Mr. Cairngorms

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 18 February 2019

In 2013, while compiling information for a chapter on the contributions of ornithology to evolutionary biology, I carried on a lively correspondence, by email, with Adam Watson. Watson was a renowned Scottish ecologist, naturalist and conservationist who had worked with Vero Wynne-Edwards, a staunch promoter of evolution by group selection.  We have all of Wynne-Edwards archives here at Queen’s University [1] but the man was exceptionally careful not to record (or preserve) any personal opinions in his letters or field notes. I wrote to Watson to learn more about Wynne’s interactions with David Lack, the leading evolutionary ecologist of the day, who saw no need for anything different from the sort of individual selection described by Darwin.

Wynne-Edwards and Watson had, for example, taken David Lack on a walk in the Cairngorms in 1968 at a time when the two men were having a fierce debate about group selection [2]. But, as Watson wrote to me, their meeting was extremely amicable and group selection was, as far as he could remember, never mentioned. Lack impressed everyone by spotting a rare bird and a rare plant [3], and the day turned out to be a pleasant hike in the mountains with a focus on natural history.

Adam Watson banding a ptarmigan chick

Watson was on that day-hike with Lack and Wynne-Edwards, not only because he worked with Wynne, but also because he was an expert on the Cairngorms, three plateaus of wild natural beauty in the eastern highlands of Scotland, dotted with the blunted fists of mountains rising above the plateaus. Five of those mountains are among the 6 highest peaks in Scotland and snow can fall at any time of the year. I have never been to that part of Scotland but descriptions of both the landscape and the birds remind me of High Arctic Canada, with breeding Snow Buntings and Rock Ptarmigan, and even the occasional Lapland Longspur and Snowy Owl. Watson loved it there and spent much of his life exploring and studying the region. He certainly earned the local moniker of ‘Mr Cairngorms’.

I first encountered Watson’s research in the 1970s in a graduate course at UBC in ecology where we read his classic papers with Jenkins and Moss on the causes of red grouse cycles in Scotland. These Scottish biologists were clearly in the Elton/Chitty/Krebs school of ecology, wherein they attributed population fluctuations to extrinsic factors like food supply and predation.

Red Grouse numbers on one study area in Scotland, 1957-1961

My second encounter with Watson’s work began in the 1980s when I started studying Rock Ptarmigan in the Canadian High Arctic. Watson had done his own PhD in 1956 on Rock Ptarmigan in Scotland. He continued to study that species at least until 1964 but then turned his attention to the more widespread and economically important Red Grouse. We were interested in behavioural ecology, specifically sexual selection with respect to combs and plumages, so it was important for us to keep the basic ecology of ptarmigan (of which the Red Grouse is one) in mind. We were also inspired by the experimental approach that Watson and colleagues took to addressing questions of interest.

  During the 1980s, Peter Hudson, Andy Dobson and their colleagues discovered a role for parasites in these population fluctuations. The result was a fierce conflict between Watson and the others about the controlling factors in population regulation. Thirty 30 years later, now that the dust has settled a bit, I expect that both camps had useful data and arguments to bring to bear on population cycles.

Most recently, when writing about the history of ornithology in Nunavut, I read Watson’s book [4] and papers from his summer on Baffin Island in 1953. In 1945, when he was only 14, Watson met Wynne-Edwards when Wynne moved to Aberdeen as Regius Professor. Wynne’s first academic position was at McGill University where he lectured from 1929 until the start of WWII. With their shared interest in natural history, Wynne and Watson often hiked in the mountains of northeastern Scotland.

Watson did his honours thesis at Aberdeen University studying ptarmigan under Wynne’s supervision, then in 1952 began his PhD continuing his ptarmigan research. At Wynne’s encouragement, Watson applied for and won a Carnegie Arctic Scholarship to attend McGill University for a year, associated with the nearby Arctic Institute of North America. It was there that the Director, Pat Baird, invited Watson to be zoologist on a 13-man expedition [5] to Baffin Island in 1953.

Watson studying Snowy Owls (sketch by James Houston [6]
The purpose of that expedition was to study the geology, glaciers, zoology and botany of an area called the Penny Highlands on the Cumberland Peninsula on the southeast coast of Baffin. They departed Montreal on 12 May and returned 4 months later. Watson conducted probably the first reasonably accurate census of the densities of tundra-breeding birds, and did a comprehensive study of Snowy Owl breeding biology and ecology. In his studies of both the owls on Baffin and the ptarmigan in Scotland, Watson was a pioneer in the field that we now call behavioural ecology.

WatsonVCWEWatson was clearly thrilled with his experiences on that expedition: It was a very fine summer trip. Being on that expedition with my expedition colleagues and Inuit companions, and studying Arctic wildlife among the finest mountains I had ever seen, were a rare treat and a highlight of my life. Perhaps they were the highlight.[7].

One clear attraction was that that region in particular, and Baffin Island in general, had rarely been explored by scientists. Only two ornithologists had so far done any work on Baffin: Bernhard Hantzsch on an ill-fated expedition to cross the island in 1909-1911, and Dewy Soper looking for the breeding grounds of the blue goose in the 1920s. Watson thus did not really know what to expect on the Penny Highlands so he did both general surveys and focused studies.

Toward the end of the summer they were joined by Wynne-Edwards who had been studying seabirds at Cape Searle at the tip of the Cumberland Peninsula. In preparation for their trip back to civilization everyone got their hair cut. I expect that Watson really treasured the photo above where his PhD supervisor was cutting his hair in one of the most beautiful outdoor barbershops in the world.

Adam Watson died [8] on 23 January 2019. He was 88 years old. I never had the privilege of meeting him, but I feel honoured to have known him even just by email. Someday I will visit the Cairngorms to pay tribute to his tireless efforts to preserve that interesting part of Scotland for both the birds and hares, and for people like him that love wild places.



  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Hudson P, Tapper S (1979) Grouse populations—do they cycle? Annual Review of Game Conservancy 11:17–23.
  • Hudson PJ, Dobson AP,  Newborn D (1985) Cyclic and non-cyclic populations of red grouse: a role for parasitism? In: Ecology and genetics of host-parasite interactions (Ed by Rollinson D, Anderson RM). Pp 79-89. London: Academic Press. London.
  • Hudson PJ (1986) The effects of parasitic infections on the population fluctuations of red grouse in the north of England. In: Proceedings of the Third International Grouse Symposium (ed. By Hudson PJ, Lovell TWI )
  • Jenkins D, Watson A, Miller GR (1963) Population Studies on Red Grouse, Lagopus lagopus scoticus (Lath.) in North-East Scotland. Journal of Animal Ecology 32: 317-376
  • Montgomerie RD (2018) History of ornithology in Nunavut. pages 45-69 in Richards JM, Gaston AJ, editors. Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • Watson A (1953) Birds in Cumberland Peninsula, Baffin Island. Canadian Field-Naturalist 71:87–109.
  • Watson A (1956) The annual cycle of rock ptarmigan. Ph.D. thesis. Aberdeen Univ., Aberdeen, Scotland.
  • Watson A (1957) The behaviour, breeding and food-ecology of the snowy owl Nyctea scandiaca. Ibis 99:419–462.

  • Watson A (1963) Bird numbers on tundra in Baffin Island. Arctic 16:101–108.

  • Watson A (1965) A population study of ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) in Scotland. Journal of Animal Ecology 34: 135-172.
  • Watson A (2011) A Zoologist on Baffin Island 1953. Rothersthorpe, UK: Paragon Publishing.

  • Watson A, Moss R (1970) Dominance, spacing behaviour and aggression in relation to population limitation invertebrates. In A. Watson (Ed.), Animal populations in relation to their food (pp. 167-220). Blackwell Sci.
  • Watson A, Moss R (1971) Spacing as affected by territorial behaviour, habitat and nutrition in red grouse (Lagopus l. scotius). In A. H. Esser (Ed.), Behaviour and environment; the use of space by animals and men (pp. 92-111). New York and London: Plenum Press.
  • Watson A, Moss R (1977) Population ecology of red grouse. Annual Report of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology 1977 1978:18–21.
  • Watson A, Moss R (1979) Population cycles in the Tetraonidae. Ornis Fennica 56:87–109.


