Ortolan of the Snows

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

[This is a greatly expanded and edited version of an article I wrote for the 7th Annual Newsletter of the Canadian Snow Bunting Network (online here), sent out a couple of weeks ago]

In 1981, during my first high arctic field season, my incomparable group of graduate students and field assistants [1] saw some great opportunities for studying the breeding biology of birds at close range [2]. With the ability to follow birds continuously on the open tundra, they realized the potential for answering some interesting questions about sexual selection and parental care that had proven difficult to study with the more skittish temperate and tropical birds that we were all familiar with. Bruce Lyon, now at UC Santa Cruz, focussed on Snow Buntings so we began by trapping birds, using both potter traps and noose carpets. I already had a little experience trapping Snow Buntings in Ontario in winter with David Hussell, so we were quite successful in catching the mated pairs on our study area at Sarcpa Lake, Nunavut. Little did we know at the time that the Snow Bunting had been trapped for food long before scientists began catching it for research.

SNBUprint3

My wife’s mother grew up during the 1930s in Sept-Îles on the north shore of the St Lawrence River in far eastern Québec. When I first met her in the mid-1990s, and told her about my high arctic research, she rather sheepishly admitted that her family used to catch Snow Buntings with noose carpets in the winter, to provide a little fresh protein and fat for their limited diet. Even in the 20th century, the fur trappers of Labrador were said to have: lived on a healthy diet of spruce partridge, caribou steaks, ptarmigan stew, snow buntings, salt pork, and flat bread made of flour, salt and water cooked in an open pan over the fire. [3]

This little bird has in fact been an important food source  for people throughout its winter range, shot—and trapped with noose carpets, box-and-stick, grain sieves, and drag ropes—wherever they were abundant [4]. In 1903, for example, a State game warden found nearly 80,000 snow bunting carcasses in a cold storage warehouse in a ‘large eastern’ city of North America, ready to ship to local markets and restaurants [5].

traps
Various snow bunting traps: noose carpet (L), grain sieve (M), and box-and-stick (R)

In the late 1700s, the great English explorer and naturalist Samuel Hearne wrote extensively about the birds and mammals he encountered on his expeditions through northern Manitoba and Nunavut. Many of his observations were unique and perceptive, demonstrating an appreciation of ecology and behaviour well ahead of his time [6]. But he also described how to hunt or catch each species and its suitability as food, thereby providing a guide to other explorers who would have to live off the land—an 18th century version of TripAdvisor or Yelp. Here is what he said about the Snow Bunting:

These birds make their appearance at the Northern settlements in the Bay about the latter end of May, or beginning of April, when they are very fat, and not inferior in flavour to an ortolan…At that time they are easily caught in great numbers under a net baited with groats or oatmeal; but as the Summer advances, they feed much on worms, and are then not so much esteemed [as food]. They sometimes fly in such large flocks, that I have killed upwards of twenty at one shot, and have known others who have killed double that number…In Autumn they return to the South in large flocks, and are frequently shot in considerable numbers merely as a delicacy; at that season, however, they are by no means so good as when they first make their appearance in Spring. [7]

ortolanGOULD
Ortolan by Gould

The ‘ortolan‘ that Hearne refers to here is the Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana) that breeds throughout eastern Europe and west-central Asia to western Mongolia.  Since the 1930s their numbers have declined markedly in western and northern Europe, largely due to increasing intensity of agriculture but also because they have been trapped for food. Even though trapping and killing endangered birds is illegal in the European Union, poachers in France are alleged to be taking tens to hundreds of thousand of them per year for the restaurant trade and home consumption [8]. This species is not at all endangered but its numbers in western Europe and Scandinavia have been decimated in recent decades.

The ortolan has long been considered a culinary delicacy in Europe, particularly in France where they are still available illegally to people of wealth and power. Knowing that he had only a few days to live, French President François Mitterand [9] famously ordered (and received) two ortolans for his final, gluttonous meal. It is said that he died a happy man.

So, in retrospect, Samuel Hearne’s comparison of the Snow Bunting to the ortolan is incredible praise indeed. Almost a century before Hearne came to Canada to work for the Hudson Bay Company, Father Chrestian Le Clercq, a Franciscan missionary, called the Snow Bunting ‘ortolan’ in his book on Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula [10]. We don’t know, however, if LeClercq used that name because of the bird’s flavour or its appearance. Linnaeus noted that the Snow Bunting was called ortolan de neige in France, and that may well have been why the name was familiar to LeClercq.

We can be grateful that the conservation of birds became a cause early in the 20th century because, even as that century began, it was clear to some that the Snow Bunting could not stand the sort of hunting pressure they were subjected to in eastern North America. Here is Henry Dutcher in his 1903 report: It is to be hoped that they will not become in demand to supply the market, else, from the readiness with which they can be captured, we should look for the early extinction of the most agreeable feathered companion which the northern residents possess during their long, tedious winters. [11]

SOURCES

  • Anonymous (1876) The Snow Bunting. American Agriculturalist 35:253.
  • Cockerill AW (2004) The trappers of Labrador. Material Culture Review / Revue de la culture matérielle 60: (available here)
  • Dutcher W (1903) Report of the AOU committee on the protection of North American birds. The Auk 20:101–159.
  • Ganong WT (1910) The identity of the animals and plants mentioned by the early voyagers to Eastern Canada and Newfoundland. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 3: 197-242.
  • Hearne S (1795) A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. London: Strahan and Cadell.
  • Montgomerie R. 2018. The history of ornithology in Nunavut. pp 49-69 IN Richards JM, Gaston AJ. The Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • Svanberg I (2001) The snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) as food in the northern circumpolar region. Fróđskaparrit (Annales Societatis Scientiarum Faroensis) 48:29–40.

Footnotes

  1. my first arctic field crew: Of the 6 graduate students and field assistants that came north with me in 1981, four went on to successful academic careers as university professors (Lyon at UC Santa Cruz, Mary Reid and Ralph Cartar at Univ Calgary, and Rob McLaughlin at Univ Guelph), and one became a medical doctor (Linda Hamilton). It amazes me how lucky I was to start my own academic career with such a fun and engaged crew.
  2. observing at close range: because there was really nowhere for the birds to hide we sometimes followed individuals around the clock in an attempt to document rare behaviours (like extrapair copulations) that are so hard to see in passerines that breed in forests and grasslands
  3. quotation about trappers: from Cockerill (2004)
  4. snow bunting traps: see Svanberg (2001) for more details and a summary of the snow bunting as food particularly in Scandinavia, Iceland and the Faroe Islands
  5. 80,000 snow bunting carcasses: information from Dutcher (1903)
  6. Hearne’s observations ahead of his time: see my chapter in Birds of Nunavut (Montgomerie 2018)
  7. Hearne quotation: page 419 in Hearne (1795)
  8. poachers in France take 10 thousand or more ortolan per year: see, for example, articles in 2013 in the Guardian here, and in a 2014 blog post here
  9. François Mitterand: was president of France from 1981-1995. During his second term he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, to which he succumbed 8 days after that final meal, a meal that included, in addition to the roasted ortolans, capons, foie gras, and a platter of Marennes oysters.
  10. ortolan on the Gaspé: see page 228 in Ganong (1910)
  11. quotation about conservation: from Dutcher (1903)

    IMAGES: original print of snow buntings in winter from the author’s collection; traps from Svanberg (2001); Gould’s Ortolan from his Birds of Europe; Audubon’s Snow Bunting from his Birds of North America

Birds of the Incunables

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

For bibliophiles, antiquarian booksellers and librarians, incunables are the crown jewels. These are the earliest books, pamphlets and broadsheets produced during the 60 year period following Johannes Gutenberg‘s development of the printing press in Europe in about 1440. Incunable are all things printed with these new presses until 1 January 1501. And while there are, surprisingly, a lot of incunables—at least 30,000 editions and more than 200,000 extant volumes—they are still rare enough that they are particularly treasured (and expensive to buy [1]).

The word ‘incunable‘ is the English form of the Latin incunabula which means either ‘swaddling clothes’ or ‘cradle’, and thus obliquely refers to the early stages in the development of something, like books. The Gutenberg Bible is certainly the most famous of the incunabula, but once the obvious efficiency of movable type caught on, incunables were produced on a wide array of topics, though religious texts seem to dominate. Some were printed using a carved wooden block for each page, whereas others used the movable lead type for text, and woodcuts for the illustrations. 

So, when Lauren Williams, the librarian at McGill University’s Blacker-Wood Collection [2], asked me if I wanted to see their incunable, I did not hesitate to say ‘yes’. Like many incunables, the Blacker-wood volume is hardbound in wood, but unlike most it is hand-coloured and contains probably the first printed and hand-coloured images of recognizable birds. This is the Buch der Natur by Konrad von Megenberg published—or rather, printed—in 1478 by Johannes Bämler in Augsburg, Germany. Bämler was a printer and bookseller, and the Buch der Natur is probably his most famous incunable.

