Callow Youth

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 December 2017

In science, controversies often arise over complex issues when researchers approach a problem from different points of view, backgrounds, and philosophies—think, for example, of the debates over nature vs nurture, selection vs drift, group vs kin vs individual selection, gradualism vs punctuated equilibria, and mechanisms of sexual selection. As Ledyard Stebbins pointed out in 1982, the resolution of these controversies often settles somewhere in the middle because, in fact, both sides were correct to some extent [1]. Usually scientific controversies churn away towards some resolution with some degree of civility, at least in public forums. But not always…

I can still remember my first experience with a less-than-polite public argument among ornithologists. This occurred during a talk at an AOU meeting in the 1970s when two prominent systematists got into a shouting match during the question period after a graduate student’s talk. The issue was whether the approach taken by the student was correct, and the argument seemed to be between the cladists and the pheneticists.

I learned later that these clashes among systematists were commonplace in the 1960s and early 70s, during a period that was later referred to as the ‘Systematics Wars’ [2]. I was doubly surprised at such ad hominem attacks because the systematists that I knew from my years as a young volunteer and employee at the Royal Ontario Museum—L.L. Snyder, Jim Baillie, Jon Barlow, Jim Rising, and Allan Baker—seemed like the kindest of men. My own field of behavioural ecology, while often dealing in controversy, does not seem to have descended into the sort of personal attacks that characterized those arguments about systematics in the mid 1900s.

While scouring some older literature, we recently discovered [3] that the ‘Systematics Wars’ period was not the first time that avian systematists had engaged in rather nasty exchanges. During the 1830s, for example, two young  brothers—Charles Thorold Wood and Neville Wood, tried to change the rules about naming birds in a way that involved heated debate, vitriol, and ad hominem attacks in their publications.

The Wood boys were wealthy, aristocratic, well-educated, and precocious. In 1835, when he was only 18, Charles published a quirky book—The Ornithological Guide—comprising 236 pages of poetry about birds, a compendium of ornithological books, each briefly reviewed, and a catalog (list) of the birds of Britain. Not to be outdone by his older brother, Neville published two books the next year, when he turned 18—British Song Birds and Ornithologists’ Text-book. British Song Birds alone ran to 400 pages, and, though it appeared not to include any novel observations, summarized much of what was then known about each species. Notably, none of the Woods’ publications included any illustrations.

The Woods felt that the names of birds—both scientific and English—were in a chaotic state and needed rules to make them more ‘scientific’. They were right. Even though Linnaeus had proposed his binomial system almost a century earlier [4], rules for zoological nomenclature that would provide some consistent structure and process were just beginning to be proposed in the 1830s [5].

Female and male European Bullfinches, by John Gould 1837 in his Birds of Europe

The English names were more confusing and disorganized. In England, some birds were even given different English names in different parts of the country. In the 1800s, for example the European Bullfinch was variously called: Bull Flinch (Yorks), Bull Head, Bulldog, Bull Spink, Bully (Yorks), Thick Bill (Lancs), Alpe, Hoop, Hope (SW), Tope, Hoof, Cock Hoop (Hereford), Olf (E Suffolk), Nope (Staffs/Shrops), Mwope (Dorset), Mawp (Lancs), Pope (Dorset), Red Hoop (m, Dorset), Blood Olp (m, Surrey/Norfolk), Tawny (f, Somerset), Tony Hoop, Tonnihood (f, Somerset), Black Cap (Lincs), Billy Black Cap, Black Nob (Shrops), Monk, Bud Bird, Bud Finch, Bud Picker (Devon), Budding Bird (Hereford), Plum Bird, and Lum Budder (Shrops) [6].

The Woods were sure that some logic and rules for the structure of English names were needed if ornithology was to develop as a science. As Neville said in one paper ”“If the proper English generic names were applied to every bird, how greatly would the acquisition of this fascinating study be facilitated! . . . By using the names which I have given above, this [confusion] is remedied, and all becomes plain and easy to understand.” [7] Their solution, for English names, was to make every bird within a genus have the same ’surname’, just as every genus had the same first name in the Linnaean system of Latin names. Thus, for example, Neville proposed:


It was also suggested  at the time [8] that English names be cleansed of modifiers that indicate size, abundance, location, or honorific. Thus present-day names like Little Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, Moluccan Cuckoo, and Klaas’s Cuckoo would all have to be changed in the Cuculidae alone. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, as Hugh Strickland argued that common names were “consecrated by usage as much as any other part of the English language”. As he noted “the science of ornithology does not suffer by this incorrect application of English names, because those familiar appellations have no real or necessary connection with science”. Despite his admonition, the English names of birds are still in a state of flux today and may always be.

The Woods’ proposals were well reasoned, if sometimes seeming to be a little bizarre today. But their suggestions were often presented in such a way that demeaned those who had different points of view. In the Preface to his Bird Song Birds, Neville says: “while I agree with my predecessors in many points, I have found much to correct, and still more to add, to the meagre and unsatisfactory accounts of most of our British Ornithologists.” Ouch!

Neville’s review of Eleazar Albin’s Natural History of Birds claimed that it was “of no use in the present day” and of Jennings Ornithologia that he ”never had the misfortune to meet with a book so full of errors . . . We should have considered such a work beneath our notice, as it is impossible it can have the smallest connection with the advancement of Ornithology”. [9] Their writings are sprinkled with derogatory epithets and harsh criticism that even today strikes me as ungentlemanly, possibly simply the result of the Woods being callow youth [10].

Possibly because they gained few converts, and appear not have been well liked, both Charles and Neville drifted off to other pursuits before their 35th birthdays, never again to write about birds or to heap opprobrium on their fellow ornithologists. Charles published his last paper on birds (again on nomenclature) when he was 19 and then seems to have vanished from the public record; Neville trained as a doctor, and at the age of 26 moved to London where he practiced the new medical system called ‘homeopathy’ for the rest of his life. At least if he had stayed with birds he would have done something potentially useful.

Stebbins ended his 1982 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science [11] by saying that: “My final hope is that evolutionists having different backgrounds and viewpoints will reduce their rivalry and collaborate increasingly in zealous research toward finding answers to these and other questions of major significance.” This was a noble sentiment but ignored those ineluctable human (or at least male) foibles of ego, ambition, and competitiveness. I would argue that controversies are are valuable part of scientific progress, and I have certainly enjoyed watching the systematics wars from the sidelines. We should always try to maintain civility but the controversies that arise from different points of view often move a field forward faster and more profitably than would the absence of skepticism about published research.


  • Albin E (1731) A Natural History of Birds : Illustrated With a Hundred and One Copper Plates, Curiously Engraven From the Life. Vol I. London: Printed for the author and sold by William Innys in St. Paul’s Church yard, John Clarke under the Royal-Exchange, Cornhill, and John Brindley at the King’s Arms in New Bond-Street. <available here>

  • Anonymous “N. F.” (1835) Remarks on vernacular and scientific ornithological literature. The Analyst 2: 305–307.

  • Birkhead TR, Montgomerie R (2016) A vile passion for altering names: the contributions of Charles Thorold Wood jun. and Neville Wood to ornithology in the 1830s. Archives of Natural History 43:221–236.

  • Greenoak F (1997) British Birds: their folklore, names, and literature. London: Christopher Helm.

