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.

The Sparrow Question

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 2 Oct 2017

John Gould’s House Sparrow 1873

When I visited England at the beginning of last month, the English House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) was notable for its scarcity. I spent a week in London, Sheffield and the Peak District and only once heard the familiar and once ubiquitous jib-jib (see recent post) in a small park near St Pancras International in central London. Just as well that we don’t call it the ‘English’ Sparrow anymore. Actually they have far from disappeared from the English landscape but their population size did drop by about half from the 1970s to the 1990s, having more-or-less stabilized at present-day numbers by the turn of the millennium.

The precipitous decline in House Sparrow populations in the UK has been well-documented but the causes are thought to be complex—changes in farming practices reducing food availability, competition with other birds, loss of nest sites in cities. and the usual problems with pesticides. Once considered a pest, this species is now of conservation concern in the UK and Europe. North American Breeding Bird Survey data also show a similar decline in numbers from 1966-2004 with a loss of about 2% per year continent-wide.

Because it was so common and readily breeds in nest boxes, the House Sparrow became a model bird species for studies in behaviour and ecology in the latter half of the 20th century, along with species like the Zebra Finch, Rock Pigeon, Red-winged Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, and Pied Flycatcher. Because it was introduced to North America in the 1850s and spread rapidly across the continent, the House Sparrow was/is considered to be a pest and is not protected by the Migratory Birds Convention Act. This may be one reason that large collections of this bird were possible in the 1960s and 70s for the purpose of looking for morphological evolution (adaptation and drift) across the continent, among other things. The species is still common enough to be the focus of several exciting research programs in both North America and Europe, and has been the subject of more than 5000 papers, at least two ‘recent’ science-based books, and an AOU Ornithological Monograph.


A new paper by Matthew Holmes in the Journal of the History of Biology documents an interesting and largely forgotten period of debate about the House Sparrow in the UK in the late 1800s, one that ushered in a new research discipline called ‘Economic Ornithology’: “Economic ornithology would examine the economic impact of birds on agriculture, a topic neglected by ‘‘recognized text-books on ornithology’’ which only provided readers with ‘‘vague and agriculturally useless statements’’ (Cathcart, 1892).

The debate centred around the sparrow’s influence on agricultural with one side claiming disaster and the other that the bird was at worst harmless, at best beneficial because it consumed insect pests. Thousands of sparrows were slaughtered in the late 1800s both in a vain attempt at control and to collect data on the sparrow’s diet. The House Sparrow, like all good pests, was oblivious to these control attempts and continued to thrive despite widespread concern: “Local meetings of agricultural societies and so-called ‘‘sparrow clubs’’ uniformly condemned sparrows’ consumption of crops. Once labelled as ‘‘vermin,’’ non-productive species were freely persecuted in the fields of Victorian Britain…” A farmer, Charles Newman, encapsulated the attitudes of the day in 1861: “No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’] destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such that were found more destructive than beneficial.”

In this new paper, Holmes argues that “Nineteenth-century naturalists of all stripes were driven by an overarching sense of purpose, or participation in a grand intellectual endeavour. Acquiring and systematising knowledge gleaned from study of the natural world was associated with moral, religious and social wellbeing.” By the early 20th century this kind of ‘natural history’ had given way to economic ornithology and a general shift to evidence-based science. By the beginning of the 21st century ‘natural history’ was firmly grounded in evidence such that most field biologists are now proud to call themselves natural historians.

Anderson TR (2006) Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow: from genes to populations. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Cathcart AF (1892) ‘Agriculturally economic ornithology.’ The Times, 16 May.
Holmes M (2017) The sparrow question: social and scientific accord in Britain, 1850–1900. Journal of the History of Biology 50:645-671
Kendeigh SC, ed. (1973) A Symposium on the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and European Tree Sparrow (P. montanus) in North America. Ornithological Monograph No. 14
Summers-Smith JD (1963) The House Sparrow. Collins New Naturalist Series Monograph No.19, London

Snow in the Mountains

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 25 September 2017

Snow on the Pyrenees looking SSW from Arrout up the Biros Valley 17 Sept 2017

I had no sooner posted last week’s piece about David and Elizabeth Lack in the Pyrenees when there were barn swallows everywhere in the Biros Valley. Until then I had seen no sign of the sort of visible migrations described by the Lacks, possibly because mid-September is a bit too early for that. For the Lacks, there really never was any question about swallows crossing the high mountains: “When we went to the Pyrenees we supposed that it was quite unsettled whether small passerine birds other than hirundines migrate through high mountains.”

I am still in the Pyrenees as I write this on 21 September so I thought it  might be worth telling a little more about the Lacks’ explorations and observations.