  1. archives at Queen’s University: Wynne-Edwards’s grand-daughter, Kathy Wynne-Edwards, was one of my faculty colleagues here in the Biology Department when Wynne-Edwards died, and a few of his relatives also lived in Kingston so this was a logical place for his archives to be deposited. See here for more details.
  2. Debate about group selection: see Birkhead et al. 2014 pp 369-371
  3. rare plant: the Lacks were on that hike especially to look for the rare brook saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis), which they found
  4. Watson’s book: self-published in 2011, full 58 years after he went to Baffin Island this chronicle of his summer on the Canadian tundra is remarkably detailed and full of both adventure and natural history.
  5. sketch by James Houston: Houston was a Canadian artist and novelist who lived for many  years in Cape Dorset on Baffin Island; he is credited with launching the production of Inuit prints and sculpture
  6. 13-man expedition: only 12 returned as one of the glaciologists, Ben Battle, drowned and was buried on the tundra
  7. quotation: from Watson 2011 page 5
  8. Adam Watson died: see here and here

IMAGES: all photos and the drawing by Houston courtesy Adam Watson; the photos of Watson and Wynne-Edwards was taken by Hans Röthlisberger; graph modified from Figure 4 in Jenkins et al. (1963) with the addition of Red Grouse illustration from Birds of the World Online at

In the Shadow of Men

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 February 2019

In 1973, I was stranded for several days on a small island in Witless Bay off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. I had gone there several times already that summer, conducting seabird surveys for the Canadian Wildlife Service. Landing on Green Island was sometimes difficult and the days were short as the local cod fishermen—Bill White and Henry Yard—who took me out and back liked to do so on certain tides to make the landings less dangerous. As the season was getting on and I still had a large part of the island to census, I decided, one day in June, to stay overnight so that I could get in 3-4 times as many hours on the island than was possible on a single visit. I took a tiny pup tent, two days’ food and water, a small camp stove full of fuel, a sleeping bag and a change of clothes as I knew I’d get wet.

shadowMy best-laid plans were thwarted by a fierce, unexpected storm that came to shore that night and lashed the island for more than a week. The storm was so wild that it prevented both the fishermen and an RCMP helicopter from picking me up. Often I had to spend hours in my little tent to stay dry and to keep from being blown off the cliffs. To pass the time I slept, made plans to stretch out my meagre food supply, and organized my field notes. I also built nooses of fishing line to catch some murres in case I needed to eat a few to survive as the storm was showing no signs of letting up. When cooped up in my little tent, I read, several times, the only book I had taken with me, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, which had just come out in paperback. That book—and the experience of being stranded and rescued—had a profound effect on me.

Three things about Goodall’s book were important to my development and outlook as a scientist. First, and foremost, this was the first book I had read by a woman biologist/naturalist [1], and it was just as good as all the others. I think that Goodall’s book more or less marked a turning point for biology that has transformed the role of women during the past 50 years. Prior to Goodall’s book, I had read many of the recent and now classic ‘popular’ books by and about naturalists—Tinbergen, Lorenz, Lack, Robert Ardry, George Schaller, Ernest Thompson Seton, Albert Hochbaum, Fred Bodsworth, James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson, to name just a few—all by men.

At that time, I knew of excellent recent work by women ornithologists—MM Nice, Mary Willson, Mercedes Foster, Janet Kear, Susan Smith—published in the bird journals, but they were very much in the minority. I have been looking at the publications by female ornithologists in The Auk and The Condor over the last 135 years and the trend—and the exponential increase in female authorships since 1970—is shown on the graph below, reflecting a similar trend in The American Naturalist.


My own experience as an academic reflects this welcome pattern as well. My first group of four graduate students were all men, all of whom went on to academic positions at excellent universities. My last (in both senses of the word) four graduate students were all female. It’s too early to tell what career path they will take but one of them just got a tenure-track job. This change in the composition of my research group since 1980 does not reflect any conscious attempt on my part to train women scientists—everyone that I took on as a graduate student was simply the best applicant at the time. During my first decade teaching (1980s), most undergraduate biology students were male; when I looked out on my 48-student History and Philosophy of Biology class last week I could count only 9 men.

Stilt Sandpiper, Churchill 1972

Goodall’s book also reminded me how much fun it is to study animals close up, and how much better your insights can be when you can get extremely close to animals without seeming to disturb them. I enjoyed that aspect of studying seabirds that summer in Newfoundland, but also when studying both sandpipers and collared lemmings on the tundra at Churchill, Manitoba, the previous two summers. Such close observations of behaviours seemed to be important for testing hypotheses in the nascent field of behavioural ecology, especially where social interactions were concerned. Partly for that reason, I returned to the arctic with my newly-minted research group in 1980 as I knew the birds would be tame, could be watched at close distance, and could be followed for as long as we wanted on the open tundra. That was one of the reasons that we were able to document high levels of extrapair mating in Lapland Longspurs, years before DNA fingerprinting revealed that extrapair paternity was common in passerine birds [2].

Ike and Tina just outside my tent

Finally, I was amused that Goodall had named all of the chimpanzees that she watched. I knew that Lorenz and others had named their study animals but I always thought that that would not be acceptable in a serious scientific study. Goodall reminded me that there was nothing wrong with making research fun and entertaining. Right away I started to give names to the pairs of seabirds nesting near my tent—was I going a little stir crazy? For the local pairs of puffins, black guillemots, herring gulls and common murres, I chose the names of my favourite folk and rock couples—Ian and Sylvia, Ike and Tina, (Peter) Paul and Mary, Jim and Jean, and Chuck and Joni [3]. Years later, we often gave names to our favourite pairs of Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings and Rock Ptarmigan. And, in the early 1990s, when we studied Ruffs on Gotland in the Baltic, we named each of the males on every lek and used hand-drawn mug shots to identify them individually.

Ruffs on Gotland—copy of a page from my 1990 field notes on Gotland

Today (11 February 2019) is the UN-sponsored International Day of Women and Girls in Science, designed to celebrate and promote the roles of women in all of the sciences. While we have come a long way since Jane Goodall began working on chimpanzees, less than 30% of scientists worldwide are women, and there are still many barriers and sources of discrimination and gender bias in the sciences.

At the AOS meeting in Anchorage this year we will have some displays celebrating the roles of women in ornithology. For a long time, ornithology was largely a man’s game [4] but there have been some great, but relatively unknown, woman ornithologists in the past. I have tried to highlight some of their accomplishments on this blog [4]. In that same vein, I will devote all of March (Women’s History Month in the USA) to posts about the contributions of women to ornithology before Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees.


  • Bronstein JL, Bolnick, DI (2018) “Her Joyous Enthusiasm for Her Life-Work…”: Early Women Authors in The American Naturalist. American Naturalist 192:655-663.

  • Burke T, Bruford MW (1987) DNA fingerprinting in birds. Nature 327:149–152.

  • Klopfer PH (1962) Behavioral aspects of ecology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

  • Goodall JvL (1971) In the shadow of man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


  1. first book I had read by a woman biologist/naturalist: it’s only when writing this post today that I realized this. It certainly did not surprise me at the time.
  2. Chuck and Joni: my friends and I went to hear folk concert by the Mitchells at a coffee shop (either Penny Farthing or Riverboat) in Toronto’s Yorkville Village one night in 1967 or so. But the couple had broken up the day before and so a very nervous Joni did the gig on her own. She never looked back.
  3. extrapair paternity was common in passerine birds: see Burke and Buford (1987) for an early example
  4. largely a man’s game: see previous posts here, here, here, here, and here

IMAGES: all photos, the Ruff drawings, and the Auk/Condor graph by the author; American Naturalist graph modified from Figure 1 in Bronstein and Bolnick (2018)

CORRECTIONS: in the original post I forgot to add the Bronstein and Bolnick reference, the image sources, and the drawings of Ruffs. All added on 13 Feb 2019

Dirty Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 4 February 2019

As a teenager, in the 1960s, I spent much of my spare time during the school year hanging out at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), not far from my family’s home in Toronto.  The denizens of the bird/mammal prep room in the basement of the museum—Don Baldwin, Hisham Badran, Jim Borack and Rolph Davis—took me under their wing and taught me how to prepare bird skins and skeletons for the collections. That experience led directly to my Dream Jobs #3 and #4 in 1967/68 when I stopped going to the University of Toronto in search of a more satisfying (and financially rewarding) way to spend my days.

Dream Job #3 had me working as a preparator for the Mammalogy Department, mainly preparing bat skulls sent in by a collector from what we still called British Guiana as it had only been renamed Guyana a year before. My Dream Job #4 was a Park Naturalist position at Algonquin Park where my first duties were to put their museum’s specimen collection in order. The contrast between breathing formaldehyde all day in the museum lab and inhaling the intoxicating scent of piney woods reminded me that I was really a naturalist at heart.

The Ornithology Department at the ROM was thrown into a bit of a tizzy in 1965 when they hired Jon Barlow [1], with his newly-minted PhD, to be curator. Jon brought new ideas and new methodologies with him and those changes—not surprisingly—upset the old guard and intrigued the young. Jon introduced us all to quantification (statistics!), cladistics, and phenetics [2] for the purpose of classification; to the value of skeletal and tissue material for museum collections (and, of course, systematics); to the need for rigour in field notes and detailed specimen labels [3]; and to the notion that examining intraspecific variation was useful—essential even—for understanding evolutionary change and speciation.