  • Jennings J (1829) Ornithologia, or, the Birds: A Poem, in Two Parts : With an Introduction to Their Natural History; and Copious Notes. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper. <available here>

  • Stebbins GL. (1982a). Modal themes: a new framework for evolutionary synthesis. in Milkman R (Ed.), Perspectives on Evolution (pp. 12-14). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.
  • Stebbins GL (1982b) Perspectives in evolutionary theory. Evolution 36:1109–1118.
  • Sterner B, Lidgard S (2017) Moving past the Systematics Wars. Journal of the History of Biology
  • Wood CT (1835) The ornithological guide: in which are discussed several interesting points in ornithology. London Whittaker. <available here>
  • Wood N (1836a) British song birds: being popular descriptions and anecdotes of the choristers of the groves. London: John W. Parker. <available here>
  • WOOD N (1836b) The ornithologists’ text-book: being reviews of ornithological works on various topics of interest. London: John W. Parker. <available here>


  1. Stebbins (1982a) argued that modal themes were often the correct resolution of these conflicts, as has proven to be more-or-less the case in all the controversies listed here, with the notable exception that group selection is still controversial (and mistaken in my opinion)
  2. see, for example, Sterner and Lidgard (2017) for an overview
  3. Tim Birkhead made this discovery while researching for the project on Francis Willughby that he wrote here about a few weeks ago
  4. Linnaeus Systema Naturae had built on Willughby and Ray’s attempt at organizing and logically giving each species a scientific name (Ray (1678), but in the subsequent century there were many attempts to apply Linnaeus system to the birds with each author claiming authority and none of today’s rules about priority, coordination or homonymy.
  5. The International Zoological Congresses of 1889 and 1892 saw the first discussions about some universal rules in zoology but the International Rules on Zoological Nomenclature were not published until 1905.  Earlier, the ornithologist Hugh Strickland had published a set of 22 rules for the formulation of scientific names that formed some of the basis for this later code.
  6. the sex that was so named,  and the county or general area where each name was used, are shown in brackets, from Greenoak (1997).
  7. quotation from Wood 1835a: 238
  8. this was proposed in a paper in The Analyst signed simply N.F. (Anonymous 1835), who I think may well have been Neville Wood based on what N.F. says and the style of writing.
  9. see Birkhead and Montgomerie (2016) for some other gems. The paper is behind a paywall but send me an email if you cannot get it and would like a copy.
  10. ‘callow’ seems to me to be a particularly good adjective to describe these young men, as it refers to someone who is “inexperienced and immature”,  but in the 17th century the term was applied to birds, and meant ‘without feathers’ or immature and not ready to fly.
  11. presented on 7 Jan 1982, at a AAAS symposium marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Charles Darwin; quotation from Stebbins (1982b)

Ray of Light

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 4 December 2017

Last Wednesday, 29 November, was the 390th anniversary of the birth of John Wray, exactly one week later than the birthday of his student, friend, collaborator, and benefactor Francis Willughby (on 22 November) who was 7 years younger. Wray changed his surname to Ray when he was 43 years old having decided then that that was really the ancestral spelling. Ray and Willughby are not (yet) household names for students of ornithology, but they should be for they really founded the discipline in the English-speaking world during the late Renaissance of 17th century England.

Ray was the subject of a major biography by Charles Raven published in 1942, a book that has been called “one of the great works in the history of science” but that book is old enough that most ornithologists are not aware of it. Ray published books on birds, mammals, fishes, insects, and plants, and has a book publisher (The Ray Society), a natural scientists’ club at Cambridge (John Ray Society), and a science-Christian educational charity (John Ray Initiative) named in his honour. In contrast, Willughby, until recently, has achieved little more than a passing mention in many of the recent books on the history of ornithology.

Willughby and Ray met at Cambridge where Ray was Willughby’s tutor. There they developed a shared interest in natural history—Ray was particularly focused on plants while Willughby’s specialty was animals. At first Ray and Willughby went on excursions around southern Britain, spending some time on the west coast studying seabirds in 1662. Then, from 1663 to 1665, they travelled around continental Europe collecting specimens, illustrations, and information about plants and animals with the express purpose of taking a new approach to natural history (which they did in spades). They embarked on that expedition with Philip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon and met many naturalists en route, including  Martin Lister in Montpellier, France. Thus began a long history of young Cambridge and Oxford students undertaking natural history expeditions to interesting places, many of them later becoming noted ornithologists, including Julian Huxley, Niko Tinbergen, David Lack and Reynold Bray. Willughby and Ray also engaged in extensive correspondence with Skippon and Lister after their expedition, gathering more information for their books from them and other British naturalists. Nathaniel Bacon went to Virginia where he fomented revolution.

When they returned from their travels, Willughby, who was independently wealthy, provided the financial support so that he and Ray could devote full time to organizing their notes and collections with a look to publishing several books. Their goal was to publish comprehensive treatises on different taxa based on some of their new approaches to natural history: detailed descriptions of external features and internal anatomy, a focus on observation and analysis rather than rumour and hearsay, a listing of ‘characteristic marks’ that would help the reader distinguish one species from another, and illustrations of as many species as possible. They also broke from tradition by organizing taxa based on similarity of appearance and anatomy rather than solely on the organisms’ habitats or ways of life.

Willughby died of pleurisy at the age of 36, before they had finished a single volume, so Ray took up the task of bringing Willughby’s first volume—on birds— to print, based on Willughby’s extensive notes and drafts. This 489-page volume was published in Latin in 1676 with the title Francisci Willughbeii…Ornithologiae libri tres [The ornithology of Francis Willughby in three books], hereafter Ornithology [1]. The three ‘books’ in this single volume are: I. De Avibus in genere [Birds in General] on pages 1-23, II. De Avibus Majoribus [Land Birds] on pages 25-198 [2], and III. De Avibus Aquaticus [Aquatic Birds] on pages 199-295, followed by an Appendix, an index, and 77 black and white plates.


Title pages of the Latin (1676) and English (1678) editions of Ornithology

The Appendix in Ornithology is particularly notable because it describes ‘species’ for which they could obtain no evidence, explaining in detail their skepticism about the very existence of these birds:

Containing Such birds as we expect for fabulous, or such as are too briefly and inaccurately described to give us a full and sufficient knowledge of them, taken out of Franc. Hernandez especially. [3]

Willughby and Ray insisted on clear evidence before they would give credence to any species that they included in the main text of Ornithology. In fact they were wrong about many of the birds listed in that Appendix but good for them for being skeptical.

Two years later Ray published an English translation of Ornithology enhanced with some additional information sent to him by his correspondents, and large new sections on bird catching (fowling) and falconry. Those new sections mirrored the foundations of bird study in Europe where falconry and fowling—along with keeping songbirds in cages—were the primary connections that most people had with birds.

Plates 1 (left) and 77 (right) of Ornithology

Anyone with an interest in birds should read Ray’s Willughby’s Ornithology. I marvel at the astuteness of the authors’ writing more than three centuries ago in an age when the first journals of science had just begun publication, and many people still thought that swallows overwintered in the mud, that the Harpy and the Phoenix were real, and that all birds had been created a few thousand years previously by an almighty deity.  This volume and many of Ray’s 22 other books [4] are available for reading or download from the Biodiversity Heritage Library online.

WMWexhibitionFrancis Willughby’s genius and contributions to ornithology (and Ornithology), and his myriad insights with respect to natural history, games, dictionaries and the study of language are highlighted in a new exhibition at the University of Sheffield (13 Nov 2017-28 Feb 2018; more information here), and in both an academic volume published in 2016 and a forthcoming trade book by Tim Birkhead. I will ask Tim to write a post about that new book when it comes out next spring.

