Bird Paper Two

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 6 May 2019

A few months ago (10 December 2018), I wrote about the first paper ever published about birds (here)—a description of a hummingbird from Barbados, published by the botanist Nehemiah Grew in May 1693. This publication was in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, and did not appear until 28 years after scientific publishing began, in 1665. Ornithology did not really become a ‘science’ in England until Ray’s The Ornithology of Francis Willughby was published in English in 1678 [1] but it still took another 15 years before a scientific paper on birds appeared.

Grew also published the second-ever paper about birds when he followed up on his first publication in the July/August 1693 issue of Philosophical Transactions. That second paper is short enough that I can reproduce it here in its entirety:


In that second paper he reports that the observations that he reported on earlier that year were actually made by a Mr Hamersly, and he wonders if the birds really do subsist on nectar, or are actually eating insects on the bottoms of corollas. He must have known that none of the English birds that he would have been familiar with subsisted on nectar alone so it would have seemed anomalous to him that any bird could. He wisely suggests opening up a hummingbird to see if they have different sorts of guts from other birds.

That was a great suggestion—and would have been a revelation—as the stomach of a hummingbird is a specialized structure. At least in the few species whose stomachs have been studied, food enters the hummingbird’s proventriculus (stomach) very close to and on the same plane as where it exits into the duodenum from the ventriculus. Thus the liquid nectar takes a shortcut to the small intestine without passing into the ventriculus. The ventriculus is used to crush insects that the bird eats but really has nothing to offer the nectar. Nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine so the hummingbird digestive systems gets digested nectar to the site of absorption as quickly as possible.

Digestive system of the chicken
Female Broad-tailed Hummingbird at nest

When I was analyzing data for my PhD thesis (on hummingbirds), I lived for a month in a VW camper in the mountains north of Tucson, Arizona. A female Broad-tailed Hummingbird came into our camper regularly to inspect the red plastic plates by the sink. This surprised me because I saw no obvious hummingbird flowers during my frequent walks in the woods. One day, I followed the female back to her nest and often saw her foraging on insects.

We surveyed the woods for 500 m in each of the eight cardinal directions from the nest and found no flowers whatsoever. We also watched the bird during 19 foraging bouts away from the nest and only saw her catching aerial insects and taking prey from spiders’ webs. As far as we were aware at the time (and still), this was the first evidence that hummingbirds could subsist solely on arthropods for a while, and it makes sense, from a nutritional point of view, that they would have to feed animal protein to their nestlings, as otherwise they could not grow.

Hummingbirds continue to be a fascinating group to study but Grew was not the first to publish something about them. That honour goes to the French explorer Jean de Léry who spent 10 months on the coast of Brazil in 1557. de Léry published about his adventures in 1578, with a chapter on the birds he saw, including “une singuliere merveille, et chef-d’oeuvre de petitesse, il n’en faut pas omettre un que les sauvages nomment Gonambuch, de plumage blanchastre et luisant, lequel combien qu’il n’ait pas le corps plus gros qu’un frelon, ou qu’un cerf-volant, triomphe neantmoins de chanter” [2], in other words, a hummingbird.

de Léry’s description could hardly be called ‘scientific’, so the first description of a hummingbird—in fact of 9 species—that is both accurate and scientifically interesting was not published until almost a century later, in 1648. These descriptions appear in Georg Marcgrave‘s section of Historia naturalis Brasiliae. Marcgrave’s original text is in Latin, and was later translated into French and English [3]. I will post a full account of Macgrave’s findings later this year. In the meantime, here is a picture (from Marcgrave) of one of the species he describes:

Guainumbi (hummingbird) in Marcgrave (1648)


  • 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
  • Klasing K (1998). Comparative Avian Nutrition. New York: CAB International.
  • de Léry J (1578) Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite Amerique. Contenant la navigation, et choses remarquables, veuës sur mer par l’aucteur. Le comportement de Villegagnon en ce pays la. Les mœurs et façons de vivre estranges des Sauvages Ameriquains : avec un colloque de leur langage. Ensemble la description de plusieurs Animaux, Arbres, Herbes, et autres choses singulieres, et du tout inconnues pardeçà: dont on verra les sommaires des chapitres au commencement du livre. Le tout recueilli sur les lieux par Jean de Lery, natif de la Margelle, terre de sainct Sene, au Duché de Bourgongne. La Rochelle ou Genève: Antoine Chuppin. [1611 edition available here]
  • de Léry J (1990) History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil. Translation and introduction by Janet Whatley. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • López-Calleja MV, Fernández MJ, Bozinovic F (2003) The integration of energy and nitrogen balance in the hummingbird Sephanoides sephaniodes. Journal of Experimental Biology 206:3349–3359.
  • Marcgrave G (1648) Historiae Naturalis Brasiliae, Liber Quintus, Qui agit de Avibus. in Piso et al. (1648)
  • Montgomerie RD, Redsell CA (1980) A nesting hummingbird feeding solely on arthropods. Condor 82:463–464.
  • Piso W, Hackius F, Laet JD, Marggraf G, Lud. E (1648) Historia naturalis Brasiliaeauspicio et beneficio illustriss. I. Mauriti Com. Nassau illius provinciae et maris summi praefecti adornata: in qua non tantum plantae et animalia, sed et indigenarum morbi, ingenia et mores describuntur et iconibus supra quingentas illustrantur. Leiden: Lugdnum Batavorum, Apud Franciscum Hackium, et Amstelodami apud L. Elzevirium. [available here]
  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.


  1. published in English in 1678: it was first published in Latin in 1676
  2. quotation from de Léry: (1578) which I translate as “But for a singular marvel, and masterpiece of smallness, I must not omit one that the savages call Gonambuch, with whitish and shiny plumage, which has a body no bigger than a hornet, or a beetle, nevertheless triumphs to sing”. Whatley’s (1990) translation of this passage is slightly different but the details are the same.
  3. translated into French and English: while I studied both French and latin for 5 years at school, my Latin is rustier from lack of use (!). I have not located the French and English translations in a library or on the web.

IMAGES: chicken digestive system from Wikipedia; Grew paper from Biodiversity heritage Library; Broad-tailed hummingbird photo by Bill Ratcliff from Wikimedia Commons

Aves mexicanus

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 May 2019

One of the curious traits shared by birders and professional ornithologists is an abiding interest in bird names, both common and scientific. With respect to common (English) names, I have previously highlighted attempts at standardization in the 1830s (here), one recognizing a woman (here), one that is obscure and obsolete (here), a recent name change (here), and an odd misnomer (here). Since 1850 dozens of books and papers have been published about the English and Latin names of birds (see list here). And a new book by Stephen Moss Mrs Moreau’s Warbler provides some delightful insights into the origins of many odd common names.

The scientific names of birds have attracted less interest, in part, I assume, because those names are regulated by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). The ICZN governs the designation of type specimens, the choice of scientific names and the rules of priority.  The code’s Principle of Priority mandates that taxon names (species, genus, family, etc) are always the ones that appeared first in print. All of these taxon names can only change when taxa are lumped or split but the rule still applies to newly designated taxa. Hugh Strickland proposed that first rule in his 1842 report to the British Association that established the ICZN. Thus scientific names are not really open for discussion or change unless a mistake has been made.

Quite a few of the scientific (Latin) species names of birds come from country names. This is largely due to European explorers collecting and describing a species for the first time and naming the species after the country where the first specimen was collected. According to the current IOC World List [1], australis is the most common species epithet that looks like a country name, used for 22 extant bird species in 22 different genera (by necessity) and 10 orders of birds. But australis means ‘southern’, and not ‘Australia’, and only 8 of those species occur in Australia, the rest being found in New Zealand (3), Africa (6), south Pacific (3). south Atlantic (1), and the USA (1).

Thus the most popular country name used for species is americanus/americana with 17 extant species but here again the authors were often referring to the Americas and not specifically to the USA or even North America. I have not checked to see where the type specimens were collected but 4 of those species do not occur in the USA and 2 do not occur in North America.

Species unequivocally named after a country include indicus (17), mexicanus (14), peruvianus/peruanus (12), canadensis (8), sinica/sinensis (7), brasiliensis/brasilianus (6), portoricensis (4), and  colombianus/colombica (3) [2]. Species named after a continent include africanus/africanoides (11) and asiaticus (7). Interestingly, few species were named after European regions where those very explorers came from:  euopaeus (2), germana (1), scotica (1), brit- (0), espan- (0), ital- (0), norv- (0), and sver- (0)..

