The Peculiar Etymologies of Ross’s Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 19 March 2018

When I was first starting to learn about birds, I was particularly intrigued (and delighted) with the peculiar names that had come from old English (dunlin, cormorant) and other languages (guillemot, eider), and those that were onomatopoeic (cuckoo, chickadeee). I also assumed that those birds named after people (Audubon’s Warbler, Temminck’s Stint, Townsend’s Warbler) were a nice touch, maybe honouring those early naturalists who had either discovered those birds or studied them in some detail.  It seems that bird names must be generally interesting to birders and ornithologists as there are more than a dozen books and papers on the origins of English (common) bird names dating back into the 1800s [1].

Ross’s Geese (painting by Angus Shortt 1948)

Recently, while putting together some material on the history of Arctic ornithology, I discovered, somewhat to my dismay, that the naming of birds after people was not nearly as rational or commemorative as I had once thought. I had assumed, for example, that the lovely Ross’s Goose had been named after Admiral Sir John Ross, the Scotsman who explored the Canadian Arctic in the early 1800s in search of a Northwest Passage with William Parry. Or maybe even after Captain Sir James Clark Ross, John’s nephew, who also explored the Canadian Arctic, but is more famous for his Antarctic exploits. Indeed, James Ross was maybe the more likely candidate as he was something of a naturalist where John Ross was not. Many famous early explorers were also naturalists who contributed immensely to our early knowledge of Arctic birds, so it seemed to me that it was reasonable to have immortalized them in the common (and scientific) names of birds.

The Ross’s Goose was actually named, in 1861, after Bernard Rogan Ross, a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk and chief trader at various settlements (forts) owned by the company in what was called, in those pre-Canada days, The North-Western Territory and Rupert’s Land [2]. Ross was a keen naturalist who sent hundreds of specimens to the Smithsonian in Washington and the British Museum (Natural History) in London, along with excellent notes on the habitats and nesting habits of each species that he collected. He also published on mammals, birds, and ethnographic topics in 1861 and 1862 [3].

The Ross’s Goose was actually ‘discovered’ almost a century earlier, in the 1760s, and given the English name ‘Horned Wavey’ in 1795, by the great Arctic explorer and naturalist Samuel Hearne, who wrote:

HORNED WAVEY. This delicate and diminutive species of the Goose is not much larger than the Mallard Duck. Its plumage is delicately white, except the quill-feathers, which are black. The bill is not more than an inch long, and at the base is studded round with little knobs about the size of peas, but more remarkably so in the males…about two or three hundred miles to the North West of Churchill, I have seen them in as large flocks as the Common Wavey, or Snow Goose. The flesh of this bird is exceedingly delicate; but they are so small, that when I was on my journey to the North I eat two of them one night for supper. I do not find this bird described by my worthy friend Mr. Pennant in his Arctic Zoology. Probably a specimen of it was not sent home [4]

Despite the fact that Hearne had shot (and eaten!) this bird, there were no specimens, and no attempt to give it a scientific name for quite some time. In 1859, Robert Kennicott sent a head, wings, tail and head of a Ross’s Goose plus a nearly complete skin (that he had obtained from Bernard Ross) to the Smithsonian [5]. The species was then formally described in 1861 as Chen rossii by John Cassin, ornithologist at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. I don’t really have a problem with Bernard Ross being recognized in this bird’s scientific name, for he did collect the first specimen to be preserved in a museum. But it would be fitting for the common name to be Hearne’s Goose, as Hearne actually was the first to recognize it as distinctive, and he made huge contributions to Arctic ornithology.

Ross’s Gull (Nelson 1887)

The Ross’s Gull, on the other hand, is named after James Clark Ross, but even that troubles me a bit. Ross (or a member of his party) collected the first specimens of this beautiful gull in Foxe Basin off the east coast of Nunavut’s Melville Peninsula in June 1823. Ross really did little more than send the specimens of two odd-looking gulls back to England. William Macgillivray mentioned these specimens in a 1824 in a footnote to a paper on gulls, where he says that the name Larus roseus is: “The name given pro tempore to a new species of gull, discovered by the Arctic expedition, but which is to receive its proper designation from Dr Richardson.” [6]  The ‘Dr Richardson’ that he refers to here is the great Arctic naturalist John Richardson who identified the bird as a distinct species and described it—as the Cuneate-tailed Gull Larus Rossii—in 1824 in his appendix to Parry’s journal of his second voyage.  Richardson, rather than Ross, should really have been immortalized in this species’ common name. Richardson loses doubly on this one because the rules of zoological nomenclature require that Macgillivray be listed after the scientific name because he was the first to publish—by only a few months— that name even though he was just vaguely referring to Richardson. Moreover, Macgillivray referred to the bird as Larus roseus and not Larus Rossii that Richardson seem to prefer.


RTstampThere is one other bird named Ross—the Lady Ross’s Turaco—which has, like the other Ross’s birds, what seems to me to be an inappropriate common name. Lady Eliza Solomon Ross was the wife of Major General Sir Patrick Ross [7], the governor of St Helena from 1846-1850. St Helena is a tiny tropical island in the mid-Atlantic about 2000 km west of Namibia. It became a British Crown Colony in 1836 after being ‘owned’ by the East India Company for more than 150 years. The St Helena Rosses were not, as far as I can tell. closely related to the James, John or Bernard Ross mentioned above.

Lady Ross must have kept a small menagerie or aviary on St Helena that included a turaco brought there from the west coast of Africa [8]. On a visit to England she gave two feathers and a drawing (by a Lieutenant J. R. Stack) of her bird to John Gould, presumably wondering what species it was. Based on that material, Gould described this individual as a new species at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London in 1851 [9].

In my opinion, either John Gould—or nobody—should have been immortalized in the common name of that turaco, and certainly not Lady Ross.

The naming of birds has a long and checkered—and interesting—history that continues even today. I see, for example, that the AOS checklist committee is currently wrestling with some proposed changes to the common names of North American birds, to right some perceived wrongs (Gray Jay to Canada Jay, and Rock Pigeon to Rock Dove), harmonize names between Europe and the Americas (Common Moorhen to Eurasian Moorhen, and Common Gallinule to American Moorhen), and to indicate the correct taxonomic affinities (Red-breasted Blackbird to Red-breasted Meadowlark).

It is perhaps rather ironic that four of the ornithologists directly involved in what I consider to be the misnaming of the three Ross’s birds have all been immortalized—and rightly so—in the common names of other birds—Cassin’s Auklet, Townsend’s Warbler, Gouldian Finch, Macgillivray’s Warbler, for example. While I consider the Ross’s birds to be misnamed—or at least inappropriately named—I would not suggest changing those names as they are well established. The origins of those common names also provides an interesting window on the state of ornithology in the 1800s. As Macgillivray said in the paper where he first listed the scientific name of the Ross’s Gull: “With regard to the outcry against change of names, I have only to observe, that names, as well as descriptions, must continue to fluctuate until they be rendered of such a nature as to be harmonized with common sense and sound judgment.” [10]


  • Baird SF, Brewer TM, Ridgway R (1884) The Water Birds of North America. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

  • Cassin J ( 1861). Permission being given, Mr. Cassin made the following communication in reference to a new species of Goose from Arctic America. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 13: 72-72
  • Grant CHB (1915) On a collection of birds from British East Africa aid Uganda, presented to the British Museum by Capt. G. P. Cosens.-Part 111. Colii-Pici.  Ibis 57: 400-473
  • Hearne S (1795) A Journey From Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. London: Strahan and Cadell.
  • Macgillivray W (1824) Descriptions, characters, and synonyms of the different species of the genus Larus, with critical and explanatory remarks. Memoirs of the Wernerian Natural History Society 5: 247-276
  • Nelson EW (1887) Report upon Natural History Collections Made in Alaska Between the Years 1877 and 1884. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office
  • Parry WE (1824) Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; performed in the years 1821-22-23, in His Majesty’s ships Fury and Hecla, under the orders of Captain William Edward Parry. London: John Murray.