The Lacks finished their 1950 visit to the Pyrenees with 12 days (15~26 Oct) on the Atlantic coast near St Jean de Luz. On 22-23 October they witnessed two reverse migrations of Skylarks, albeit at a small scale, with a total of 41 and 14 birds on those two days, respectively, heading northeast across the Bay of Biscay. On both days they saw flocks of Skylarks heading in the normal direction for fall migration—southwest—so this reverse migration was both distinctive and puzzling. On one occasion: “a party of Skylarks crossing the bay N.E. on a reversed migration met Chaffinches travelling S.W. by W. and turned round and went with them for a few seconds before continuing N.E.” , suggesting that some species were going the right way at the time.

On their 1949 trip they had seen a massive reverse migration of swallows, possibly triggered by a change in the weather: “The rapidly descending birds looked like a black snowstorm. This reversed movement was presumably due to the birds meeting cloud or a strong headwind. After 16.30 the southward movement greatly slackened, and it ceased about 17.00, when the wind changed to the north and mild warm air blew up the valley…It may be suggested that the above movement started in good weather on a broad front over the high ridges, and that sudden rain brought the birds down and concentrated them in the valley”. The causes of other reverse migrations that they saw were not so obvious, as in the previous example of Skylarks.

The Lacks also recorded some interesting instances of what they called ‘social behaviour’, where individuals waited to join flocks of their own or other species before crossing water. “If, however, a Blue Tit was travelling singly it did not cross [the bay at St Jean de Luz], but dropped down to the tamarisks by the shore and waited for the next migrating party, when it rose up steeply to join them and crossed with them.” 

Throughout their publications about the 1945-1950 field work they took pains to point out that their observations and conclusions were preliminary. Were they just being cautious, or was this an early example of realizing the need for what we now call ‘replicability’? I wonder if they were worried that the migrations they had seen in the mountain passes were abnormal events?

David Snow, perhaps while still a DPhil student

The Lacks could not return to the Pyrenees in 1951, so David asked David Snow [1]—a DPhil (= PhD) student at Oxford’s Edward Grey Institute—to return to the Pyrenees in the fall of 1951 to make some further observations at specific sites. Thus, Snow visited Gavarnie in the High Pyrenees from 18-25 September and Col de Puymoren in the eastern Pyrenees near Andorra from 29 Sept-4 Oct 1951. Like the Lacks, he saw thousands of songbirds and swallows flying south close to the ground through the montane passes. But he also saw lots of migrants high above the mountains: “On 4 October 1951, with a N.E. wind, D. W. Snow saw a big broad-front movement high over the Puymorens area…Many of the birds were so high that they could not be seen with the naked eye. Their direction of travel was uninfluenced by the contours.”

Neither the Lacks nor David Snow mentioned there being snow in the high mountains on any of their visits in the autumns of 1949-51. In 2017, however, lots of snow fell during the week of 17 September (see photo at top). Does such early snow hinder migration through the passes? Does it make songbirds more visible to predators? I suspect that the migrations through the mountains are so traditional (i.e. instinctive) that nothing stops the birds even in there face of increased mortality when the ground is covered with snow.


All quotations are from Lack D, Lack E (1953) Visible migration through the Pyrenees: an autumn reconnaissance. Ibis 95:271-309.


David W Snow (1924-2009) was a distinguished British ornithologist, probably most famous for his work on oilbirds and manakins in Trinidad. He was also editor of the Ibis, director of the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos, editor of the Ibis, Director of Research for the British Trust for Ornithology and recipient of the AOU’s Brewster Medal with his wife Barbara, President of the British Ornithological Union and recipient of their Godman-Salvin Medal.

IMAGES: photo of Pyrenees by Bob Montgomerie; photo of David Snow from an obituary in The Guardian 18 March 2009, photo source unknown.


Grandeur and Novelty

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 18 September 2017

How do small land birds migrate past high mountain ranges? This is not a question that has often been asked in the Americas because most of the big mountain ranges run north-south. But in Europe, where the Alps and the Pyrenees would seem to be a formidable barrier to migration (see map below), this issue was controversial in the 1920s. De Burg and von Tschusi, for example, argued that birds crossed the mountains, while Bretscher and von Lucanus claimed, largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence, that passerine birds must migrate through the foothills and coastal areas at the East and west ends if those montane barriers (see Lack and Lack 1953 for references).

Western Europe with mountain ranges in black (from Lack and Lack 1953)

The debate was mainly about visible diurnal migration where birds fly close to the ground and might suffer hypoxia and increased predation risk when crossing barren mountain tops. Visible migration of songbirds is not often discussed in the Americas but is both common and well-recorded in Europe.