Buch der Natur 1475

Konrad was a German scholar who lived for most of the 1300s when he wrote more than 30 books on a wide variety of topics. In his day, of course, there were no printing presses so his books were printed by hand from woodcuts or transcribed by hand. His Buch der Natur was written around 1350, and was the first book of natural history to be written in German. In it he tried to survey everything that was known about natural history at the time, heavily based on a 13th century work by Thomas of Cantimpré, written in Latin. Of the eight chapters in Buch der Natur, there is only one on ‘zoology’, where there are some descriptions of 72 kinds of birds [3] from pages 62 to 86.

Casey Wood, who built the Blacker-Wood Collection a century ago, was obviously proud of this acquisition. Here is what he wrote about it (my emphasis):

The second edition on the first German book on natural history contains 12 full-page woodcuts contemporarily colored…This copy, bound in original oak boards with leather back, lacks pp. 279 and 288 of the text…There is no copy in the British Museum or in the Bodleian library, and Schreiber records but five examples. The copy in hand is in fine state, crisp and untouched. The woodcuts of the editio principes, 1475, Bämler, always appear uncolored; the illustrations of the present copy may, consequently, be regarded as the earliest portraits of birds in color to be found in any printed book. [4]

Plate number 4 is called Birds and starts the section on birds. That plate from the Blacker-Wood volume is shown below left, with the colours remarkably well preserved after 500 years:

Birds from Buch der Natur (L), and in grey scale with red numbers (R) described below

I asked a few ornithologist colleagues to try to identify the birds in this plate and here is our best guess, as numbered on the plate above right:
1 eagle, based on relative size (maybe White-tailed based on range)
2 swan, based on size and lack of colour
3 European Goldfinch
4 goose, based on size, maybe Egyptian
5 raven or carrion crow
6 Indian Peacock
7 Eurasian Eagle-owl, based on ‘ears’ and size
8 Eurasian Magpie
9 Common Hoopoe, based on crown tufts
10 cockerel
11 Rose-ringed Parakeet (aka Ring-necked Parakeet)
12 White Stork
13 falcon

bdnlibcongressSome of these are obviously correct (goldfinch, peacock, magpie, cockerel, stork) but the others are not well enough drawn to be positively identified, though they may be mentioned in the (German) text. I assume that the birds in this plate would be familiar to the 14th century German author, but otherwise there is no obvious rhyme or reason for those choices. The plate to the right is from a 1481 printing of the second edition now in the US Library of Congress. In this plate the colours are a little more realistic, such that the eagle, hoopoe and parakeet are more easily identified.

We have come a long way since 1478 in depicting birds in books, but still most often rely on the skill of artists and illustrators to make them come alive. I have just downloaded the excellent second edition of David Sibley’s eGuide to Birds app and have no doubt that both Konrad and Casey Wood would be enthralled, but still recognizing the value of ancient texts and drawings.

CORRECTION: Thanks to Rick Wright for pointing out that Konrad von Megenberg is most often called ‘Konrad’ and not ‘von Megenberg’ and I have corrected that above. He also notes that those block-printed books are not considered by many scholars to be incunables and they reserve that term only for books printed with movable type. See the Wikipedia article here for more details.

SOURCES

  • von Megenberg K (1478) Das Buch der Natur. Second edition. Augsburg: Joannes Bämler.
  • Wood CA (1931) An introduction to the literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press.

Footnotes

  1. incunables expensive: a quick survey of the listing of incunables for sale at AbeBooks reveals that you can buy a single page for $500 or more, and books sell for at least $25,000
  2. Blacker-Wood Collection: see here and here for previous posts about this magnificent collection of rare books about birds
  3. descriptions of birds: I cannot read German so this is from a secondary source. While there are online digital versions of the second (1481) printed edition (here) and an 1831 edition (here), I can find no English translation
  4. quotation about the Blacker-Wood volume: p 458 in Wood (1931)

Stresemann’s History of Ornithology

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 12 November 2018

3StresemannEntwicklungI suspect that rather few birders or ornithologists have heard of, or know much about, Erwin Stresemann. Among his many accomplishments Stresemann wrote the first and most comprehensive history of ornithology, published originally in German in 1951 (Die Entwicklung Der Ornithologie von Aristotles bis zur Gegenwart) and then (thankfully for me) in English in 1974 as Ornithology: from Aristotle to the Present.

StresemannCover2Stresemann’s book does pretty well what its title says, covering the entire vast sweep of ornithology from its origins in Ancient Greece to ‘the present’ (i.e. 1951), or with respect to American ornithology up to the early 1970s. The extension to the 1970s was a consequence of Stresemann’s long friendship with Ernst Mayr who contributed a final chapter. modesty entitled Epilogue: Material for a History of American Ornithology. This title belied Mayr’s extraordinary scholarship and broad grasp of the history of science (see his magnificent The Growth of Biological Thought). Stresemann did not live long enough to see the publication of the English edition but, as Mayr says in the foreword, he knew about it.

Stresemann is poorly known outside his native Germany, where he is an ornithological hero. He wrote almost entirely in German and I am sure that that, together with his nationality and rather formal manner, isolated him from many English and North American ornithologists, especially in the aftermath of WWII. However, it is essential to note that Stresemann opposed the regime in Germany during war and sent bird rings (bands) and other materials to British and American ornithologists incarcerated in German prison camps. Stresemann’s story and extraordinary contribution to ornithology was championed by my late friend Jürgen Haffer in some excellent papers [1].

2Erwin_Stresemann_1919
Stresemann in 1919 (age 30)

An important reason why Stresemann is not better known is the lack of an English translation of the book that launched his career in Germany: the volume simply entitled Aves [Birds] in the Handbuch der Zoologie (edited by Willy Kükenthal) published in 1927-34. If you have a chance to look at this—even, if like me, you are unable to read German—you cannot fail to be impressed by the breadth and depth of the coverage of all aspects of ornithology — a staggering achievement that Stresemann was asked to produce when he was only 25 years old. His work on Aves was delayed by WWI but he started writing right after the war and sent the first installment of his manuscript to Kükenthal in 1920

Equally staggering is Stresemann’s book on the history of ornithology, written largely from memory in a tiny apartment during the years immediately following the end of WWII. This was an era referred to as the ‘hunger blockade’ during which Stresemann and his family had no electricity or gas, no heating, and no access to libraries. Extraordinary!

I re-read some of Stresemann’s Ornithology recently, and wondered how his book might be reviewed had it been published now. First, no one could challenge his scholarship. Inevitably—notwithstanding the excellent translation by Hans J and Cathleen Epstein and editing by G. William Cottrel—the text now seems a bit dated, but this is no impediment. Language evolves, and one has to adjust one’s expectations, just as one should adjust one’s expectations about the way science was conducted in the past [2].

Second, one could legitimately say that Stresemann was somewhat biased towards German-speaking ornithologists. However, central Europe was where a huge amount early ornithology was conducted, and Stresemann’s account makes that material readily accessible to non-German speakers.

1Stresemann
Stresemann (L) in 1958 (age 69) in Vesterkulla, Finland (photo by Alexander Wetmore)

Third, and particularly impressive to my mind, is the sheer volume of information that Stresemann was able to access and describe. Only fifteen years ago when I started the research for my own first book on the history of ornithology, The Wisdom of Birds, I had to visit libraries in Oxford, Cambridge, across Europe and North America to see particular books. A few years later, much I what I had consulted was available on-line. Stresemann (obviously) had no internet, and even though he had access to an excellent library at the natural history museum in Berlin where he worked, his scope was extraordinary.

Finally, re-reading Stresemann’s text, I could not help but be impressed by his wonderful grasp of history; his ability to put himself in the position of his predecessors and place ornithological history in its proper context.

SOURCES

  • Haffer, J (1994) The genesis of Erwin Stresemann’s Aves (1927–1934) in the Handbuch der Zoologie, and his contribution to the evolutionary synthesis”. Archives of Natural History 21: 201–216.
  • Haffer J (2008) The origin of modern ornithology in Europe. Archives of Natural History 35: 76–87.
  • Haffer J, Rutschke E, Wunderlich K, editors (2004) Erwin Stresemann (1889-1972): Leben and Werk eines Pioniers der wissenschaftlichen Ornithologie [in German with English summary]. Acta Historica Leopoldina 34: 1-468.
  • Kruuk H (2003) Niko’s Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Mayr E (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Stresemann E (1927-34) Sauropsida: Aves. In W. Kukenthal & T. Krumbach (Eds.), Handbuch der Zoologie. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.

  • Stresemann E (1951) Die Entwicklung der Ornithologie von Aristoteles bis zur Gegenwart. Berlin: F. W. Peters
  • Stresemann E (1975) Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • ten Cate C (2009a) Niko Tinbergen and the red patch on the herring gull’s beak. Animal Behaviour 77: 785-794
  • ten Cate C (2009b) Tinbergen revisited: a replication and extension of experiments on beak colour preferences of herring gull chicks. Animal Behaviour 77: 795-802.