  • Pennant T (1784) Arctic Zoology, 2 vols. London: Henry Hughs.

  • Ross BR (1862) List of mammals, birds, and eggs observed on the Mackenzie River District, with notices. Canadian Naturalist 7:137-155
  • Swainson C (1885) Provincial names and folk lore of British birds. London: English Dialect Society.

  • Whitman CH (1898) The birds of Old English literature. The Journal of [English and] Germanic Philology 2:149–198.


  1.  old books about bird names: see, for example, Swainson (1885) and Whitman (1898)
  2. North-Western Territory and Rupert’s Land: Ross was employed from 1843-1862 at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts at Norway House and York Factory in present-day Manitoba, as well as Fort Simpson, Fort Norman, and Fort Resolution in the present-day Northwest Territories
  3. Bernard Ross publications: e.g. Ross (1862); see here for a listing
  4. quotation: from Hearne 1795, page 412; Hearne wrote that passage long after he returned to England and was presumably surprised to learn that there were no specimens in Pennant’s book, published in 1784; Hearne died in 1793 and his Journey was published posthumously
  5. Ross’s Goose specimens: Kennicott also collected “a large number of individuals of this species” (Baird et al. 1884, page 446)) at Fort Resolution in 1860, and I am surprised that Cassin did not honour him in the scientific name of this species
  6. quotation from footnote on Ross’s Gull: Macgillivray 1824, page 249
  7. Lady Eliza Solomon Ross : some sources incorrectly identify this Lady Ross as Sir James Ross’s wife.
  8. west coast of Africa: possibly Angola, see Grant 1915 page 413
  9. turaco described by Gould: presumably Lady Ross later gave the turaco to Gould because it is now a specimen in the BM(NH) “the type, which is a worn and faded caged bird” (Grant 1915, page 413)
  10. quotation on changing bird names: Macgillivray 1824, page 276

A Century Ago

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 12 March 2018

As you might suspect, I find the history of ornithology in particular—and the history of science in general—pretty interesting. But even I am not sure why.

RuseIn high school, history was my least favourite subject, taught by Dr A. S. H. Hill—our only teacher with a PhD (and in Political Science)—who insisted on having us memorize long strings of dates and events, aided by a rather pedantic textbook called The Modern Era.

Then in my final undergraduate year at the University of Guelph, the Philosophy Department hired a recent PhD graduate from the University of Bristol named Michael Ruse. Ruse’s first course was called something like Philosophical Foundations of the History of Science. I had taken a few philosophy courses so this one sounded right up my alley. In 1970, Ruse was a mild-mannered, genial new professor but lacked teaching experience. Since he had just completed his degree he decided to devote the whole course to the subject of his thesis research—Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Only 6 of us took that class, reading and discussing each chapter in Morse Peckham’s Variorum Text, following the changes that Darwin made as he revised the first 5 editions [1]. I think the other students were bored beyond belief but I was enthralled with this intimate look into the writings of the great man (Darwin), and the insights provided by Ruse.

The demands of (largely) ornithological research kept my nascent interest in history on hold for the next 30 years. Then, largely through discussions with Tim Birkhead, that interest was rekindled at the end of the the last century, and this blog and website are one result. If the proliferation of both books and publications are any indication, I am not the only person who has taken an interest in the history of ornithology of late, with a new book on the topic appearing every few months [2].

In 1984, when The Auk had just published its 100th volume, the editor—John A. Wiens—started a series that he called 100 Years Ago in The Auk because, as he said:

Reading the writings of a century ago reveals a good deal about how our current thinking was anticipated, how far we have come, how little has changed, how ornithologists approached the study of birds then, and the like. Accordingly, this and each following issue of The Auk will contain a selected excerpt from the counterpart issue of a century ago. [3]


As Wiens promised, an excerpt from a paper that had appeared in The Auk 100 years earlier was published in most issues of the journal for the next 15 years, chosen, presumably, by successive editors Alan Brush (1985-90), Gary Schnell (1991-96) and Tom Martin (1997-99). There were none published in 2000 when The Auk had an interim editor. But when Kimberly Smith took over as Editor in Chief in 2001 he saw an opportunity to start a new series that he called 100 Years Ago in the American Ornithologists’ Union. Kim has written these excellent pieces in every issue since January 2001. He did not add his byline until 2005 at the insistence of the new editor, Spencer Sealy, who wanted Kim to get full credit for his work.


Smith18While the extracts from century old papers were interesting and useful in the late 20th century, the ready availability of old issues of The Auk (and other journals) on SORA, would make the series that Wiens began less useful today. Kim Smith’s essays, on the other hand, provide unique insights into AOU conferences, initiatives and publications, often described in the context of contemporary  life and science. In his latest piece (Jan 2018), for example, Kim tells how the AOU obtained money through the Liberty Bond Program in the USA to help society members who were serving the WWI.

In his 1984 essay inaugurating the series of excerpts from a century ago, Wiens said that:

Ornithology was a different sort of discipline then, with much that we now accept as common knowledge yet to be discovered. In some respects, however, ornithologists of a century ago had as much understanding of natural phenomena as we do today, although they expressed themselves using more eloquent prose, less jargon, and far less quantitative detail. [3]

There is some truth in what he says but our ornithological predecessors were often difficult to understand, prone to using anthropomorphisms and the jargon of the day. They were also very quantitative at times but less inclined to use statistical analyses as most of the methods we use readily (and often incorrectly) today had not yet been invented, as Ted Anderson mentioned in last week’s post.


  • Peckham M, ed. (1959) The Origin of Species: a Variorum Text. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Wiens JA (1984) 100 Years Ago in The Auk. Auk 101:203


  1. Variorum Text: see Peckham (1959); for a modern online version see here
  2. New books on history of ornithology: I will be reviewing 3 of these here in the next couple of months
  3. Quotations: both from Wiens (1984)


Professor Bumpus and his Sparrows

Guest Post

BY: Ted R. Anderson | 5 March 2018

Possibly the most influential ornithological paper published inNorth America in the 19th century was actually written by an invertebrate embryologist who was not even a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union.  The paper “The elimination of the unfit as illustrated by the introduced sparrow, Passer domesticus” was written by Professor Hermon Carey Bumpus at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island  It was actually the second of two interesting papers that Bumpus published on the recently introduced house sparrow, but more on these below.

Hermon Bumpus

Bumpus was born in Maine in 1862, and entered Brown in 1879 to study biology, graduating in 1884.  In 1886, he accepted a professorship at Olivet College in Michigan, a position he left in 1889 to complete a doctorate at the newly established Clark University, where he received the first PhD awarded by that university.  In 1890 he returned to Brown as assistant professor of zoology and was promoted to professor of comparative anatomy two years later.  He left Brown in 1900 to become assistant to Morris Jessup, president of the board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  A year later Jessup promoted him to become the museum’s first director.

In 1911 Bumpus moved into academic administration as business manager of the University of Wisconsin, a position he held until 1914.  He then moved to Tufts College (now University) as President from 1915 to 1919.  He resigned from Tufts to pursue his interest in building or remodeling homes including a Philippine bungalow on Long Island Sound (constructed of Philippine lumber from the Philippine Hall at the St. Louis Exposition), an Italian villa in a Boston suburb and the King Caesar House in Duxbury, Mass.  Bumpus died in Pasadena, California in 1943.

pexels-photo-460960.jpegWhile teaching at Brown, Bumpus spent his summers conducting research on the development of marine invertebrates at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he also served as assistant director from 1893 to 1895, and as director of the Biological Laboratory of the US Fish Commission.  In 1896 he presented the inaugural lecture in a summer seminar series at the Marine Biological Laboratory entitled “The variations and mutations of the introduced sparrow, Passer domesticus”, which was published in 1898.