For those of us in the prep room, the biggest changes were that we focussed more on skeletal and tissue collections, and that skins should be washed in detergent to remove blood and dirt, then dried before making them into a study specimen. Barlow also taught me the “John Williams method” [4] of skinning birds by making an incision on the side rather than the belly, stuffing the skin with a cone of cotton, and finishing up without stitching up that initial incision. I used that method for a while but never perfected it and to this day use the traditional method of preparing study skins as outlined in Rudolph Anderson’s classic book on preserving vertebrate animals.

dirty Sacred Ibis in Australia

Barlow wanted us to wash bird skins not for aesthetic reasons, as you might expect, but because he was interested in measuring plumage colours accurately. Such colours would, of course, be obscured by dirt from dust-bathing or simply by the bird living in dirty environments, by foraging in evergreens where they would get resin on their feathers, or by blood and guts on their plumage while they were eating. He was interested in geographic variation in House Sparrows, to see how their colours may have varied (evolved) as they spread across the continent since their introduction in New York in 1851/52. He had studied with Richard Johnston at the University of Kansas and wanted to contribute to Johnston’s evolutionary analyses of that species. At first, we measured plumage colours by simple comparison to colour swatches in the Villalobos Atlas de los colores [5]. But Barlow was interested in exact quantification so we soon tried to modify a cumbersome desktop transmission spectrophotometer to measure plumage reflectance.

A recent paper by Shane DuBay and Carl Fuldner, at the University of Chicago, now suggests that by washing those bird skins we were flushing down the sink an important record of atmospheric pollution. On noticing that some bird specimens at the Field Museum of Natural History were quite dirty looking, they decided to investigate the source of that dirt. It turned out to be largely black carbon, which they verified by examining feather under a scanning electron microscope. They then developed a method using digital photographs of birds with white breasts to quantify the degree of light reflectance (less reflectance = more carbon deposited).

Horned Larks when atmospheric carbon was high (left) and today (right

To examine variation in these carbon deposits on birds in the industrial heartland [6] of America, the researchers photographed and analyzed the white breasts of 1097 specimens of five species [7] collected over the past 135 years. They used the excellent collections at the Field Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Michigan Museum of Zoology. Because these species all moult in the fall, and every fall, they took specimens only from the winter months, and could thus date stamp the deposition of carbon on the plumage to within a few months. The remarkable results are shown on the graph below. The black line shows their estimate of average carbon accumulation on the specimens from 1888-2015; the orange line shows the quantity of coal burned in the USA during that period; and the purple line shows the results of a comprehensive model to predict the black carbon emissions in those states.

Using the birds as an index of black carbon in the atmosphere, it looks like the amount of carbon was highest from 1880 until the beginning of the Great Depression (red arrow), when it declined steeply as carbon emissions dropped. Emissions rose again as the depression ended and WWII began (blue arrow), then declined slowly to its present level after the Air Pollution Control Act (green arrow) and other regulations were imposed to reduce emissions even though consumption was on the rise (orange line).

graph modified from DuBay and Fuldner (2017)

Why are these results important? For one thing they suggest that the previous model of atmospheric carbon made an estimate that was too low from 1880-1910. This is an valuable bit of knowledge for climate change models. The results also match the estimate of peak atmospheric carbon in 1906-1910 as estimated from a Greenland Ice core. That core presumably measured what was in the atmosphere over Greenland, but this new study corroborates that finding. It would be interesting now to compare the sootiness of birds from this study to birds collected outside those industrial states, and even in other parts of the world.

Museums worldwide have suffered from shortages of funds and staff since at least the 1970s. Just like blue-skies research, the essential role of museums for science and society is hard to quantify. The historical value of museums is obvious and they are clearly invaluable for systematics research. But we can only guess what new discoveries will emerge from museum collections and they deserve our support. I would never have imagined that they might help us to understand climate change.


  • Anderson RM (1932) Methods of collecting and preserving vertebrate animals. Ottawa: King’s Printer.
  • DuBay SG, Fuldner CC (2017) Bird specimens track 135 years of atmospheric black carbon and environmental policy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 43: 11321-11328
  • Johnston RF (1973) Evolution in the House Sparrow, IV. Replicate studies in phenetic covariation. Systematic Zoology 22: 219-226.
  • Johnston RF,  Selander RK (1971). Evolution in the House Sparrow, II. Adaptive differentiation in North American populations. Evolution 25:1-28.
  • Ridgway RA (1912) Color standards and color nomenclature. Washington, DC.

  • Villalobos-Dominguez C, Villalobos J (1947) Atlas de los colores. Buenos Aires: Libreria El Ateneo Editorial.


  1. Jon Barlow: (1935-2009) was the first person with a PhD in ornithology to be Curator of Ornithology at the ROM. He was curator there for 35 years.
  2. (statistics!), cladistics, and phenetics: Barlow did his PhD at the University of Kansas where he learned about all of these topics from Robert R. Sokal who wrote classic books on both biostatistics and numerical taxonomy
  3. detailed specimen labels: Barlow wanted so much info on the labels (life size drawings of gonads and skull ossification, preparation methods, details of moult, tissue and skeleton specimens) that we often had to use 2-3 labels to contain it all.
  4. John Williams method: Williams (1913-1997) was well-known as an expert on African birds and was said to be able to prepare >30 high quality bird skins a day using his method. My record was more like 15 on my very best day.
  5. Villalobos Atlas de los colores: there were other colour atlases more widely used by ornithologists (see here), like Ridgway (1912) but Jim Baillie (see here), the acting curator before Barlow arrived, had noticed a stack of the Villalobos atlases remaindered in a local bookstore and snapped them up at $5 each. The Villalobos had lots of colour swatches finely grading into one another, and clever little holes in each swatch so you could more easily match them to the object of interest.
  6. industrial heartland: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin
  7. five species: Field and Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Towhee, Horned Lark, and Red-headed Woodpecker

The Nice Bird Club

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 28 January 2019

When I took first-year Zoology at the University of Toronto, in the 1960s, our lab instructor/coordinator was Dr J. Murray Speirs. Speirs was a kindly gentleman with a bit of old-world charm, accentuated by his ever-present black beret. I warmed to him immediately because he was also a birder and had a reputation for encouraging young naturalists [1].

That warmth cooled somewhat when Dr Speirs gave me a ‘B’ grade for my bird list from a weekend class lab project where we had to record all of the birds seen in a day’s outing. My non-birder friends all got ‘A’s so I was particularly puzzled. When I asked him about my grade, he said that he gave me a ‘B’ because “every bird has a name, and you failed to name them all”.  I had listed 3 unidentified buteos and a half-dozen unidentified peeps, whereas my more savvy confrères had—I found out later—fudged their reports based on what the bird books told them to expect in late September in Toronto [2].

Doris & Murray Speirs

Dr Speirs was married to Doris Heustis Speirs who I met only once, at their home in Pickering just east of Toronto. This was on a weekend birding/photography outing with my friends George Peck and Jim Richards. As we left the Speirs’s home, I commented that Doris really knew her birds. To which they replied “Yes, and she also founded the nice bird club”. “Interesting,” I said, “but what’s so nice about it”. They laughed: “No, no. It’s the Margaret Nice Bird Club, named after that famous woman ornithologist, and it’s open only to women.”

At a dinner with the Speirs on 10 Jan 1952, the biogeographer Miklos Udvardy was appalled to learn that his wife Maud would not be allowed to attend that evening’s meeting of the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC). Murray and Miklos were going, but the club was ‘men only’ [3]. Udvardy’s response was priceless: “Is this the fourteenth century?” He then suggested to Doris that she start an ornithological club of her own, for women only [4].

A week later, Doris had lunch with two friends—Irma Metcalfe and Marjorie Lawrence Meredith—interested in birds, and they decided to start just such a club. They chose to call it the Margaret Morse Nice Ornithological Club (MMNOC), in honour of one of the pioneers of behavioural and evolutionary ecology of birds, a renowned ornithologist, and, in those days, one of the few well-known women who studied birds. They limited membership to 12 women, and their little club flourished for the next 35 years.

