: among other things Halley maintains an archive [here] of material that he has gathered on the history of science, largely ornithology
Catesby M (1731–43) The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. London: Privately published.
Ray J (1676) Ornithologiae libri tres: in quibus aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè descripbuntur, descriptiones iconibus. London: John Martyn.
Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.