In that 1898 paper he was undoubtedly the first scientist to suggest that the introduction of house sparrows and their subsequent rapid spread across North America represented a huge experiment that could be used to study Darwinian natural selection.  Taking advantage of that natural experiment, he compared the size, shape and coloration of 868 sparrow eggs from Massachusetts with an equal number of sparrow eggs from England, to test the hypothesis that the rapid population growth of sparrows in North America would result in relaxed selection.  Without the benefit of statistical analysis—Francis Galton and Karl Pearson were just then developing some rudimentary statistical tests—he concluded from his graphs that eggs from Massachusetts were shorter and more variable in size and coloration than eggs from England.  He also raised the question of whether the observed differences were phenotypic (‘ontogenetic’) or adaptive (‘phylogenetic’) and suggested that a common garden experiment would be needed to differentiate between these alternatives.

Bumpus’s graph of the length of house sparrow eggs from North America (dotted line) and Europe (solid line) [1]

On 1 February 1898, a winter storm in Providence provided Bumpus with the material for another summer lecture at Woods Hole, which he then published.  After the storm, 136 immobilized sparrows were brought to Bumpus’s anatomy lab, where 72 subsequently revived but the remaining 64 died.  Bumpus identified the sex and measured nine morphological traits of each bird.  Bumpus concluded from his graphs that males survived better than females and that shorter, lighter birds with longer legs, wings and sternums and larger brain size (“skull width”) also survived better. He concluded that his analyses showed:

Natural selection is most destructive of those birds which have departed most from the ideal type, and its activity raises the general standard of excellence by favoring those birds which approach the structural ideal.

…the birds which perished have certain average structural peculiarities which distinguish them from the survivors, and that the intensity of selective elimination has been felt most by birds of extreme structure [2]

In his 1899 publication, the entire dataset is reproduced in an appendix, thereby permitting many other evolutionary biologists, as well as innumerable students in evolution classes, to analyze Bumpus’s data statistically.  Harris published the first  statistical analysis, and at least ten other papers have been published since then, including papers by John Calhoun, Peter Grant , Richard F. Johnston and colleagues, and one by Russell Lande and Steven Arnold.  Increasing complex and sophisticated statistical analyses were employed in these papers, and the conclusions of the various authors differ from those of Bumpus and from each other, in part due to the fact that many of the analyses use only subsets of the original data.

I do not know of another dataset of birds that has been subjected to so many analyses and so many different interpretations The history of reanalysis of Bumpus’s data is a nice example of a century of progress in both statistics and evolutionary biology


  • Anderson TR (2006) Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow, from Genes to Populations. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Bumpus HC (1898) The variations and mutations of the introduced sparrow, Passer domesticus. Biological Lectures Delivered at the Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Holl, 1896-1897, pp. 1-15.
  • Bumpus HC (1899) The elimination of the unfit as illustrated by the introduced sparrow, Passer domesticus. Biological Lectures from the Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Holl, Mass. 1898, pp 209-228.
  • Calhoun JB (1947) The role of temperature and natural selection in relation to the variations in size of the English sparrow in the United States. American Naturalist 81:203-228.
  • Grant PR (1972) Centripetal selection and the house sparrow. Systematic Zoology 21:23-30.
  • Harris JA (1911) A neglected paper on natural selection in the English sparrow. American Naturalist 45:314-319.
  • Johnston RF, Niles DM, Rohwer SA (1972) Hermon Bumpus and natural selection in the house sparrow Passer domesticus. Evolution 26:20-31.
  • Lande R, Arnold SJ (1983) The measurement of selection on correlated characters. Evolution 37:1210-1226.


  1. graph: Bumpus 1898 page 5
  2. quotation: Bumpus 1899 pages 217 and 218

Galápagos sojourn

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 26 February 2018

26 February 2018

Mr Charles Darwin
Westminster Abbey

My Dear Charles

Post Office Bay, Floreana

My apologies for not writing last Monday as I had suggested I might when I wrote to you on your birthday. We were still on the Santa Cruz II ‘steaming’ from Floreana to Baltra on Monday morning and there was no way yo get a message out. I thought of leaving a postcard for you in the barrel at Post Office Bay on Floreana but that might take months to get to you, or be stolen by a tourist.

We had a great visit to the Galápagos Islands, stopping on Baltra, Santa Cruz (Cerro Dragon and Puerto Ayora), Isabela (Punta Vincente Roca), Fernandina (Punta Espinoza), and Floreana (Punta Cormoran and Post Office Bay) to hike, snorkel and/or simply watch and photograph wildlife. I see from your Voyage of The Beagle that you, too, stopped on Charles Island (now called Floreana) and Albermarle (now Isabela), but you also went to Chatham Island (now San Cristobal) and James Island (now Santiago). Certainly, things have changed since you were in the islands in Sept-Oct 1835.


First, and maybe most strikingly, there are now a lot of people on the Galápagos Islands. There are now settlements on Santa Cruz, Baltra, San Cristobal, Floreana and Isabela, by far the largest being Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz with maybe 25,000 inhabitants (though ‘officially’ 15,000). On top of that a staggering 225,000 people visited the islands in 2015, by boat or plane. The islands are now almost entirely a national park, so travel is restricted to 54 sites on land and 62 for diving in the surrounding ocean. Visitors are limited to about 4 hours per site and must be accompanied by a trained guide.

Fortunately, the places we visited (except Puerto Ayora and vicinity) seemed to be in a relatively pristine state with well-marked trails, no trash, and abundant wildlife close at hand. The birds and reptiles are still exceptionally tame and the waters clear and teeming with life.

G. fortis with foot pox, on Baltra

The (your) finches were also common to abundant just about everywhere we went. They certainly have not been scared off by human developments as we saw them even inside the airport buildings on Baltra and throughout the town of Puerto Ayora. Even we seasoned ornithologists and birders found the species hard to distinguish on any given island so you are to be forgiven for not initially noticing the proliferation of finch species there. The downside of increased human traffic to the islands is that we saw a high incidence of foot pox in the finches on Baltra, and a parasitic nest fly (Philornis downsi) is now posing a serious threat to some finch populations [1]. The finches are so closely associated with humans in some places that there now signs posted to tell people not to feed the birds.

You will recall that John Gould identified 12 species of ‘Galápagos’ finches from your collections. There continues to be debate about how many finch species are actually on the islands, especially as we are now using new molecular tools to help distinguish evolutionarily stable populations that might be worth designating as distinct species. During the 20th century biologists often defined species as reproductively isolated populations (the ‘Biological Species Concept’) but that has proven to be difficult to test empirically and not always useful, in my opinion. At my count there are now at least a half dozen ways to define species and the debate continues in a lively (and I think very productive) fashion.

The Handbook of Birds of the World Online now lists 14 species of Geospiza, plus the Vegetarian Finch (Platyspiza crassirostris), the Grey Warbler-finch (Certhidea fusca), and the Green Warbler-finch (Certhidea olivacea) for a total of 17 species of Darwin’s Finches. I expect that DNA analysis will add to this total in the coming years.

Peter and Rosemary Grant also discovered an instance of speciation through hybridization of an immigrant male Geospiza conirostris from Española Island with a female resident Geospiza fortis on Daphne Major in 1981 [2]. The descendants of this pairing (the Big Bird Lineage, see below) have only mated with each other over the last 37 years. These birds are reproductively isolated from the resident population of G. fortis by their distinctive song. Odds are that this tiny population of the hybrid species will go extinct, but the documentation of this event has given us an insight into a form of speciation that you may not have anticipated, though it is likely to be quite rare.