Doris met Margaret Nice at the American Ornithologists Union meeting in October 1938 in Washington, DC. At that meeting, Margaret was one of four speakers in a symposium— ‘The Individual vs. the Species in Behavior Studies’ [5]. Her paper ‘The Social Kumpan in the Song Sparrow’ was published in The Auk in 1939 and pays homage to her friend Konrad Lorenz and his foundational ideas about social interactions. Based on her own studies of the Song Sparrow, Nice’s paper and her participation in the symposium illustrate her stature as one of the leading American ornithologists of the day. Doris was enthralled with meeting Nice and wrote to her brother about their conversation about Doris’s own research: “…she questioned me on my research with evidently a sincere and even keen interest, as though I could really contribute to her knowledge of bird behaviour by my observations. Her simplicity, her deep humility and sense of awe and wonder were evidences of her greatness.” [6]

Thus began a lifelong friendship and an obvious reason for the name that Doris gave to her bird club. Here is Nice on that friendship in a letter to Speirs: I feel that the study of ornithology is a wonderful game in which strong sympathy and fellowship reign between the serious participants: we are friends and glad to help one another. We have high standards for our science and we want beginners to realize this [7]. Nice visited the Speirs home several times, and there got the inspiration for her seminal review on avian incubation periods, published in The Condor in 1954. The Speirs maintained a fabulous ornithological library in their home and Nice began exploring their books to see what some writers, as far back as Aristotle, had to say about incubation. She noticed, for example, that new bird books often reported different incubation periods for the same species [8].

nicecoverIn 1979, a few years after Nice died, the MMNOC published her autobiography Research is a Passion with Me as a tribute to their patron saint. It’s not often—not often enough—that scientists, and particularly ornithologists, write their own stories and those by Charles Darwin, Margaret Nice and others are a treasure trove for historians of science about how the authors viewed themselves. One must, of course, read an autobiography with that in mind as the authors do have a certain bias, may leave out the unflattering bits, and have no real appreciation for the historical (in retrospect) context of their lives and research contributions. All that said, Nice’s autobiography is—as is Darwin’s—a wonderful read and was, for me, an inspiration. It was published, and I read it, in the year that I completed my PhD and it reminded me once again that it was OK to be passionate about research, and that persevering in the face of great odds was (or at least could be) very rewarding [9].

ogilviecoverSoon I will be reviewing a new full-length biography of Margaret Morse Nice in Birding magazine. This book—For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie (University of Oklahoma Press)—was published in September 2018 and is the first biography of this remarkable woman. While Nice’s autobiography gave us lots of insights into her life and research, Ogilvie’s book is richer with detail and context. Ogilvie was Curator of the History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma where much of Nice’s archives are housed, and she appears to have read everything that Nice ever wrote including letters, manuscripts, and publications, as well as talking to many of Nice’s relatives, friends and colleagues. Ogilvie chronicles an important period in biology, when women often struggled to do research and to obtain some recognition for their many accomplishments. In part, because of women like Margaret Morse Nice and Doris Huestis Speirs, they witnessed a sea change in the roles and prominence of women to ornithology during their lifetimes.


  • Darwin F, ed. (1887) The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray.
  • Falls JB (1990) Doris Huestis Speirs 1894 – 1989. Picoides 4: 3-4
  • Iron J,. Pittaway R (2010) Who was Mrs. Gordon Mills? TOC Newletter, January 2010, pp 2-3
  • Nice MM (1939) The social kumpan and the Song Sparrow. The Auk 56: 255–262.
  • Nice MM (1954) Problems of incubation periods in North American birds. The Condor 56:173–197.

  • Nice MM (1979) Research Is a Passion with Me: The Autobiography of a Bird Lover. Dundurn.

  • Ogilvie MB (2018) For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.


  1. Murray Speirs’s reputation: Dr Speirs and his wife Doris took several local young naturalists under their wings and often took them out birding. I am grateful to Jim Richards for several insights about the Speirs and their generosity, in an email to me on 27 January 22019.
  2. first-year lab reports: I almost failed first-year Botany for always drawing accurately what I saw under the microscope instead of what I was supposed to see. These experiences were transformative for me as I vowed to never penalize my own students—if I should ever became a professor, which seemed unlikely in those days as I was doing poorly in my courses—for describing exactly what they saw even if it seemed incorrect or unorthodox
  3. men only: I had been to a few meetings of the TOC as a guest of my older friends, and often wondered why no women ever attended.
  4. ornithological club for women: for more details see Miles Hearn’s blog here
  5. symposium speakers: the other speakers were Francis H. Herrick, Frederick Lincoln, and G. K. Noble
  6. Doris Speirs quotation: from Olgilvie 2018 page 220
  7. Margaret Nice quotation: from Nice 1979 page 268
  8. Nice on incubation periods: see Ogilvie 2019 pages 2014-217 for more details
  9. on persevering: although I had been very privileged to do my PhD with a great scientist at an outstanding institution, the prospects for an academic appointment in Canada in those days, at least in my field, were zero. Over a period of more than 5 years around 1980 there was not a single academic job that I could apply for in Canada, and my interests were quite broad.

IMAGES: the Speirs from Iron and Pittaway (2010) colour-corrected; book covers by the author.

A very queer little fish: Bernard Brent, Charles Darwin, and elusive canaries

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 14 January 2019

trbredcanaryTwenty years ago when I was writing The Red Canary—the story of how in the 1920s a bird enthusiast and a biology teacher created a red canary—I needed to include an overview of the history of canary domestication. To obtain the necessary information, I started to collect eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books on canary breeding. As this was before many of these books became available on-line, I regularly checked for editions available at local and international booksellers.

Brent in 1863

Charles Darwin’s book The Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication, from 1868, provided an overview of variation, selective breeding and the process of domestication. In it, he covered the domestication of dogs, cats, pigeons, chickens, and (briefly) the canary. As his main source of information on the canary, Darwin cited a book by Bernard Brent [1]. Brent was a shipbuilder who was also a pigeon, poultry and cage bird enthusiast. He lived not far from Darwin and was a regular contributor to the Cottage Gardener [2] to which Darwin subscribed.

I eventually obtained a wide range of books on canaries, but Brent’s book, The Canary, British Finches, and some other Birds, eluded me. Despite regular inspection of the on-line second bookshops over several years, I never once saw Brent’s book offered for sale. Although this was slightly frustrating, it was not a major obstacle for my research since, I was able to use the copy once owned by Darwin himself, in the Cambridge University Library.

The apparent scarcity of Brent’s book made me suspect that only a few copies had been printed, but it also made me wonder whether Brent might not have been highly rated by the cage-bird cognoscenti. This view was reinforced, when I discovered that Brent had made a mistake—and one that Darwin repeated in Variation [3]—when he claimed that there existed a feather-footed breed of canaries. Brent had obtained this information from a mistranslation of the word ‘duvet’ (meaning down feathers) as ‘rough-footed’ (for unknown reasons) in the English edition of a well-known book about canaries by the French author J-C. Hervieux [4].  In his book, Brent wrote: “The rough-footed or feather-legged Canaries now seem to be very scarce, if the breed is not altogether lost, as I do not remember having seen but one, and that many years back.” [5] This suggests that he thought he may have seen one, which, of course, he could not have done as they do not exist.

brent's canaries plates
Brent’s canaries (1864)

My scouring of the on-line second-hand bookshops identified some twenty other books on canaries that Darwin could have cited in Variation, so why did he use Brent? The main reason I think was that Brent was one of first to enumerate and illustrate the different canary breeds. The drawings aren’t great (see illustration to the left [6]), but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. A further five or ten years were to pass before images of the different breeds in colour became available (see below).

Darwin knew Brent personally. They first met after Darwin became interested in the artificial selection of pigeons in 1855 and attended a fanciers’ meeting in London [7]. After this initial encounter Darwin wrote to his son William referring to Brent as “a very queer [meaning unusual] little fish”,  adding that “all pigeon fanciers are little men, I begin to think” [8]. Brent was indeed small in stature [9] and, according to Darwin. both “a very obliging kind man, but very crotchetty” [10] and “eccentric” [11]. Nevertheless, Brent and Darwin corresponded and Brent visited Darwin’s home [12] and became Darwin’s chief source of poultry information [13], as well  providing other details such as the breeding canary-finch hybrids [14]. It is also possible that Brent gave Darwin the copy of his Canary book.

img_7783 (1)
Canary breeds (Anon 1873)

Last week, some fifteen years after The Red Canary was published, I was looking for another old bird book on-line. Failing to find it reminded me of my earlier quest for Brent’s book. I looked again, and to my amazement, there was copy in a bookshop on England’s south coast. I couldn’t resist it—hence the inspiration for this essay.


  • Anonymous (1873) Canaries: their Varieties and Points. London: Dean.
  • Birkhead TR (2003) The Red Canary. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson [published in the USA as A Brand New Bird. New York: Basic Books; and reprinted by Bloomsbury, London in 2014].
  • Brent BP (1855) The Cottage Gardener 15: 16 Oct pages 42-43, 13 Nov pages 115-116, and  11 December pages 184-185
  • Brent BP (1864) The canary, British finches, and some other birds: including directions for their management and breeding in the cage and aviary ; as well as the treatment of their diseases; with numerous illustrations. London: Journal of Horticulture & Cottage Gardener Office.
  • Darwin C (1868) The Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication. London: John Murray.
  • Hervieux de Chanteloup J-C (1718) A New Treatise of Canary Birds.  London: Bernard Lintot, London. [Available here. This is an English translation of Hervieux de Chanteloup J-CC (1709) Nouveau traité des Serins de Canarie. Paris: Claude Prodhomme. Available here]
  • Irwin R (1951) British Bird Books: an index to British ornithology, A.D. 1481 to A.D. 1948. London: Grafton & Co.
  • Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A Bibliography of British Ornithology from the Earliest Times to the End of 1912, including biographical accounts of the principal writers and bibliographies of their published works. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited.

  • Wood CA (1931) An Introduction to the  Literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press.