I think that Ray and Willughby had an approach to natural history that is still valuable today: they went on expeditions with friends, they learned from and exchanged information with like-minded naturalists through voluminous correspondence, and they did not hesitate to think outside the box. With Twitter, Instagram and Messaging dominating our interactions these days, we sometimes forget about the value of corresponding with our colleagues even in the few sentences of enquiry or enlightenment that can be encompassed in a short email. 🙂


  • Birkhead TR, editor (2016) Virtuoso by Nature: the Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Leiden: Brill.
  • Egerton FN (2003) A history of the ecological sciences, Part 18: John Ray and his associates Francis Willughby and William Derham. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 86:301–313 <PDF available here>
  • Raius J (1676) Francisci Willughbeii de Middleton in agro Warwicensi, Armigeri, e Regia Societate, Ornithologiae Libri Tres: in quibus Aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè describuntur, descriptiones iconibus elegantissimis & vivarum Avium simillimis, Aeri incisis illustrantur. London: John Martyn. <read at Google Books here>
  • Ray J (1678) The ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the county of Warwick Esq; Fellow of the Royal Society. In three books. Wherein all the birds hitherto known, being reduced into a method sutable [sic] to their natures, are accurately described. The descriptions illustrated by most elegant figures, nearly resembling the live birds, engraven in LXXVIII copper plates. Translated Into English, and enlarged with many additions throughout the whole work: To which are added, three considerable discourses, I. Of the art of fowling: with a description of several nets in two large copper plates. II. Of the ordering of Singing Birds. III. Of falconry. London: John Martyn. <read or download at BDHL here>
  • Ray J (1713) Synopsis methodica avium & piscium: opus posthumum. vol. 1: Avium vol. 2: Piscium. [Synopsis of birds and fishes]. London: William Innys. <read or download at BDHL here>


  1. The full titles are given in the reference sources above and give a better picture of what this book is about and how Ray credited Willughby with the basis for the book.
  2. The English titles of these sections are from Ray’s translation of 1678
  3. Quotation from Ray 1678:385 where it is appears as the subtitle to the Appendix.
  4. Ray published several books on plants that were largely based on his own collections and investigations and provided what is considered to be the first definition of a biological species concept. He published one more book on birds, posthumously in 1713, in Latin, but I cannot (yet) tell whether that book was his own work done since Ornithology or a compilation of further notes and observations from Willughby’s legacy.

IMAGES: all images from Ornithology are in the public domain, copied from Biodiversity Heritage Library or Google Books online. Exhibition poster courtesy Amanda Bernstein, Rare Books Librarian, University of Sheffield.

Pigeon Coup

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 27 November 2017

When I was a young teenager I spent my Saturday mornings during the school year at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). I was there to attend the weekly meeting of the Toronto Junior Field Naturalists’ Club, but often stayed afterward to explore the public galleries. I particularly loved the dioramas of birds and mammals as they took me to distant places and bygone times that I could only dream or read about. In those days, there were virtually no nature documentaries on TV and precious few in the theatres [1].

Of all those superb dioramas, my favourite was the Passenger Pigeon, showing immense flocks (painted) descending into a forest clearing scattered with pigeons (mounted specimens) foraging on the acorns:

The scene reproduced depicts an April morning in the 1860s near Forks of Credit, Ontario…The visitor inspecting the exhibit should imagine himself standing at the edge of an old beech-maple forest overlooking the pioneer’s clearing. The scene is as we might have found it in the 1860s. The great pigeon flight is underway and will perhaps continue throughout the day. [2]

That diorama was opened to the public in 1935, the brainchild of Lester L. Snyder, the curator of birds, and constructed and painted by E. B. S. Logier who had joined the museum as illustrator in 1915. My memories of those dioramas came flooding back a couple of weeks ago when I saw the names Mark Peck and Allan Baker [3]—both from the ROM—among the authors of a new paper out of Berth Shapiro’s lab (UC Santa Cruz) on Passenger Pigeons published in Science, but more on that in a minute.

13662-Passenger Pigeon-retouched
Painted backdrop of the Passenger Pigeon diorama at the ROM (1935-1981)

Standing in front of that diorama I can remember thinking that a bird that had once been that abundant could not possibly be extinct. After all, Peterson’s Field Guide still illustrated them (in  a head and shoulders vignette on p 181 of my copy) so maybe he thought the bird might still be seen. My teen birding buddies and I spent many an afternoon naively scouring flocks of Mourning Doves just in case. After all, bison were also once extremely abundant, and hunted relentlessly, but were still round, albeit in small numbers.

I was also heartened by the fact that even if the species was really extinct, there must be thousands of specimens in museum collections that could be used for further study, since the ROM alone appeared to have so many that they could fill a diorama with mounted specimens alone. When I mentioned this to my friend and mentor Jim Baillie, assistant curator of birds at the ROM, he just laughed and told me there were only about 1500 specimens worldwide, of a species that once numbered in the billions. The reason for this wealth of specimens at the ROM, he said, was that they had been the beneficiaries of what he considered to be a major coup, when a local naturalist, musician and businessman [4], Paul Hahn, had decided—shortly after the Passenger Pigeon went extinct in 1914—to donate to the ROM as many specimens as he could locate, as a way “to ensure that future generations would know at least how handsome a bird it was.” [5]

Paul Hahn

Hahn was born in Germany in 1875 but moved to Toronto with his family in 1898. In 1902 he saw his first Passenger Pigeon, a mounted specimen in a farmhouse north of the city and decided then to “set about gathering as many as possible of the mounted birds scattered around the country, both for the sake of future students and with the intention of preserving at least some specimens of a bird that would probably soon be extinct.” [5]. He presented his first specimen to the ROM in 1918 and had donated 70 by the time he died in 1962.

As a result of Hahn’s generosity, the ROM had 124 Passenger Pigeon skins and mounts by 1962, more than any other collection worldwide. I know this because in 1957 Mr Hahn started compiling a list of all the specimens of 7 extinct (our nearly so) bird species [6] held in museums and private collections around the world. Hahn died before his list could be published but Baillie took up the task, seeing it through to print in 1963 as a book Where is that Vanished Bird? That book lists every specimen (including skeletons) known to Hahn [7], its date and place of collection, its sex, the collector, and the current collection in which it was held.

One of the Passenger Pigeon mounts at the Royal Ontario Museum

The first Passenger Pigeon specimen whose collection date was known was a male taken in the Carolinas in about 1810, housed with one other specimen (a female, from Georgia collected in 1821) in the Zooligische Museum in Berlin. The Naumann Museum in Köthen that Tim Birkhead wrote about last week also had a male, collected in about 1830 (locality unknown).

The recent Science paper made good use of the ROM collection of Passenger Pigeons, analyzing the DNA extracted from the toe pads of 84 specimens, 63 of which were from the ROM. Analyzing both nuclear and mitochondrial genes, the researchers confirmed that the Passenger Pigeon had surprisingly low genetic diversity. This low diversity is unexpected because large populations are predicted from theory to be genetically diverse, and you don’t get larger bird populations than those of the Passenger Pigeon. To explain this loss of diversity, the authors argued that it was driven by high rates of dispersal and adaptive evolution that removed harmful mutations. Such low diversity would have made the species particularly susceptible to disease or environmental change, two factors that might have doomed the species once populations had been decimated by hunting. This study also concluded, based on some sophisticated genomic analyses, that Passenger Pigeon populations had probably persisted at extremely high numbers for 20,00 years or more before the 1800s [8].

The Passenger Pigeon diorama at the ROM was dismantled in 1981, in part because it was showing its age, but also because the age of dioramas was over, replaced in part by the ubiquitous nature shows in TV. That saddens me but I am more than ever convinced that clubs for young field naturalists, and museums that store and preserve specimens, deserve our unending support.


  • Hahn P (1963) Where is that Vanished Bird? Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • Hung C-M, Shaner P-JL, Zink RM, Liu W-C, Chu T-C, Hiuang W-S et al. (2014) Drastic population fluctuations explain the rapid extinction of the passenger pigeon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Scienes USA 111:10636–10641.