All of the species named indicus appear to occur in India, but 3 of the species named mexicanus are not really Mexican [3], and two do not even occur in Mexico—the Puerto Rican Tody (Todus mexicanus) being endemic, not surprisingly, to Puerto Rico, and the Oriole Blackbird (Gymnomystax mexicanus) which lives in northern South America.

Birds with species name mexicanus

About a month ago, Tom Sherry (Tulane University) wrote to ask if I knew anything about the history of the species name mexicanus for the Puerto Rican Tody. I didn’t, but his query prompted this post. It has taken me a couple of weeks to explore this question and it has so absorbed me that I had no time to post anything [4] on the past two Mondays as I usually do.

The scientific name of the Puerto Rican Tody dates from 1838 when the bird was described (see below) by René Primevère Lesson in a paper he wrote about some todies new to science. Lesson called the species Le Todier vert, rose et bleue and noted that it was from Puerto Rico (L’île Porto-Rico). His footnote #2 says that this is Todus portoricensis and attributed this name to Adolphe Lesson, his brother (who was a botanist). His footnote #1 refers to the previous species (probably the Jamaican Tody) on that page Le Todier vert et jaune that he calls Todus viridis or Todus mexicanus, also discovered and reported by his brother Adolphe, from Veracruz in Mexico.

First description of Puerto Rican Tody (Lesson 1838)

Now, I am by no means an expert on the rules of nomenclature but it seems to me that it is a mistake to call the Puerto Rican Tody Todus mexicanus, and that Todus portoricensis is both correct and appropriate. Dr Sherry tells me that some birders that he met on his trip to Puerto Rico wondered how the apparently mistaken scientific name came to be. Maybe it is a real mistake and there would be a case to have the scientific name changed. By any name, this is a beautiful little bird.

Puerto Rican Tody (Kevin Loughlin PHOTO)


  • Lesson RP (1838) Mémoire descriptif d’espèces ou de genres d’oiseaux nouveaux ou imparfaitement décrits. Annales des Sciences Naturelles 2(9): 166-176
  • Moss S (2019) Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names. New York: Faber & Faber.


  1. IOC World List: I used v 9.1 available here
  2. country or continent names: the names listed here include feminine and neutral variants (e.g. both asiaticus and asiatica). I have listed all the names that I could find that had >2 examples.
  3. not really Mexican: the Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) breeds and winters in northern Mexico but 9/10 of its range is in the USA
  4. no time to post anything: not to mention attending the funerals of two colleagues, marking 48 final term papers in my history and philosophy of biology course, and trying to meet the Canadian income tax deadline

IMAGES: mexicanus species from Handbook of Birds of the World online; excerpt from Lesson’s paper from Biodiversity Heritage Library; Tody photo courtesy Kevin Loughlin (via Tom Sherry)

The Story of O(ology)

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 15 April 2019

After a seminar last week, my colleague Jannice Friedman, a botanist, asked me if ‘oology’ was really a word, as it had appeared on one of the speaker’s slides. So, she asked, what is the ‘o’ that ‘ology’ (the study of) has been tacked on to? I explained to her that oology (or oölogy) is the study of eggs, and birds’ eggs in particular, but I had no idea why it was not something more logical like ‘ovology’ [1]. Oology is one of those words like ‘popsicle’ and ‘’castle’ that are familiar but then sound ridiculous when you think about them or repeat them too often [2].

W. C. Hewitson

The OED says that oology first appeared in print in English in 1830, in an advertisement [3] for the soon-to-be-published British Oology by William Hewitson. Hewitson published this ‘book’ as a series of fascicles, sold by subscription beginning in 1831 and completed in 1838. The second (1843-44) and third editions (1856) were called Coloured Illustrations of the Eggs of British Birds. Among the subscribers to that first edition were such notables as John James Audubon, John Gould, W. J. Hooker, Sir William Jardine, Prideaux John Selby, and William Yarrell [4]. It was clearly a popular publication on a popular topic.

Hewitson’s British Oology starts with an Introduction in which he waxes poetic about his love of Nature, and the pleasures of egg-collecting: “who does not remember those joyous times when, at the first breaking loose from school, he has hied him to the wood and the hedge-row, in search of his painted prize?”[5] In that first edition, he describes the eggs and nests of 229 species that bred in Britain, illustrated with coloured plates that he drew on lithographic stone and then hand-coloured. Those plates, curiously, show no more than four eggs per page, all life size, and thus the plates are often mostly white space (see below).

Some of the eggs shown in British Oology

Like most pre-Darwinian naturalists, Hewitson saw in the design of eggs some God-given purpose for the good of mankind: “For the same purpose for which they adorn the plumes of the Humming-bird, or the wing of the resplendent butterfly — to gladden our eyes, ‘To minister delight to man, to beautify the earth.’ And thus it is that the eggs of nearly all those birds (the Owl, Kingfisher, Bee-cater, Holler, Nuthatch, and the Woodpeckers) which conceal them in holes, are white, because in such situations colour would be displayed to no purpose.” [5].

Even in the interspecific variation in clutch size, Hewitson saw the hand of God providing for mankind: “In every instance we shall find the same beneficent influence acting for our welfare; increasing rapidly, by the number of their eggs, those species which are of the greatest use to us, and bestowing upon those intended for our more immediate benefit, a most wonderful power of ovo-production; and at the same time curtailing in their numbers those species which, in their greater increase would soon become injurious to us.” [5]

Despite all of that teleology, Hewitson was perceptive in noting that species with precocial offspring have eggs that are larger relative to female size compared to species with altricial hatchlings. He also concludes that egg colour cannot be generally useful for camouflage except in a few ground-nesting birds. With respect to the use of eggs in taxonomy, he has a mixed message but still seems to want to cling to the idea that egg traits will be useful for classification [6]. His descriptions of breeding habitats, nest construction, breeding seasons and clutch sizes provide a useful window on the state of knowledge about British birds almost two centuries ago.

I assume that the word ‘oology’ was already in general use when Hewitson published British Oology because he uses the term without definition or special mention, as if all readers would know what he was talking about. For the next century oology was a prominent topic among people interested in birds, the subject of several books, myriad papers, and even a museum of oology [7] in Santa Barbara, California. Hewitson later turned his attention to collecting and illustrating lepidoptera, but occasionally dabbled in oology, mainly updating his British Oology with papers on new discoveries in the British Isles and continental Europe.

So where did that word ‘oology’ come from? The OED says that it is a combination of ‘oo’ and ‘logy’ but that really does not make sense to me as ‘ology’— not ‘logy’—is the standard suffix meaning ‘the scientific study of’. For example, Wikipedia lists 342 ‘ologies’ all of which appear to append ‘ology’ onto a subject of study: bi-ology, ichthy-ology, ornith-ology. The OED also says that ‘oologia’ is the Latin version first used in 1691, probably derived from ‘oion’ Greek word for egg. My guess is that it’s a word that egg collectors made up to give their hobby a patina of science.

The word ‘oology’ became associated with egg-collecting in the Victorian era but largely disappeared from the ornithological literature in the 1920s, probably because egg-collecting fell out of favour (and was eventually outlawed). The study of eggs waxed and waned throughout the twentieth century with a monumental book—The Avian Egg—by AL and AJ Romanoff published in 1949 being one of the highlights. Over the past decade or so, the study of bird’s eggs has enjoyed a resurgence with new tools available for measuring colours and shapes but few ornithologists use the word oology any more.