Sadly, some of the tortoises that you recognized as being distinct species are now extinct due to hunting by sailors, collecting by museums, predation by introduced rats and cats, and habitat destruction by goats. It is estimated, for example, that 200,000 tortoises were taken from the islands before 1900. The tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni) from Abingdon Island (now Pinta) went extinct only 6 years ago when the last male (“Lonesome George”) died in captivity at the (relatively young) age of just over 100 years. George was preserved as a taxidermic mount and is now on display at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora. Also now extinct is C. nigra from Floreana, which you saw and collected, was extinct by 1846 having been hunted mercilessly by sailors and the penal colony on that island; and C. phantastica from Narborough Island (now Fernandina) which is known only from a single specimen collected by Rollo Beck for the California Academy of Sciences in 1906. All of the other tortoise species are considered to be endangered or at least vulnerable with populations <10,000 each and some only in the 100s. There is hope, however, in restoring some of them by captive breeding and the eradication of predators.

Chelonoidis porteri in the ‘wild’ on Santa Cruz Island

As you might expect, your name is intimately associated with the Galápagos with an island (formerly Culpepper Island) now named after you, as well as a research station and a hostel in Puerto Ayora, a tortoise (C. darwini), and, of course, those finches.

Yr obd srvt



  • Darwin C (1840) The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., during the years 1832 to 1836. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Grant BR, Grant PR (2008) Fission and fusion of Darwin’s finches populations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363:2821–2829.
  • Kleindorfer S, Dudaniec RY (2006) Increasing prevalence of avian poxvirus in Darwin’s finches and its effect on male pairing success. Journal of Avian Biology 37:69–76.
  • Koop JAH, Kim PS, Knutie SA, Adler F, Clayton DH (2016) An introduced parasitic fly may lead to local extinction of Darwin’s finch populations. Journal of Applied Ecology 53: 511–518.


1. parasitic nest fly and foot pox: see Koop et al. 2016 on the fly and Kleindorfer and Dudaniek on the pox

2. speciation through hybridization: see Grant and Grant (2008)

IMAGES: Big Bird lineage from; Galapagos map from; Post Office Bay photo from Wikimedia Commons; all other photos by the author

Birthday wishes

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 12 February 2018

DarwinsgraveMr Charles Darwin
Westminster Abbey
20 Deans Yd
London SW1P 3PA

My Dear Charles (if I may)

Happy 209th birthday! 

I know that a few people have written to you [1] in the 132 years since you shuffled off this mortal coil, but I thought it high time we brought you up to date on the research inspired by those drab little finches that you collected in the Galápagos Islands. I am not really sure how long it takes for letters to reach you at your new address [2] but the current evidence suggests that it might take forever. But still…

You presumably know about the several Galápagos expeditions that took place during your lifetime. As soon as John Gould had figured out that there were actually 12 species of finches in your collection, and that there were different combinations of species on different islands, the floodgates were opened.

You will remember poor old Thomas Edmonstone [3] who went to the islands on HMS Herald in 1845. You had asked him specifically to collect finches from as many different islands as he could visit and to keep careful records as to which specimens were from which island, as you had not properly labelled all of your own finch specimens. Sadly, he died on that voyage and his records were virtually indecipherable.

Then Simeon Habel went out in 1868 and stayed for 6 months, making an extensive bird collection that ended up in Vienna. Percy Sclater and Osbert Salvin [4] published a little about that collection. Finally, your old nemesis, Luis Agassiz [5], went to the islands for only 9 days in 1873 but his crew still collected a lot of specimens for the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Agassiz, as you no doubt expected, could not see what all the fuss was about over the finches and remained a devout creationist.

It has always been pretty clear to me that the finches fascinated you. Even in your notes from the Beagle voyage you could already tell that they were closely related to some mainland species and realized that they were all related, even if, at the time, you thought that many of the finches on different islands were just morphologically differentiated races of the same species. As you said in your ‘Ornithological Notes‘:

These birds are closely allied in appearance to the Thenca of Chile or Callandra of la Plata. In their habits I cannot point out a single difference; — They are lively inquisitive, active run fast, frequent houses to pick the meat of the Tortoise, which is hung up, — sing tolerably well; are said to build a simple open nest. — are very tame, a character in common with the other birds…I have specimens from four of the larger Islands; the two above enumerated, and (female. Albermarle Isd.) & (male: James Isd). — The specimens from Chatham & Albermarle Isd appear to be the same; but the other two are different. In each Isld. each kind is exclusively found: habits of all are indistinguishable… When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. (Darwin 1963)

In 1888 and 1891, Zera L. Tanner took several naturalists (including Aggasiz’ son Alexander) on his fisheries research ship USFC Albatross to the islands to collect specimens. The bird specimens in those collections, as well those of Habel and Bauer and Adams in 1891, were studied by the great American ornithologist Robert Ridgway [6] and published in his Birds of the Galapagos Archipelago in 1896. Ridgway recognized that despite all of the previous visits to the islands, not much was really known about the finches still:

Not a single island of the group can be said to have been exhaustively explored, and few of the species are known in all their various phases in fact, many are known only from a few specimens in female or immature dress. No observations have been made upon the attitude the different species of Geospiza maintain toward one another tending to show how far the differences observable, or thought to be observable, in dried specimens indicate the actual grouping in species of living individuals. The anomaly of individuals adult as to plumage but with bills suggesting immaturity’, and of others which show exactly the reverse, remains to be explained and there are other questions which only protracted field-studies by a competent investigator can decide. Until all these present mysteries are solved, theories and generalizations are necessarily futile. (Ridgway 1897: 459-460)

Rollo Beck

The indefatigable Rollo Beck of California was the next ornithologist to make collections in the Galeapagos when he was sent there by Lord Walter Rothschild [7]  specifically to collect tortoises that were sent back to Rothschild’s collection at Tring (UK). Beck was sent back to the islands in 1905 to collect for the California Academy of Sciences, and stayed for a whole year. He shipped 78,000 specimens (including 8688 birds [8]) back to the Cal Academy, a third of which were finches.

Percy Lowe went out in 1936 but declared in his paper published in The Ibis that the finches were all a kind of hybrid swarm with no clear evidence of speciation. He did, however, call the birds ‘Darwin’s Finches’ and you will undoubtedly be delighted to know that that name endures to this day despite a few subsequent publications calling them ‘Galapagos Finches’.

LackDFIn 1938-39, a school teacher named David Lack spent four months on the islands studying the behaviour of the fiches, followed by a few months studying the extensive collection of specimens at the Cal Academy. Lack was already a well-known, if amateur, ornithologist having participated in some ornithological expeditions and published a few papers. Lack was appointed Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology in 1945, a position he held until he died in 1973. In 1940 he published the results of his Galápagos studies in a paper in Nature and later, in 1947, in a book called Darwin’s Finches. Lack really established the finches as model organisms for the study of evolution.

To some extent inspired by Lack’s book, Robert Bowman [9]—a Queen’s University graduate—went first went to the Galápagos in 1956 and returned several times to conduct a series of studies designed in part to show that Lack was mistaken about the role of competition in the evolution of the finches. Bob did his PhD at UC Berkeley, carefully describing the skulls and jaw musculature of the finches. Later he studied their songs and concluded that those species that coexisted in the same island differed as much in their songs as they did in their bills, and that the songs probably reduced the incidence of ‘cross-breeding’ as you called it.

Finally (though not actually the end of the story), a personal note. In the fall of 1973, my PhD advisor, Peter Grant, who was then studying competition in microtine rodents, came into our grad student office and asked me if I’d like to go to the Galápagos to suss out the finches as a possible focus for my thesis research. I had just started a PhD program at McGill University a couple of months earlier and was thinking then that I wanted to return to Newfoundland or the high arctic, as I had worked studying seabirds for the Canadian Wildlife Service in both places in the preceding summer. Peter and his postdoc BeakIan Abbott were going to the Galápagos for a few weeks mainly to study the interactions between the birds and the seeds of Tribulus, which formed a large part of their diet. For several reasons I declined, but Peter (with Ian and his wife, Lynette) went and was enchanted, thereby beginning the longest running—and today probably best known—series of studies of ‘your’ finches. His work was the subject of a Pulitzer prize winning book called The Beak of the Finch. I am certain that you would be stunned by the quality and breadth of the work that Peter, his wife Rosemary, and their students and colleagues have accomplished in the intervening 45 years.