  • Murray GGR, Soares AER, Novac BJ, Schaefer NK, Cahill JA, Baker AJ et al. (2017) Natural selection shaped the rise and fall of passenger pigeon genomic diversity. Science 358:951–954.


1. The first nature documentaries on TV were a series called Fur and Feathers on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) channel in 1955-56, in black and white (of course). By 1960, Disney had produced 14 movies in its True-Life Adventures series, including the The Living Desert, The Secrets of Life, African Lion, and White Wilderness all of which enthralled my naturalist friends and I when they played at our local theatre.

2. Text from the ROM’s Passenger Pigeon diorama, courtesy Mark Peck, 22 Nov 2017.

3. Mark Peck is Ornithology Technician at the ROM, where Allan Baker (1943-2014) worked for 42 years as both a curator of birds and eventually head of their Department of Natural History.

4. Hahn was an accomplished cellist who played with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He also founded Paul Hahn Pianos in Toronto in 1913, a company that is still in business today.

5. Quotations from Hahn 1963:1.

6. As of 1962: skins and mounts of 1532 Passenger Pigeons, 365 Eskimo Curlews, 78 Great Auks, 720 Carolina Parakeets, 413 Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, 54 Labrador Ducks and 309 Whooping Cranes (Hahn 1963).

7. Beginning in 1957 he sent out questionnaires to people and museums that he thought might know or know about those specimens. He got more than 1000 response.

8. Based on DNA samples from only 3 Passenger Pigeons, Hung et al. (2014) performed a different genomic analysis and concluded that population sizes had fluctuated dramatically—only occasionally reaching numbers in the billions—thereby increasing its risk of extinction during population lows. Evaluating the conclusions of these two studies is above my pay grade but I expect that both labs will argue that their analyses are correct.

IMAGES: ROM photos by Brian Boyle, courtesy of Mark Peck (both at the ROM); Paul Hahn from the Paul Hahn & Co. website at

German Ornithological Treasures

Guest Post

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 20 November 2017

JF Naumann

Johann Friederich Naumann (1780-1857) is probably the best known of the early German ornithologists, and was one of the founders of scientific ornithology in continental Europe. Naumann collected birds and their eggs, illustrated them, and wrote extensively about them — all while running the family farm and rearing his own brood of nine children.

Naumann’s collection eventually became too large for the family’s modest farm house so he sold the collection to Frederick Ferdinand, Duke of Anhalt-Köthen in 1821.  As well as having plenty of space, the Duke was keen to own a ‘cabinet’ [1] and was happy to pay Naumann to curate the collection—a perfect arrangement for both parties. The museum, which occupies a side-wing of Köthen Castle, at Köthen, Germany (in the former GDR), has been open to the public since 1835.

Naumann’s cabinets of curiosity

I visited the Naumann Museum with three colleagues during the anniversary meeting of the DO-G at Halle in September/October this year. As ornithologists interested in the history of bird study, our visit to this extraordinary collection was an eye-opening experience. I am particularly grateful to the museum’s curator, Bernard Just, for showing us around and providing the photos for this blog post.

Naumann Museum

Naumann taught himself to paint, and as a teenager produced sophisticated and wonderfully mature watercolours to illustrate the bird books written by his father Johann Andreas Naumann (1744-1826). Later, J. F. Naumann produced his own ‘masterpiece’ Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands [The Natural History of the Birds of Germany] in 12 volumes (1822-1844), with a 13th volume—published posthumously in 1866—comprising 396 plates he had engraved himself [2].

Hawfinches from Naumann’s  Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands

The late Jürgen Haffer [3] referred to Naumann’s Natural History as the “titanic efforts of just one man,” and it was to remain the standard German ornithology text for decades.  J. F. Naumann, along with Christian Ludwig Brehm and Friedrich Faber (who died young), were key players in what Haffer referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Central European ornithology’ (1820-1850). Together those three men “established a sound basis for the study of birds in this region and beyond” [4].

The Naumann Museum is now in desperate need of restoration and investment to secure its long-term future. The risk, as always, is that there is just not enough interest in such a collection and there will be insufficient funds to maintain it. As an absolute priority, the notes, the paintings. etc. all need to be scanned so, at the very least, digital copies of everything will be preserved.

There are few museums anywhere that are dedicated to the work of a single ornithologist. This one is truly extraordinary—a cornucopia of information documenting a key period in German ornithology. I was inspired, and if I could speak and read German, I’d be busy planning a biography of this remarkable man. In fact, a biography was published by Thomsen in 1957, but approaches to the history of science and ornithology have changed a great deal since then and J. F. Naumann deserves a new biography. Perhaps this is what is needed to generate investment in the museum. The ornithological world is waiting!

Naumann Museum interior


  • Haffer J (2007)  The development of ornithology in central Europe. J. Ornithol. 148 (Suppl.): S125-153.
  • Haffer J, Huddle H, Hillcoat B  (2014) The development of ornithology and species knowledge in central Europe. Bonn zoological Bulletin – Supplementum 59: 1–116.
  • Naumann JA (1820-1844) Johann Andreas Naumann’s, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands, nach eigenen Erfahrungen entworfen. Leipzig: G. Fleischer.

  • Stresemann E (1975) Ornithology: from Aristotle to the Present. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • Thomsen P (1957) Johann Friedrich Naumann, der Altmeister der deutschen Vogelkunde, sein Leben und seine Werke. Leipzig: J. A. Barthg. 212 pp.


  1. Cabinets of Curiosities became popular during the scientific revolution in Europe from 1600-1900. Initially private, these collections of biological, anthropological and geological artefacts eventually evolved into our national museums.
  2. digitally scanned originals of all 13 volumes are available for reading and download here at the fabulous Biodiversity Heritage Library online.
  3. see also Birkhead TR, Schulze-Hagen K (2010) Ibis 152: 867-868 for details of Haffer’s life and work.
  4. Quotation from Haffer (2007:S125); see also Stresemann (1975:306-8).

Uncle Bill’s Eggs

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 13 Nov 2017

Yesterday (12 November) marked the anniversary of the discovery, in 1912, of the remains of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole. The story of that expedition’s side-trip to collect Emperor Penguin eggs is well-known, celebrated in myriad books, articles, documentary films and exhibitions. As is often the case with scientific exploration and discovery, there is a less-well-known backstory that raises some interesting questions about the more celebrated account.

Edward Adrian Wilson was the doctor, zoologist, and artist on Scott’s two famous Antarctic expeditions—Discovery in 1901-04 and Terra Nova in 1910-12. Wilson was a well-connected English artist and ornithologist, elected as a member of the BOU in 1900. Little surprise, then, that the prominent English ornithologist Percy Sclater [1] suggested to Wilson that he apply to be Junior Surgeon and Zoologist on Scott’s Discovery Expedition. On returning from that first expedition, Wilson worked as Field Observer for the Grouse Disease Commission in Scotland, but that’s a story for another day.

Wilson’s painting of Emperor Penguins with chicks at Cape Crozier in September 1903

On the Discovery expedition, Wilson visited the Emperor Penguin colony at Cape Crozier where he made an extensive study of their breeding biology. In his published report of 1907, he mentions that:

The possibility that we have in the Emperor Penguin the nearest approach to a primitive form not only of a penguin but of a bird, makes the future working out of its embryology a matter of the greatest importance. It was a great disappointment to us that although we discovered their breeding ground. and although we were able to bring home a number of deserted eggs and chicks, we were not able to procure a series of early embryos by which alone the points of particular interest can be worked out…The whole work [of getting eggs for embryological study] no doubt would be full of difficulty, and it is with a view to whom the opportunity may occur in the future, that this outline has been added of the difficulties that would surely beset their path. [2]

Having provided all of the details needed to procure those precious embryos, Wilson was determined to get them during his second expedition to the Antarctica with Scott. But why were those embryos so important?