  1. a book by Bernard Brent: still not available anywhere online. Brent’s book is not listed in any of the bibliographies in my library, including: Wood (19310, Irwin (1951), and Mullens & Swan (1917). This is, in itself, is a quite telling indication of the scarcity of Brent’s. book. In 1878, Brent’s book sold for 1s. 6d. [the equivalent of US$11.15 in today’s currency]. Bernard Peirce Brent (1822-1867) lived at Bessels Green, Riverhead, in 1857, only 15 km from Darwin’s house in Downe, Kent
  2. The Cottage Gardener: from 1849-1855 published under this name for volumes 1-15 [vol 1-11 available here, but vol 15 with Brent’s article curiously unavailable online] then from 1861-1871 as Journal of horticulture, cottage gardener and country gentlemen with the new series starting with volume 1 in 1861 [vols 1-4, 6-8, 19-21, and 23  available here]
  3. Darwin repeated in Variation: as a result this mistake was repeated by others, trusting Darwin
  4. J-C. Hervieux: Jean-Claude Hervieux de Chanteloup (1683-1747) was inspecteur des bois à batir [timber inspector] in Paris, and looked after canaries owned by the Princesse de Condé who lived in the palace at Chantilly and to whom Hervieux dedicated his book
  5. two quotations: from Brent 1864, page 22
  6. Brent’s illustrations: the drawings are from Brent (1864) but I have added the names that he used
  7. attended a pigeon fanciers’ meeting in London: Darwin attended a meeting of the Columbarian Society, near London Bridge, on the 29 November 1855.
  8. quotation: see Darwin Correspondence Project Corr 5: 509
  9. small in stature: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 15: 119
  10. “…very crochetty”: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 13, Suppl. : 443 [see here]
  11. “eccentric”: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 15: 337 [see here]
  12. Brent visited Darwin’s home: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 247
  13. Darwin’s chief source of poultry information: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 60 n6
  14. breeding canary-finch hybrids: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 470

IMAGES: Red Canary cover by the author; Brent portrait from a site summarizing his family tree and relation to Isaac Newton [here]; canaries from Brent (1864) and Anon (1873) are from the author’s copies


BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 7 January 2019

A couple of years ago, my family and I had an early morning stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, en route to our spring bolthole in the French Pyrenees.  As we stumbled bleary-eyed to the end of the passport and customs lines, a tall, burly passport control agent took us aside and rather gruffly asked me “Are you with Her Majesty’s Secret Service?” My eloquent response was “Huh?”, to which he even more loudly repeated what he had just said. Passport control agents make me nervous at the best of times, so I blurted out the only response I could think of: “No, sir, I work for Queen’s University, not the Queen. There must be some mix-up.” He scowled, then broke into a broad smile and said, “No, I am just kidding, you are in seat 007.” Who knew that border agents had a sense of humour?

Bond, James Bond

I was reminded of that incident when I read, last week, that the real James Bond—the ornithologist, James Bond—was born on 4 January 1900. The story of Ian Fleming adopting the name ‘James Bond’ for his fictional hero is well-known (see the Wikipedia link, above) so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, at least from an ornithological perspective, the real James Bond is more interesting.

In the obituary that he wrote for The Auk, Kenneth Parkes said that Bond “was a bridge between the centuries in his ornithology as in his lifespan” [1]. I interpret this as meaning his approach to ornithological collections bridged the 19th (Victorian) and 20th century approaches. I consider there to be at least 4 distinct periods of ‘museum’ work in ornithology which I would call: (1) the Curiosity period where individual natural historians maintained small cabinets of curiosity and the focus was on identification and discovery, (2) the Victorian period where large collections were most often amassed by wealthy men who were largely self-taught, and the focus was on classification based on subjective comparison of specimens, (3) the Qualitative period where those private collections moved to museums and the focus was on distributions and zoogeography,  obtaining series of specimens to study the extent of within and between species variation, and (4) the present Quantitative period where museum collections are used to obtain data information about colours, shapes, sizes, and genetics of birds to test hypotheses about evolutionary change and anthropogenic influences. In many ways Bond bridged the Victorian and Qualitative periods.

de Schauensee

Bond grew up in Philadelphia but spent 8 years in England before graduating from Cambridge in 1922. Although he was always interested in natural history, his first job was in the foreign exchange department of a bank in Philadelphia. He quit that job in 1925 to pursue his interest in birds by joining the staff at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Almost right away he was to accompany Rudolphe Meyer de Schauensee on a bird collecting expedition to the lower Amazon of Brazil, from 10 Feb – 26 May 1926. de Schauensee was exactly one year younger than Bond, but was already a curator of birds at The Academy. On that expedition, they collected 500 birds and a few mammal specimens, and obtained valuable information [2] on species distributions and abundances . Even though they were outside the main part of the breeding season, they found and described the nests of several species, a topic (nidification) that became one of Bond’s life-long interests.

Many aspects of that expedition and Bond’s early career typify what I have called Victorian ornithology in that the major goals were to build up collections in museums, to learn about distributions of species, and to gather information relevant to systematic relationships among species. Bond, in particular, thought that the study of nesting habits might provide useful clues to systematic relationships. Also, like most Victorian ornithologists both Bond and de Schauensee had no formal training in science beyond an undergraduate education and worked at the museum without salary as both had independent wealth.

Bond is certainly best known for his work on the zoogeography of Caribbean birds, which soon became his main life-long interest. The second (1947) edition of his Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies [3] was illustrated with line drawings by Earl Poole and the third (1963) with spectacular plates by Don Eckleberry. That guide was, of course, how the novelist and birdwatcher, Ian Fleming, came across his name while on holiday at his estate on Jamaica. Bond revised the 6th edition of his field guide just before he died and it is still—30 years later, and more than 70 years after the 1947 edition—in print and available on Amazon.

Covers of editions 1-6, left to right (1936, 1947, 1974, 1980, 1985, 1993)

Bond’s research on Caribbean birds was more typical of the Qualitative period of museum ornithology in that he used his specimens to develop ideas about the zoogeography of Caribbean birds. David Lack once suggested to him that the avifaunal boundary that he had described between the birds of Tobago and those of the Lesser Antilles should be called Bond’s Line. Good idea!

the West Indies faunal region showing how it does not include Tobago (from Bond 1993)

Bond remained on the staff at The Academy for the rest of his career, publishing more than 30 papers on birds of the Caribbean islands. By the mid-1960s, he was well known as the inspiration for the name of Ian Fleming’s hero. On one of his trips to Jamaica he met Ian Fleming who gave him a copy of his novel You Only Live Twice, inscribed, “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity”. [4]

baby white pelican
a ‘fleming’ White Pelican

Before they visited Bond on Jamaica, Ian Fleming replied to a letter from Bond’s wife Mary concerning his use of her husband’s name for his swashbuckling, womanizing hero: ”It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born. In return, I can only offer you or James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purposes you may think fit. Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.” [5] It’s probably too late to expect the discovery of new and suitably horrible species of bird, but maybe we should call particularly ugly bird chicks ‘flemings’. Those of White Pelican would get my vote [6].


  • Anonymous (1989) James Bond, Ornithologist, 89; Fleming Adopted Name for 007. New York Times, 17 Feb 1989, page D19
  • Bond J (1947) A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. New York: MacMillan.
  • Bond J (1993) Birds of the West Indies. Fifth edition (Peterson Field Guides). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Parkes K  (1989). In Memoriam: James Bond. The Auk 106: 718–720.
  • Ripley SD (1986) In Memoriam: Rudolph Meyer de Schauensee. The Auk 103: 204-206
  • Stone W (1928) On a collection of birds from the Para Region, eastern Brazil. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 80: 149-176
  • Salvador RB, Tomotani BM (2015) The birds of James Bond. Journal of Geek Studies 2: 1-9 [accessed online 5 Jan 2019 here]


  1. quotation: from Parkes 1989 page 718
  2. obtained valuable information: their observations and findings were published by Witmer Stone (1928) who was, at the time, the senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Director 1925-1928 and Curator of Vertebrates 1918-1936
  3. Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies: the first edition was published in 1936 as Birds of the West Indies and Bond reverted to that title in for editions 3-6. The first two editions had no colour plates so were not in the same genre as modern field guides.
  4. inscription by Ian Fleming: reported in The Telegraph (UK) for 2 Dec 2008 [see here] when the book was sold at auction for £50,000
  5. Ian Fleming quotation: from Bond’s obituary in the New York Times (anonymous 1989)
  6. white pelican chicks: This suggestion was inspired by a brilliant graduate course term paper written almost 40 years ago by Bruce Lyon (now a prof at UC Santa Cruz) entitled ‘Why are baby pelicans so ugly?’

IMAGES: Bond from The Paris Review 26 Nov 2012; de Schauensee from Ripley (1986); covers from various bookseller sites; Bond Line from Bond (1993); pelican photo courtesy Bruce Lyon

Holiday Reads

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.