In 1949, David [1] and Elizabeth Lack went to the French Pyrenees to collect some data that they thought might help to answer this question. David was all about data and evidence and had already made a name for himself with detailed studies of European robins and Darwin’s finches.

Elizabeth had been to St Jean de Luz on the Atlantic coast of France (see map below) to visit an aunt in October 1945 and 1947 where she saw “extremely large numbers of Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs migrating inland about a mile from the sea” (Lack and Lack 1953: 271). There is a 4-km wide region of lowlands and foothills there where small birds might funnel south rather than crossing the high Pyrenees. Presumably inspired by those observations, the Lacks returned from 18 Sept – 7 Oct 1949 to travel a little more widely–from the Atlantic coast to Gavarnie in the high Pyrenees–to make a more systematic study. They had been married only two months earlier so this was something of a birding honeymoon [2]. On that trip in 1949, they found that “Many of our initial ideas proved wrong; we often watched for too long in the wrong place or for too short a time in what we later found was the right place” (Lack and Lack 1953: 271-272).

To make a more informed survey, they returned in 1950 on a small grant from the Royal Society to visit the most promising locales. This time, at Gavarnie, they hit pay dirt: “Once in a lifetime perhaps, the ecologist is translated back into a naturalist, through chancing on a spectacle which combines grandeur with novelty. Such was our fortune at the Port de Gavarnie on 13 October 1950.” (Lack and Lack 1951).

On that date, the Lacks hiked the 5 km from their lodging at Gavarnie (see map below) up into the rocky gorge at Port de Gavarnie (also called Port de Boucharo in France or Puerto de Bujaruelo on the Spanish side). There they discovered a major southward migration of passerines, pigeons, doves, and insects, revealing for the first time (at least to scientists) how small birds crossed the mountains. In hindsight, the answer seems obvious–they crossed in the lowest local mountain passes.  Presumably bird catchers had known this for centuries.

The scientific evidence from the 1920s, though, seemed equivocal or possibly even untrustworthy: “De Burg said that he had tens of thousands of such records, but he was so emphatic, and equally emphatic on various other matters in some of which he was wrong, that we treated his evidence too lightly.” (Lack and Lack 1953: 296).


Port de Gavarnie is a 50-m wide pass through the rocky crags at about 2300 m elevation in the mountains that form the physical and political border between France and Spain. On the French side, the pass is at the south end of a 30-km long valley from the plains to the north; on the Spanish side the route south from the Port descends both southeast and southwest into the lowlands of Spain.

In the space of 3 hours in the morning of 13 October, the Lacks watched 795 small passerines (goldfinches, chaffinches, linnets, serins,  meadow pipits, white wagtails, and short-toed larks) fly through the pass south of Gavarnie. Later that day 440 wood pigeons and 61 stock doves passed through, followed by butterflies, dragonflies and syrphid flies in the afternoon at the rate of “several thousand an hour”.

Instead of the usual ‘Introduction’ heading for the beginning of their 1951 paper the Lacks called that section ‘Excelsior’, a Latin word meaning ‘ever upward’ or ‘even higher’. I am not sure whether they were referring to the migrants or their discovery but David was never shy about introducing a little poetry into his writing. About the Pyrenean discovery, he later said “The most remarkable days for a naturalist combine grandeur with novelty, the beautiful with the rare or unexpected. As a boy, such experiences came to me seeing for the first time a new kind of bird…As I grew older , such memorable days became much rarer, for though the beauty was still there, the unexpected was gone…But there was one much later occasion, just after my fortieth birthday, when in lovely autumn weather amid superb scenery, a deeply impressive spectacle was combined not merely with knowledge that no one had written of it before, but that one of the puzzles of migration was solved. This happened on October 13th, 1950′ (Anderson 2013: 111).


Anderson T (2013) The Life if David Lack: father if evolutionary ecology. Oxford Univ Press, Oxford.

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

Lack D, Lack E (1951) Migration of insects and birds through a Pyrenean pass. J. Animal Ecology 20:63-67.

Lack D, Lack E (1953) Visible migration through the Pyrenees: an autumn reconnaissance. Ibis 95:271-309.


[1] David Lambert Lack (1910-1973) was one of the most influential ornithologists of the 20th century, revolutionizing both ornithology and ecology by taking an evolutionary approach to behaviour, ecology and life histories.

[2] David’s friend and mentor Julian Huxley (1887-1975) also took his new wife Juliette on a somewhat less successful birding honeymoon. Juliette later wrote that Julian seemed more interested in the love life of the great crested grebe (Birkhead et al 2014).

NOTE: I was inspired to write this post as I am currently doing field work at CNRS Moulis in the Pyrenees about half way between Gavarnie and Puymorens. Photo below shows the view up the Biros Valley to the top of the Pyrenees in this region. I have not yet seen the sort of migration documented by the Lacks but the mountains here are much lower 1500 m) and the birds may cross on a broader front.