At the turn of the twentieth century, Ernst Haeckel’s Biogenic Law that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ was still very current. Wilson thus thought that an examination of the embryonic development of a bird thought to be very ‘primitive’ [3]—the Emperor Penguin—might shed some light on the origin of birds. Thus Wilson felt that the study of Emperor Penguin embryology might reveal some of the details about how birds evolved from reptiles, as had earlier been suggested by Sir Thomas Huxley and others. In the same volume as Wilson’s report from the Discovery expedition, William Plane Pycraft [4] wrote about penguin anatomy, based on specimens from the Discovery expedition. Pycraft laid the foundation for Wilson’s quest for the embryos when he speculated that:

All that can be gleaned from fossils, then, is that penguins have probably descended from birds which possessed full powers of flight, and this probability becomes converted into a certainty when the embryological evidence comes to be examined. But the question of the precise affinities of this group must still be regarded as an unsolved problem, the intense specialisation which these birds have undergone obliterating much of the necessary evidence. [5]

Wilson may also have thought that those embryos might answer the question about the origins of flightlessness on the penguins—had they evolved from flying birds, for example—by comparing their embryological development with that of other ‘primitive’ non-passerine birds like ducks.

In an 1887 paper, Mikhail Menzbier had also speculated that the extant birds might have evolved from two independent lineages leading from the reptiles, one to the flightless penguins and the other to the flying birds. We don’t know if Wilson even knew about that idea but a detailed study of the penguin’s embryology might have helped to resolve that issue as well.

Wilson (left), Bowers (middle) and Cherry-Garrard (right) in August 1911, shortly after returning from their trek to collect the eggs

During the Terra Nova expedition, Wilson’s fellow explorers found him to be very companionable and someone they could confide in—they called him ‘Uncle Bill’. Near the start of that expedition, in July 1911, Wilson, Henry Robertson “Birdie” Bowers [6] and Apsley Cherry-Garrard and made a horrendous winter trek—95 km each way, in the dark with extreme cold—from Cape Evans to the Cape Crozier colony where they obtained five incubated eggs that Wilson thought could be used for embryological study. Though Wilson and Bowers died with Scott and two others, Cherry-Garrard returned three of those eggs [7] to England where they were later dissected by three different embryologists over the next 20 years. One of those embryologists concluded—contrary to Wilson’s hopes—that those eggs: have not contributed much to the understanding of the embryology of penguins.

“Uncle Bill” Wilson’s Emperor Penguin eggs from Cape Crozier 1911

Strangely enough, the question that Wilson hoped to answer by obtaining those embryos had already been answered by the dissection of Gentoo and Adélie Penguin eggs collected by Robert Neal Rudmose-Brown [8] and James Hunter Harvey Pirie [9] on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-04 . The embryos in those eggs were studied by anatomists David Waterston and Auckland Campbell Geddes at Edinburgh University who concluded, in October 1909, that:

With regard to these developmental facts the question arises:— Is the duck’s or the penguin’s wing the more direct descendant of the common ancestor; or have they both diverged from the common stock approximately equally, but in opposite directions?

Embryology alone cannot answer this question, but the evidence is clear in this, that the fore limb of the penguin in its development goes through a progressive and continuous series of stages along one unbroken line…So that the answer to our question, so far as the embryological evidence is concerned, must be that the wings of both these birds are different from the ancestral wing, and that the differentiation has been in opposite directions and that the common ancestor was a flying bird of a somewhat primitive type depending in large measure for the spread of its wing upon bone and muscle. [10]

How did Wilson not know about this work, published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, more than 8 months before the Terra Nova expedition began? Quite possibly he was too busy with his grouse research and illustration commissions to follow the recent publications, though that seems highly unusual given the intense interest in Antarctic exploration in general and penguins in particular in the early 1900s. Possibly, even if he knew about it, he might have felt that the work on Adélie and Gentoo Penguins could not actually answer the question because he may have felt that those species were not primitive enough. The Emperor is the only penguin that breeds in the Antarctic winter, and there was a notion, in those days, that this indicated that it was the most primitive bird.

Whatever the motives behind Wilson’s quest for Emperor Penguin eggs, his studies of their breeding biology is an outstanding early example of research into the breeding cycle, parental care, and offspring development of any bird.


  • Cherry-Garrard A (1922) The Worst Journey in the World. London: Chatto and Windus
  • Haeckel E (1866) Generelle morphologie der organismen [General Morphology of the Organisms]. Berlin: G. Reimer. (Accessed December 3, 2013).
  • Menzbier M (1887) Vergleichende osteologie der pinguine in anwendung zur haupteintheilung der vogel. Bulletin de la Société impériale des naturalistes de Moscou 1: 483-587
  • Mossman RC, Pirie JHH, Rudmose-Brown RN (1906) The voyage of the Scotia, being a record of a voyage of exploration in the Antarctic Seas. London: C. Hurst
  • Peaker M (2014) In Search of a Penguin’s Egg. Why? Zoology Jottings blog posts on 8 April and 6 June 2014. retrieved online on 12 Nov 2017 at and
  • Pycraft WP (1907) On some points in the anatomy of the Emperor and Adélie penguins. Section III pp 1-28 in Bell FJ, Fletcher L (eds) National Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904. Natural History Volume II. Zoology (Vertbrata : Mollusca : Crustacea). London: British Museum (Natural History) [available here]
  • Waterston D, Geddes A (1910). X.—Report upon the Anatomy and Embryology of the Penguins collected by the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, comprising: (1) Some Features in the Anatomy of the Penguin; (2) The Embryology of the Penguin: A Study in Embryonic Regression and Progression. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 47: 223-244
  • Seaver, G (1933) Edward Wilson of the Antarctic. Naturalist and Friend. London: John Murray
  • Wilson EA (1907) Aves. Section II pp 1-121 in Bell FJ, Fletcher L (eds) National Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904. Natural History Volume II. Zoology  (Vertbrata : Mollusca : Crustacea). London: British Museum (Natural History) [available here]
  • Wilson EA (editor) (1908) National Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904. Album of Photographs and Sketches. London: Royal Society


  1. Sclater was of the founders of the BOU and the first editor of The Ibis
  2. quotation from Wilson 1907: 31
  3. we try not to use that term ‘primitive’ anymore when talking about species because it is really traits that might be ‘primitive’ (i.e, present in a common ancestor) or derived when comparing two species
  4. in 1907 Pycraft was on the staff of the British Museum (Natural History)
  5. quotation from Pycraft (1907)
  6. he was called “Birdie” by his fellow expeditioners not because he had any interest in birds, but because he looked a bit like a bird with his red hair and beak of a nose
  7. two of the eggs broke when the trekkers climbed a cliff to begin their journey back to Cape Crozier
  8. Rudmose-Brown wasa botanist who was appointed lecturer in geography at the University of Sheffield in 1907
  9. Pirie was a bacteriologist and medical doctor
  10. quotation from Waterston and Geddes (1910); later reproduced as pp 37-58  in Volume IV of Report on the scientific results of the voyage of S.Y. “Scotia” during the years 1902, 1903 and 1904, under the leadership of William S. Bruce, published in 1915 [available here]

IAMGES: all images are in the public domain, available from Wikimedia Commons

Bird names then and now

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 6 Nov 2017

Where did the English names for birds come from (and where are they going)? I discussed a few weeks ago some of the onomatopoeic bird names (cuckoo, for example), but many of the common bird names currently in use derived from other sources indicating some aspect of the bird’s appearance, place of discovery, or habits (real or imagined).