Recent books about bird’s eggs


  • Anonymous (1908) Mr. W. C. Hewitson. The Ibis Jubilee Supplement 2: 182–185.
  • Birkhead T (2016) The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg. Bloomsbury USA.
  • Hewitson WC (1831-38) British oology: being illustrations of the eggs of British birds, with figures of each species, as far as practicable, drawn and coloured from nature : accompanied by descriptions of the materials and situation of their nests, number of eggs, &c. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Charles Empson [first edition available here]
  • Hewitson WC (1859) Recent discoveries in European oology. The Ibis 1: 76-80
  • Kiff L (2005) History, present status, and future prospects of avian eggshell collections in North America. The Auk 122: 994–999,


  1. ovology: is, according to the dictionary, one variant of oology but I have seen it in print
  2. sound ridiculous when you think about them or repeat them: this is called semantic satiation or wordnesia and can happen with any word
  3. advertisement: in Magazine of Natural History 3 (end matter)—”On the First of January, 1831, will be published, the First Number of British Oology, being illustrations of the Eggs, Nidification, &c. of British Birds
  4. subscribers to British Oology: the full list is at the beginning of the first edition.
  5. Hewitson quotations: from Hewitson 1831 pages 3, 8, and 8-9, respectively
  6. useful for classification: this idea persisted well into the 20th century despite ample evidence that it eggs were not a useful trait for taxonomy. I expect that some of this persistence was driven by a desire to justify the collecting of eggs
  7. museum of oology: the Museum of Comparative Oölogy was started by William L. Dawson in 1916, and is now part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

An Eye for Photography

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 8 April 2019

In the summers of 1966 and 1967, I worked (Dream Job #2) for Bill Carrick at the Niska Waterfowl Research Station near Guelph, Ontario. Bill was an outstanding wildlife cinematographer and a superb naturalist who was director/manager of that facility. My job was to raise and feed the myriad birds and mammals that he used in his films, and to act as what in film lingo is called ‘best boy’, looking after equipment and lighting, as well as nest-finding when we were in the field.

I lived on the property with Bill and his family and every morning took chicken scraps from the local butcher out to the feed several hawks and owls housed in big flight aviaries at the edge of a woodlot. The raptors largely ignored me as I cleaned up leftovers and piled chicken parts on a platform for their daily meal. One day, though, I heard a whoosh behind me and as I turned saw a red-tailed hawk with talons splayed, only a meter from my face. I somehow dodged in panic but one of the bird’s talons ripped open the left side of my head with a gash starting only a cm or two from my eye.

Eric Hosking

As Bill’s wife, Mary, was patching me up, he told me the story of Eric Hosking, who had lost an eye to a Tawny Owl when he was only 28 but already famous for his bird photography. Hosking lived in north London and in the spring of 1937 had set up a blind on a Tawny Owl nest near his home. Late in the evening of 12 May, he was climbing to his blind when one of the parent owls attacked (as they are now well known to do around their nests), striking his face and blinding his left eye. While this was a tragic accident, the subsequent publicity marked a turning point in Hosking’s career. Although Hosking’s photos were already widely published, the publicity over the loss of his eye while photographing birds made him a national celebrity.

Hosking was a spectacularly good bird photographer, who went on to write at least 14 books illustrated with his photographs. In 1970, he published his autobiography, An Eye for a Bird, in which he described how he lost his left eye more than 30 years earlier. That book was wildly popular and went through at least 7 editions. Just last year, it was made available in digital form on Amazon UK Kindle (here).

Hosking’s best photos, in my opinion, show birds in action, and are not simply portraits of birds on a pond or a stick. His action photos are all the more remarkable because, by today’s digital standards, bird photography in the 1930s was staggeringly difficult. To take a picture in those days, the photographer had to calculate the best f-stop and shutter speed for the lighting conditions, focus on a plate on the back of the camera, insert the film holder (containing a glass plate with the emulsion on one side) into the camera, and then hope nothing changed when the bird showed up and the shutter was pressed. Photographers among you will recognize how difficult it must have been to take pictures at the equivalent of ISO 10. On a good day, Hosking might get 12 exposed plates that he could take home to develop and print.

Barn Owl (1936) by Eric Hosking

Like all photographers that I know, Hosking liked to keep on top of the latest technological advances. He was one of the first to use flash bulbs in bird photography, thereby obtaining some of the earliest photos of birds at night. Previously, he would have had to use flash powder that must have been incredibly dangerous in woods and grasslands. In the 1940s, he also pioneered the use of electronic flash to capture and freeze birds in flight, showing things that nobody had been able to see before, like the bending of feathers and the angles of the wings on the up- and down-strokes.

Kingfisher (1951) by Eric Hosking

Because of, and in addition to, his contributions to bird photography, Hosking wrote several papers for bird journals, and was a champion for bird conservation. He was also president or vice-president of the BOU, RSPB, the Nature Photographic Society,  and the British Naturalists’ Association, and was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to both nature photography and conservation. In 1965, the Natural History Museum began a Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition that Hosking often judged. The first winner was C. V. R. Dowdeswell for his colour photo of a Tawny Owl [1], presented by none other than David Attenborough [2].

Attenborough (L), Dowdeswell (R) and the award-winning photo
Cherry (above) and Richard (below) taking a photo of a bird’s nest

Hosking was not the first bird photographer to gain national and international fame for his work. That honour is shared by Richard and Cherry Kearton in England, and a trio of naturalists in America. The Kearton brothers [3] were from a small village in the Yorkshire Dales where they developed an early interest in photography. Their first bird photos were taken in the 1880s, when they were in still in their teens. Cherry is credited with taking the first photo of a bird’s nest and eggs in 1892, when he was just 21. In 1898, the Keartons published a book (available here), With Nature and a Camera, about their 1896 trip to St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides northwest of Scotland. That book—illustrated with 160 of their photographs—is still quite readable, full of observations of and insights into the relationships between the people and birds on those remote islands, and the techniques developed by the Keartons for observation and photography.

cormorants and guillemots, St Kilda 1896, by Cherry Kearton
Finley (above) and Bohlman (below) with flickers

While the Keartons were exploring St Kilda, two American naturalists—William L. Finley and Herman T. Bohlman, both in their twenties—were beginning to photograph birds in the western USA. One of their goals was to use their photography to promote bird conservation. In 1905, Bohlman and Finley explored the Klamath River Valley along the Oregon-California border. Their writings and photos were a major impetus for President Teddy Roosevelt to set aside federal bird refuges in the west.

In 1907, Finley and Bohlman published American Birds (available here), with 21 chapters, each about a different species and illustrated with 137 of their photographs. Finley married his wife, Irene, in 1906, and she accompanied him on all of his subsequent expeditions, gradually taking over from Bohlman who decided to stay at home to attend to his family. All of their archived photographs (available here) are attributed to all three people so it is now impossible to know who took what, but clearly Irene was one of the earliest, and few, women bird photographers

Belted Kingfishers (1901) by HT Bohlman

As for bird collecting and egg collecting, bird photography has been largely a man’s game, with precious few exceptions. This 2015 listing of the world’s dozen best bird photographers, for example, mentions no women. I am aware of a few very talented women nature photographers working today and will highlight their work in a later post,. Many of those women, like Irene Findley, often shared the limelight with their male partners, or worked in their shadows


  • Bevis J (2007) Direct From Nature: The Photographic Work of Richard & Cherry Kearton. Axminster, UK: Colin Sackett.
  • Edwards G, Hosking E, Smith S (1947) Aggressive display of the ringed plover. British Birds 40:12–19.
  • Finley WL, Bohlman HT (1907) American Birds: Studied and photographed from life. New York: Scribner’s.
  • Hosking D. (2017) Book Review: An Eye for a bird. British Birds (3 Jan 2017 available here)
  • Hosking E, Lane F (1970) An Eye for a Bird. London: Hutchinson.
  • Kearton R, Kearton C (1898) With nature and a camera; being the adventures and observations of a field naturalist and an animal photographer. London: Cassell.


  1. colour photo of a Tawny Owl: is it just a coincidence that this was the winning photo, as that was the species that had taken out Hosking’s eye
  2. David Attenborough: was already well known in 1965, having for more than a decade worked for the BBC
  3. Kearton brothers: although both Richard and Cherry are often credited with their photographs, Cherry was really the photographer where Richard was the all-round naturalist and writer.


BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 April 2019 (posted 5 April, see footnote 10)

Most of the ornithologists that I know have a great sense of humour. My old friend and mentor, James L. Baillie often took me birding when I was a teenager and his typical response when I could not identify a big, distant bird was “You know the crow?”. At first, he was almost always right but this soon became his response whenever I could not identify a bird, no matter how big or colourful. He also liked to pun on the names of birders and ornithologists, as in calling Dean Amadon, the curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, the ‘Dean of Ornithology’. Once on a long drive from Toronto to the AOU meeting in Duluth, Minnesota, he entertained us with ornithological humour for the entire round trip.