What’s in a (bird’s) name?

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

My old friend and mentor Jim Baillie [1] used to delight in the fact that many of the birds we’d see in our birding trips around southern Ontario would say their name: killdeer, curlew, godwit, whip-poor-will, owl, crow, raven, flicker, phoebe, pewee, chickadee, (jay; but see below), veery, pipit, towhee, and bobolink.

Jim sometimes gave his own nicknames to birds, reflecting their songs or calls. My favourite was ‘jib-jib’, his name for the English (now House) Sparrow. Even in his field notes he called them ‘jib-jibs’.


Naming birds by the sounds they make seems very natural to me, but how common is it, really? In English-speaking North America (Canada and USA), there are 10 more common birds that can be added to the list above: kittiwake, murre, quail, kiskadee, willet, pauraque, bobwhite, chuck-will’s widow, poorwill, dickcissel.

Such names are often called onomatopoeic because they imitate, if only vaguely, the sound that the bird makes. In North America, it seems obvious, at least to me, that the Blue Jay calls its name “jay, jay, jay” but in fact the origin of that name is probably not onomatopeoic. The Jay, now called the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), was the first bird to be called a jay in English and that name derived from its Old French name “jai” which means ‘gay’ or ‘merry’ possibly referring to the bird’s boisterous antics around humans and predators. Others have suggested that the French word referred to their sparkling plumage colours.

In the UK, there at least 18 onomatopoeic names (excluding the jay): kittiwake, smew, crake, skua, curlew, godwit, whimbrel, quail, owlpipit, cuckoo, gull, crow, raven, chough, rook, twite, and pipit. The bold names were obviouly applied to North American birds by early naturalists and explorers, as there use in Europe predates that in North America.

And in Australia/New Zealand only 7 species have onomatopoeic names: currawong, kiwi, boobook, kookaburra, weka, takahe, kea.

For the rest if the world, however, the English names of birds derived from their vocalizations are surprisingly rare. In a quick(!) survey of the entire world list of 10,000 species (and more than 1000 ‘kinds’ of birds distinguished by their English ‘surnames’), I could find only 8 English names that seem to be onomatopoeic: koel, nene, go-away bird, motmot, coua, potoo, piopio and toucan [2]. Given that at least two-thirds of the world’s birds live in Asia, Africa and the Americas south of the USA, the difference in the incidence if onomatopoeic bird names is striking.

This raises some questions

  1. Is the naming of birds by their sounds a distinctly English-speaking tradition?
  2. Why are such names applied only to a few species, when there are many other common birds that could be named for their sounds? Why no ‘jib-jib’, for example, arguably one of the most familiar birds in England for centuries (though not any more)?
  3. Why didn’t English-speaking explorers and early ornithologists give onomatopoeic English names to new birds that they discovered in foreign lands?

Birds were given English names for lots of other reasons including taste (pitohui), foraging mode (berrypecker), appearance (redshank), vocalizations (screamer), places (Cape May Warbler) and people (King of Saxony Bird of Paradise). Sometimes the names were, in retrospect, misnomers, and potentially misleading. Part of the charm of birds, for me at least, is in the diversity of their common names. The recent trend to change those names to something more descriptive is, I think, unfortunate.


Lockwood WB 1984 The Oxford Book of British Bird Names. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Swainson C 1886 The folk lore and provincial names of British Birds. Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach


  1. jlb
    Jim Baillie

    James L. Baillie (1904-1970) was assistant curator of birds at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for almost 50 years (Cringan 2006)

  2. I am reasonably confident that I have listed most of the onomatopoeic English bird names from the UK, Canada and the USA, but my lists from the rest of the world might not be very complete. Let me know.
Cringan AJ (2006) Once upon a time in American ornithology. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 118: 427-429

Gone Birds

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

Martha in Cincinnati Zoo 1915

Last Friday, September 1st, was the anniversary of the death of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon–a species that was, for centuries, the most abundant bird in North America. Martha was probably born in captivity in Charles Otis Whitman‘s aviary in about 1885, and died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. I say probably because there is some debate about her origin (Schorger 1955). However, I think there are good reasons to consider Lord Rothschild’s (1907) account about her being raised by Whitman to be correct.

On the centenary of Martha’s passing, three excellent books (Avery 2014, Fuller 2014, Greenberg 2014) summarized just about everything you might want to know about Martha and the Passenger Pigeon. All of these books are worth reading for their different perspectives and the various ideas about why this most-abundant of species went extinct.