Footnotes

  1. papers about Stresemann: see Haffer 1994, 2008, Haffer et al. 2004
  2. science in the past: see ten Cate 2009a, b, for example

IMAGES: of Stresemann from Wikimedia, both in the public domain; book covers from Amazon.de (German edition) and R Montgomerie (English edition)

Elizabeth Gould and the Heads of Australian Birds

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

John Gould’s A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the Adjacent Islands strikes me as the oddest of the superbly illustrated 19th-century bird books. Published by subscription that began in 1837, it was illustrated by his wife, Elizabeth, but only shows in colour the head of each species [1], unlike any of the other hundred or so ‘Birds of…’ books [2] that I know of. In some cases, she has drawn the feet or wings separately but only as outlines, adding colour in only a couple of instances where it may have been thought to be important for identification. Even Louis Agassiz Fuertes’s album of Abyssinian birds [3], which shows the heads of many species, at least has vignettes of the whole bird on most of the plates.

GouldHeads
A collage of some of the bird heads painted by Elizabeth Gould for the Synopsis

Why did the Goulds decide to paint just the heads of Australian birds? I have three hypotheses, outlined below, but first a little backstory.

John Gould was initially, by trade, a taxidermist, setting up his own practice in London in 1824. Many prominent ornithologists sent him their specimens to mount and he became both very good at his trade and very well-known. In 1827, he was appointed the first Curator and Preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London, where he prepared bird specimens sent to the ZSL from the colonies and elsewhere.

Charles Coxen, who called Gould The Birdstuffer, was also a taxidermist and introduced John to his older sister, Elizabeth. John and Elizabeth were married in January 1829, and it was not long before Elizabeth began making drawings and paintings of the birds that John was stuffing for his customers. By 1830, John was already selling some of Elizabeth’s artwork to customers for his taxidermy.

When the ZSL received a shipment of bird specimens from India in 1830, John saw this as an opportunity to use Elizabeth’s artistic skills to produce a book of Himalayan birds, many of which were previously undescribed. He also recognized the potential for lithography to produce much finer illustrations than were possible with woodcuts or copper plates, especially with respect to the nuances of shading and feather detail. To that end he implored Elizabeth to learn lithography, which she quickly mastered. By 1832 Elizabeth had produced 80 hand-coloured lithographs illustrating 100 bird species from the Himalayas, bound together with text to form their first published book [4]. In recognition of her contribution, the systematist for that project named one of the new species as Mrs Gould’s Sunbird (Aethiopygia gouldii).

Elizabeth’s brothers, Stephen (in 1827) and Charles (in 1834), moved to Australia where they established farms in New South Wales, frequently sending back bird specimens for John. As before, John soon realized the value of, and potential interest in, these birds as many had not yet been formally described, nor illustrated. John immediately sought to present these new specimens in a ‘synopsis’ but then to go to Australia with Elizabeth to embark on a full Birds of Australia project, patterned after the Birds of Europe project that he and Elizabeth had just completed in 1837. Gould’s idea for the Synopsis was to publish it in 6-8 parts, with each part comprising 18 plates with descriptions, measurements and affinities of each species, to sell the parts either coloured or uncoloured. They abandoned the project after publishing only four parts and set off for Australia in May 1838.

So why illustrate only the heads in colour?

Lophophores
Himalayan Monal (Lophorus impejanus) from Himalayan Birds

Hypothesis One: The Goulds had not yet seen Australian birds in the field and were nervous about depicting them in inappropriate poses or habitats. This was my first thought, but that was soon dispelled when I looked at their A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains published in 1831. Here, Elizabeth illustrates in full colour birds she could not have seen alive, even though each of her paintings says ‘Drawn from Nature & on Stone by E. Gould.’ She may have seen some of these birds in zoos or aviaries but I suspect that ‘Drawn from Nature’ simply means that she used the actual bird specimens to inform her painting. Some of her paintings of Himalayan birds—and later of Trogons [5]—do look a little awkward so maybe she did realize that she really needed to see the birds, or at least their close relatives, in nature to make credible paintings of the whole bird.

Hypothesis Two: John Gould knew he was going to visit Australia soon, and wanted to produce a magnificent book on the Birds of Australia, for which ‘his’ Synopsis would be a teaser, driving up subscriptions. Gould was the consummate entrepreneur so this seems highly likely to me. He stopped work on the Synopsis early in 1838 when it was only part way done, presumably because he had enough subscriptions to see that the bigger book would be popular, and his big Australia trip was fast approaching.

Hypothesis Three: The Goulds were in a hurry, and illustrating just the heads would take a lot less time for both the artist and the colourists. As noted above, the Goulds started work on the Synopsis only a couple of years before their planned trip to Australia. Presumably drawing and colouring heads would take less than half the time needed for Elizabeth to draw the entire bird and background, and to colour one copy for the colourists to work from. In 1837, when Elizabeth started work on the illustrations, she had just had her sixth child [6], and completed her illustrations for the Birds of Europe, so she may have been feeling a little pressed for time, to say the least.

GouldOutlines
Striated Pardalote (L) and Superb Fairywren (R) with outlines for the body, from the Synopsis

Indeed, John was in such a rush to get his Synopsis in the hands of subscribers in Australia in advance of their trip, that he sent fresh copies of the completed parts on the third Beagle Voyage [7] leaving England on 5 July 1837, arriving in Australia in November. On arriving in Australia in September 1838, the Goulds went first to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) where they met and stayed with the governor, Sir John Franklin [8] and his wife, who were among the subscribers to the Birds of Australia project. John Gould seemed never to pass up an opportunity to enlist royalty and the wealthy and powerful to subscribe to his projects, recognizing full well that that would improve sales. Even Elizabeth must have impressed the Franklins as she gave birth to her sixth child—a son who they named Franklin—at Government House on 6 May 1839.

I have not yet read Chisholm’s biography of Elizabeth published in 1944 so there may be information there to inform my speculations. Whatever the reason for this book of bird heads, the illustrations show us Elizabeth Gould at the height of her artistic talents.  She was already a gifted artist when she started painting birds for John but she also learned a lot from Edward Lear, who John also employed. For these bird heads, Elizabeth began using whipped egg-white, for example, to provide a reflective surface to the birds’ eyes, giving them a much rounder appearance. Just look at the details of the eye and the feather structure on Elizabeth’s painting of the Square-tailed Kite, below. Elizabeth’s illustrations for the Synopsis are incredibly lifelike, even more so that her work for the Birds of Europe.

GouldHAWK
Square-tailed Kite (Circus jardinii) from Synopsis

Even though Elizabeth Gould is now recognized for her contributions to bird illustration, and to the success of John Gould’s early ornithological enterprises, we may never know how much she really contributed to ornithology for, like most Victorian wives she did not write very much and worked mainly in the service of her family and her husband’s success. Elizabeth bore her eighth child, and third daughter, in August 1841, but died soon after from a uterine infection incurred during childbirth. By then she had already completed 84 magnificent plates for John’s new Birds of Australia, based on their collections and observations there, a lasting testimony to her exceptional skills.

SOURCES

  • Anonymous (1837) Bibliographical notices. Magazine of Zoology and Botany 1:571-572
  • Anonymous (1881) Memoir of the late John Gould, F.R.S. The Zoologist 5: 109-115
  • Chisholm AH (1944) The Story of Elizabeth Gould. Melbourne
  • Chisholm AH (1964) Elizabeth Gould: Some “New” Letters. Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society) 49: 321-36.
  • Fuertes LA (1930) Album of Abyssinian Birds and Mammals. Special Publication of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
  • Gould J (1832-37) The Birds of Europe. 5 vols. London: published by the author.
  • Gould J (1835) A Monograph of the Trogonidae, or Family of Trogons. London: published by the author.
  • Gould J (1837-38) A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the adjacent islands. London: published by the author.
  • Gould J (1840-48) The birds of Australia. 7 vols. London: published by the author.

Footnotes

  1. head of each species: for a handful of birds, some details of wing or leg plumage are also coloured, to show off features mentioned in the text. The plates of Striated Pardalote and Square-tailed Kite shown here are examples
  2. ‘Birds of…’ books: see previous post here
  3. bustard
    Bustard from Fuertes (1930

    album of Abyssinian birds: see Fuertes (1930), available online here

  4. their first published book: it is now customary to list Elizabeth as an author on the books she prepared with John, but the title pages of the books listed above do not include her name, so I have not included her as a named author on those citations.
  5. Trogons: see Gould and Gould (1835), where many of the birds look to me to be in unnatural poses. Elizabeth would surely have seen trogons in zoos and private collections so she does get some of them right, but curiously not all of them. Maybe she did not realize that all of the trogons behave more or less the same way
  6. sixth child: Elizabeth had eight children in all but only 6 survived so I assume that this sixth child was the fourth to survive.
  7. third Beagle Voyage: Darwin was on the second Beagle Voyage. The third was captained by John Clements Wickham who was First Lieutenant on the Darwin voyage.
  8. Sir John Franklin: yes, that Franklin, who had explored the Canadian Arctic in 1819-22 and 1823-27, but then was governor of Tasmania from 1836-43 after marrying his second wife. In 1845 he returned to the Canadian Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage, where he remains to this day

Worshipping the Sacred Ibis

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

Just after I had begun my current academic position, almost 40 years ago, my avuncular Head of Department thought he should tell me a little bit about the scientific publishing game. “Look,” he said “I know that you people who study birds like to publish in those journals with funny bird names—Ibis, Auk, Condor, Emu—but it’s not a good career move. Those journals sound like nature magazines. The higher-ups and the granting councils are not going to give you much, if any, credit, for publishing your work there. Better to publish in Evolution, Nature and Science, for example.” He didn’t like American Naturalist either, for the same reasons, and he recommended against books and reviews until I became more established.