  • MoralEntanglementsBargheer 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
  • CatesbyLegacyBrush 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.
  • landfillDee 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.
  • BelongingLewis 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.
  • MynottMynott 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.


  • 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.

Three French Hens

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 24 December 2018

Tomorrow is Christmas Day and, like last year, I am spending the holidays in the north woods, a few km south of the southern tip of Algonquin Park, on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. I wrote about the Twelve Days of Christmas song a year ago and am repeating that essay here with some new pictures and a few additions—including some details about those Three French Hens—that I have learned about over the past year.

I particularly like The Twelve Days of Christmas because the words are secular, even though there are myriad religious interpretations [1]. The song originated in an 18th century memory game, celebrating an annual period of drunkenness and merrymaking sandwiched between two religious feasts. Many of those twelve days are about birds that were prized for the table. In mediaeval England, this period following Christmas was presided over by the Lord of Misrule and in Scotland by the Abbott of Unreason, both titles that I would be proud to bear.


The words to this Christmas song were first published in English in the late 1700s as a rhyme in a book called Mirth without Mischief, likely derived from a much older French song of similar structure and content, Les Douze Mois. The now familiar tune was not written until 1905 by the English composer Frederic Austin who adapted it from a traditional English folk melody.

As you will recall—for by now it’s an ear worm that you can’t stop humming—the 12 days begin on Christmas Day with the partridge. On 5 or 6 of the following days, the gifts are birds, interrupted musically, thematically and enigmatically by those 5 golden rings. I have no idea why the first 7 gifts are birds, but I expect there are traditional and psychological reasons that have been claimed for this but they are probably all about food. There have also been many Christian interpretations of this song but really no evidence to support any of them. I find the secular interpretations to be far more interesting and valid.

In the almost 238 years since the rhyme was first published in English, there have been at least 20 different versions of the words, especially with respect to the birds. Some of these variants are undoubtedly Mondegreens [2], but they were often probably just attempts to make the words more relevant to a contemporary audience.

The PARTRIDGE—on the first day of Christmas— was always a partridge, except in Scott’s 1892 version where it was a “very pretty peacock.”  Some authors claim that the partridge was the Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) a very popular game bird that had just been successfully introduced to England from France in about 1770, and much more likely to perch in trees than the native and abundant Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). But what about that pear tree, which again has been often claimed to have religious connotations. The French poem that may have been the basis for the English rhyme has a partridge representing the first month “Un’ Perdix Sole’. That version says that the bird flies in the woods (‘qui vol dans les bois’). The Perdix is the Grey Partridge, which in Old French was spelt ‘perdrix’ or ‘pertriz’, pronounced something very close to ‘pear tree’. I wonder if the English rhyme was originally ‘partridge and a perdrix’, though that would be two birds for day one. Nonetheless it seems to me quite likely that the pear tree was actually the perdrix, and had nothing at all to do with pears or trees.

On day 2, the TURTLE DOVES were French hens in one 1877 version, and the FRENCH HENS on day 3 were once ‘fat hens’ in 1864, and turtle doves in 1877. There’s a theme here as the first 3 birds were highly prized for the table, an excellent start to a period of feasting.

GallicRoosterBut why ‘French‘ hens? The Latin word for chicken is gallus and, as a result, the scientific name is Gallus gallus [3]. In Roman times, France was Gaul, and people who lived there were Gallic. It seems that the simple word association between the homonyms Gallus and Gallic irrevocably associated the fowl with France. Indeed, a rooster was often a decorative ornament on church bell towers in France during the Middle Ages, and the Gallic Rooster (see photo, right) was an important symbol during the French Revolution.

Bresse Gauloise

But also, when the Twelve Days rhyme was written, French hens were a prized table bird in both France and England. The breed Bresse Gauloise, for example, was sometimes called the ‘queen of poultry and the poultry of kings’. This breed originated in France in the late 16th century. La Fleche is also an ancient French breed from the Loire region of western France, and was renowned for its delicate flesh. During the 16th century hens from France were a luxury import from France. In the 19th century, the Houdan, another old breed from west of Paris, was one of the main meat breeds of France, and was imported to North America in 1865.

La Fleche

We humans are inordinately fond of eating chickens and a recent report suggests that the 60 billion chickens that we slaughter every year may turn out to be the paleontological signal of the Anthropocene. Of all the birds mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas, I doubt that anyone in 1800 could have predicted that the French hens and their kin would someday become the most abundant bird in the world, by at least an order of magnitude.

The CALLING BIRDS of day 4 are the most interesting to me as the original said ‘colly birds’ and subsequent variants said the birds were ‘canary’, ‘collie’, ‘colley’, ‘colour’d’, ‘curley’, ‘coloured’, ‘corley’, and finally ‘calling’ by Austin in 1909 published with his new tune. I am surprised no one ever suggested ‘collared’. The original ‘colly bird’ was the European Blackbird (Turdus merula) as ‘colly’ meant ‘black’ as in ‘coaly’, and is why border collies bear that name. The subsequent versions are undoubtedly the result of mis-hearings and misinterpretations.

The gift for day 5 in the original and modern version is GOLDEN RINGS but several sources claim that these are birds too, probably European Goldfinches, which were called goldspinks in the 1700s. Others have argued that these were Ring-necked Pheasants which have been claimed to have golden rings around their neck (but they don’t). The pheasant interpretation matches the culinary theme of the other 6 birds in the song, but the goldfinch was a popular cage bird in the 18th century. The melodic break in the song suggests a change of theme but the melody was added more than a century after the words.

The birds of days 6 and 7—the GEESE A-LAYING and the SWANS A-SWIMMING—round out the culinary theme before the song turns to dance providing some exercise after all that feasting, and chores that may have been neglected.

Here in the north woods the colly birds (and the only birds really calling) are Ravens, and the only ‘partridge’ is the Spruce Grouse, as all the geese, swans, doves, and goldfinches have departed for more southern winter quarters. The good news, this year, is that there are Pine and Evening Grosbeaks in the neighbourhood, as well as both species of redpoll. E-bird (map below) shows that I am well-situated (white star) to see Evening Grosbeaks in numbers, a bird I have seen only occasionally for the past 50 years.

Sightings of Evening Grosbeak Oct-Dec 2018 (from e-bird)

Counting the 5 golden rings, there are 28 individual birds in The Twelve Days of Christmas but I will be lucky to see even 28 individual birds on a day out in the winter woods here, where the temperature will be below freezing—and sometimes way below—for the next four months. That will not stop the 75 or more people who will gather in Algonquin Park for the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 29 December, where they will probably record fewer than 28 species [4] in a hard day’s work on foot, skis and snowshoes. This will be the 45th consecutive CBC for Algonquin Park and the 118th CBC since Frank Chapman started the count in 1900.

During the 19th century, the Christmas Side Hunt was a popular competition to gather game for the table during the 12 days of Christmas. Chapman, however, was a conservationist who saw great value in watching rather than hunting birds. That first CBC involved only 27 birdwatchers at 25 sites from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California, laying the foundations for what we now call citizen science.

French Hens (Houdans)


  • 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.


  1. myriad religious interpretations: see here, for example
  2. Mondegreen: Jimi Hendrix created a classic ‘Mondegreen’ when he sang (at least to my ears) “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in his song ‘Purple Haze’, first released as a single in 1967. Rock lyrics are a rich source of Mondegreens—words or phrases that are misheard—as Sylvia Wright, who coined the term, did when she heard a Scottish ballad say “Lady Mondegreen” when it actually said “laid him on the green”.
  3. Gallus gallus: Linnaeus established this in 1758, but John Ray called them Gallus gallinaceus in 1676 and the name had clearly been in use for some time in England and Europe. Gallus gallus is, of course, the scientific name of the wild ancestor of the domestic hen, the Red Junglefowl of southeast Asia
  4. fewer than 28 species: that’s what I predicted for last year and they did indeed record that number, and 4704 individuals. Their sighting rate was 31 birds per party hour and that was well above the average of 25. That’s a lot of work (maybe 3 birds per hour per party), but a great day out.

The Auk’s Auk

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 17 December 2018

Brewster, Allen and Coues when they were young men

On the first of August 1883, three young members of the tiny [1] Nuttall Ornithological Club (NOC) of Cambridge, Massachusetts—the President (William Brewster), as well as the Editor (Joel Asaph Allen) and the Associate Editor (Elliott Coues) of its Bulletin planted the seed that would grow into the AOU. All three were in their twenties at the time but would before long lead the scientific study of birds in North America.