There can be little doubt that humans caused the extinction of this bird, but the process responsible for their million-fold decline, from billions in the 1870s to thousands by the 1880s, is still a bit of a mystery. Some have suggested that they were just wiped out by relentless hunting as were the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck, and the Dodo, for example. But those species were relatively rare (Labrador Duck and Dodo) or flightless (Dodo and Great Auk), unlike the Passenger Pigeon.

Others have wondered whether the pigeon’s demise may be an example of the Allee Effect whereby individual fitness declines with population size leading eventually to the extinction of local populations. While the Allee Effect might explain the extinction of some small colonies, it is hard to imagine how it would cause a species that still numbered in the thousands to go extinct across its entire range.

A new study by Ben Novak (2016) at UC Santa Cruz presents some intriguing new information that might help us to understand this massive extinction event. Genomic analysis reveals that the Passenger Pigeon probably numbered in the billions for at least 30,000 years, during a time when the forest ecosystems in its eastern North American breeding range were changing dramatically. Because the birds relied on masting tree seeds (oak acorns, chestnuts, pine seeds, maple seeds) as their main food supply, Novak suggests that the birds might have had a dramatic effect on forest ecosystems. By consuming a large portion of the plants’ reproductive outputs but also by depositing several inches of guano each year under their roosting and nesting sites, the pigeons may have been agents of habitat disturbance and destruction. For example, their massive roosts and nesting colonies broke trees and branches, opening up the canopy, and the several inches of guano they left on the ground, may have increased the incidence of forest fires. This sort of habitat disturbance may have been one reason they were so nomadic, returning to previous roosting and nesting sites only 5-20 years later, after the forests had recovered.

Passenger Pigeon populations were decimated by hunters, but Novak’s findings suggest to me that their final decline to extinction may have been due to both habitat destruction by humans settling eastern North America, and by the birds themselves. With much of their roosting and nesting habitat cleared for agriculture, the birds may have found their nomadic lifestyle simply unsustainable.

Clearly, the Passenger Pigeon still has stories to tell us about the causes of extinctions. Though this species is gone, we are fortunate to have specimens like Martha that can be mined for genomic data and the application of yet-to-be-invented tools. Some researchers have even suggested that we use these genomic tools to recreate and re-wild extinct species, but I am neither enthused nor optimistic about that prospect. Moreover, if Novak is correct, the forest ecosystems of eastern North America are now unlikely to be able to support a species that they last interacted with almost 150 years ago.


Avery M (2014) A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and Its Relevance Today. Bloomsbury, London.

Fuller E (2014) The Passenger Pigeon. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Greenberg J (2014) A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Bloomsbury, London.

Novak BJ (2016) Deciphering The Ecological Impact Of The Passenger Pigeon: A Synthesis Of Paleogenetics, Paleoecology, Morphology, And Physiology. Mc thesis, University of California at Santa Cruz. Accessed 3 Sept 2017 from

Rothschild W (1907) Extinct Birds. Hutchinson & Co., London.

Schorger AW (1955) The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.

Birds and Revolutions

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 28 Aug 2017

This month [see footnote 1] marks the anniversary of the famous 1858 Darwin-Wallace publication on natural selection published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Zoology (PDF here). [Note that it was read at a meeting of the Linnean Society on 1 July and published a mere 7 weeks later!] This joint paper ushered in what is arguably the greatest scientific and cultural revolution in human history, a fine example in support of Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) argument that scientific revolutions are driven by ideas. Last week I presented, on this blog, some evidence that tools also fuel revolutions in science.


How did the study of birds figure into Darwin and Wallace’s arguments? We know from Darwin’s many books, and much of Wallace’s writing, that both men studied birds and used examples from birds to illustrate and support many—if not most—of their ideas. This 1858 paper marks the beginning of the association between birds and natural selection. We cannot argue that the study of birds was in any direct way responsible for this scientific revolution but there can be no doubt that this revolution forever influenced how we study birds.

In this publication, Darwin first uses birds as an example of Malthus’s ideas about population:

Suppose in a certain spot there are eight pairs of birds, and that only four pairs of them annually (including double hatches) rear only four young, and that these go on rearing their young at the same rate, then at the end of seven years (a short life, excluding violent deaths, for any bird) there will be 2048 birds, instead of the original sixteen. As this increase is quite impossible, we must conclude either that birds do not rear nearly half their young, or that the average life of a bird is, from accident, not nearly seven years. Both checks probably concur. The same kind of calculation applied to all plants and animals affords results more or less striking, but in very few instances more striking than in man

He then introduces his arguments about sexual selection that he will work on for another 13 years before publishing in 1871 in Descent of Man.