BirdNameJournals
A selection of journals named after birds

He knew about those bird journals even though he was a plant physiologist because our department already had three rather well-known ornithologists on faculty—Allen Keast, Fred Cooke, and Raleigh Robertson. Fortunately, I did not pay much attention to his advice—I just published two papers in The Ibis and The Auk this year, for example—but I often hear from colleagues in North America and Europe that they worry about publishing in those bird-named journals.

But where did those names come from, and why have we cherished them for so long? I have no insights whatsoever into the second part of that question and it may need a socio-psychological analysis. Even the first part of that question is a tough one to answer. Let’s begin with The Ibis, maybe the first scientific journal to be named after an organism [1].

There has been a suggestion that the name ‘Ibis’ was a mistake made by the man hired to print the journal on mis-hearing the name ‘Aves‘ suggested by the founders of the BOU [2]. This seems highly unlikely as the founders almost certainly communicated with the printer by mail. Moreover, the printer was William Francis who was very interested in birds and had already been involved in the printing of bird books by John Gould and others. In a letter to Alfred Newton, Philip Sclater makes it clear that Francis not only did not suggest the name ‘Aves’ here didn’t even like it: “Dr Francis (our printer) objects to the title of Aves, and I think with reason. He suggests ‘The Ibis’ the sacred bird of the Egyptians – and emblematic of birds in general. Will this do! I think yes’” [3]. Here is Sclater, again, reminiscing on the 50th anniversary of the journal:

Messrs. Triibner & Co., of Paternoster Row, with whom I was well acquainted, agreed to publish it, and Messrs. Taylor & Francis to print it. From the head of the latter firm, the late Dr. William Francis — a very capable and well-informed person, — I received the excellent suggestion to call our new bantling ‘The Ibis,’ after the sacred bird of Egypt. I at once adopted the idea, with which Newton also was highly pleased, and we set Joseph Wolf (then in the zenith of his fame) to work to draw the well-known wood-block which appeared in the first number of ‘The Ibis’ and has ever since ornamented its cover. [3]

IbisCOVER
Joseph Wolf‘s woodcut for the cover of The Ibis in 1859

So it was the printer who suggested the name to Alfred Newton, possibly because the African Sacred Ibis was quite a famous bird in the mid-1800s [4]. Newton thought the name was fine: ‘as for the name itself I don’t think it signifies twopence, and Ibis is as good as any other’ [5]. John Wolley, another of the founders of the BOU, disagreed, however, and threatened to withdraw as a founding member [6]. I wonder if Wolley considered the name to be odd, as the eponymous ibis did not occur in Britain, or even in Europe for that matter, and thus must have seemed an odd choice to symbolize the BOU. Indeed, at the centenary conference of the BOU in 1959, Ernst Mayr joked that:

…we have this quite miraculous situation that the two national journals are named in the most appropriate manner: the British one is named for that well-known British bird, the Ibis, and the other journal is named for that North American species, the Great Auk. If I may for a moment continue in this frivolous mood (which really does not belong to this subject), I would like to say I think the Australians really missed the boat. They had an opportunity to combine the unique features of the title of the American journal and of the British journal, and name their own national journal for an exotic bird that was extinct-and call it the Dodo. [7]

The founders and members of the BOU long took pride in the name of their new journal, I think in part because it suggested a global reach and honoured a storied bird. In those early days they called themselves ‘Ibises’ and referred to The Reverend Henry Tristram, one of the founders, as ‘The Sacred Ibis’ [8]. At that centenary conference, Erwin Stresemann mused about the reverence of the journal’s name:

Comparative zoologists must agree that to symbolize an ornithological journal no better emblem could have been chosen than ancient Egypt’s most sacred bird. Almost two thousand years ago the Roman writer Claudius Aelianus produced some kind of natural history of birds. According to him, the Ibis enjoys freedom from sickness, longevity or even immortality. Our bird was sacred to such a degree that the Egyptian priests washed in water from which it had drunk. This kind of adoration still persists. In our days the priests of ornithology—whether in Eurasia or in Africa, in America or in Australia—behave after the fashion of their colleagues in the land of Pharaoh: they worship the healing water that emanates from the Ibis every three months. [9]

That reverence—and its religious overtone—is also reflected in the series of sayings [10] that appeared below the Wolf woodcut on the journal’s cover at least until 1924. With almost every new series of the early Ibis, the editors (presumably) chose or wrote a latin phrase that either included the word ‘Ibis’ or made some allusion to the importance of birds. For a 30-year period (1889-1918) took these from The Vulgate, a 4th-century Latin translation of the Christian Bible:

  • 1859: Ibimus indomiti venerantes Ibida sacram, / Ibimus incolumes qua prior Ibis adest. “We shall go undaunted, worshiping the sacred ibis; we shall go safely where the ibis awaits.” [ed. Philip Lutley Sclater]
  • 1865 (start of 2nd series): Ibidis interea tu quoque nomen habe! “Meanwhile take the name ibis for yourself.” From Ovid’s poem “The Ibis”. [ed. Alfred Newton]
  • 1871 (start of 3rd series): Ibidis auspicio novus incipit Ibidis ordo! “Under the good auspices of the ibis, a new order begins for the Ibis.” [ed. Osbert Salvin]
  • 1877 (start of 4th series): Ibis avis robusta et multos vivit in annos. “The ibis is a sturdy bird and lives for many years.” [eds. O. Salvin and P. L. Sclater]
  • 1889 (start of 6th series): Cognovi omnia volatilia caeli. “I know all the things that fly under heaven.” From Psalm 50. [ed. P. L. Sclater]
  • 1895 (start of 7th series): Non moriar, sed vivam, et narrabo opera Domini. “I shall not die, but live, and I shall tell of the works of the Lord.” From Psalm 117. [eds. P. L. Sclater and H. Saunders]
  • 1901 (start of 8th series): Quam magnificata sunt opera tua, Domine. “How great are your works, oh Lord.” From Psalm 91. [eds. P. L. Sclater and Arthur Humble Evans]
  • 1907 (start of 9th series): Delectasti me, Domine, in operibus manuum tuarum. “You have delighted me, Lord, with the works of your hands.” This is an abridged bit from Psalm 92.  [eds. P. L. Sclater and A. H. Evans]
  • 1919 (start of 11th series): He prayeth well, who loveth well/Both man and bird and beast. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, presumably suggesting that we should love birds as we love ourselves. [ed. William Lutley Sclater (Philip’s eldest son)]

IbisCovers
THE IBIS evolves: still sacred after all these years

My old head of department would not doubt be scandalized to discover that our birdy journals continue to flourish despite their names, and that I continue to (or at least try to) publish some of my best work there. He would certainly be shocked to find that the Canadian Journal of Biochemistry, that he once edited, has approximately the same Impact Factor as The Ibis, The Auk and The Condor, indicating that our bird-named journals make just as substantial a contribution to their branch of science.

The most recent journal impact factors (for 2016) indicate that bird-named journals are at the top of the list of 24 ornithology journals with The Condor and The Ibis holding down the number 1 and 2 spots, and 3 of the top 5 spots. Thus there is really no evidence that publishing in one of those bird-named journals is in any way detrimental (given that you are going to publish in an ornithology journal). There has long been a move afoot to drop the names Auk and Condor from the AOS journals, but it would be a shame, I think, to erase that quirky little bit of ornithological history.

SOURCES

  • Anoymous (1959) The centenary banquet in London. Ibis 101: 281-289
  • Bircham P (2007) A History of Ornithology. London: Collins.
  • Birkhead TR, Gallivan PT (2012) Alfred Newton’s contribution to ornithology: a conservative quest for facts rather than grand theories. Ibis 154:887–905.
  • Hale WG (2016) Sacred Ibis: The Ornithology of Canon Henry Baker Tristram, DD, FRS. Sacristy Press.

  • Moreau RE (1959) The centenarian ‘Ibis’. Ibis 101:19–38.
  • Mountfort G (1959) One hundred years of the British Ornithologists’ Union. Ibis 101:8–18.
  • Sclater PL (1909) A short history of the British Ornithologists’ Union. Ibis 50:19–70.