As today is April Fool’s Day, it’s seems appropriate to chronicle some biological humour from the past. On April 1st even Charles Darwin was subjected to a bit of fun by his shipmates as he recorded in his Beagle Diary: April 1st All hands employed in making April fools. — at midnight nearly all the watch below was called up in their shirts; Carpenters for a leak: quarter masters that a mast was sprung. — midshipmen to reef top-sails; All turned in to their hammocks again, some growling some laughing. — The hook was much too easily baited for me not to be caught: Sullivan cried out, “Darwin, did you ever see a Grampus: Bear a hand then”. I accordingly rushed out in a transport of Enthusiasm, & was received by a roar of laughter from the whole watch. [1]

Humour about birds, birding and ornithology has been the subject of several books, at least one scholarly paper, and for many years an irregular publication of the AOU. Birds are also featured in several animated films and newspaper/magazine cartoons, but few of those can truly be called ornithological [2]. The exceptions are the many bird-featured The Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson [3] that were the staple of oral presentations about birds (and just about every other branch of science) in the 1980s and 90s.

Humorous books about birds are mostly about birding [4] but my favourite is The Book of Terns, a collection of groaner puns about terns, in cartoon form. Published first in 1978 it was soon out of print but then was reprinted in 2011 and is readily available (with a new cover) from Amazon and well worth buying if you like puns and charming cartoons. It is now published by Ternaround Press, whatever that is.

The Book of Terns (1978)

The scholarly paper noted above is a three-page article by Richard Lewin briefly describing a dozen humorous biological hoax publications, some amusing titles, several parodies, and a short list of funny scientific names. Several of his examples are from the ornithological literature but he highlights a hoax that I will write more about another time, and a mini-journal called The Auklet: An Occasional Journal for Ornithologists that was made available to the attendees of at least six AOU meetings between 1935 and 1976.

The first issue of The Auklet was distributed at the AOU meeting in Toronto in October (or rather Auktober) 1935. The cover art depicting a laughing Crested Auklet—probably drawn by the great bird artist Terrence M. Shortt [5]—was on the cover of the next 5 issues at least (see below). The cover of that first issue claims that it was ‘Published at a Loss‘ as a ‘Continuation of the Nutty Bulletin’. Articles had titles like ‘A Method for the control of the Profanitory Warbler’, and the Recent literature section accused Percy Taverner of plagiarism when he combined his Birds of Eastern Canada and Birds of Western Canada into a single volume Birds of Canada. By later standards this was rather genteel humour.

First edition of the Auklet (1935)

The second edition (date?) described a new species—the Hudsonian corncrake—noting that it was nocturnal and so secretive that it had not yet been seen. And the fifth edition (1971) described a marsupial pelican. One issue, that I recall, had some clever doggerel about birds, written, I think, by Terry Shortt of cover art fame.

1976 edition

The sixth issue of The Auklet was distributed to attendees at the centennial AOU meeting in August (or rather Aukust) 1976 in Haverford, Pennsylvania. I gave my first scientific paper at that meeting, and wondered at the time if some of the material in The Auklet might offend [6] some of the senior ornithologists (and that may have been intended). Ernst Mayr, for example, was moderator in the session that I spoke in and we got on very well. I thought at the time that the bit on him in The Auklet was a little unfair: Ernst Mayr (to neophyte taxonomist): “Why be difficult—when with just a little more effort you can be impossible.” [7]

That 1976 edition contained several articles spoofing subjects that were topical at the time, and a multiple-choice Rorschach test with ornithological answers. Many prominent ornithologists were subjected to a bit of (good-natured?) ridicule in a review of recent publications by J. Mansfield-Burger, S. Oleson, P. Broadcrap, J. Crowcrap, C. Simply, and A. Seduccia [8]. I knew many of these people and suspect that they were not at all amused. The issue ended with a few pages of corny (dad) jokes which, to me, were the only funny bits in that edition: After completing her treatise on bird development and being told of a Peruvian passerine which is known to have a nestling life of 87 days, Mrs. Nice was heard to exclaim, “That’s the most nidicolous thing I ever heard”. [9]

Whether or not you enjoy the sort of humour in The Auklet, that ‘journal’ is an interesting and useful window on the history of the AOU. If I can get scans of all of the editions, I will post them as PDFs on the AOS history site. I see that the AOS archives at the Smithsonian has at least some copies and I have the 1976 edition, but if any readers have old copies that they could either scan or send me the original or a photocopy, I will make them available here.


  • Delacorte P, Witte MC (1978) The Book of Terns. New York: Penguin Putnam
  • Lewin RA (1983) Humor in the scientific literature. BioScience 33:266–268.


  1. Darwin quote: from his Beagle Diary (transcript here)
  2. animated films: the cartoon characters Donald Duck and his clan, Daffy Duck, RoadRunner, Tweety, Woodstock, and Woody Woodpecker are probably the best known
  3. Gary Larson: has apparently always been interested in animals and his biological insights are remarkably spot on
  4. humorous books about birding: there are so many of these that they probably deserve a post of their own. I show a few covers below.
  5. Terrence M. Shortt: was my friend and mentor during the 1960s. Terry worked as a collector, preparator and diorama producer at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for 46 years. He attended that 1935 meeting in Toronto and the drawing looks very much like his style. He may also have drawn the cartoons in that issue but I cannot be so sure.
  6. Auklet might offend: in retrospect, my worry about offence probably just reflected my polite Canadian sensibilities but even today I cringe at ad hominem ‘humour’
  7. quotation about Ernst Mayr: from The Auklet 6: 36. I suspect that many would claim that this is the sort of thing that Mayr might have well have said.
  8. quotation about M.M. Nice: from The Auklet 6: 35
  9. prominent ornithologists subjected to ridicule: respectively (but not respectfully), Joanna Burger, Storrs Olson, Pierce Brodkorb, Joel Cracraft, Charles Sibley and Alan Feduccia
  10. 5 April 2019: I posted this essay from my iPad on April Fool’s Day but the joke was on me. The next day WordPress sent me a message to say that they had suspended access to my account via iOS 12 due to a security breach. They sent me a note about this on 2 April and asked me to re-establish my credentials and re-post but I deleted that email without reading. Then, last night, I wondered why I had not received the usual email from WordPress with this week’s post, and looked through my deleted emails.

Contemplating the Tundra


BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 25 March 2019

Until the 1970s, few women could have called themselves ‘professional’ ornithologists no matter how great their contribution to the study of birds. As I have documented earlier in this series of essays about the history of ornithology, women were most often (i) invisible, in the sense that we know only about their contributions but not who they were (see here), (ii) or working largely in the background for their husbands (see here), fathers [1], or employers (see here), (iii) or conducting research as at least equal partners with those men but too often given second-billing (see here), (iv) or studying birds as a hobby but even then rising to the top of their field (see here and here).

Kessel in 2005

This week I am highlighting the work of one of the few women to be employed as a professional ornithologist before 1970: Brina Kessel. As a university professor conducting research on birds she achieved international renown for her research and her books about the birds of Alaska. Dr Kessel, who died in 2016, spent her entire academic career at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and her contributions will be highlighted at the upcoming AOS meeting in June in Anchorage. Because her work is ‘contemporary’ it will be known to ornithologists who worked in the latter half of the 20th century, so I am going to highlight here some of her early influences and experiences that may be less well known.

Kessel was born in Ithaca, New York to graduate student parents who moved to Storrs, Connecticut, when she was quite young so that her father could take up faculty position—in English—at the university there. Her mother studied entomology at Cornell but both parents took ornithology classes from Arthur A. Allen. They were also naturalists who kindled Brina’s early interest in birds.

Brina first experienced alpine tundra on a family trip to the top of Mount Washington (New Hampshire) where she was bitten by the tundra bug, a chronic illness that I share with many of my friends. She once quipped that her preference for tundra habitats “must have been a mutant gene that I had” [2]. Gordon Orians thinks that we might have an evolved response to prefer certain savannah-like habitats, so Brina might have been right about her tundra-loving gene.