These struggles are generally decided by the law of battle, but in the case of birds, apparently, by the charms of their song, by their beauty or their power of courtship, as in the dancing rock-thrush of Guiana. The most vigorous and healthy males, implying perfect adaptation, must generally gain the victory in their contests. This kind of selection, however, is less rigorous than the other; it does not require the death of the less successful, but gives to them fewer descendants. The struggle falls, moreover, at a time of year when food is generally abundant, and perhaps the effect chiefly produced would be the modification of the secondary sexual characters, which are not related to the power of obtaining food, or to defence from enemies, but to fighting with or rivalling other males.

Wallace also uses birds to illustrate Malthus’s ideas, though, unlike Darwin, he never refers directly to Malthus in his essay:

For example, our own observation must convince us that birds do not go on increasing every year in a geometrical ratio, as they would do, were there not some powerful check to their natural increase. Very few birds produce less than two young ones each year, while many have six, eight, or ten; four will certainly be below the average; and if we suppose that each pair produce young only four times in their life, that will also be below the average, supposing them not to die either by violence or want of food. Yet at this rate how tremendous would be the increase in a few years from a single pair! A simple calculation will show that in fifteen years each pair of birds would have increased to nearly ten millions! whereas we have no reason to believe that the number of the birds of any country increases at all in fifteen or in one hundred and fifty years. With such powers of increase the population must have reached its limits, and have become stationary, in a very few years after the origin of each species. It is evident, therefore, that each year an immense number of birds must perish—as many in fact as are born; and as on the lowest calculation the progeny are each year twice as numerous as their parents, it follows that, whatever be the average number of individuals existing in any given country, twice that number must perish annually,—a striking result, but one which seems at least highly probable, and is perhaps under rather than over the truth.

Finally, I particularly like the following passage from Wallace’s contribution to this publication, where he makes an ecological argument for the abundance of the passenger pigeon:

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of an immense bird population is that of the passenger pigeon of the United States, which lays only one, or at most two eggs, and is said to rear generally but one young one. Why is this bird so extraordinarily abundant, while others producing two or three times as many young are much less plentiful? The explanation is not difficult. The food most congenial to this species, and on which it thrives best, is abundantly distributed over a very extensive region, offering such differences of soil and climate, that in one part or another of the area the supply never fails. The bird is capable of a very rapid and long-continued flight, so that it can pass without fatigue over the whole of the district it inhabits, and as soon as the supply of food begins to fail in one place is able to discover a fresh feeding-ground. This example strikingly shows us that the procuring a constant supply of wholesome food is almost the sole condition requisite for ensuring the rapid increase of a given species, since neither the limited fecundity, nor the unrestrained attacks of birds of prey and of man are here sufficient to check it.

…and continues with ideas about the adaptive significance of migration and factors that influence the relative abundance of species:

In no other birds are these peculiar circumstances so strikingly combined. Either their food is more liable to failure, or they have not sufficient power of wing to search for it over an extensive area, or during some season of the year it becomes very scarce, and less wholesome substitutes have to be found; and thus, though more fertile in offspring, they can never increase beyond the supply of food in the least favourable seasons. Many birds can only exist by migrating, when their food becomes scarce, to regions possessing a milder, or at least a different climate, though, as these migrating birds are seldom excessively abundant, it is evident that the countries they visit are still deficient in a constant and abundant supply of wholesome food. Those whose organization does not permit them to migrate when their food becomes periodically scarce, can never attain a large population. This is probably the reason why woodpeckers are scarce with us, while in the tropics they are among the most abundant of solitary birds. Thus the house sparrow is more abundant than the redbreast, because its food is more constant and plentiful,—seeds of grasses being preserved during the winter, and our farm-yards and stubble-fields furnishing an almost inexhaustible supply. Why, as a general rule, are aquatic, and especially sea birds, very numerous in individuals? Not because they are more prolific than others, generally the contrary; but because their food never fails, the sea-shores and river-banks daily swarming with a fresh supply of small mollusca and crustacea.

Most biologists have read little of what Darwin and Wallace wrote, in part because they think it’s out of date (it’s not) and both convoluted and a bit dry to read (it is, but not uninteresting). If you read nothing else written by these two men, this initial publication, with essays by both of them, is well worth the few minutes invested to read and, particularly, to think about the revolution they started 159 years ago.


Darwin CR (1871) The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. John Murray, London.

Darwin CR, Wallace AR (1858) On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Zoology 3:46-50

Kuhn TS (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


  1. There seems to be some confusion about the actual date. Wikipedia says “the papers appeared in print on 20 August 1858” as does the Royal Society’s twitter feed, which (strangely) links the reader to Wikipedia (see below). Darwin Online, however, says “August 30th, when it appeared in print”.