To plant that seed, they sent a letter to 48 prominent North American ornithologists inviting them to a Convention in New York City in late September “for the purpose of founding the AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS UNION upon a basis similar to that of the “British Ornithologists’ Union” “[2]. At that convention:

…the question of an organ, in the form of a serial publication, was the first to present itself, and the impression was general that such a publication must prove indispensable to the work of the Union. It was accordingly voted to establish such a journal, its publication to begin January, 1884. Mr. Allen was chosen editor, to be assisted by a staff of associate-editors, likewise selected by the Council, who are collectively to decide the character of the periodical, and to whom will be intrusted its management…it became a question with the members of the Nuttall Ornithological Club whether the Nuttall Club should continue to publish an organ, which, under the new conditions, could only be a rival of that of the Union…the Nuttall Club, at a meeting held October 1, voted to discontinue its Bulletin with the close of the present volume, and to offer to the American Ornithologists’ Union its good will and subscription list…with the tacit understanding that the new serial of the Union shall be ostensibly a second series of the Nuttall Bulletin. It is therefore to be hoped and expected that the many friends of the Bulletin who have hitherto given it such hearty support will extend their allegiance to the new publication of the Union, freely contribute their observations to its pages, and use their influence to extend its usefulness. [3]

BNOClastAnd thus, in 1883, the AOU, and its journal, The Auk, were born—more by C-section than natural birth [4]—from the NOC and its journal . The NOC was the first scientific society (1873) devoted to ornithology in North America and its Bulletin (1876) the first ornithological journal in the USA. While we know when, how, and why the AOU and its journal were founded, the reasons for the AOU naming its journal ‘The Auk‘ and the origin of the line drawing on its cover are more mysterious.

As the short quotation above indicates, the AOU was patterned after the BOU (established in 1858), so it seems likely that the founders of the AOU wanted to name their journal after a bird, much as the BOU had done with The Ibis. But why ‘The Auk‘ and why the Great Auk on the cover?

The first editors simply claimed that: The outcry from all quarters excepting headquarters of American ornithological science against the name of our new journal satisfies us that the best possible name is The Auk [5]. And they go on to make several whimsical suggestions [6] for the choice of that name. I suspect, however, that the name was chosen simply because The Auk‘s first editor, Joel Asaph Allen, had great interest in this species, having published a note on their extinction in The American Naturalist in 1876. Like the Sacred Ibis that inspired the naming of The Ibis, the Great Auk was very much in the public eye in 1880, being the first North American bird clearly driven to extinction [7] by man, as recently as 1844.

Allen was also a friend of Charles Barney Cory, who lived in Boston and joined the NOC in 1876, when he was only 19. Cory was later one of the ipso facto founders of the AOU [8], one of the 26 men who attended that first conference in New York. In 1880, Cory began publishing his Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World, a large format work that was to appear in 12 Parts at about 3 month intervals, with each Part dealing with 2-3 species that Cory were most beautiful and curious. Each species account comprised both a hand coloured full-page (21″ x 27″) lithograph and 2-3 pages of text. Joseph Smit did the artwork, and the book was limited to 200 copies and could be obtained only by subscription.

In 1880, Allen reviewed Part 2 of Cory’s work in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club and said, of the Great Auk, that “the general execution of this plate is both spirited and artistic while the coloring is quite beyond criticism” [9]. Clearly, he was a fan of the book and the bird. That plate, or possibly the original painting, was used as the basis for the line drawing that appeared on the first volume of The Auk, shown below. Notice that in addition to pointing the bird the other way, The Auk cover shows a wider scene but the rest is identical.


In October 1973, a century after the founding of the Nuttall Club, the NOC presented to the AOU one of the original Great Auk plates [10] from Cory’s publication, in recognition of their shared history. That framed print is handed down from editor-in-chief to editor-in-chief of The Auk, and after 45 years was showing the mileage of its travels and its exposure to light and moisture. This year, the AOS is having this original print reframed and restored to ensure that it will continue to grace the offices of the journal’s editors-in-chief. Alan Brush (editor from 1984-92) recently donated to the AOS another beautifully framed Great Auk plate from the Cory book, which now hangs in the AOS executive office.

That first cover design served The Auk well for 30 years but was then replaced by an original drawing by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1913, then again by him in 1915 to match more closely the look of the original. That 1915 Great Auk by Fuertes has adorned the cover, with slight alterations, ever since:

The Auk covers beginning 1913, 1915, 1978 and 1998


  • Allen JA (1880) Recent Literature:  Cory’s “Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World.” Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 6: 111
  • Allen JA, Coues E, Brewster W (1883) The American Ornithologists’ Union. Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 8: 221-226
  • Anonymous (1884) Notes and News. The Auk 1: 105
  • Batchelder CF (1937) An account of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 1873 To 1919. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 8: 1-109
  • Bengston S-A (1984) Breeding ecology and extinction of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis): anecdotal evidence conjectures. The Auk 101: 1-12
  • Cory CB (1880-1883) Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World. Boston: published by the author for the subscribers


  1. members of the tiny NOC: the NOC was founded in November 1873 by 8 young men. The nucleus of that group was 4 former high school friends (including Brewster) who had been meeting each Monday for a couple of years to read Audubon and talk about birds. By 1883 the membership had grown to 15 (Batchelder 1937).
  2. quotation from letter to ornithologists: from Allen et al. 1883 page 221
  3. quotation about the AOU’s journal: from Anonymous 1884 page 105
  4. born by C-section: according to Batchelder (1937), Allen, Coues and Brewster acted on their own to found the AOU, using their NOC positions to establish some credibility. They did not, apparently, inform the other NOC members of their actions or their intention to transform the Bulletin into the Auk
  5. quotation about the best possible name: from Anonymous 1884 page 105
  6. whimsical suggestions: this rather long quotation, from page 105 in Anonymous 1884, is reproduced below
  7. first North American bird driven to extinction: the Labrador Duck was probably extinct by 1880 but it was always rare and it was not clear that humans had caused their extinction; the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet were still extant in the 1880s and were not extinct until early in the 20th century
  8. ipso facto founders of the AOU: as Allen et al. (1883, page 221) said in their report on the conference— Those who attend the first meeting will be considered ipso facto Founders of the American Ornithologists’ Union
  9. quotation from the review of Cory’s Part 2: from Allen 1880 page 111
  10. original Great Auk plate: see Bengston (1984). Cory’s publication is now for sale at auction for $30,000. Since only 200 were made, and the original lithographs destroyed, this is one of the rarest of 19th century works on birds

whimsical suggestions (see footnote 6):

Were the name of this journal one which anyone could have proposed and everyone liked, it could not have been an ‘inspiration.’ The editors beg to say that they have copyrighted, patented, and ‘called in’ the following puns and pleasantries: I. That The Auk is an awkward name. 2. That this journal is the awk-ward organ of the A. O. U. (These two species, with all possible subspecies, for sale cheap at this office.) 3. That this journal should be published in New Yauk. or in the Orkney or Auckland Islands. (It is published at Boston, Mass.. at $3.00 per annum, — free to active members of the A. O. U. not in arrears for dues.) 4. That an Auk is the trade-mark of a brand of guano. (A rose by any other name, etc. ) 5. That the Auk is already defunct, and The Auk likely to follow suit. (Mortua Alca impeninisin pennis ALCA rediviva!) 6. That the Auk couldn’t fly, and what’s the use of picking out a name. etc.. etc. (But the Auk could dive deeper and come up drier than any other bird, as Baird says.) 7. That The Auk apes ‘The Ibis.’ (Not at all. It is a great improvement on ‘Ibis.’ ‘Ibis’ is two syllables and four letters; ‘Auk’ is only one syllable and three letters — a fact which bibliographers will appreciate. It is simply following a good precedent because it is good. We wish, however, that we could ‘ape’ or otherwise imitate ‘The Ibis’ in sundry particulars. We should like to make THE AUK the leading ornithological journal of America, as ‘The Ibis’ is of the rest of the world. We should like to make THE AUK the recognized medium of communication between all the ornithologists of this country’, as ‘The Ibis’ is of that. We should like to take and keep the same high standard of excellence in every respect, and thus become such an acknowledged authority as ‘The Ibis’ is. We should like, on behalf of the A. O. U.. to imitate ‘The Ibis’ in the courtesy and kindliness already shown us on the part of the B. O. U. We should like to ‘ape’ or otherwise resemble ‘The Ibis’ in vitality and longevity. May its shadow, already’ ‘sacred,’ be cast while the pyramids stand ; and may THE AUK in due time be also known of men as an “antient and honourable foule” !)

Bird Paper One

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 10 December 2018

When we were writing our Ten Thousand Birds book on the history of ornithology since Darwin, we thought it might be interesting to try to illustrate the growth of the field since the mid-1800s. To do that, we prepared a graph showing the number of articles and books published per year for every fifth year since 1865, using both Zoological Record and, for recent years, Google Scholar. The results were staggering [1], showing an explosive growth in publications on—and presumably knowledge about—birds since the second world war. Since the year 2000, there have been more articles and books published about birds than in the entire period from the beginning of scientific publishing in 1665 until 2000. We can estimate the number of publications before 1865 with some confidence as there were very few bird papers published before that date. The world’s major bird journals did not even start publishing until the mid-to-late 1800s [2].