I am actually in Ecuador today in the cloud forest nw of Quito, watching birds with a couple of old friends, Tim Birkhead (sperm competition [10], history of ornithology) and David McDonald (manakins). Tim and I will fly [11] to Baltra on Thursday the 15th to tour the islands for a few days. I will send you some photos and field notes next Monday from our trip. That post might be delayed by a day or two depending upon the quality of the internet connection [12] on our boat or in Guayaquil. I know you did not get to the mainland of Ecuador in 1835 but I think that history has shown that your time was better spent in the Galápagos.

Yr obd svt

Bob Montgomerie


  • Darwin CR (1963) Ornithological notes. Barlow N. , editor. British Museum (Natural History) Bulletin, Historical Series 2: 201–278.
  • Lack D (1947) Darwin’s Finches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Lowe PR(1936) XV.—The finches of the Galapagos in relation to Darwin’s conception of species. Ibis 78: 310–321, doi:10.1111/j.1474-919x.1936.tb03376.x

  • Ridgway R (1897) Birds of the Galápagos archipelago. Proceedings of the U. S. Nayional Museum 19:459–670.

  • Sclater PL, Salvin O (1870) Characters of new species of birds collected by Dr Habel in the Galapagos Islands. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 38:322–323.

  • Ridgway R (1897) Birds of the Galápagos archipelago. Proceedings of the U. S. National Museum 19:459–670.



1. see photo at the top, but also, if you modern readers of this post are familiar with the what3words app or website, Darwin is at, or very close to, salsa.snap.finger

2. see for example a letter from Jerry Coyne on the Oxford Press blog in 2009 here; and a letter from Frank Gannon in EMBO Reports, also in 2009, here

3. 1825-1846; sometimes spelled Edmonston; he was accidentally shot in the head after landing in Peru, right after visiting the Galapagos 

4. Sclater (1829-1913) and Salvin (1835-1898) were both prominent 19th century English ornithologists who were original members of the BOU and editors of The Ibis. Together they published the first paper to appear in The Ibis

5. Agassiz(1807-1873) was born and raised in Switzerland but moved to the USA in 1847 and eventually became professor of zoology at Harvard where he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

6. Ridgway (1850-1929) was one of the founders of the AOU (now AOS) and was president of the AOU from 1898-1900

7.  Rothschild (1868-1937) was a wealthy collector who donated his Tring estate to the British Museum, where it is now a division of the Natural History Museum and sold his bird specimens to the American Museum of Natural History, thereby establishing the AMNH as a leading ornithological centre worldwide.

8. About 2500 of these were finches in the genus Geospiza alone (data from VertNet accessed on 4 Feb 2018)

9. Bowman (1925-2006) first went to the islands as a grad student, then several more times during his long career as a professor at San Francisco State University until he retired in 1988.

10. It wasn’t until 1970 that Geoff Parker added this interesting way that males compete to your list of important mechanisms of selection.

11. I don’t know if you are aware that we humans can now fly from place to place in giant buses with wings called airplanes, making it possible to get from my home in Canada to the Galápagos in less than a day. The first airplane flew to the Galapagos in 1934 to rescue a naturalist who had contracted appendicitis.

12. I don’t even know where to start explaining this. It’s like the mail without the paper, and messages are transferred instantly (which is both a boon and a curse) across the ether, so you are actually likely to encounter them wherever you are.

Lives lived

Guest Post
BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 5 February 2018

Ornithologists are people too! When Bob Montgomerie, Jo Wimpenny and I wrote Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin (2014) our aim was to make the history of ornithology interesting, or at least more interesting than is usually the case, by focusing on the lives of ornithologists, with all their foibles, enthusiasms and idiosyncrasies. And what an intriguing and exciting bunch many of them proved to be!

Finding biographical information was sometimes easy, sometimes difficult, depending on how famous, or in some cases, infamous, the person was. Celebrated ornithologists typically receive multiple obituaries, including those published in the journals of the societies to which they belonged. Others have written their own biographies, including David Lack —one the twentieth-century’s most outstanding ornithologists — who some years before he died composed his own obituary for the Ibis. Margaret Morse Nice, famous for her song sparrow studies, wrote a much longer autobiographical account, Research is a Passion with Me, undoubtedly because she had lots to write (whereas David Lack felt he’d led an uneventful life [2]).


Many less famous ornithologists, both then and now, lead lives absent of major discoveries or disputes, making it much less likely that they’ll receive obituaries or biographies. Writing a biography of such individuals often requires time-consuming research that can be both frustrating and fascinating — rather like fishing: rarely a bite, but when you hook something, wonderfully satisfying.

Several years ago, I became interested in how in the 1920s, a biology high-school teacher Hans Duncker, who with the help of an amateur bird-keeper, created a red canary. What a mission — both mine and his! As a native German Duncker, wrote nothing in English, and I, unable to read German, created a self-inflicted challenge that would have been impossible without the help of two good friends: Karl Schulze-Hagen and Goetz Palfner, who could translate the German for me. Much of Duncker’s history was hidden away in various archives and, because of his war-time activities, not readily available, even to German researchers.

IMG_6213As the history of ornithology becomes an increasingly respectable and relevant research topic, more and more ornithologists see writing biographies as a worthwhile exercise. Some recent examples include: Mearns and Mearns’s John Kirk Townsend; Hale’s Sacred Ibis: the Ornithology of Canon Henry Baker Tristram; Nelson & Elliott‘s The Curious Mr Catesby; McGhie’s Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology.

IMG_6215A recent innovation, fuelled and facilitated by technology is the self-published autobiography. Examples here include those by Bryan Nelson [3], famous for his comparative studies of gannets and boobies, and by David Snow, who pioneered the study of frugivory, sexual selection and avian mating systems, beautifully summarized in his wonderfully perceptive book, The Web of Adaptation.

Biographies and obituaries do something different from autobiographies, although an autobiography is a useful resource for a biographer. A self-published autobiography allows the author to use whatever illustrations they want and to emphasise those aspects of their life that they consider most important, with the attendant risk that they may try to create their own memorial; write too much or, if left too late, fail to recall all that is relevant. Publishing, whether privately or professionally, in hard-copy or on-line safeguards a biography; written accounts left for the family often go missing.

I would urge all ornithologists to write an account of your life; keep it concise, personal, with plenty of images, and provide some context about the places and times in which you have lived [5]


  • IMG_6214Anderson TR (2013) The Life of David Lack. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Birkhead TR (2003) The Red Canary. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hale WG (2016) Sacred Ibis: The Ornithology of Canon Henry Baker Tristram, DD, FRS. Durham, UK: Sacristy Press.
  • Lack D (1973) My life as an amateur ornithologist. Ibis 115:422
  • McGhie HA (2017) Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, Books and Business. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Mearns B, Mearns R (2007) John Kirk Townsend: Collector of Audubon’s birds and mammals. Dumfries, Scotland: published by the authors
  • Nelson JB (2013) On the rocks. Peterborough, UK: Langford Press
  • Nelson EC, Elliott DJ (2015) The curious Mister Catesby: a “truly ingenious” naturalist explores new worlds. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press
  • Nice MM (1979) Research is a Passion with Me. Toronto: Nice Ornithological Club.
  • Snow DW (1976) The Web of Adaptation. New York: Quadrangle
  • Snow DW (2008) Birds in our Life. York, UK: William Sessions Ltd
  • Thorpe WH (1974) David Lambert Lack 1910-1973. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 20: 271–293.