Tools for Studying Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 28 Aug 2017

I bought a new pair of binos last week, from the incomparable Pelee Wings Nature Store near Point Pelee (the subject of a recent blog post) in Ontario. This is my 7th pair in more than half a century of watching and studying birds, and maybe the best (Swarovski Pocket CL 8×25); certainly the finest for their small size.

Binoculars are such an important tool for bird study that you could not really be a field ornithologist today without them. For too long, I relied on cheap bins until my friend (and at the time, postdoc), Geoff Hill, admonished me for using a toy to do professional work. And he was right—the Bushnell Elites (ca 1993) that he shamed me into buying allowed me to read color bands and examine individual plumage variation like never before.

Binoculars were not invented by or for birders, but eventually became the quintessential, discipline-defining tool for ornithologists. In his 1997 book, Image and Logic, the experimental physicist and science historian, Peter Galison, suggested that tools might be the main engine of scientific revolution, and not ideas as had earlier been suggested by Thomas Kuhn (1962) in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Binoculars from the American Civil War

People studying birds slowly added binoculars to their field kits when they became commercially available but there is no indication that binoculars were in any way revolutionary for ornithology. Binoculars (as opposed to binocular telescopes) came on the market in the mid-1800s and at first figured prominently in military and astronomical applications, but not in bird studies. Even Edmund Selous’s 1900 classic Bird Watching, which arguably invented the hobby,  makes no mention of binoculars and the first reference I can find for their use in a bird study does not appear until 1923.

What other iconic bird study tools might have spawned revolutions in ornithology? Certainly many great discoveries about birds have been made with light and electron microscopes, tape recorders, computers and software, and DNA sequencers, but none of these were invented for or used almost exclusively by ornithologists.

Here is my short-list for essential tools that ornithology ‘owns’ in addition to binoculars and spotting scopes—tools that I think revolutionised ornithology:

  • metal and colour bands (rings): numbered metal bands were first made and used by a Danish schoolteacher, Hans Christian Mortensen, in 1899; colored markers (silver threads) were used by Audubon in 1803 but color bands as we know them today appear to have been first used in 1909 when Louis Gain (1913) put “some celluloid rings of various colors” on the legs of Adelie Penguins on Petermann Island, Antarctica; the rest, as they say, is history.
  • mist nets: mistnets were in widespread use to catch birds for food in Japan for at least three centuries before Oliver L. Austin used them to catch migrants in 1947. (Was he the first ornithologist to use these nets to study birds?) By the 1960s mist nets were in widespread use at banding (ringing) stations in North America and Europe, and had become an essential tool for field ornithology.
  • sound spectrographs, sonographs, sonograms: although developed at Bell Labs during WWII to break codes and identify aircraft by their sounds, even the first paper reporting on the technology showed spectrograms of five bird species (Potter 1945). By 1948, bird researchers from all over the world were ordering Sona-graphs from Kay Electric Co. (an offshoot of Bell labs).
  • radio transmitters and telemetry/geolocators/PIT and RFID tags/MOTUS: there are myriad electronic devices that can be attached to birds to find out where they are or have been. First used in the early 1970s for bird studies, these devices have been instrumental in determining both local movements and long distance migrations.
  • parabola/shotgun microphones: while the principle of focusing sound/light/radiation with a parabola was know for centuries, the first parabolas for bird song recording were made at Cornell University in the 1930s. In the 1960s, Dan Gibson, a wildlife cinematographer from Toronto, marketed a plexiglas version that became an essential tool for recording bird songs.
  • DNA fingerprinting (multilocus, microsatellite): first developed by Alec Jeffreys in 1984, and applied immediately to a human immigration case involving disputed family membership (Jeffreys 1985). It took only a couple of years before the first paper was published using DNA fingerprints to evaluate paternity in a wild bird, the House Sparrow (Wetton et al 1987). Paternity analysis certainly revolutionised studies of bird mating systems and mate choice.
  • portable color spectrometers (spectroradiometers): while ornithologists are a tiny fraction of the scientists who use relatively inexpensive, portable spectroradiometers in their research, their introduction in the early 1990s revolutionised the study of bird coloration
  • ebird: this online checklist system, launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society is already revolutionising our view of bird distribution and migration patterns in the western hemisphere (example here)

We will explore the history of these tools in more depth later. I am sure there are other tools that have changed the history of bird study, and I welcome your suggestions. With respect to ornithology, we know that both Kuhn and Galison were right (see also Dyson 2012), as the revolutions that have shaped the discipline have been fuelled by both new ideas and new tools.