Footnotes

  1. journal named after an organism: certainly the first major ornithological journal (in 1859), followed by The Auk (in 1884), The Condor (in 1899), The Emu (in 1901), and Ardea (in 1912)
  2. journal named ‘Aves’: see Bircham 2007 page 191, Birkhead and Gallivan 2012 page 890
  3. Sclater quotations: letter to Newton from Birkhead and Gallivan 2012 page 890; about the Ibis cover from Sclater 1909 page 20
  4. sacred ibis was a famous bird: see last week’s post here;
  5. Newton quotation: from Bircham 2007 page 191
  6. Wolley disagreed about Ibis: see Bircham 2007 pages 190-191, Birkhead and Gallivan 2012 pages 890-891
  7. Mayr quotation: from Anonymous 1959 page 283
  8. Tristram as the sacred ibis: see Hale 2016
  9. Stresemann quotation: from Anonymous 1959 page 282
  10. sayings: Rick Wright blogged about these here, and I have used many of his translations

The Sacred Sacred Ibis [reposted]

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

446px-Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Hermés,_N372.2A
Thoth and ibises

The ancient Greeks usually depicted Thoth—their god of writing, wisdom and magic—as having the head of a bird with a long, down-curving bill.  Until the 1800s, Europeans thought that this bird was probably a curlew, a stork or a heron. Linnaeus believed that the bird must be the Cattle Egret which he called Ardea ibis in the 1758 edition of his Systema Naturae. It was not until the turn of the 19th century that a small group of French scientists and naturalists finally confirmed the connection between Thoth and the head of the African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus). This species was not unambiguously described until 1790 [1], but it took Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign to Egypt to provide the connection between this species and Thoth.

We now know that the sacred ibis was considered (and revered) by the Egyptians to be the earthly form of Thoth. For about a millennium starting in 1100 BC, ibises were frequently mummified as an offering to Thoth, believing that mummification would put the birds on a direct line to the afterlife. As a result, several million sacred ibises were killed, gutted, embalmed and folded with the bill tucked between the tail feathers. The carcasses were then wrapped with linen dipped in resin, and inserted individually or in pairs into urns that were placed in vast underground caverns in cities all along the Nile. Many of these mummified ibises have grains, snakes, snails and other foods in their body cavities, possibly to provide the birds with some food in the afterlife.

But why ibises, and where did all of these birds come from? There can be no doubt that the sacred ibis was a reasonably common bird [2] in swampy areas all along the Nile in the Late and Ptolomeic Periods of ancient Egyptian civilization [3]. Those birds were of great value to nearby villages as they ate the snails that infested fish ponds, snails that harboured parasites dangerous to humans. They were also claimed to feed on flying snakes (?) and generally consumed all kinds of human refuse [4]. No wonder they were considered to be sacred.

At several sites of ancient cities along the Nile, archaeologists have found incredible numbers of mummified ibises: 1.75 million at Saqqara, 4 million at Tuna el-Gebel, for example. Even over a period of 500 years that is a lot of birds per year, likely magnitudes more than could have been hunted in the local marshes for any sustained period. Because of their religious importance, sanctuaries dedicated to the ibis sprang up all over the country, where birds were bred and raised in captivity, processing as many as 20,000 ibises per year for the votive ibis industry. Priests apparently gathered eggs for artificial incubation and tended the large flocks, as well as engaging in a large pottery industry to make urns for the mummified birds. These ibiotropheia may well be the earliest examples of bird-farming that did not involve some form of fowl.

The vast stores of ibis mummies in Egypt were brought to light by Geoffery Saint-Hilaire and Jules-César Savigny, two of the 167 savants [5] who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt from 1798-1801. Savigny noticed that the ibis often appeared in hieroglyphics and tomb paintings, and reasoned that this bird was important to Egyptian culture. He wrote up his discoveries in 1805 as Histoire naturelle et mythologique de l’ibis which included some very nice illustrations.

Savigny
from Savigny (1805) hand-coloured by Louis Bouqet

Georges Cuvier, one of the leading French biologists of the day, was asked by Napoleon to join the Egyptian contingent, but he suggested that Savigny go instead, so he could continue his work on molluscs. But it was Cuvier who first measured two mummified birds brought back from Egypt by Col. Jacques François-Louis Grobert [6] from the catacombs at Saqqara.  Cuvier initially concluded that those birds were probably curlews as they were smaller than some contemporary ibis specimens [7]. He later measured two mummies that Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire had brought home from Thebes. Those measurements plus the colours of some intact feathers convinced him that the mummies collected by Saint-Hilaire were indeed sacred ibises, and his 1804 paper has a very nice summary of his reasoning and all of the previous mis-identifications. Cuvier’s assistant even pieced together the bones from different mummies to make a complete skeleton (see picture below).

Even though the ibis mummies from Saint-Hilaire were not exactly the same size as contemporary birds, Cuvier also used those measurements to bolster his arguments of the fixity of species—evidence that species were created once by a deity and did not change through time. This argument put him at odds with his colleague Lamarck who argued that species changed through geological time.

I was made aware of this ibis story in a new essay in PLoS Biology [8], by Caitlin Curtis, Craig Millar and David Lambert. As Jerry Coyne noted in an essay on his Why Evolution is True site, not many evolutionary biologists seem to be aware of this as an early test of evolutionary change. The reason, I think, is that it was not actually a test [9]. The story is actually rather well known and has been published many times in scientific journals and the popular press ever since Cuvier’s initial publications [10]. While the new essay summarizes many aspects of this story the authors present no evidence in support of some of their claims and I am not entirely convinced by some of their assertions.

CuvierIBIS
Cuvier (1804) identifies the mummies as sacred ibises

When interpreting the past here is always a danger of applying present knowledge and values incorrectly. In this case, I cannot yet tell if my different interpretation of this interesting story is correct. I will need to read the work of Cuvier, Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire and Savigny in the original French and Latin to put the whole story in context but that will take a while, even though all of the relevant texts are now available online. I will revisit the topic when I have done the necessary research.

Whether the details in this new essay by Curtis and colleagues are correctly interpreted or not, it does end with a curious conclusion that I feel deserves some further discussion: Of great importance is the reminder, even today, of the power of a strong personality and that the belief in “what they know to be true” can dramatically influence the direction of science and public opinion. I do not think that anyone would dispute that strong personalities and beliefs can influence science and public opinion. Take, for example, Julian Huxley’s rejection of Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection [11], undoubtedly reducing interest in that topic for the next 50 years or so.  And while it is true that Huxley and Cuvier had strong personalities, and were great communicators and relatively powerful men, I think that their arguments held sway largely because they made them clearly and because there was neither compelling evidence nor any clear and logical mechanisms to explain the existing patterns. In both cases the delays in the progress of science were reasonably short and probably needed the ideas and considerable evidence presented by Darwin and Wallace, and Williams and Trivers, respectively, before there could be any real progress.

Finally, it has probably not escaped your notice that the African Sacred Ibis has been depicted on the cover of The Ibis in one form or another ever since 1859. This may seem a bit odd as that bird does not occur in the wild in Britain and only sparsely in southern Europe through introductions. Thus the sacred ibis does not really appear to be a fitting symbol for the British Ornithologists’ Union. There is a long and interesting story there, but that too will have to wait for another day.

SOURCES

  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Cuvier G (1804) Mémoire sur l’ibis des anciens Égyptiens. Annales du Muséum d’histoire naturelle 4:116-135. [available here]
  • Cuvier G (1812) Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles de Quadrupèdes : où l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs espèces d’animaux que les révolutions du globe paroissent avoir détruites, t1-4. [Studies of the Fossil Bones of Quadrupeds, volumes 1-4] Paris: Deterville. [available here]
  • Cuvier G (1826) Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, et sur les changemens qu’elles ont produits dans le régne animal. Paris: G. Dufour. [available here and in English translation of the 1825 edition here]
  • Lacépède B-G-E, Cuvier G, Lamarck J-B (1802) Rapport des professeurs du Muséum sur les collections d’histoire naturelle rapportées d’Égypte, par E. Geoffrey. Annales du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle 1: 234–241. [available here]
  • Latham J (1790). Index Ornithologicus, Sive Systema Ornithologiae: Complectens Avium Divisionem In Classes, Ordines, Genera, Species, Ipsarumque Varietates (2 Volumes, in Latin). London: Leigh & Sotheby. [available here]
  • Le-Suer RB, ed (2012) Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
  • Linnæus  C (1758) Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis, 10th edition.  Stockholm: Laurentius Salvius.
  • Rosser WH (1837) Mummy of Egyptian Ibis. The Gentleman’s Magazine 6 (new series): 145-148. [available here]
  • Savigny J-C (1805) Histoire naturelle et mythologique de l’ibis [Natural and Mythological History of the Ibis]. Paris: Allais. [available here]