Brina returned to Ithaca to be an undergraduate at Cornell where she took part-time jobs on the Poultry Department and became acquainted with Arthur A. Allen and Paul Kellogg, occasionally helping them with their frog and bird song recordings. Many of the undergraduate men were away from school contributing to the war effort so Brina was not held back by the sort of misogyny that might have limited her opportunities for research as an undergrad.

She loved that work and decided to seek an advanced degree with Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin in 1947. Leopold founded the study of wildlife management and was a leading American ecologist so she set her sites high. Brina had chosen wisely as she was very interested in the growing interest in conservation, biodiversity, and wilderness protection. Unfortunately, Leopold died from a heart attack while fighting a brush fire on his neighbour’s property a few months after Brina began her studies. As if that was not enough, the University of Wisconsin, in those days, would not allow women into their wildlife management program so Brina was unable to pursue a PhD there.

Kessel (far right) looking at a Belted Kingfisher held by A.A. Allen

Frustrated on those two fronts, Brina returned to Cornell for her PhD, studying the behaviour and ecology of Starlings under Allen’s supervision. About 90 Starlings had been released in Central Park in New York and by 1950 the species had spread across the United Sates to the Rocky Mountains. They may already have numbered as many as 100 million but their breeding biology had never been studied in North America. Based on 7 years field study from 1945 to 1951 she completed her PhD in two years and immediately moved to Alaska.

Her first job at the University of Fairbanks was as lecturer but she quickly gained a faculty position and by 1967 was head of that department. Over the years she explored much of the state, particularly the arctic and alpine tundra regions that she loved so much

Soon after her faculty appointment, she put in a proposal to travel by boat down the Colville River studying the birds of that region with her grad school friend, Tom Cade. That river, however, flowed into the US Naval Petroleum Reserve on the north slope, and she was told that “You can not come up on to the Reserve because the Navy will not allow any woman on the Petfore Reserve unless they are married, and with their husband” [2]. Brina was sorely disappointed but was able to send a U of A freshman—George Schaller—in her stead. She liked Schaller’s interest in natural history and enthusiasm but had little inkling of his eventual success as conservationist and writer. Schaller later went with Kessel and the Muries on an expedition down the Sheenjek valley in 1956.

1956 expedition to the Sheenjek valley. L-R: Robert Krear, Olaus Murie, Noel Wien, Mercedes and Justice William O. Douglas, Mardy Murie, and George Schaller. Wien was the pilot and the Douglases were just visiting.

While she led many field expeditions herself, Brina also sent many others off into the Alaskan wilderness to survey the birds. She did, however, analyze the data and take a major role in writing up those studies for publication. Throughout her career she also did not hesitate to take on leadership roles, including a two-year stint as the 45th president of the American Ornithologists’ Union from 1992-94, only the second woman to serve in that capacity [3]. Despite, or perhaps because of, her frequent administrative roles, Brina realized that her field trips were “...where I’ve been most content and happy in my life. Out there just contemplating the tundra” [3].

Kessel showing Steve MacDonald (L) and Dan Gibson (R) how to skin a bird


  • Albin E (1731-38) A natural history of birds. Illustrated with a hundred and one copper plates… Published by the Author, Eleazar Albin, and carefully colour’d by his Daughter and Self, from the Originals, drawn form the live Birds. London.
  • Kessel B (1989) Birds of the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Their Biogeography, Seasonality, and Natural History. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press. 
  • Kessel B (1998) Habitat Characteristics of Some Passerine Birds in Western North American Taiga. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.
  • Kessel B, Cade TJ (1958) Birds of the Colville River, northern Alaska. Biological Papers of the University of Alaska no. 2.
  • Kessel B, Schaller GB (1960) Birds of the Upper Sheenjek Valley, northeastern Alaska. Biological Papers of the University of Alaska no. 4.
  • Orians G, Heerwagen JH (1992) Evolved responses to landscapes. In: Barlow JH, Cosmides L, Tooby J (Eds), The Adapted Mind, Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. working for their…fathers: Eleazar Albin‘s daughter Elizabeth did many of the hand-coloured etchings in his 1731-38 book
  2. Kessel quotations: from interview with Roger Kaye, 22 January 2003, available here
  3. second woman AOU president: the first was Fran James from 1984-86

IMAGES: Kessel (top) from University of Alaska Friends of Ornithology Newsletter, May 2007; book covers from the internet; Kessel and Allen and Kessel (bottom) from University of Alaska Museum website (here); 1956 expedition from USFWS website (here).

Magda and Kaethe


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

In one of my earliest memories—I must have been about 6 years old—it is summer and I am sitting in my grandfather’s garden as his seven hens and a rooster forage around me, almost within touch. I am watching them closely, giving each of them personalities, figuring out who is boss, who is good at finding worms and grubs, and who is mainly stealing from the others rather than scratching for food of its own.

I was not interested in birds then, but as long as I can remember I have loved watching animals close up. To that end, I kept all manner of snakes, frogs, salamanders, fishes and insects in my bedroom when I was a teenager, often much to the horror of my poor mother when they escaped, as they did with alarming regularity. My second paying job (Dream Job #2)—for two summers right after high school—was to raise and care for hundreds of ducks, geese, swans, hawks, owls, racoons and skunks at the Niska Waterfowl Research Station [1], near Guelph, Ontario. Every day I got to watch at close range dozens of domestic and exotic species from all over the world, and to raise their babies.

This week I highlight the lives of two woman ornithologists who kept and raised hundreds of bird species over a span of 40 years, and in so doing made immense—and virtually unknown and unsung— contributions to our knowledge of bird behaviour, growth and development during the first half of the twentieth century.

Magdalena Wiebe [2] was born in Berlin, Germany in 1883 and became interested in birds at a very early age. By the time she was 20, she was already a skilled taxidermist and aviculturist. After her marriage in 1904, she stayed at home where she kept and reared hundreds of birds over the next 28 years, gathering data on the breeding, behaviour and development of almost all of the species commonly found in Europe.

Katharina Berger was born in 1897 in Breslau, Germany, and also developed an abiding interest in animals at an early age. At university she studied both botany and zoology and did her PhD with Otto Koehler, one of the pioneers of ethology. Along with Konrad Lorenz, Koehler founded the journal Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. Katharina, like Magdalena, was an expert bird keeper. She published several key papers on pigeon orientation and behaviour. In 1945 she was appointed director of the Berlin Zoo, a position she held until her retirement in 1957.

What Magdalena and Katharina had in common was that they were both married to Oskar Heinroth, though not, of course, at the same time. Heinroth also became interested in animals when he was very young. Though trained as a medic, Oskar took a position at the Zoological Garden in Berlin in 1904 when he was in his early 30s, and spent the rest of his life studying birds, with Magdalena, then Katharina, both responsible for looking after the birds they studied, and devoting their lives with Oskar to studying their birds at close range.

Magdalena learned taxidermy from Oskar at the Natural History Museum, before they were married. At their engagement, Oskar gave Magdalena a ‘pet’ Blackcap in lieu of a ring. That pet was a portent of things to come as Magdalena spent the next 28 years raising birds in their apartment. During that period Oskar was assistant director then director at the Berlin Zoo, and studied waterfowl behaviour in his spare time.

Magdalena clearly did not like the idea of sitting idly at home so began raising small birds to learn more about their behaviour and development. She bought some of them at local bird markets but often went afield to collect eggs to incubate and raise at home. Eventually they devoted an entire room in their apartment to the birds, though Oskar was initially a little skeptical about the value of Magdalena’s hobby.

Magdalena was a wizard at bird husbandry and fearless attempted to raise many species known to be tough to keep, let alone rear, in captivity: Goldcrests, Dippers and Tree Creepers, for example. Soon her goal was to try to raise every single bird species native to Germany no matter how big, small or difficult. Over that 28-year period she raised about 1000 individuals of 236 species, many of which were exceptionally tame and remained in the apartment as adults. This must have strained their domestic relationship and their neighbours as the birds were often noisy and undoubtedly smelly. And how did they keep the raptors from eating the smaller birds?

Aquarium (Berlin)

After 9 years, the Heinroths moved to a more more spacious apartment in the Aquarium building where they could devote several rooms to their birds and have a somewhat less impact on their personal lives and the neighbourhood. The Aquarium was built in 1913 and was (and is) part of the Berlin Zoological Garden where Oskar was Director. This must have been a much more convenient living/working situation for the couple. With both facilities and subjects close at hand, the Heinroths were able to greatly expand the scope of their research (and, presumably, the size of the birds that they could house!).