Dyson FJ (2012) Is science mostly driven by ideas or by tools? Science 338:1426

Gain L (1913) The penguins of the Antarctic regions. Smithsonian Institution Annual Report 1912:473-482

Galison P (1997) Image and Logic: A material culture of microphysics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Jeffreys AJ (1985) Positive identification of an immigration test-case using human DNA fingerprints. Nature 317:818-819

Kuhn TS (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Potter RK (1945) Visible patterns of sound. Science 102:463-470

Selous E (1901) Bird Watching. JM Dent & Company, London.

Wetton JH, Carter RE, Parkin DT, Walters D (1987) Demographic study of a wild house sparrow population by DNA fingerprinting. Nature 327:147-149

IMAGE: binoculars from

The Lives of Ornithologists

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 14 Aug 2017

Every ornithologist I know has told me that they have the most interesting, enjoyable and fulfilling life. Most of us privileged to make a living studying birds (academics, NGOs, government, etc) can’t believe our luck in being able to ‘work’ at something we love to do, and in the process make a useful contribution to basic knowledge, conservation, human welfare and the training of young minds.

Meinertzhagen & Kori bustard in Kenya in 1915

When we were writing Ten Thousand Birds, I was also struck by the incredible cast of characters who made major contributions to the study of birds, in particular, and biology, in general. Take, for example, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967). When I was a young teenager, our local Earlscourt Public Library in Toronto got a copy of his book Pirates and Predators soon after it was published in 1959. I found it on the new book rack and immediately took it to the corner reading area where I devoured its contents. What a book! Meinertzhagen’s stories of bird behaviour stoked my interest in scientific natural history—even though I was then mostly into butterflies and herps. Reading that book was the genesis of my interest in bird behavioural ecology, a field that only emerged as a distinct discipline about 20 years later.

Imagine my disappointment to learn—almost 50 years later—that Meinertzhagen was a charlatan, himself both a pirate and a predator—“a bully, a cheat, and a pathological fantasist. In short, a shit.” (Rankin 2007). Over a long and illustrious career, Meinertzhagen stole specimens from the British Museum, reconstructed bird specimens to make and claim new subspecies (Rasmussen and Collar 1999), altered museum specimen labels so he could ‘discover’ range extensions, almost certainly murdered his second wife, spied on his neighbour’s pre-teenage daughter undressing (and later became her ‘partner’), and concocted myriad tales of his military exploits, one of which became legendary and the subject of two books (Lord 1970, Capstick 1998). This and more is chronicled in Garfield (2007) and will be the subject of some later posts.

Fortunately not many ornithologists are THAT interesting but many have very engaging stories to tell. Unfortunately, the actual life stories of most ornithologists are very difficult for historians to reconstruct, so most of those stories are lost forever to the detriment of both ornithology and the history of science. When we were writing Ten Thousand Birds, the autobiographies of ornithologists Fernando Nottebohm and Peter Marler, published by the Society for Neuroscience, were gold mines of useful information, as were the published biographies of several famous ornithologists of the last 150 years (see here for list).

This year, the AOS will launch a new, online, open access journal of ornithological memoirs in an attempt to preserve for posterity some of the interesting lives of contemporary ornithologists. We have not yet decided on a name for the journal and are just in the process of establishing the guidelines for authors and the editorial board and process. We have two large autobiographies of deceased ornithologists to begin this series and will aim to launch in November 2017. Watch this space.

If you have been a professional ornithologist for more than 25 years, and are writing—or thinking of writing—your memoirs, send me an email and we will consider publishing it in this new journal. We hope to keep these published memoirs relatively short (<15,000 words) and focussed mainly on ornithology. There will be no cost to the authors and we will welcome photos, videos and audio files. In the coming months, we will be sending out invitations for a few prominent ornithologists to contribute to this series.

This series is not, however, meant to focus on only the famous but instead to chronicle the lives of a cross selection of contemporary ornithologists. All ornithologists make a contribution to the study of birds and a record of that cross-section is historically valuable. As you will read here in the coming months, many great discoveries in ornithology were made by people who are little known today, and thus not ‘famous’ in the usual sense of the word.

Capstick PH (1998) Warrior: The Legend of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen. St. Martin’s Press, new York

Garfield B (2007) The Meinertzhagen Mystery: The life and legend of a colossal fraud. Potomac Books Inc, Washington, DC.

Lord J (1970) Duty, Honour, Empire. Random House, New York.

Meinertzhagen R (1959) Pirates and Predators: The piratical and predatory habits of birds. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh

Rankin N (2007) A pirate and a predator. [Review of Garfield 2007] Literary Review 341:

Rasmussen PC, Collar NJ (1999). Major specimen fraud in the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux (Athene auct.) blewitti. Ibis 141:11–21.

IMAGES: Book cover and title page are in the public domain (mouse over for captions); Meinertzhagen photo is also in the public domain, from Wikimedia Commons at