Footnotes

  1. ibis described: see Latham 1790 page 706 where he calls it Tantalus aethyopius
  2. Sacred ibis once common in Egypt: but it is no longer found in that country, disappearing as the swamps and marshes were drained to provide land for the increasing population and agriculture.
  3. Late and Ptolomeic Periods: about 700 BC until 30 BC ending with the death of Cleopatra and the conquest of Egypt by the Romans
  4. ibises eating refuse: in Australia, where they have been introduced, they are often called ‘bin chickens’ as they are often seen foraging in trash cans in city parks. In the park beside the Australian National Museum in Sydney, I once watched a very dirty-looking ibis sneak up behind some picnickers then reach over the shoulder of a little boy to snatch his sandwich out of his hand. Clearly, their bills are adapted for sandwich snatching (!), and they are fearless.
  5. savants: these were scholars and scientists. The Journal des Sçavants (later called Journal des Savants) began publishing in January 1665, a couple of months before the Philosophical Transacations of the Royal Society, considered (erroneously) by many to be the first scientific journal. Frankly, I don’t see that it matters who was first, or even if it was one of those two.
  6. Grobert: (1757-181?) was a French artillery officer who wrote about the pyramids etc. on his return from the Egyptian campaign. See Cuvier (1826), which updates some of the information in his 1804 publication about his later study of some different mummies.
  7. smaller than contemporary ibises: On examining four more ibis mummies, Cuvier recognized that one of them was a juvenile based on its bone structure (Cuvier 1826). As a result, he realized that they may not be curlews at all but simply smaller, juvenile ibises. This is not so surprising as it turns out the many of the ibis mummies were clearly made from juvenile birds. No doubt the priest-farmers who raised the ibises for the votive market saw no reason to keep the birds any longer than was needed to make them suitable for mummification.  That just made good economic sense to maximize their profits.
  8. article in PLoS Biology: unlike the scientific articles in that journal, this one is labelled ‘Essay’ which they say “are opinionated articles on a topic of interest to scientists, as well as to a broader audience, including the general public”. Opinions are fine but I am surprised at the absence of clear evidence in support of the claims made.
  9. not actually a test: Cuvier simply used his measurements identifying the mummies as sacred ibises to suggest that there had not been much change in their morphology in the past 3000 years. But the ibis was just one of many examples that he referred to. Moreover, as Coyne noted, this was at best a ‘one-way test’ as any lack of change would be consistent with slow evolutionary change. Cuvier even acknowledged that the the measurements were not the same between the mummies and contemporary ibises. I don’t see this as a test of any kind because Cuvier was unlikely to be convinced by any such results: if the mummies were the same as extant ibises, then no change; if they were different then they must be different species.
  10. the story of Cuvier’s ibis measurements: in a quick search on the internet, I found more than 20 articles on Cuvier’s ibis measurements dating back to Rosser (1837)
  11. Huxley and sexual selection: see Birkhead et al. (2014)

NOTE As some of you may have noticed, this essay was briefly posted by accident in draft from a week ago. I immediately deleted that version from this blog and the final version above is substantially different, correcting several errors in the original and providing additional information, references and links.

What colour is a Blue Jay?

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 October 2018

Charles Darwin clearly took his job as naturalist on the 5-year-long (1831-36) Beagle voyage quite seriously. Based on his own detailed accounts, he took every opportunity to explore extensively wherever they made landfall, collecting, describing and preserving all manner of plants and animals to take back to experts in England. These specimens and sightings eventually provided myriad examples that he used in his 11 famous books developing his ideas about natural selection, but were also the basis for formal descriptions of new species, and illustrations in publications by several of his correspondents [1].

WernersBlues
Some of Werner’s blues in Syme (1821)

Because many of the species that Darwin collected were new to science, he was careful to record colours, especially those that might fade on specimens of fish and invertebrates preserved in ‘spirits’. To do this, he was keen to use a method that would allow him to record colours in a way that could be understood by others and reproduced accurately by artists reading his notes years later. For many of Darwin’s descriptions in his field notes, he used the colour swatches and names in Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours by Patrick Syme published in 1821.

We know that Darwin used that colour guide because The Reverend Leonard Jenyns, in the introduction to his 1842 volume on the fishes of Darwin’s Beagle Voyage, says: The colours, in the great majority of instances, were, fortunately, noticed by Mr. Darwin in the recent state [i.e. ‘fresh’]. The nomenclature employed by him for the purpose is that of Patrick Syme; and he informs me, that a comparison was always made with the book in hand, previous to the exact colour in any case being noted. [2]

Bird specimens—usually study skins—don’t often change much in colour because the pigments and feather nanostructures that created those colours are relatively stable over even centuries of careful preservation. Thus, Darwin used Werner’s Nomenclature for birds mainly when describing their soft parts (beaks, eyes, feet).

Abraham Gottlob Werner was a German geologist and mineralogist who worked at the Freiberg  Mining Academy in the late 1700s. In 1774, he published the first-ever textbook of mineralogy, and in that book presented a method for identifying minerals by their ‘key characteristics’, reminiscent of the ‘key characteristics’ of birds outlined by Ray and Willughby a century earlier [3]. For minerals, Werner considered those key characteristics to be colour and lustre, and he gave ‘formal’ names and descriptions to about 65 colours [4] that he thought would be useful for identifying different minerals.

461px-An_apple_tree_engraving_by_William_Miller_for_William_Archibald_1818
An example of Syme’s botanical art, an apple tree

Patrick Syme, an art teacher and botanical artist, learned about Werner’s method from Robert Jameson, the professor of natural history at Edinburgh University. Jameson had studied with Werner and matched Werner’s colour descriptions with actual minerals. Syme used Jameson’s work as a starting point for his book, adding more than 40 colour swatches, names and descriptions to Werner’s original set, and identifying animals, vegetables and minerals that matched each colour swatch [5], as well as describing each colour in terms of other colours in Werner’s nomenclature. In all, 61 of the 110 colours are matched to birds. Here are three entries (COLOUR NAME description examples):

  • YELLOWISH WHITE snow white, with a very little lemon yellow and ash grey Egret; Hawthorn Blossom; Chalk and Tripoli
  • DUCK GREEN emerald green, with a little indigo blue, much gamboge yellow, and a little carmine red Neck of Mallard; Upper Disk of Yew Leaves; Ceylonite
  • AURORA RED tile red, with a little arterial blood red, and a slight tinge of carmine red Vent converts [sic] of Pied Wood-Pecker; Red on the Naked Apple; Red Orpiment

NewWernersEarlier this year, the Natural History Museum (UK) and the Smithsonian Institution (USA) published a facsimile of Werner’s Nomenclature, claiming on the partial dust jacket that this was “The book Charles Darwin used to describe colours in nature on his HMS Beagle Voyage” and that “This charming facsimile edition is the perfect gift for artists and scientists alike”. I teach about Darwin, so I bought one [6]. I am, however, a little disappointed with this book, for two reasons.

First, to make this reprint the publishers have apparently “drawn upon both the 1814 and the 1821 editions to create this newest volume, in which our primary objectives have been not only to reintroduce one of the world’s first systemic [sic] taxonomy [sic] of colors—108 in total—but also to achieve as close a match as possible between our color swatches and those in the original editions.” [7]. To my eye, the attempt to match colours here is an utter failure—in far too many instances at least two of the colour swatches on any page are indistinguishable either to my eye or to my colorimetric instruments. The publishers’ claim to ‘close approximations’ is simply not correct, as an examination of online versions of the 1821 volume will reveal [8]. Looking at any of the online versions will give you a better feel for Darwin’s experience with this book.

I assume that Syme had his books hand-coloured with water colours as was the usual practice in the early 1800s. Those colours often do change with time, but they do not have to, as many bird books from that era still have clear and vibrant colours even today. Syme was an artist so I expect that he was very careful to ensure that the copies of his book showed accurate and consistent colours in every copy, otherwise his book would not have been very useful. Darwin presumably had a relatively new copy of the 1821 edition with him on the Beagle [9]—surely he would not have bothered trying to use this new facsimile edition as the colour swatches are not readily distinguishable from one another.

My second disappointment is with the purple prose of the introductory note by the publishers, two pages describing the original book and how (they think) Darwin must have used it. They say, for example that “Werner’s terminology lent both precision and lyricism to Darwin’s writing”. Precision, maybe, but there are not many who find Darwin’s writing to be generally lyrical [10]. Most important, though, Darwin did not actually use Werner’s nomenclature in his ‘writing’ as it does not appear in any of his books. I expect that Darwin saw no need to use the technical terms for colours in his general descriptions of animals and plants in books intended for a popular audience, even though he used them in his notes accompanying collected specimens [11]. When describing the Rough-faced Shag (Phalacrocorax carunculatus), for example, Darwin wrote (with Werner’s colour names in quotes): Cormorant: skin round eyes “Campanula blue” cockles at base of upper mandible “saffron & gamboge yellow”.— Mark between eyes & corner of mouth “orpiment orange”. [12]. Thus the publishers’ claim that “At some points the great naturalist seemed to draw almost painterly pleasure from the fastidiousness of the Werner taxonomy…” [7] seems largely to have been written to entice the unsuspecting reader into buying the book.

Unlike the old joke “Who was buried in Grant’s Tomb?”, the title of this essay is a serious question. It is not enough to say that a Blue Jay is blue—we ornithologists want to know exactly what kind of blue. Blue Jays, Bluebirds, Blue Tits, Blue Swallows, and Blue Mockingbirds, for example, are all different shades of blue [13].

Using my copy of this new facsimile of Werner’s Nomenclature with its faulty colour renditions, I would say that a Blue Jay is Ultramarine Blue, but using the copy at Darwin online or the reconstructed colour swatches here, I think the bast match is Indigo Blue. Berlin Blue is described by Syme as matching the ‘Wing Feathers of Jay’ referring to the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), and different from most of the plumage of the Blue Jay, but very similar to the colour of its secondaries.

Jays
Blue (L) and Eurasian Jays (R) with some of the properly colour-matched blue swatches in Syme’s (1821) Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Ornithologists have played a large part in the categorization and naming of colours for the past 350 years. This should not really be too surprising as birds are colourful, their colour vision is fairly similar to ours [14], and we use colours to distinguish among species, subspecies, sexes, ages and the health of birds. Birds probably use colours in a similar fashion.