Both the birds and the research took their toll on the couple, as they functioned on precious little sleep during the busy spring and summer breeding season. Oskar was also allergic to either feathers or the mealworms that they raised to feed the birds. He only recovered from his asthma when he stopped having birds in the house when this project ended rather abruptly in 1932.

In addition to developing methods for the husbandry of a wide variety of species, the Heinroths measured growth, studied the development of locomotion, behaviour, and moult. They recorded everything in notebooks supplemented with more than 15,000 photographs of life stages and behaviours. For many of the birds they also drew or photographed the gapes of nestlings, realizing that this was an important signal to parents. It certainly did not escape Magdalena’s notice that they were on to something transformative in the study of behaviour: ‘‘Yes, it is often almost impossible to properly investigate the finer aspects of the habits of small birds in the wild …. If we … wish to get exact answers, the best thing is to keep the birds (in captivity), to do everything for them and observe them continuously’’ [3]

After 20 years of gathering this information and photographing their birds, the Heinroths began to put it all together in what was eventually a four-volume treatise published between 1924 and 1933. For each species they summarized all of their observations and measurements, and provided a series of 4040 photographs documenting various stages of development from egg to adult (see example pages below). In several of the photos, either Oskar or, more often, Magdalena, are visible, either for scale or simply to acknowledge the tameness of the birds. The book and their work in general is an important milestone in the history of ornithology, ethology and behavioural ecology. While their book was praised at the time, and is still monumentally useful, it and the Heinroths rather faded into obscurity [4].

After 28 consecutive years staying at home to rear birds, Magdalena took a holiday. The fourth volume of their book was now at the publisher, and Magdalena had suffered a couple of serious bouts of illness and really needed a break. After only two weeks away she suffered an intestinal blockage and died.

A year after Magdalena died and their project ended, Oskar married Katharina Berger. Kaethe had previously been married to Gustav Adolf Rösch, who was an assistant to Karl von Frisch [5] in Munich. When that union dissolved, she eventually moved to Berlin where she met and fell in love with Oskar. Like Magdalena, Kaethe also kept and studied birds, though presumably not in their apartment as the birds were pigeons and the subject was homing and orientation. With Oskar she published several influential papers on the subject. When Oskar died in 1945, Katharina was appointed scientific director at the zoo and initially spent her time restoring the zoo from the ravages of WWII. Long after Oscar died, Katharina wrote a book about his life and their lives together [6].

Katharina and Oskar
Hooded Crow (by L Binder, from Heinroth & Stenbacher 1962)

While Katharina’s life with Oskar was productive and undoubtedly rewarding, she outlived him by 43 years during which time she published many popular articles, an autobiography of her own life and a book about birds. That book, with Joachim Stenbacher, was illustrated by Ludwig Binder, and was published as the fifth in a series of looseleaf, boxed fascicles on a variety of European birds. This publishing methods is reminiscent of the subscription volumes of the 1800s, and the original printed species accounts in the Birds of North America series published by the American Ornithologists Union and the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia) in the 1990s [7].


  • Heinroth K (1971) Oskar Heinroth––Vater der Verhaltensforschung. Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft
  • Heinroth K (1979) Mit Faltern begann’s, Mein Leben mit Tieren in Breslau, München und Berlin. München: Kindler.
  • Heinroth K, Stenbacher J (1962) Mitteleuropäische Vögel. Hamburg: Kronen-Verlag
  • Heinroth M (1911) Zimmerbeobachtungen an seltener gehaltenen europa¨ischen Vo¨geln. Berichte V. Internat Ornithol Kongr Berlin 1910:703–764
  • Heinroth O, Heinroth K (1941) Das Heimfindevermögen der Brieftauben. Journal für Ornithology 69:213–256
  • Heinroth O, Heinroth M (1924–1933) Die Vögel Mitteleuropas—in allen Lebens- und Entwicklungsstufen photographisch aufgenommen und in ihrem Seelenleben bei der Aufzucht vom Ei an beobachtet. Band I–IV. Berlin: Hugo BehrmühlerVerlag
  • Podos J (1994) Early perspectives on the evolution of behavior: Charles Otis Whitman and Oskar Heinroth. Ethology ecology & evolution 6:467–480.
  • Rühl P (1932) Erinnerungen an Magdalena Heinroth. Journal für Ornithology 80: 542–551
  • Schulze-Hagen K, Birkhead TR (2015) The ethology and life history of birds: the forgotten contributions of Oskar, Magdalena and Katharina Heinroth. Journal of ornithology 156:9–18.


  1. Niska Waterfowl Research Station: was the research wing of Kortright Waterfowl Park established by the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation in the 1960s. The research station collected, raised and looked after the waterfowl for the public park, as well as conducting research on the resident waterfowl. The Park was open to the public for about 40 years.
  2. Magdalena Wiebe: I exercised some artistic licence in calling her Magda in the title of this essay. Magda is the diminutive form of Magdalena in Polish, at least. Katharina, on the other hand, is referred to as Kaethe in various sources.
  3. quotation about birds in captivity: from Heinroth 1911, translated in Schulze-Hagen and Birkhead 2015 page 12
  4. faded into obscurity: as Schulze-Hagen and Birkhead (2015) point out, both political events and the changing focus of ornithology were probably responsible. In particular, it seems likely that publication of the work in German limited its potential audience among researchers in the English-speaking world who were leading the transformation of evolutionary and behavioural biology
  5. Karl von Frisch: one of the founders of ethology, he shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen
  6. Katharina’s book about Oskar: see Heinroth (1971), published 26 years after Oskar died
  7. Birds of North America: is now online here, and continues to be the most important source of information about all the birds of North America.

IMAGES: Kortright Park sign from article in Guelph Mercury here; Magdalena from Rühl 1932; Aquarium from Wikipedia; photo montages from Die Vogel Mitteleuropas scanned by the author; Katharina and Oskar from Wikipedia; Hooded Crow scanned by the author.

More Than Generous Help



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

A recent study [1] of papers published from 1970 to 1990 in computational population genetics in the journal Theoretical Population Biology found that women were acknowledged for their contributions at a much higher rate than they appeared as authors. During that period only 7% of authors were women whereas 43% of ‘acknowledged programmers’ were women. The authors argue convincingly that the substantial contributions of women in this supporting role has been seriously under-appreciated.

I have already written about ‘invisible women’ (here) whose contributions to ornithology were substantial but we have no idea what their names were. Today I want to highlight the contribution of one woman—Sally Hoyt Spofford—who was well-known in ornithological circles, but whose contributions were largely in supporting the accomplishments of her male partners, mentors and employers. I have no doubt that she was fairly typical of women who contributed to ornithology from the early 1800s until about 1970 (see here), and this seems like a good time to celebrate their work and to acknowledge their contributions to the growth of our discipline.

Sally Hoyt Spofford

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Sally Foresman developed an early interest in birds from her parents, an interest she pursued through her undergraduate honors program, an MS at the University of Pennsylvania (1936) and a PhD from Cornell (1948). I expect that she was one of the earliest women anywhere to obtain a PhD on ornithology. A 1954 paper [2] listing 133 unpublished North American theses produced until then in ornithology, for example, includes only 18 theses by women and only 3 of those (including Hoyt’s) were PhDs.

Sally began her PhD with Arthur A. Allen in the Department of Conservation at Cornell in 1939, and married a fellow PhD student, John Southgate Yeaton Hoyt, in 1942. The Hoyts took some time off from their studies during WWII, but otherwise worked together on their theses, with Sally helping South, as he was called, with his field work on Pileated Woodpeckers. Sally’s own PhD thesis was a 592-page survey of techniques for the study of birds. As far as I know no publications arose from that work but it may well have informed publications from the Lab of Ornithology [3].