The earliest English bird names mainly came from their native German names in the first millennium CE. Old English was the oldest form of English spoken in England and the southern and eastern reaches of Scotland in the early Middle Ages (400-1000 CE) and many birds can be clearly identified in the texts and glossaries from that period. Some have fairly obvious modern-day equivalents:

  • ganot: gannet—‘ganot’ meant “strong, or masculine” and came from the same Old German root as the word “gander”
  • snĪte: snipe—from the Old English ‘snȳtan’ from the Proto-Germanic ‘snūtijaną’ which meant ‘to blow the nose’, presumably referring to the bird’s call
  • mōrhenn: moorhen
  • swealwe: swallow, and more specifically ‘hūs-swealwe’ for house-martin
  • ceaffinc: chaffinch

But others are no longer in use (in some cases, thankfully, in my opinion):

  • ðisteltwige = goldfinch; literally ‘thistle-tweaker’
  • secgscara = corncrake; literally ‘sedge-scraper’
  • stangella = kestrel; literally ‘stone-yeller’
  • wōrhana or rēodmūða = pheasant, introduced to England and became established probably in the 11th century CE; literally ‘mountain hen’
  • pāwa = peacock, also introduced and established on some English estates by the end of the 11th century CE; possibly onomatopoeic
Harley 7026 f.5
Ring-necked Pheasant (left) and Peacock (right) on illuminated manuscript called the Lovell Lectionary from S. England ca 1400-1410.

 In the 1990s, Peter Kitson (Univ Birmingham) wrote in rich detail about the identity and origins of bird names in the Old English texts. As he points out, those old names came mainly from Germanic names rather than from the Latin where most English plant names originated. He surmises that this might indicate that common folk were more likely to have names for different kinds of common birds than they did for plants. He also notes that in Old English “Words are given for most land birds from about cuckoo-size up, but not so many for water birds, and few distinctions are made among waders, sea birds, or what modern ornithologists call warblers and some despairing amateurs ‘little brown jobs’.” [1]

From those early Middle Ages on, the common names of birds changed—as did the English language—with the expanding population, regional dialects and greater awareness of the distinctions among different species. In the 1880s, Charles Swainson compiled the names of common birds from both folk-lore and regional dialects across England and Scotland, and several books have since been published on the sources of common names in use today.

While not as ancient as Old English, one enigmatic regional English bird name from the 1500s and 1600s is the ‘Spowe’. Alfred Newton’s superb Dictionary of Birds published in 1893-96 says:


But my colleagues Fred Cooke and Tim Birkhead question that interpretation in a recent paper in Archives of Natural History [2]. Briefly, they argued that the evidence points, instead, to the ‘spowe’ being the Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica). In the records [3] of the L’Estrange family estate in Norfolk from the early 17th century, they read that ‘spowe’ were delivered to the L’Estrange estate between September and February, suggesting that they were winter visitors and not passage migrants. At least today, the whimbrel does not winter in Britain.

All of this interest in the common names of birds is largely curiosity driven, but the question about extant bird names comes up time and again among ornithologists and can be quite contentious. I will review some of that tumultuous history in later posts, but today I want to highlight two current concerns about common names.

First, should we agree on standard common (English) names to be used worldwide? This makes sense to me as it provides some consistency across checklists, field guides and scientific publications. But now there are at least 3 world lists of birds (Clements, IOC and the Handbook of Birds of the World) where different common names are sometimes used for the same species. On the IOC World List website they now say “A step towards improved alignment with the Clements/eBird world list is one of the motivations for this change [in revisions]” which is a step in the right direction.

Individuals will often use regional names for birds, but it would be useful to have a universally accepted list of official common names, I feel. My British colleagues will no doubt forever call Uria aalge the Common Guillemot while I call it the Common Murre, no matter which name becomes the official moniker.

Second, how should ‘new’ species be named when they are discovered (increasingly by molecular analysis) to be hiding within already-named species? The North American Classification Committee (NACC)—the AOS committee that produces the AOS Checklist of North and Middle America Birds—apparently has a ‘rule’ that when a species is split, new names have to be found for both of the ‘new’ species. This makes no sense to me, and in fact has been inconsistently applied by the committee. I, for one, like many of the original common names because of their link to history, even when they are technically inappropriate (Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina—a species that was formerly, at least, rarely seen on Cape May) or obscure (Myrtle Warbler Setophaga coronata) rather than descriptive (Yellow-Rumped Warbler, as the Myrtle Warbler is now called).

I don’t think that history has much to tell us about the right answer to these two questions, except possibly that both issues will be contentious and may never be resolved.


  • Cooke F, Birkhead TR (2017) The identity of the bird known locally in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Norfolk, United Kingdom, as the Spowe. Archives of Natural History 44:118–121.
  • Kitson PR (1997) Old English bird‐names. English Studies 78:481–505
  • Kitson PR (1998) Old English bird‐names (II). English Studies 79:2–22.
  • Newton A (1893-96) A Dictionary of Birds. London: A & C Black.
  • Swainson C (1885) Provincial names and folk lore of British birds. London: English Dialect Society.
  • Thompson D’AW (1895) A glossary of Greek birds. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Whitman CH (1898) The birds of Old English literature. The Journal of [English and] Germanic Philology 2:149–198.


  1. Quotation from Kitson 1997: 482
  2. Unfortunately this paper is behind the journal’s paywall so you cannot view any more than the Abstract if you (or your institution) does not have a subscription. If you really want to read it, though, send me an email and I will see if I can get you a copy.
  3. These records are in the ‘Household and Privy Purse Accounts’ of this aristocratic family. Cooke and Birkhead (2017) say these accounts “give a surprisingly complete picture of the daily lives of this family in much of the 16th century, including foods consumed, the activities of the farmlands they administered, and a few details of events in their lives. Of particular interest to ornithologists is the fact that wild-fowlers periodically brought birds shot or occasionally captured alive into the kitchens where they were sold, or given in exchange for rent. ” 

    IMAGES: peacock and pheasant from British Library, in the public domain

What is a species? How the German Ornithologists’ Society (DO-G) began

Guest Post

BY: Karl Schulze-Hagen, Mönchengladbach, Germany | 30 Oct 2017

3 J. Ornithol Vol 1 - title pageThe very first paper published in the Journal für Ornithologie, in 1853, was written by the Dresden zoologist Ludwig Reichenbach (1793-1879). That paper {On the concept of species in ornithology} [see footnote 1] is a bit long-winded and difficult to comprehend by today’s standards, but it is historically important because it was the seed around which a newly formed society for the natural sciences—the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft (DO-G)—would crystallize. The DO-G {German Ornithologists’ Society} was the first  scientific ornithological society and one of the first taxon-based scientific societies world-wide.

Following the example of entomologists and conchologists, the German ornithologists wanted to found their own society and publish a journal of their own. Before they could publish a journal, however, they wanted to have clear definitions and rules for their field of endeavour [2]. The dominant question of the day was, “What is a species?”. This controversial subject had been debated constantly in Germany since 1822, when the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte {Society of German Naturalists and Physicians} was founded. The meetings of that society provided the German ornithologists with an opportunity to exchange ideas.

Almost a quarter of a century passed before those ornithologists could finally gather for their own meeting—in 1845in the small town of Köthen in central Germany. But why Köthen? In the neighborhood of this rural Residenzstadt—where the local aristocratic rulers had their residence—lay the modest farmstead of the autodidact Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780-1857). Naumann’s 12-volume Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands {Natural History of the Birds of Germany} had just been completed the previous year. At over 7000 pages and 337 plates, it was then the world’s most complete description of a

2 Naumann, JF 1822 (From JFN Naturgeschichte, Vol 2, Frontispice)
Naumann in 1822, self portrait

regional fauna. This gigantic work “{gave the impulse to the existing but scattered forces of German ornithology to finally come together. Everywhere the work encouraged others to further research}” [3]. It was Naumann who urged “{a meeting with a few friends of ornithology}” [4]. So Naumann became the spiritus rector of German ornithology, and it was in his honor that its first assembly was held in Köthen. Presumably due to the political turbulence of 1848 in Germany that it wasn’t until 1850 that the DO-G was finally constituted, in Leipzig, with Naumann as its first President.