  1. David Lack (1910-1973) was Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology (EGI) at Oxford from 1945 to 1973.
  2. see Thorpe (1974) and Anderson (2013).
  3. John Bryan Nelson (1932-2105) was a professor at Aberdeen University in Scotland from 1969 to 1985
  4. David Snow (1924-2009) was a noted ornithologist who worked for the New York Zoological Society, the Charles Darwin Research Station (Galapagos), the British Trust for ornithology, and the Natural History Museum. He was president of the BOU from 1987 to 1990 and editor of The Ibis and the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club.
  5. The AOS is embarking on an initiative to publish a series of Ornithological Memoirs that will be autobiographies of (usually) senior ornithologists. We expect to begin publication in 2018, so start writing! We will post more details in March and will be sending out invitations to contribute but you do not need to be invited as we will consider any submission. [RDM]

Eats birds and leaves

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 29 January 2018

Probably my most memorable feast reflecting the title of this post is an ornithological lunch I had with Tim Birkhead at Restaurant Gilles-Simonet in St Girons in the French Pyrenées a few years ago. I had a superb Magret du Canard (the bird) with salad (the leaves) while Tim had the Tartine Pigonneau (pigeon sandwich) and salad [1]. Like so many feasts with ornithologists this one was memorable not only for the food but also for the engaging conversation about birds and ornithology. Over the years, Tim and I have shared dozens, if not hundreds of meals, where the conversation turned to birds and both our enthusiasm and exchange of ideas was fuelled the superb quality of the food and wine.

Restaurant Gilles-Simonet

I started thinking about ornithological meals on reading Jerry Coyne’s blog post last week about people he would have liked to have dined with. Over the years I have had the opportunity to talk birds over a fine meal, and usually one-on-one, with an alphabet soup of excellent ornithologists including: Malte Andersson*[2], Jim Briskie*, Eberhard Curio, Nick Davies, John Eadie*, Peter Feinsinger, Peter and Rosemary Grant*, Geoff Hill*, Simone Immler, Ian Jones*, Ellen Ketterson, Bruce Lyon*, Anders Møller*, Ryan Norris*, Ken Otter, Rick Prum, Jim Quinn, Laurene Ratcliffe*, Jamie Smith*, Niko Tinbergen, Al Uy, Sandra Vehrencamp, Pat Weatherhead*, Stephen Yezerinac*, Amotz Zahavi*[3]. I can honestly say that every one of those meals involved a rewarding conversation about birds, with fresh ideas, insights and stories. And what a great way to spend a couple of hours. As Bernd Brunner points out in his recent book, Birdmania, people who study birds are largely fanatics, sometimes crazy, and for the most part likely likely to be delightful dinner companions.

But Coyne’s post was a variation on that old radio show theme about people from the past you would like to dine with, and where and when, to talk about evolution. He limited his readers to three choices and many, of course, chose Darwin. And Darwin would be my first choice, too, to talk about birds. Here’s why, plus my other two choices for an ornithological repast, and since I will be arriving unexpectedly from the future, I will bring the food and wine:

Sandwalk in 2013

Charles Darwin: I’d like to dine with him in his garden at Down House, then stroll around his ‘sandwalk’ while we talk about pigeons. I have long felt that his work on pigeons provided the key insights into his views on natural and sexual selection, and I would like to see if he agrees. In fact, an early reader of Darwin’s Origin of Species manuscript, Whitwell Elwrinwrote to Darwin’s publisher, John Murray, to say that the manuscript was “a wild & foolish piece of imagination” and that he should instead write about pigeons: “Everybody is interested in pigeons,”  he said, and a book about them would “be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom and soon be on every table.” With the notable exceptions of Charles Otis Whitman and BF Skinner, the pigeon, and Darwin’s insights about them, have been largely neglected by ornithologists, until recently when Michael Shapiro at the University of Utah took up the cause and has already published some amazing work.

I‘d like to meet Darwin for lunch in 1856 and tell him that it was high time he published his big book. Fortunately, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote him that now famous letter in 1858 or we might never have benefitted from his genius. REPAST: tourtière made with breast of wood pigeon rather than the traditional (at least in Québec) Passenger Pigeon [4], with a chilled bottle of Birichino Malvasia Bianca from the Monterey Bay area. He will probably be surprised to learn that we now thoroughly understand genetics, that we wiped out the Passenger Pigeon, that California makes great wines, and that he is still number one on most biologists’ lists of people they’d like to have met.

The Nice’s house in 2002. The buildings in the background were not there in 1932

Margaret Morse Nice: I’d like to have lunch with her in her kitchen at West Patterson Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, in 1932. I’d like to talk to her about her sparrows, in part because I worked on them with Jamie Smith for a couple of winters on Mandarte Island and found them totally engaging. Nice’s two volume monograph is more than 600 pages long, and she published almost 200 papers. How did she do it?  Did she feel that being a ‘housewife’ helped or hindered her scientific pursuits? Did she feel excluded from the companies of men who dominated ornithology in those days? REPAST: omelette of quail eggs and black trumpet mushrooms with Malivoire Chardonnay from Ontario. She will probably be surprised to learn that the Song Sparrow has become a model organism for ornithologists with superb work by Jamie Smith, Peter Arcese and Jane Reid, for example, that women are now well represented in ornithology, that her work is now seen as pioneering, and that there are respectable wines from Ontario.

Heilmann_origin_of_birdsGerhard Heilmann: Heilmann is not well known among ornithologists today, but I was intrigued by his talents, knowledge and insights when writing about him in our Ten Thousand Birds book. Heilmann was Danish, born in 1859, and spent his life mainly as an artist but had an abiding interest in birds and dinosaurs. His book The Origin of Birds is an ornithological classic. I would like to have dinner with him in 1916 at his house on the shore Nakebölle Fjord on Denmark’s northeast coast. There he built an aviary out over the water so he could study ducks and gulls, and a large one on land for studying raptors. There’s really nothing like visiting and chatting with someone who keeps wild birds. REPAST: magret du canard (grilled, rare) with a bottle of Gérard Bertrand 2008 Le Viala Red from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. He will probably be surprised to learn that we now have solid proof that birds evolved directly in one lineage of dinosaurs, that some dinosaurs outside that lineage had feathers, and (sadly) that his work has largely been forgotten.

And the following were all on my shortlist: David Lack (brilliant, perceptive), Richard Meinertzhagen (crazy, psychopath), Elliot Coues (insightful, productive), Francis Willughby (pioneering, innovative), and Rollo Beck (passionate about birds, adventurer).

You can’t, of course, meet and dine with any of those people but the annual banquet at the AOU (now AOS) conference is a great way to meet people and talk birds. I have probably been to 50 conference banquets over the years, and the food at almost all of them was terrible and overpriced. But the AOU banquets are thankfully often a notable exception—I fondly remember the fabulous banquet in the Field Museum at the 100th AOU conference in 1982, and last year’s AOS banquet in East Lansing was outstanding, even though they ran out of meat before I got to the head of that line. I don’t want to put any pressure for this year’s AOS conference organizers but I would highly recommend going to the banquet this year in Tucson. At the very least, the setting will be spectacular and you will reap tremendous rewards if you dine with at least one ornithologist who you do not already know. Then go birding before you head home. Eat, bird, and leave.


  • Brunner B (2017) Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds. Vancouver: Greystone Books.
  • Heilmann G (1926) The Origin of Birds. London: H. F. & G. Witherby.
  • Nice MM (1941) The role of territory in bird life. American Midland Naturalist 26:441–473.

  • Nice MM (1937) Studies in the life history of the song sparrow, pt 1. A population study of the Song Sparrow. Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York 4:1–246. [Available here]

  • Nice MM (1943) Studies in the life history of the song sparrow, pt 2. Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York 6:1–328.

  • Shufeldt RW (1916) Present work of Gerhard Heilmann. Auk 33:457–458.