SOURCES

  • Birkhead T (2018) The wonderful Mr Willughby. The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Gould J (1838) Birds. Part 3 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith Elder and Co.
  • Jenyns L (1842) Fish. Part 4 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith Elder and Co.
  • Keynes R, editor (2000) Charles Darwin’s zoology notes & specimen lists from H.M.S. Beagle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 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.
  • Syme P (1821) Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, with additions, arranged so as to render it highly useful to the arts and sciences, particularly zoology, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and morbid anatomy. Annexed to which are examples selected from well-known objects in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. Second edition. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and T. Cadell.
  • Werner AG (1874) Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Foßilien. [Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils]. Leipzig: Crusius.

Footnotes

  1. publications based on Darwin’s specimens and observations: see, for example, Jenyns (1842) and Gould (1838)
  2. Jenyns quotation: see Jenyns 1842 page x (Introduction)
  3. key characteristics: these were an important innovation in ornithology, introduced in Ray (1676 and 1678); see Birkhead (2018)
  4. Werner’s colours: Syme (1821) is not perfectly clear on which colours were Werner’s and which ones he added. At least 64 were definitely Werner’s but there may have been as many as 68 shown in Syme’s book.
  5. animals, vegetables, minerals: most of the 110 colour swatches have examples from at least two of these groups but there are many blanks in Syme’s tables, presumably because he could not find a close match, which is surprising for birds at least.
  6. buying a copy of the new edition of Werner’s Nomenclature: the partial dust jacket lists it at $14.95 US, ISBN 978-1-58834-62-6
  7. quotation about the facsimile edition: this is from the last paragraph of ‘A Note on the New Edition’ at the front of this reprint. Who writes this stuff? ‘Systemic’ usually refers to the body—I think they meant ‘systematic’; ‘taxonomy’ should be plural; and there are 110 swatches in this book, not 108.
  8. online versions: there are copies of the original 1821 version here and here, and a wonderful website by Nicholas Rougeux about the book and its colours here. On that site, Rougeux has some very nice posters for sale, and provides a downloadable database of information on all of the colours in Syme’s book, including his best estimate of the hex code for each colour
  9. Darwin’s Beagle copy: Darwin online implies that this is the copy now in the Huntington Library and available here online
  10. Darwin’s writing lyrical: to be sure, Darwin occasionally crafted some wonderful turns of phrase, but for the most part his books are detailed, descriptive and heavy going by today’s standards.
  11. absence of Werner nomenclature in Darwin’s books: to determine this I searched for 20 of the 110 colour names in Syme’s book, using the Darwin online search engine, as well as searching for “Werner” and “Syme”. The only times that those words appeared in anything written by Darwin were in his zoology notes and specimen lists (see Keynes 2000).
  12. Darwin’s description of cormorant: see page 396, entry 1756 in Keynes (2000)
  13. shades of blue: I am using the word ‘shade’ here to encompass the three more technical terms—hue, chroma, brightness—to describe a colour
  14. bird colour vision similar to ours: although birds see colours into the ultraviolet and can probably distinguish more colours than we can, their colour vision is more similar to ours than is the colour vision of virtually any other animal, save some primates

IMAGES: Syme’s apple painting and the European Jay photo from Wikimedia Commons; Blue Jay by Bruce Lyon; Syme’s book cover, photo by the author; Syme’s book contents from Darwin online and Nicholas Rougeux’s website

Early Birds

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

At the AOU (now AOS) meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2011, Peter Stettenheim [1] gave a talk on ‘Cultural Images of Birds: A neglected source of information’. He suggested that the many images of birds in prehistoric cave paintings, hieroglyphics, carvings, rock art, and mosaics might yield useful ornithological information about former ranges and the process of domestication. I was not entirely convinced by his examples but my attention was piqued when he showed what looked like two owls scratched into the wall of the Cave of the Trois-Frères in Ariège départment in the south of France. Like the more famous caves at Lascaux and Chauvet, Trois-Frères had many images of animals and symbols painted and etched on its walls 15,000 to 35,000 years ago in the  Upper Paleolithic period of human culture in western Europe.

owlstroisfreres
The owls of Tros-Freres

Just before that conference, I had been in Ariège, near the Spanish border, doing research for three months out of the CNRS research station in Moulis, about 70 km SSW of Toulouse. During that field trip, I had visited the fabulous Grottes de Niaux, about 25 km due south of Foix, where I went on a tour of the magical paintings of aurochs, bison horses, deer and an even an ibex that adorned the walls deep into that cave. It seemed almost unbelievable that paleolithic peoples would have gone more than a kilometre into a cave to makes those paintings, even if they were done for shamanic rituals as is now supposed.

map
Paleolithic caves (open circles) in the south of France: T=Trois Fréres, P=Le Portel, N=Niaux, C=Chauvez, L=Lascaux

I did not see any paintings of birds in the cave at Niaux, and a quick search on the internet after I heard Stettenheim’s talk did not reveal any birds on the walls of the cave at Lascaux and only one—a very nice owl— at Chauvet [2]. I asked my colleague Alexis Chaine, a CNRS researcher at Moulis, whether he knew of any birds in cave paintings and he in turn asked the former director of the research station, Alain Mangin, who was a cave biology expert. Alain was reasonably certain that there was an owl in a cave on private property about 50 km east of Moulis so we asked him if we could get permission to explore that cave.  A year later that permission was granted so Alain, Alexis and I, led by two friends of the property owner, visited that private cave—called Le Portel—in June 2012.

Cave1
Le Portel cave. LEFT Alexis Chaine (blue) & Alain Mangin (red) at the cave entrance; TOP RIGHT unlocking the caves; BOTTOM RIGHT my least favourite part of visiting the cave

To get to the cave entrance, we walked about 500 m through the forest to what looked like nothing more than a small hole beside a big rock. Inside the hole, a locked grate kept out intruders. We unlocked the grate and down we went, squeezing ourselves through the narrow entrance. I am somewhat claustrophobic so the descent into a small hole in the ground to crawl, slither and walk underground for a few hours in a dark place under thousands of tonnes of rock is not much fun for me. But, on the other hand, I have never been one to pass up on what seemed to be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. So in I went with headlamp, waterproof gear, and an iPhone that I knew would be no use underground except to take some pictures.

mammals
This, on the other hand, made the claustrophobia bearable

Within a half hour, we came across the first paintings of the usual bison, horses, and even what looked like a human. Then all of a sudden there it was, the owl, distinctive in both overall shape and its v-shaped bill. We saw maybe 50 paleolithic paintings in our three hours underground  but only the one bird. There have also been birds found in more recent cave paintings in Australia, but they are outnumbered by the mammals by at least 100 (or maybe even 1000) to 1 in cave art worldwide

LPowl
The owl at Le Portel

When I told Stettenheim about this owl, he responded that “The owl image that you saw at Le Portel is new to me and very interesting. That cave is well known to paleo-archaeologists, but they seem to have noticed only the large mammals, never the bird. The occurrence of owls both here at and at Trois Frères indicates that the bird was important to the people who drew it.” 

Assuming that the animals shown in cave art were important to the people who painted them, I think we can conclude, from their rarity in the caves, that birds were actually not very important to paleolithic peoples, at least in Europe. For most prehistoric peoples, large mammals were probably the main source of animal protein. Birds were probably too small and too hard to catch–except when breeding at high densities–to be worth bothering with. The Inuit of northern Canada, for example, seemed to take birds for food only during the breeding season and only at dense colonies like those of murres and geese where eggs, offspring and adults could be gathered in numbers [3].

As Jeremy Mynott describes in his new book [4], it was not until cities and towns sprang up during what is called the Neolithic Revolution, about 5500 years ago, that humans really started to pay much attention to birds. And the rest is history, literally.

SOURCES

  • Lorblanchet M (1995) Les Grottes Ornées de la Préhistoire: nouveaux regards. Paris: Editions Errance.
  • Lucas AM, Stettenheim PR (1972) Avian anatomy: integument. Parts I and II. Agriculture Handbook 362. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture.
  • Mynott J (2018) Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sandars N (1992) Prehistoric Art in Europe, 2nd Edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Sieveking A, Sieveking G (1962) The Caves of France and Northern Spain: a guide. London: Vista Books.

Footnotes

  1. Peter Stettenheim: (1928-2013) was an expert on the integument (including feathers) of birds (see Lucas and Stettenheim 1972). He was also editor of The Condor and one of the driving forces in the establishment of the Birds of North America series, now online here
  2. birds in other paleolithic caves: there is a bird-like totem painted on  the wall at Lascaux, but it appears to be a staff or statue with a bird figure at the top, rather than a representation of a specific bird species
  3. prehistoric Inuit hunting birds: see this previous post for example
  4. new book: see Mynott (2018), which is now in my queue of books to read and review on this blog

IMAGES: all photos from Le Portel by the author; map modified from one online here; owls at Tros-Frères from Lorblanchet (1995) available with additional information here

The Invisible Women

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 3 September 2018

At next year’s annual AOS conference in Anchorage, Alaska, the role of women in ornithology will be one of the highlighted themes. This is an important initiative for several reasons, and will be the focus of several posts here in the coming months.