The production of a dedicated journal for the DO-G proved troublesome. An earlier German ornithological journal, Rhea, edited by F. A. Ludwig Thienemann (1793-1858), ceased publishing in 1848 after only two issues. This was followed by another short-lived bird journal, Naumannia, produced in 1849 by Eduard Baldamus (1812-1893), an energetic and passionate Naumann admirer. It was to be a further four years before the first issue of today’s Journal für Ornithologie (JfO) appeared, under the editorship of Jean Cabanis (1816-1906).

In the JfO’s volumes, now spanning 158 years, the historical development of ornithology can be traced. On the first page of that first issue, the future framework was established in a Prospectus: “{In as varied a diversity as possible …. treatises dealing with the entire range of ornithological subjects will be published, including paleontology and physiology. Specific and general ornithology, systematics and oology. ….. Monographs, description of new species, faunas, geographical distribution, and life histories, including consideration of the mental [‘psychisch’ in German, literally ‘of the soul’!] capabilities of birds}”. [3]

From the very beginning, German ornithology consisted of two strands: taxonomy or systematics, and avian biology. Perhaps surprisingly, both subdivisions of the field were given equal space in the Journal—while the first volume began with an article outlining a basic definition of ‘species’, it ended with two contributions from Constantin Gloger (1803-1863)—one on host-species choice in the Cuckoo and the other on interspecific copulation in ducks.

But the problem troubling all ornithologists of the day—the question of what a species is—remained unresolved. The 10th DO-G conference, in 1856 and again in Köthen, revolved around this conundrum alone [5]. For several days Naumann, Christian Ludwig Brehm (1787-1864), Baldamus, Gloger, Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857) and other colleagues debated the topic. Finally they agreed on a provisional definition: “{Individuals forming a community on the basis of common descent or for the purpose of reproduction can be regarded as belonging to the same species.}“ [3]

In 1856, Darwin’s On The Origin of Species had yet to appear in print. Neither was it foreseeable that a century later Ernst Mayr (1904-2005)—an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist who grew up in Germany but worked in the USA—would have a lasting influence on our current thinking with his own biological species concept.


  • Cabanis J (1853) Prospectus. Journal für Ornithologie 1: 1-4.
  • Naumann JA (1820-1844) Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands: nach eigenen Erfahrungen entworfen. 12 volumes. Leizig: G. Fleischer.

  • Reichenbach L (1853) Über den Begriff der Art in der Ornithologie. Journal für Ornithologie 1:5–15.
  • Schalow H (1901) Ein Rückblick auf die Geschichte der Deutschen Ornithologischen Gesellschaft. Journal für Ornithologie 49: 6-25.


  1. quotations and titles enclosed in curly brackets {} are English translations of the original German
  2. see Cabanis (1853)
  3. quotation from Schalow H (1901)
  4. quotation from Bezzel E (1988) Die Vesammlungen deutscher Ornithologen 1845-1987: Ein Streifzug durch die Geschichte der Deutschen Ornithologen-Gesellschaft. Journal für Ornithologie 129. Sonderheft: 2-21.
  5. see Schalow (1901)

reedwarblersKarl Schulze-Hagen, MD, is a member of the Advisory Committee of the DO-G. He has written extensively about birds and the history of ornithology, and is coauthor (with Bernd Leisler) of a book on the European reed warblers. Their Reed Warblers: Diversity in a Uniform Bird Family was published in 2011 by KNNV Publ. (available from Amazon here) and won the BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year award in 2012.

The First Penguins

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 23 Oct 2017

While preparing a talk [1] last week about the early history of ornithology in North America, I wondered who might have been the first to describe and identify a bird on this continent. As far as I can tell, that was Jacques Cartier when he wrote, in 1534, about the ‘Apponat‘ (originally in French but here in English translation [2]):

whose numbers are so great as to be incredible, unless one has seen them; for although the island is about a league in circumference, it is so exceedingly full of birds that one would think they had been stowed there Some of these birds are as large as geese, being black and white with beak like a crows. They are always in the water, not being able to fly in the air, inasmuch as they have only small wings about the size of half one‘s hand, with which however they move as quickly along the water as the other birds fly through the air. And these birds are so fat that it is marvellous. We call them apponatsand our two longboats were laden with them as with stones in less than half an hour. Of these, each of our ships salted four or five casks, not counting those we were able to eat fresh

Cartier also recorded seeing Margaulx (Gannets) and Godertz (probably Common Murres) but the apponat referred to here is the Great Auk (Puinguinis impennis). “Apponath” was what the local Newfoundland natives (i.e. Beothuks) called this bird. On his second trip to Isle des Oyseaux, a year later, Cartier wrote “The island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without perceiving that any of them had been removed” [2].

The “isle of birds” (Isle des Oyseaux) referred to in that passage above, was called ‘Penguin Island’  in the 1600s and  was ‘officially’ called ‘Funk Island’ by the late 1700s. Cartier was not the first to visit this island, as Gaspar Corte-Real stopped there in 1501, and it is shown on two maps by Pedro Reinel—one in 1504 where he calls it ‘Y Dos Saues’ and the other in 1520 where it is labelled ‘Yihas das Aves’. The map below by John Mason was made around 1617 and clearly shows ‘Penguin Island’ off the northwest coast on Newfoundland. This map was drawn upside down (for some unknown reason), so Penguin Island is on the lower left margin.


There is some debate about where the word ‘penguin’ came from, though we can be certain that it was what Europeans called the Great Auk, centuries before any of the birds that we now call penguins had been ‘discovered’. The three most commonly suggested—but very different—origins for the word ‘penguin’, as applied to the Great Auk, are:

  1. Great_Auk_Thomas_Bewick_1804derived from the Welsh ‘pen gwyn‘, where ‘pen’ is their word for head (or headland) and ‘gwyn’ means white, referring either to the white patch on the bird’s head, or the fact that a headland full of Great Auks looks white. The Welsh (and other Europeans) would have known this bird long before they found it in North America, as it bred (and was slaughtered) across the eastern North Atlantic from Iceland thorough Great Britain and Norway to as far south as Spain. In 1577, Francis Fletcher, a clergyman who travelled with Sir Francis Drake, wrote in his log about the southern hemisphere penguins [3]: “Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.” This seems to me fairly convincing evidence for the word’s origin.
  2. derived from the name ‘pin-winged’, referring to the lack of real wing feathers on this flightless bird. I like this explanation though the consensus seems to be that it is incorrect.
  3. derived from the Latin pinguis, meaning ‘fat’ or ‘plump’

There is quite a good online debate about these origins here, if you are interested, and the several books now published on the Great Auk variously mention and discuss where the word ‘penguin‘ came from.

Probably the first European to see what we now call penguins was the explorer Bartholomeu Diaz, from Portugal, who reached the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) in 1488, but he never mentioned these birds in his notes. The first mention of southern hemisphere penguins is probably in the travel book of Álvaro Velho who rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Vasco da Gama in 1497. He called them ‘otilicarios’ [opticians?] and said that (again in rough translation): “They are as big as ducks, but can’t fly because they have no feathers on their wings. These birds, of which we slaughtered as many as we could, cried like jackass.”

So the Great Auk was the first ‘penguin’. Presumably it seemed logical at the time to call the southern hemisphere flightless oceanic birds ‘penguins‘, as well, because they looked and behaved so much like the Great Auk. Hunted relentlessly, the Great Auk had disappeared from Funk Island by 1800—where the ‘funk’ but not the bird remains to this day. The last individual was killed in Iceland in 1844, leaving its current genus name Puinguinis as the final remnant of its life as the first penguin.