1. I am reasonably sure that those were not the names of those dishes on the menu, but close enough

2. People with whom I have shared many ornithological meals get a star.

3. OK, this is seriously embarrassing. As soon as I had written this list, I noticed that there were only 5 women and 21 men. Should I go back and balance the sex ratio, or would that be even more biased? Honestly, those were just the first people who came to mind as I worked through the alphabet. I could have just as easily mentioned any of the following and more: Colleen Barber*, Theodora Block*, Fran Bonier*, Nancy Burley, Camille Bonneaud*, Colleen Cassady St Clair*, Carla Cicero, Anne Clark, Roslyn Dakin*, Stéphanie Doucet*, Ricky Dunn*, Emily Duval,  Philina English*, Rebecca Kimball, Adeline Loyau*, Sue McRae*, Pat Monaghan, Julie Morand-Ferron, Sue Hannon, Karen Holder*, Kathy Martin*, Beth MacDougall-Shackleton*, Gail Patricelli, Marion Petrie, Melanie Rathburn*, Alex Rose, Kristen Ruegg, Becca Safran*, Allison Schulz, Bridget Stutchbury, Cara Thow*. The interesting thing if you are to compare those two lists is that the average age of the men is probably 20-30 years more than that of the women. This reflects a very welcome trend in ornithology where women now have a strong presence, influence and voice, and are doing some amazing research—such a sea change from the days when Margaret Morse Nice was studying birds from her houses in Columbus, Ohio and Norman, Oklahoma.

4. I often wondered if tourtiére was derived from the French Canadian word for the Passenger Pigeon (tourte) but several sources suggest that that’s a myth. Tourte is, in fact, an Old French (8th-14th century) word for meat pie, derived from the Latin torta, long before Europeans first encountered the bird. Maybe the bird was named after the pie and not the other way around?

PHOTOS: Simonet from their Facebook page; I took the picture of Darwin’s Sandwalk; Nice’s house from ; Heilmann’s book cover is in the public domain

Books about Books about Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 22 January 2018

Before Google Scholar and similar search engines, most ornithologists that I know trundled off to the library from time to time to search the current literature on birds. As a graduate student at McGill, I was lucky enough to have the Blacker-Wood Library close at hand and they subscribed to something like 300 bird journals, magazines and newsletters. But even then I often searched through the fat volumes of Zoological Record: Aves, Current Contents, and Biological Abstracts to ferret out papers that might be interesting or relevant to my research.

filecardsMy own PhD supervisor, Peter Grant, went to the library every Friday to search and read the literature, making out file cards for every paper that interested him. And well into the 1990s, George Williams—who was an adjunct professor here at Queen’s would show up in our library every few months filling out file cards on papers that he had read. I figured that if this method was embraced by two of the great evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century it was good enough for me. By the time I finally put my file cards into the dumpster having transferred that information over to Bookends, I had accumulated >7000 cards like the ones in the picture to the right.

This ritual was the stock-in-trade of scientists for most of the twentieth century. While I don’t lament the demise of this weekly ritual, which consumed a huge amount of time for such a small gain in knowledge, there was something vaguely satisfying about keeping up with the literature on a regular basis. My students, of course, can’t imagine actually keeping abreast of the relevant literature in our discipline and even often baulk at reading a paper once a week for our journal club discussions.

Zoological Record began publishing in 1864 as The Record of Zoological Literature and Biological Abstracts in 1926 and by the time our library stopped getting the print version, in the early part of this millennium, these two publications occupied tens of metres of shelf space. Searching those volumes was a daunting task at times, and I well remember trying to compile a complete list of papers published on hummingbird behaviour and ecology, the subject of my PhD. At least in the 1970s, that task was actually do-able, and worthwhile, as once I had finished I knew that I had the entire literature on my chosen subject at my fingertips. Getting copies of those papers was, of course, another story.

The compiling of bibliographies has a long history in the sciences, and presumably provided a very useful service for scientists who did not have ready access to extensive libraries. While today those bibliographic compilations can at first seem like a worthless anachronism, the best ones not only list what was published but also provide commentaries that are extremely useful to historians, providing contemporary insights into the perceived value of published work.

I have already mentioned here the bibliographies published by the execrable Wood brothers in the 1830s, but there are several others that form a very nice historical record of early ornithology, a few of which are listed here:

  • Wood CT (1835) The Ornithological Guide: in which are discussed several interesting points in ornithology. London: Whittaker. [Available here. An odd compilation of ornithological information, including a long section (pp 79-173) in which he reviews (English) books, journals and magazines about birds from Willughby and Ray’s Ornithology (1678) to his brother Neville’s soon to be published British Songsters, which was not published until 1836 under the name British song birds: being popular descriptions and anecdotes of the choristers of the groves.]
  • Wood N (1836) The Ornithologist’s Text-book: Being Reviews of Ornithological Works: with an Appendix Containing Discussions on Various Topics of Interest. London: JW Parker. [Available here. Not to be outdone by his brother Charles Thorold, Neville published his own review of books about birds in the long first section (pp 4-99) of this textbook, covering the same material as his brother but adding books written in French and German. Both of the Wood brothers are unstinting in their praise for books they liked, and highly critical of those they found to be wanting. Of James Rennies’ (1833) Alphabet of Zoology, for example, Neville says simply “A compilation of no merit”]
  • Günther ACLG (1864) The Record of Zoological Literature. Van Voorst
  • NewtonEXTRACTSNewton A (1870) Extracts from the Record of Zoological Literature, Vols. I-VI: Containing the Portions Relating to Aves, from 1864 to 1869. London: Taylor & Francis. 478 pp. [Available here. A fairly complete compilation and personal review of books and papers about birds published from 1864-1869, by the leading British ornithologist of the Victorian era]
  • Coues E (1878-80) Bibliography of ornithology. 4 Vols. US Government Printing Office. [Available here. Coues attempted to pull together the entire literature on ornithology with personal annotations, starting with 3 volumes on American ornithology and a fourth on ‘Faunal Publications relating to British Birds’ but he died before completing the entire series.  Here’s what he thought of all that work

I think I never did anything else in my life which brought me such hearty praise—immediate and almost universal recognition, at home and abroad, from ornithologists who knew that bibliography was a necessary nuisance and a horrible drudgery that no mere drudge could perform. It takes a sort of an inspired idiot to be a good bibliographer, and his inspiration is as dangerous a gift as the appetite of the gambler or dipsomaniac—it grows with what it feeds upon, and finally possesses its victim like any other invincible vice. Perhaps it is lucky for me that I was forcibly divorced from my bibliographical mania; at any rate, years have cured me of the habit, and I shall never again be spellbound in that way. Coues 1897 The Osprey 2:39-40

  • Mullens WH (1908) A list of books relating to British Birds published before the year 1815. Hasting and St Leonard’s Natural History Society, Occasional Publications No. 3:1-34. [A pamphlet that became the basis for his further publications listed below]
  • Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A bibliography of British ornithology from the earliest times to the end of 1912. London: Macmillan. [Available here. The most comprehensive listing of books and papers on British birds, essentially completing the task that Coues had begun 40 years earlier]
  • Zimmer JT (1926) Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library. Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 239, 240 Vol. xvi:1–706. [Available here. Like Casey Wood’s work, below, this is a comprehensive annotated listing of the publications held in a superb ornithological library at the Field Museum in Chicago]
The Edward Ayer Library
  • Wood CA (1931) An introduction to the literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press. [Available here. Casey Wood was not related to the Wood brothers (as far as I can tell) but did a magnificent job of listing and summarizing all of the books on birds in the extensive ornithological library that he established at McGill University in Montreal. Wood includes in this volume, chapters full of historical information on early ornithology gleaned, I assume, from the books in this marvellous library.]
  • PittieCOVERPittie A (2010). Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology—-A Bibliography. Permanent Black: India. [A comprehensive, annotated listing of about 1,700 books that contain information about the birds of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Includes a brief overview of the history of ornithology in the region since 1700 and short biographies of about 200 prominent ornithologists whose books are included in the annotated list.]

This list is certainly far from comprehensive and I will add to it on a page on the History of Ornithology website here as I discover more volumes like these. I would have thought that Zoological Record, Biological Abstracts, as well as Web of Science, Google Scholar and the like would have marked the end of such bibliographies in the early part of the 20th century, if only because the task would now be so daunting as to be virtually impossible. The recent work by Pittie suggests that maybe there is still a market for and interest in these compilations, but I doubt it.