When we compiled that graph, we wondered when the first-ever scientific paper had been published on birds. It had to be after 1664, as the first ever scientific journals [3], Journal des sçavans and Philosophical Transactions, began publishing early in 1665.

To find that first bird paper, I scoured the early issues of both journals, looking at each issue as there was no Zoological Record or Google Scholar coverage that far back. The early issues of Journal des sçavans were devoted largely to obituaries, astronomy, and Cartesian philosophy, and Philosophical Transactions focused mainly on optics, astronomy, and other physical phenomena in its earliest years, though most issues had at least one paper on a biological/medical topic [4].

Male Bee Hummingbird

Although birds were mentioned in several papers in the first few years of scientific publication, the first paper exclusively about birds did not appear until May 1693—in the 17th volume, and 200th issue, of Philosophical Transactions. That paper was attributed to the noted English botanist Nehemiah Grew [5] who published a letter (by a Mr Hamersly [6]) describing a hummingbird. He called the bird both ‘Hum Bird’ and ‘Tomineius’, the latter a Spanish word derived from ‘tomino‘ which was a measure of weight equal to 12 grains (0.78 g). In his Ornithology of Francis Willughby, published in 1678, John Ray suggests that the name ‘Tomineius‘ reflects the weight of the bird. But the smallest hummingbird—the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) of Cuba—weighs three times that. I suspect that the name ‘Tomineius’ was just meant to indicate that the bird was extremely small.

Antillean-Crested-Hummingbird-Orthorhyncus-cristatusWe don’t know for sure which species Hamersly was referring to as tomineius was probably a general term for all hummingbird species. In his 1590  book on the West Indies, for example, José de Acosta says that hummingbirds were called ‘Tomineios‘ in Peru.

A hand-written annotation  in some manuscript notes [7], presumably by Hamersly, found in a copy of Richard Ligon’s 1657 book on Barbados says that “I sent this description of this bird to doctor Grew one of the Royal Society & he caused it to be printed in their philosophical transactions. This suggests that Hamersly was describing one of the 3 species that are common on Barbados. By ‘this bird’, the annotator was referring to the picture below right, which, though crude, looks most like the Green-throated Carib (Eulampis holosericeus. By its size, however, I think Hammersly must have been referring to the Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Orthorhyncus cristatus) which weighs about 3 grams, the smallest hummingbird on the island. It’s too bad that we don’t really know who Hamersly was, nor which species he was describing.

Green-throated Carib (L), and hummingbird illustration (R) from manuscript notes [7]

Grew, or rather Hamersly, made a number of perceptive observations of the hummingbirds, though recent research has shown that he was not quite correct. Here are a few of the interesting things that Hamersly noted, with comments and what we now know in square brackets:

  • “He is of a most excellent shining green Color…resemble some of our English Drake-heads” [true, both are iridescent green]
  • whole weight was the tenth part of an ounce Avoirdupoise” [this would be about 2.8 g which is about right for the Antillean Crested Hummingbird]
  • They feed by thrusting their Bill and Tongue into the Blossoms of Trees, and so suck the sweet juice of Honey from them” [hummingbirds don’t suck [8]; they take up nectar into their grooved tongue and force it back into their throat by pressing their tongue with their bill as it retracts]
  • I did observe them several years but never heard them sing” [he claims they don’t sing, but they do, as do all of the 50 or species that I know reasonably well. He may have meant they don’t sing a song that sounds like most of the passerine bird songs and that is generally correct]
  • He is called the Hum-bird or Humming Bird because some say he makes a noise like a Spinning Wheel when he flies..I never heard any Noise; besides their Body and Wings are too small to strike the Air to make any Noise” [he is mistaken here, of course, but he later acknowledges that other people have heard them humming. He should have known that mosquitoes make noise so that his comment about size must be wrong.]

He did correctly note that they are very solitary, and suggested that with such a beautiful plumage they may not need to sing well: “so I think this Bird is so beautiful to the Eye, as not at all to please the Ear“. Indeed, recent studies have found such a tradeoff between selection for elaborate song or bright plumage in different groups of bird [9].

In Nehemiah Grew’s day, anyone interested in the sciences could read everything published in all (both) of the scientific journals. Even when I was a PhD student, in the 1970s, it was possible (and de rigueur) to read most of the papers in ecology and evolution published in the major journals, and to read all of the recent papers published on your study organism. Those days are over and few scientists can manage to even be aware of all of the research relevant to their own studies. No wonder many scientists get most of their information about recent studies in their field from Twitter.

Even if you wanted to keep up with research on birds since 2000, you would face a daunting task. The Web of Science [10] says that 127,000 papers have been published on birds from 2000 to 2018. The following graphic shows the distribution of 115,000 of those papers in the best-studied topics:

Papers on birds published 2000-2018 on the 10 most common topics

Even focussing on hummingbirds, you would have to read 2383 papers to be fully informed about research published since 2000 (see below). Contrast this to the 36 papers on hummingbird ecology and evolution published during my PhD years, and the 48 papers published on those topics from 1900 until the year I graduated in 1979. We have come along way since Grew began the scientific publications about birds.

hbird papers
Papers on hummingbirds published from 2000-2018 on the 10 most common topics


  • Badyaev AV, Hill GE, Weckworth BV (2002) Species divergence in sexually selected traits: increase in song elaboration is related to decrease in plumage ornamentation in finches. Evolution 56: 412–419

  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Boyle (1865) A way of preserving birds taken out of the egge, and other small fætus’s. Philosophical Transactions 1: 199-201

  • de Acosta J (1590) Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias. Sevilla: Juan de Leon.
  • Grew N (1693a) The description of the American tomineius, or hummingbird. Philosophical Transactions 17: 760-761
  • Grew N (1693b) A query put by Dr. N. Grew, concerning the food of the Humming Bird ; occasioned by the description of it in the transactions. Numb. 200. Philosophical Transactions 17: 815
  • Lefanu W (1971) The Versatile Nehemiah Grew. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 115: 502-506
  • Ligon R (1657) A true & exact history of the island of Barbados: Illustrated with a mapp of the island, as also the principall trees and plants there, set forth in their due proportions and shapes, drawne out by their severall and respective scales. Together with the ingenio that makes the sugar, with the plots of the severall houses, roomes, and other places, that are used in the whole processe of sugar-making; viz. the grinding-room, the boyling-room, the filling-room, the curing-house, still-house, and furnaces; all cut in copper. London: Printed for Humphrey Moseley, at the Prince’s Arms in St. Paul’s Church-Yard.

  • Price DJS (1963) Little science, big science. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.

  • Rico-Guevara A, Fan T-H, Rubega MA (2015) Hummingbird tongues are elastic micropumps. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282:20151014.

  • Shutler D, Weatherhead PJ (1990) Targets of sexual selection: song and plumage of wood warblers. Evolution 44:1967–1977.


  1. staggering results: while the numbers are high, the pattern is typical of all sciences, as described by Derek da Solla Price in his 1963 book
  2. first major ornithological journals: see previous posts, here, here, and here
  3. first ever scientific journals: Journal des sçavans began publishing on 5 Jan 1665, and Philosophical Transactions (later called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) on 6 March of that same year.
  4. one paper on biological topics: Philosophical Transactions did have early papers on snake behaviour, breeding silkworms, and various medical anomalies, for example. There was even an 1865 paper on preserving bird embryos (Boyle 1865) but I don’t really count that as being about birds
  5. Nehemia Grew: was an early Fellow of the Royal Society, and was both editor of Philosophical Transactions (1678-79) and secretary of the RS. He is often called the Father of Plant Anatomy
  6. Mr Hamersly: although Grew published this letter under his own name, he revealed in Grew (1693b) that it was actually written by a Mr Hamersly of Coventry. See here for more information, suggesting it might have been John Hamersly, also referred to here as John Hammersley.
  7. manuscript notes: see here for details
  8. hummingbirds don’t suck: I discovered this tin the 1970s when doing my PhD on hummingbirds but I am sure that all of the other biologists I knew who were studying hummingbirds in those days—Bill Calder, Peter Feinsinger, Lee Gass, Larry Wolf, Reed Hainsworth and Frank Gill—knew this too; Rico-Guevera et al. (2015) recently described the details and physics of this process
  9. tradeoff between song and plumage: see for example, Shutler and Weatherhead (1990) and Badyaev et al. (2002)
  10. Web of Science: These numbers are smaller than what we show in the graph at the top of this essay, because Web of Science focuses only on publications in scientific journals, whereas we graphed all publications about birds. The data from Web of Science show the same patterns as in that graph but only about 7000 bird papers published in 2010, for example. To generate those data I entered bird* and ornithology as topics for the first graph and hummingbird* for the second and searched through the years in question

IMAGES: top graph from Birkhead et al. (2014), drawn by the author; Bee Hummingbird from Wikipedia; stamp from a stamp collection website; Green-thoated Carib (on Barbados) photo from Wikipedia, painting from manuscript notes [7]; bottom two graphs from Web of Science (accessed 9 Dec 2018)