  • Cook R (1993) The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Gaskell J (2001) Who Killed the Great Auk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Grieve S (1885) The great auk, or garefowl (Alca impennis, Linn.): Its history, archaeology, and remains. London: TC Jack. [available here]

  • Thier K (2007) Of Picts and penguins—Celtic languages in the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. pp 246-259 in Tristram HLC (ed.) The Celtic Languages in Contact. Potsdam: Potsdam University Press


  1. On Sat 19 Oct 2017, I gave a talk called ‘Discovering Birds in the Great White North‘ as part of a Bird Festival at the lovely Ruthven Park National Historic Site in the Niagara Region of Ontario. That talk drew material from a chapter I wrote on the History of Ornithology in Nunavut for a forthcoming book on the birds of Nunavut.
  2. This quote is from Cook 1993:xvii
  3. This quote is from Thier 2007:255

Discovering Francis Willughby

BY Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 16 Oct 2017

Willughby003Francis Willughby (1635-1672), an English ornithologist, is far from well-known. He died at just 36, so his  groundbreaking books on birds, fish and insects were all completed and subsequently published by his life-long friend and one-time undergraduate tutor, John Ray.

A brilliant academic and prolific writer, Ray rather eclipsed Francis Willughby. When I wrote The Wisdom of Birds, I applauded Ray’s work, and indeed, my book’s title was chosen to reflect his remarkable insights into bird biology in Ray’s own book The Wisdom of God.

To obtain a portrait of Francis Willughby for my new book, I visited the Willughby family home. While there, I made a complimentary remark about John Ray and was told, rather firmly, that it was Francis Willughby rather than Ray who was the genius. That rebuke made me realise just how much Willughby had been ignored and I wondered if he deserved some more attention. To learn more about Francis Willughby, I obtained funds from the Leverhulme Trust for what they called an ‘International Network’ grant. That generous funding allowed me to join forces with a number of science historians for what would become one of the most engaging and stimulating projects of my entire career.

Plate XX from Ray (1678)

Willughby’s role as an ornithologist was well known, because the first of his books completed by Ray was entitled The Ornithology of Francis Willughby, published (in Latin) in 1676 then in an extended English edition two years later. In contrast, Willughby’s work on the fishes, Historia Piscium, and insects, Historia Insectorum, were published only in Latin, and Willughby is not even mentioned on the title page of the insect book.

It is ironic that John Ray laboured so hard and so long to bring his friend’s works to public attention as all of those volumes seemed to highlight Ray’s talents more than Willughby’s. In addition, most of Willughby’s papers were lost as they were passed back and forth between different colleagues of Ray’s. Without those papers, we knew that our investigation of Willughby’s life was going to be a challenge.

The assembled team—Isabelle Charmantier, David Cram, Meghan Doherty, Mark Greengrass, Daisy Hildyard, Dorothy Johnston, Sachiko Kusukawa, Brian Ogilivie, William Poole, Chris Preston, Anna Marie Roos, Richard Serjeantson and Paul Smith—was absolutely remarkable in discovering a vast amount of previously unknown information. The reason we were able to do so much was mainly because we had access to the “Willughby Archive” (referred to as the Middleton Collection, held at the University of Nottinghan) that had not previously been examined in detail. This archive holds Willughby’s commonplace book, some letters, his herbarium, and collections of wildlife paintings that he accumulated—a true treasure trove.

As well as being a pioneer in the scientific revolution, Willughby—we discovered—was an accomplished mathematician, with a fascination for games of chance (such as dice and cards). He was also intrigued by language and at Cambridge as an undergraduate he experimented in “chymistry”—a blend of chemistry and alchemy—much as Isaac Newton had done.

The end products of our research project are two books: an edited academic volume Virtuoso by Nature: The scientific worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635–1672) published in 2016, and a forthcoming popular book The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The first true ornithologist that will be published in 2018.


  • Birkhead TR (2008) The wisdom of birds: an illustrated history of ornithology. London: Bloomsbury.

  • Birkhead TR (2016) Virtuoso by Nature: The Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Leiden: Brill

  • Birkhead TR (2018) The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury.

  • 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.

  • Ray J (1691) The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation. London: S. Smith.
  • Ray J (1710) Historia Insectorum. London: A. & J. Churchill.

  • Willughby F (1686). Historia Piscium. Oxford: Theatro Sheldoniano.

Small Groups of Men

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 9 Oct 2017

Just a week ago the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft (DO-G; German Ornithologists’ Society) celebrated its 150th anniversary at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Halle (Saale) near Leipzig, Germany. The DO-G was actually founded in Leipzig by three men—Johann Friedrich Naumann, August Carl Eduard Baldamus and Eugen Ferdinand von Homeyer—in 1850, so the reason for their 150th anniversary conference being held in 2017 will be explained in LogoDOG_181110_300_gera later post. I did not attend last week’s anniversary conference, but my friend and colleague Tim Birkhead (Univ Sheffield) gave a keynote presentation on the history of ornithology.

The DO-G is the oldest ornithological Society in the world and one of the first scientific societies devoted to Zoology. The first society devoted solely to zoology was the Zoological Society of London, founded in 1826. Societies devoted to science in general had been around since the 1600s, but it was not until the 1800s that more focussed societies—like those devoted to birds—appeared on the scene.  The DO-G also publishes the oldest ornithological journal that is still publishing and has a long history of excellence and leadership in ornithology.

During the latter half of the 1800s, the BOU (1858), the Nuttall Ornithological Club (1873), the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (1879), the AOU (1883) and COS (1893)—now amalgamated as the AOS in 2016, the British Ornithologists’ Club (1892), the Wilson Ornithological Society (1888), and the Avicultural Society (1894) were all founded for the study of birds. There were undoubtedly others established at a more regional level.

ORNIS (1824) the first ornithological journal

Why did the 1800s see such a flourishing of interest in ornithology? Certainly people had been interested in the science of ornithology since the 1600s (Willughby and Ray, Belon, Aldrovandi, etc) but maybe there was just not enough interest locally for there to be a critical mass to meet. Certainly the exchange of ideas in scientific societies was, and still is, paramount: “Like their European predecessors, American societies were the outgrowth of gatherings of small groups of men of mutual interests, most of them amateur rather than professional scientists and scholars.” (Gibson 1982). Some ornithological societies, like the Nuttall OC, were founded explicitly for the publication of journals, but most started a journal several years later, and some—like the DO-G—were even preceded by a journal.

I am delighted to be associated with societies, like the AOS, that have evolved and blossomed from those early beginnings, particularly as they are no longer composed solely of ‘small groups of men’. Even in the 1960s, I sometimes attended meetings of two bird/scientific clubs in my home town—the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC) and the Brodie Club—where women were not welcome (until 1980 at the TOC!), where most of the men were at least middle-aged, and just about everyone smoked. Such misogyny—in this case in the form of social exclusion—seems bizarre today but was typical of all ornithological societies in the early years. Although women’s contributions to ornithology before as recently as the 1960s were relatively few, we do well to honour their perseverance in the face of such discrimination and their outstanding early contributions to ornithological research, science writing and bird illustration.


  • Aldrovandi U (1599) Ornithologiae hoc est de avibus historiae. Bologna: Apud Franciscum de Franciscis Senensem
  • Belon P (1555) L’Histoire de la Nature des Oiseaux. Paris: Gilles Corrozet.
  • Gibson SS (1982). Scientific societies and exchange: a facet of the history of scientific communication. The Journal of Library History 17, 144–163.
  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.