The list of Sally and South’s’ fellow graduate students at Cornell reads like a who’s who of mid-twentieth century ornithology—Dean Amadon, Brina Kessel, Allan Phillips, Kenneth Parkes, to mention just a few. Both Sally and South showed lots of promise but soon after they graduated, South was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1951. Sally took time off to look after South, then returned to Cornell to work for Arthur A. Allen. In 1957 she wrote up South’s thesis for the journal Ecology, fully acknowledging that “the credit for the work should go in his memory and not to this writer, who acts chiefly as compiler.” [4]

Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the 1960s

In 1957, Allen moved his research group to Sapsucker Woods just east of Ithaca, where he established the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Sally came along as his Administrative Assistant and was the ‘heart and soul’ of the Lab until her retirement in 1969. At the lab, she conducted nature walks for the public in Sapsucker Woods, participated in a radio program ‘Know Your Birds‘ recorded at the lab, and looked after the needs of graduate students, research and visitors from the general public.

In the 1950s and 60s, Dr Walter Spofford, a neuroanatomist from Syracuse, frequently visited the Lab to attend seminars and talk about birds. Spoff, as he called himself, was an expert on raptors and wanted to learn more about them. Spoff and Sally became best friends and were married in 1964. Over the next two decades, they made many birding trips to Alaska, helping with Peregrine, Gyrfalcon, and Golden Eagle surveys. They also studied the communities of eagles in Zimbabwe and became so well know for their raptor work that Leslie Brown dedicated his British Birds of Prey to them.

As an ornithologist, Sally’s passion was education and what we now call outreach, though she also published about 50 short papers based on her observations, and was coauthor on two birding guides [5]. She wrote well and had a knack for engaging titles, like that of her 1969 paper: Flicker incubates pink plastic balls, on a lawn, for five weeks.

After retirement, Sally and Spoff donated their property near Ithaca to the Finger Lakes Land Trust where it became the Etna Nature Preserve. In 1972 they moved to Cave Creek Canyon in Arizona where they welcomed thousands of birders each year to their Rancho Aguila to see, among other things, the dozen species of hummingbirds that came to their feeders. Spoff died in 1995 but Sally stayed on at the Ranch until she died in 2002, continuing to feed her hummingbirds and to champion the cause of conservation in the Chiricahuas.

The early Lab of Ornithology and so many both young and old ornithologists and birders owe a great deal to Sally’s enthusiasm and guidance. In the acknowledgements of his PhD thesis, South Hoyt anticipated a fitting eulogy for her life when he wrote “without the more than generous help both physical and mental given by my wife, Sally Hoyt who was always ready to do what seemed to need doing” [6]


  • Arbib RS Jr, Pettingill OS Jr, Spofford SH ( 1966) Enjoying Birds around New York City. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
  • Brown L (1976) British Birds of Prey. London: Collins.
  • Dung SK, López A, Barragan EL, Reyes R-J, Thu R, Castellanos E, Catalan F, Sanchez EH, Rohlfs RV (2018) Illuminating women’s hidden contribution to the foundation of theoretical population genetics. bioRxiv preprint first posted online Jul. 5, 2018; doi:
  • Hoyt JSY (1948) Further studies of the Pileated Woodpecker, Hylatomus pileatus (Linnaeus). PhD thesis, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. 324 pp.
  • Hoyt SF (1948) A reference book and bibliography of ornithological techniques. PhD thesis, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. 542 pp.
  • Hoyt SF (1957) The ecology of the Pileated Woodpecker. Ecology 38: 246-256
  • Pettingill OS (1946) A Laboratory and Field Manual of Ornithology, 3rd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing
  • Pettingill OS (1963) Enjoying birds in upstate New York; an aid to recognizing, watching, finding, and attracting birds in New York State north of Orange and Putnam Counties. Ithaca, NY: Laboratory of Ornithology..
  • Spofford SH (1969) Flicker incubates pink plastic balls, on a lawn, for five weeks. Wilson Bulletin 81: 214-215
  • The Committee on Research (1954) Unpublished theses in ornithology. The Auk 71: 191-197.


  1. recent study: see Dung et al. (2018)
  2. 1954 paper: see The Committee on Research (1954)
  3. publications from the Lab of Ornithology: Pettingill, who was later Hoyt’s boss, for example, published the revised edition of his ornithology manual in 1946
  4. quotation by Sally Hoyt: from Hoyt (1957)
  5. two birding guides: Arbib et al. (1966) and Pettingill (1963)
  6. quotation by South Hoyt: from Hoyt (1948)

IMAGES: drawing of Cornell Lab of Ornithology from Arbib et al (1966); photos of Spofford from Lab of Ornithology (top) and Wikipedia (bottom); book cover from Biodiversity Heritage Library

Not Just a Bird in a Cage



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

This month—March 2019—is Women’s History Month in the USA, Australia, and the UK [1]. As President Jimmy Carter said in 1980: “Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed” [2].

For a few years now, I have been compiling information on the history of women in ornithology because their contributions do not seem to have been well documented. Sure, there are big names that most ornithologists are aware of—Margaret Morse Nice, Rachel Carson, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall—but there are many more who are not nearly as well known as their male contemporaries even though they contributed just as much to the field.

Harriet Hemenway

To celebrate the historical role of women in ornithology, I will highlight this month the accomplishments of some lesser known women ornithologists, as well as in June in a couple of displays at the AOS conference in Anchorage. As a student of the history of ornithology, I am often reminded about how little I know about the historical role of women in our field. Hardly a month goes by when I do not hear of another great woman ornithologist from the past who made notable contributions but who I had not previously been aware of.

For the first post this month, I am going to focus briefly here on a woman that I expect will be unknown to most readers. Certainly none of the dozen or so North American colleagues that I asked had ever heard of her despite the facts that (i) she was well known in her day (1800s), (ii) she wrote and thought exceptionally well, (iii) she made significant contributions to the study of birds in South Africa, and (iv) she fully understood and appreciated the ideas published by Darwin and Wallace. In her knowledge and appreciation of those ideas she was well ahead of most of her male colleagues. She also had a no-nonsense approach to the various impediments encountered by women in science in the Victorian era. Her name is Mary Elizabeth Barber.

M E Barber

Barber was brought to my attention by a 2015 paper by Tanja Hammel in Kronos, a journal of history and the humanities in South Africa. Hammel is in the History Department at the University of Basel, where she did her PhD on Barber. Hammel writes with unusual clarity and assesses quite objectively the life of Barber in the context of life in the Victorian era and particularly the ‘micro-politics’ in South Africa in those days. She argues that Barber ‘cultivated a feminist Darwinism‘ using the evidence of female choice in birds to inform her own quest for gender equality among the naturalists of the day. She also argues well that Barber’s personal experiences shaped her approach to bird study, as it undoubtedly does for all of us.

Hammel also does a very clear-headed job of criticizing the recent approach to ‘gender essentialist studies’ that claim that there are ‘distinctly female traditions in science and nature writing’. She argues, for example, that men and women did the same sort of research as ornithologists, using the same methods, and often used birds as examples to ‘debunk Victorian gender roles’.

Mary Barber (née Mary Bowker) was born in England in 1818, but her family moved to South Africa when she was only four, and she spent the rest of her life there. She apparently taught herself to read and write, and began at an early age studying the local plants. By the age of 30, she was already a well-regarded botanist and botanical illustrator, corresponding with and providing both specimens and information to the leading botanists of the day [3].

African Hoopoes by M E Barber

As her botanical work progressed Barber became increasingly interested in the insects that fed on the plants she studied, then on the birds that fed on those insects. Edgar Leopold Layard acknowledged Barber’s ornithological contributions in his Birds of South Africa published in 1867, the only woman he mentioned. As an ornithologist, she was a collector, an illustrator, and a keen observer, often spending days in the field.

In 1878, she published a remarkably modern assessment of bird colouration in response to the debate between Darwin and Wallace on the influence of female choice on extravagant male plumage colours. She clearly supports Darwin’s side of the argument when she says that “it is comparatively as easy task to follow in his footsteps, and to spell out the book of nature with Mr. Darwin’s alphabet in our hands” [4]. In her writings, she interpreted much of what she observed in light of Darwin’s and Wallace’s recent theories.

Barber corresponded with Darwin after she was introduced to him (presumably by mail) by a fellow (male) entomologist in 1863. Both Darwin (in his books on Emotions and Orchids) and Wallace (in Darwinism) refer to her observations and insights. Barber, however, was infuriated with Wallace for attributing some of her observations to the English entomologist Josiah Obadiah Wedgwood [5]. She was particularly sensitive at the time because an article she had written with her brother, James Bowker, had been given to Layard before a trip he made to England and ended up being published by a ‘Mr Layland’.