For a century, though, possibly beginning with the books by Charles and Neville Wood, books about books about birds were an invaluable guide for ornithologists, and helped to avoid redundancy in the naming of species. Today, they provide an invaluable historical record about the beginnings of scientific ornithology.

Time Travel

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 15 January 2018

For historians, travel to museums, libraries and historic sites is a way to get in touch with times past and seems, somehow, to improve understanding. I vividly remember the days I spent at Down House poring over Darwin’s artifacts, getting a feel for his working conditions, and supposing that somehow this made me a better student of evolutionary biology. The study of history does that for me, and many scientists, for reasons that are hard to pin down—I know that an appreciation for history helps my science but I cannot exactly say why.

Some of Darwin’s specimens on display in Down House (2013)

Now with the ready availability of so much digitized material online, including excellent videos of historic places, scanned copies of original volumes and documents, and—coming soon—virtual and augmented reality presentations that will give an immersive experience, much historical research and ‘time travel’ can be had without leaving your desk. My friends in the History Department just roll their eyes when I say this because, for them, there’s just nothing like holding the real thing in your hand or sitting in the same pub as Tolkien when you read his notes. They cannot really explain why this is valuable but I know what they mean about that kind of experience.

These days much of what used to take months of painstaking research and travel to examine documents and specimens can now be accomplished in minutes online. A recent study, for example, used digitized photos of eggs from a museum collection to do a comprehensive comparative study of 1400 species [1]. The authors could have done that entire study without actually holding a real egg. In last week’s blog post, Tim Birkhead decried the absence of real eggs in a museum exhibit, and I understand what he means. Historical research benefits somehow from encounters with some real artifacts from the past.

Fortunately museums and libraries often put their material on display and I can recommend the following four exhibits worthy of your attention in the coming months; one in London, one in Sheffield, one in New York, and one in Baltimore. If you plan to be in any of these cities, do not miss these exhibits. I am tempted to go to London just to see the Fashioned by Nature exhibit described below, and maybe while there to make yet another pilgrimage to Down House.

Audubon’s Birds of America

New York Historical Society Museum and Library, 170 Central Park West, New York

When John James Audubon died in 1851, he was living with his family in Manhattan at their estate on the Hudson River. In part to pay the bills, his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon sold his original watercolours to the New York Historical Society where they reside today. These are the watercolours from which the engraver, Robert Havell, made the now famous prints that comprised the elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. You can now see many of these original watercolours and the engravings made from them in a gallery at the New York Historical Society. Details here.



This exhibition is temporarily closed until February 6th.

Fashioned from Nature

honeyeaterEarringsVictoria and Albert Museum, London—21 April 2018 – 27 January 2019

This exhibition, which opens in April, will explore how natural materials, including birds, were used as fashion accessories over the past 400 years. Particularly in the Victorian era, colourful birds—like the honeyeater heads on the earrings in the picture—fuelled an obsession for natural fashion accessories and ultimately led to the establishment of the Audubon Society and laws to protect birds from unregulated slaughter.

The Wonderful Mister Willughby’s New Natural History

West bank Library, University of Sheffield, UK; until 28 February

Tim Birkhead wrote about this exhibition here a few weeks ago. Willughby was a pioneering English ornithologist whose ‘Ornithology’ with John Ray in 1678 arguably marks the beginnings of scientific ornithology.

Beyond Flight: Birds in African Art

Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD; until 17 June 2018

This exhibit of West African Art illustrates the place of honour that birds occupy in many African cultures. Details here.


  1. Stoddard, M. C., Young, E. H., Akkaynak, D., Sheard, C., Tobias, J. A. & Mahadevan, L. 2017. Avian egg shape: form, function and evolution. Science 356: 1249-1254.


“An egg is always an adventure”

Guest Post

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 8 January 2018

Birds’ eggs can bring out the worst in people. In the UK, for example,  the avaricious collecting of birds’ eggs more than 60 years ago threatened or hastened local extinctions of rare raptors and the endangered red-backed shrike Lanius collurio, whose beautifully marked eggs seemed irresistible to collectors.

Egg collecting, or öology as it was once known, became illegal in the UK in 1954, and collectors have since been excoriated to such an extent than even the sight of a clutch of eggs in a museum can trigger an indignant outburst. A colleague was given a copy of my book The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird’s Egg by his partner, but she said that she wouldn’t be reading it because the thought of eggs and egg collecting made her feel sick. Many museums that have acquired öologists’ collections are reluctant to display those eggs for fear of deterring visitors.


Nowhere was this attitude more prevalent than in a recent exhibition. The idea was to display birds’ eggs as ‘art’, but overlain with a sense of self-righteous condemnation of those who had collected them. The irony was that the eggs on display were replicas—and rather clumsily done at that—because the originals, confiscated from a collector, were reported to have been ‘officially’ destroyed. Exhibiting crude replicas of eggs was as much art as replacing paintings in the National Gallery with coloured photocopies would be. Having rarely had the opportunity to see the eggs of wild birds, the vast majority of exhibition visitors knew no different.

In the late 1800s, when Oscar Wilde wrote the words in the title of this essay, the eggs of wild birds were still a great adventure for both scientists and hobbyists. Eggs were first collected in earnest at the beginning of the scientific revolution when they became objects of curiosity to be added to the cabinets of wealthy virtuosi. The physician, Sir Thomas Browne, who was also a naturalist and polymath, was among the first to make such an egg collection in the 1650s.

455px-Meyers_b5_s0352aAs science gained stature, egg collecting became increasingly widespread, morphing into ‘öology’ in the optimistic belief that egg shape, colour, and size might inform the on-going quest to discover the true natural order (phylogeny) of birds. By the 1890s, as the great Victorian ornithologist Alfred Newton made clear, this was a lost cause, as indeed it was with many of the  morphological traits of the birds that taxonomists used to try to construct a phylogeny.

Despite this lack of scientific success, öology continued apace through the early 1900s, with most schoolboys (rarely girls) collecting eggs. A few continued to collect to eggs as adults, by which time—for most of them— it had become an obsession. By the 1920s, there were rumblings of discontent in some quarters as the need for bird protection was becoming more apparent.

After egg collecting became illegal in 1954 in the UK, egg collections moved from private ownership into museums. Today, as the last of the pre-1954 collectors reach the ends of their lives, private egg collections continue to be added to those in museums in the form of bequests, although there are those that would rather see such collections shattered rather than saved for posterity.

The truth is that museum egg collections have served a valuable scientific role, helping, for example, to identify and resolve environmental problems associated with the insidious effects of DDT and acid rain. Collections of eggs have also informed us about evolution, and in particular the co-evolutionary arms races between brood parasites and their hosts—exemplified by the work of Claire Spottiswoode.

Not_your_average_clutch_(3639747486)Recently, the vast egg collection of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley has provided data for a comparative study of egg shape by Cassie Stoddard and colleagues that promises to fuel new interest in this topic.. Environmental problems such as climate change will continue to challenge biologists trying to stem the worldwide decline in bird numbers. The collections of eggs in museums may well serve once again to help resolve environmental problems that we haven’t yet even begun to imagine.


  • Birkhead, T. R. The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird’s Egg. Bloomsbury, London.
  • Newton, A. 1896. A Dictionary of Birds. Black. London.
  • Russell, G. D., White, J., Maurer, G. & Cassey, P. 2010. Data-poor egg collections: cracking an important research resource.  J. Afrotrop. Zool. Special Issue 77-82.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. 2012 Host-parasite arms races and rapid changes in bird egg appearance. American Naturalist 179: 633-648.
  • Walters, M. 1994. Uses of egg collections: display, research, identification, the historical aspect. Journal of Biological Curation 1: 29-35.