Despite these slights [6], and a difficult marriage, Barber was an energetic and enthusiastic naturalist and her writing expresses complete confidence. In part, I suspect, to establish her credentials as a serious scientist, she never referred to birds by their common (English) names, arguing that ‘barbarous names‘ should be ‘avoided by all means‘. That very ‘scientific’ approach, her broad network of correspondents, and her ideas about gender equality made her very much like a twenty-first century ornithologist, not at all fitting the common image of the Victorian woman who lived like a bird in a gilded cage.



  • Barber ME (1878) On the peculiar colours of animals in relation to habits of life. Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society 4: 27-45
  • Darwin CR (1872) The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray.
  • Darwin CR (1877) The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. London: John Murray
  • Hammel T (2015) Thinking with birds: Mary Elizabeth Barber’s advocacy for gender equality in ornithology. Kronos 41: 85-111.
  • Layard EL (1867) The Birds of South Africa : a descriptive catalogue of all the known species occurring south of the 28th parallel of south latitude. Cape Town: Juta
  • Siegfreid R (2016) Levaillant’s Legacy – A History of South African Ornithology. Noordhoek, Western Cape: Print Matters Heritage.
  • Wallace AR (1889) Darwinism: an exposition of the theory of natural selection with some of its applications. London & New York: Macmillan & Co.


  1. March is Women’s History Month: but not in Canada, when it’s October
  2. quotation from Jimmy Carter: when he designated National Women’s History Week.
  3. botanists of the day: for example, she corresponded often with Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Botanical Gardens at Kew in England and probably Darwin’s closest friend.
  4. quotation about Darwin: from Barber 1878 page 27
  5. Josiah Obadiah Wedgwood : not the father of Darwin’s wife Emma, but possibly a relative.
  6. these slights: she seems to continue to be ignored as she is not even mentioned in Siegfried’s recent history of South African ornithology

And the Oscar goes to…

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 24 February 2019

PLoG..The Private Life of the Gannets, for Best Short Subject (One Reel). It is 1938, and this film is the first movie about wildlife to win an Academy Award. Julian Huxley was the producer and director, and Ronald Lockley was the writer. A. L. Alexander, the narrator, is listed on IMDB as the ‘star’, though the real stars of the film are the Northern Gannets of Grassholm, a small rocky islet off the western tip of Pembrokeshire, Wales.

Gannets was completed in 1934 and received a ‘special mention’ at the 3rd Venice International Film Festival in 1935. In 1937, it was picked up by a company called ‘Educational’ for distribution in the United States by 20th Century Fox. It was, apparently, one of the few ‘Educational’ films actually shown in schools, so it must have reached a wide audience of impressionable young minds. You can watch the entire 10 minutes and 39 seconds right here (expand to full screen to see the rather fuzzy details):

The human ‘crew’ that made Gannets was decidedly world class. The production company London Films Productions was founded in 1932 by the producer-director-screenwriter Alexander Korda. Korda’s company made seven films in its first two years, one of which was The Private Life of Henry VIII, a movie that was wildly successful. In 1933, it was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy awards, and the lead actor, Charles Laughton, won for Best Actor. This was the first Academy Award won by any film made outside the United States, and it was undoubtedly the inspiration for the name of their gannet film to be released the next year, possibly trying to capitalize on the success of Henry VIII.

By 1933, Julian Huxley was a well-known and popular radio and television presenter. He and his brother Aldous were scions of the Huxley family, initially made famous by their grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley. T. H. Huxley was a biologist who is probably best known today for his eloquent support of Darwin’s ideas following publication of The Origin of Species.

Julian began watching birds as a young boy and pursued the study of biology at school. In 1910, he got a job as Demonstrator at Oxford and began studying the courtship behaviour of grebes and redshanks. His 1914 paper on the Great Crested Grebe is landmark study in the emerging field of animal behaviour (ethology). Huxley went on to achieve greatness as one of the architects of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology, as the first director of UNESCO, as one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund, and as President of the British Humanist Association. He was knighted by the Queen in 1958.

I find it interesting that Huxley’s major studies of the courtship and mating behaviour of birds all focused on species—grebes, loons (divers), redshanks—like gannets, where the male and female are virtually indistinguishable. Possibly because he did not study birds that had extravagant male plumages, Huxley believed that courtship “ceremonies [are] just an expression of excitement and affection” as he says about gannets in the movie. He thought that Darwin’s ideas about sexual selection (and mate choice) were a mistake. His opinions were so well-regarded that he effectively put an end to the study of sexual selection for half a century [1]. His ideas about mate choice and monogamy are all the more surprising given his own sexual pecadilloes [2] .


Lockley’s house on Skokholm

Ronald Lockley probably provided the inspiration for the gannet movie. At the age of 24, he leased Skokholm, a small island 14 km east of Grassholm. Taking out a lease for 21 years, he moved there with his new wife, intending to sell rabbits that he caught or raised. He soon found he could earn more by writing, and over his lifetime published more than 60 books and myriad articles about seabirds, in particular, and natural history in general. In 1933, five years after moving to Skokholm, he established on the island the first bird observatory in the UK, and continued to conduct pioneering research on the island’s seabirds. The Lockley’s were forced to move to the Welsh mainland at the start of WWII.


The cinematographer, Osmond Borradaile (behind the camera, below), was a Canadian from Manitoba. He got his start making silent films in Hollywood, but soon specialized in outdoor photography ‘on location’. In 1939 he shared the Academy Award for cinematography for his (outdoor) work on the film The Four Feathers. In the 1930s he began working for Korda’s London Films Productions, and so was an obvious choice for filming the gannets as he loved adventure and wild places. To capture the impression of a gannet returning to the colony, for example, he filmed from a Supermarine Stranraer flying boat as it power-dived toward the island.


It was Oscar night again last night, but no wildlife films were in the running. And no, the short film Animal Behaviour is not about wildlife, nor is Black Panther, Black Sheep or Isle of Dogs. A few wildlife films have, however, won an Oscar since 1938, though not always as good as Gannets in depicting and interpreting wildlife behaviour accurately [3]. The next nature film to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary [4] was The Sea Around us in 1952, followed by The Living Desert (1953), The Vanishing Prairie (1954), The Silent World (1956), White Wilderness (1958), Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959), World Without Sun (1964), and March of the Penguins (2005).

As good as Gannets was in its day, television has brought us an endless stream of superb wildlife cinematography since the 1980s, from NATURE on PBS with George Page and many National Geographic specials to the myriad BBC Natural History Unit productions and David Attenborough‘s Life series (on Earth, of Birds, of Mammals, Underground, in Cold Blood, on Land, in the Undergrowth), Planet series, and Dynasties series. I expect that the popularity of nature films on TV from the 1970s until today can account, at least in part, for the fact that only one wildlife documentary film to be shown in theatres has won an Academy Award since 1964.

DSCF4857 (1)
Northern Gannets, Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland, 2016


  • Bartley MM (1995) Courtship and continued progress: Julian Huxley’s studies on bird behavior. Journal of the History of Biology 28:91–108.

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

  • Darwin C (1859) On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray.

  • Huxley J (1912) The Great Crested Grebe and the idea of secondary sexual characters. Science 36: 601-602.
  • Huxley JS (1914) The courtship-habits of the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus); with an addition to the theory of sexual selection. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 35:491–562.

  • Lockley RM (1936) Skokholm Bird Observatory. London: Macmillan.

  • Nelson JB (2005). Pelicans, Cormorants and their relatives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. Huxley and sexual selection: see Birkhead et al. 2014 pages 332-337
  2. sexual pecadilloes: see Birkhead et al. 2014 pages 335-337
  3. depicting wildlife behaviour accurately: The Disney films, for example, were well known for nature fakery in the pursuit of a sensational, even if apocryphal, story. Gannets is very accurate with respect to what was known at the time, though whoever/whatever made the closed captions made some amusing errors. The written text in the closed captions, for example, says of the courtship that “the long beaks click against one another like rapists”!
  4. Best Documentary: this category was established in 1941, replacing the award for Best Short Subject that Gannets won

IMAGES: Lockley’s house and Osmond Borradaile from Wikipedia; gannets at Cape St Mary’s by the author