Most ornithologists are familiar with the names and accomplishments of Margaret Morse Nice, Rachel Carson, Brina Kessel, Fran Hamerstrom, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, and Florence Merriam Bailey, but what about Hilda Cinat-Thompson [1], Lady Elizabeth Symonds Gwillim, Genevieve Estelle Jones, and Althea Sherman? Women play such a visible role in ornithology (and most sciences) today, that it is easy to forget that women ornithologists were scarce before about 1960. Even those women who contriubuted to the history of ornithology tend to be relatively invisible.

As I have highlighted previously [2], the national ornithological societies that formed in the 1800s were all founded by men, and women were very much in the minority of their membership for much of the twentieth century. That’s just a fact, and I don’t see any point in attempting to rewrite that history. There is a lot to be gained, however, in knowing more about the women who did contribute to the development of ornithology and celebrating their contributions. Unfortunately, the contributions of many of those women to ornithology were never recorded, so they may forever be invisible—at least by name—to history. Today’s post highlights just one of what must be many instances of invisible women who made a great contribution.

DRESSERvols
Dresser’s Birds of Europe (1871-82) letter bound into 9 Volumes, plus an index and a supplement

From 1871 to 1882, Henry Dresser published the 84 parts of his monumental A History of the Birds of Europe. Dresser was a prominent timber and iron merchant by day, and an ornithologist in the evenings—and presumably weekends and holidays, given his phenomenal productivity. During the mid-1800s, he made his fortune as a merchant in London, and began collecting birds and eggs on various field trips [3]. He eventually amassed a huge collection of bird specimens, eventually purchasing specimens from collectors and dealers around the world. In addition to a handful of excellent books, he also published more than 100 papers about birds. Dresser was well-connected in ornithological circles, regularly corresponding with Alfred Newton and Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, and was BOU secretary from 1882-88 [4].

PartcoverDresser’s Birds of Europe was published in separate parts, by subscription, so that he could use the income from subscriptions to fund the entire project [5]. Subscribers, of which there were eventually more than 300, received an unbound section of both letterpress and plates in blue paper covers every month, and many of those were eventually bound into leather-covered volumes by the subscribers. The whole set cost subscribers £52 10s, or about £5000 (roughly $6500 US in today’s currency).  You can pick up a full leather-bound set today for only $23,000 US at some of the antiquarian booksellers, which is actually quite a bargain given the rate of inflation over the past 140 years [6].

Each of the 634 species in Birds of Europe is illustrated on a superb colour print of the bird—often male and female, sometimes a chick or two—produced mainly by the outstanding 19th century illustrator J. G. Keulemans, plus a few by Joseph Wolf and Edward Neale. These illustrations are remarkable for their accuracy and the pace at which Keulemans made them, often in the midst of working on other projects.

ruffs
Ruffs displaying from Dresser (1871-82)

To save time (and costs) Keulemans made most of these illustrations by drawing with sharp-pointed greasy crayon directly on the lithographic stone that would be used to make black outline drawings that would be coloured by hand to make the plates. Keulemans was renowned for his ability to use a study skin to make a life-like painting of a bird that he had not even seen in the wild. The fact that he could draw in crayon (in reverse!) on a lithographic stone without working from a sketch seems impossible to me, but then again I have no artistic talents whatsoever. Once the first satisfactory print was made, he used watercolours to make the final master copy. Keulemans only painted the master copy—all of the others that eventually ended up as plates in the book were painted in watercolours mainly by young women [7] in the employ of colourist workshops, using Keulemans’ originals as a guide. We do not know who these women were but the quality and quantity of their work—and thus their contribution to what many consider to be one of the finest bird books ever produced—was outstanding.

Bureau_téléphonique_parisien_vers_1900
telephone switchboard ca 1900

As was the custom of the day, Dresser thanked the men who owned the companies who did the colour work and made no mention of the women who actually did the colouring. I am reminded of an old illustration of women doing all of the work at a switchboard in Paris with the male supervisor overseeing [8]. Here is Dresser, in his Preface: “…and the colouring was entrusted to Mr. Smith and Mr. Hart, the latter of whom is well known as the artist employed by Mr. Gould during the publication of all his later works.” [9].

Lest you think the colourists had no particular talent and were merely making passable copies of the works by the master (Keulemans) have a look at some of the detail, below, on a couple of the plates. Exquisite. The pace at which those women worked must also have been phenomenal. We do not know how many women were employed by Smith and Hart to do the colouring, but we know that they produced a quarter of a million copies (yes, 250,000! [10]) of the Keulemans’ originals in about 12 years. Even at one copy a day—a pace that I cannot even imagine—about 65 artists would have been needed to do all of that colouring [11].

 

details
Details of 6 plates in Dresser (1871-96) showing the lovely brush work and attention to detail

Keulemans apparently inspected all of the colouring to ensure accuracy and consistency.  I have looked at several copies of the original plates and cannot detect any difference between copies of the same plate even though they must have been painted by different, unknown, women.

We often vilify the practices of the past because they do not match our contemporary standards of fairness, equality, and recognition. No doubt our own academic descendants will similarly criticize us for our apparent failings. Instead, I think there is some value in trying to identify work that made important contributions to the history of ornithology, even in cases like this where we cannot positively identify who actually did that work. It would be interesting to know if any of the colourists for Dresser’s work went on to be ornithologists or artists in their own right.

SOURCES

  • Dresser HE (1871-82) A History of the Birds of Europe, including all the species inhabiting the Western Palaearctic Region [84 parts; first 13 parts coauthored with RB Sharpe]. London: Privately published. (available online here)
  • McGhie HA (2017) Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: Birds, books and business. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.


Footnotes

  1. Hilda Cinat-Thompson: did pioneering work on sexual selection in budgerigars but is so little known about her that the only references I can find to her online are in the book I wrote with Tim Birkhead and Jo Wimpenny on the history of ornithology (see here)
  2. formation of ornithological societies: see previous posts here, here, and here
  3. various field trips: to Texas, Mexico and New Brunswick (Canada) for example. Most of his collection eventually went to the Manchester Museum
  4. Henry Dresser’s life: details here were taken mainly from a new book (McGhie 2017) about Dresser that I will be reviewing here in a few weeks
  5. by subscription: the initial subscription price was £6 6s (about $8.50 US) per year for 12 parts with each part containing 10-12 species, and the whole project planned to take 6 years comprising about 72 parts, with each year constituting a volume (McGhie 2017, page 137)
  6. rate of inflation: an online calculator here, suggests that $6500 in 1880 would today be worth $153,000.
  7. we do not know who the colourists were: it might be possible to examine the records from Hart and Smith, and their workshops, to actually identify the colourists but that information is not yet readily available
  8. telephone switchboard operators: many of the earliest switchboard operators were young men, but it was soon recognized that women were generally more courteous. Probably more significantly, though, women were paid at only one quarter of the salary of the men! More info here.
  9. Dresser quotation: from page iv of Vol 1 in Dresser (1871-1882). He is referring here to Smith, Elder and Co., and to William Hart who was both an artist and a colourist who, presumably, supervised the work of several others.
  10. 250,000 copies: actually at least 214,587 coloured plates based on 633 plates per volume and 339 copies at one copy per subscriber. Presumably there were more plates completed than there were subscribers, as the number of subscribers grew through the 12 years of the project.
  11. 65 colourists: based on 250,000 coloured plates, about 250 working days per year, and 12 years for the project

IMAGES: all those of and from Dresser’s Birds of Europe were taken by the author in August 2018 at the Blacker-Wood Collections in the McGill University Library, with thanks to the librarian, Lauren Williams, for permission to use those photographs here; women telephone operators from Wikimedia Commons

The Birds of …

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 27 August 2018

Books on the birds of this or that region have been exceptionally popular for the last 200 years or more. Once travel to foreign lands became feasible—as early as the 1500s—there was clearly a desire for naturalists to write about—and read about—the birds that might be encountered in different countries. One of my old birding buddies had a library of hundreds of these books—his ‘dream books’. Whether or not he actually planned to visit all of those places was not the point—it was just fun for him to learn about what might see if he did actually travel to those distant lands.

Historia-Naturalis-Brasiliae
Historia Naturalis Brasiliae

By my count on a couple of used bookseller websites, there may be as many as 1000 ‘Birds of…’ books available, from the birds of continents and countries, to states and provinces, to biomes and habitats, and eventually evolving into field guides to the birds of virtually every country on earth. There appears, for example, to be a ‘Birds of…’ book for every American state and Canadian province [1], and in many cases several for each region.

The first work of this genre to be published was probably Georg Marcgraf’s section on birds, Qui agit de Avibus, in Piso’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae published in 1648. Several other books about birds were published in the 16th and 17th centuries but this is the only one I could find that was specifically about the birds of a particular country or region , at least as indicated by the title. Marcgraf died in 1644 so his research was written up by Willem Piso with Marcgraf as the (albeit posthumous) coauthor.

Marcgraf1
Jacana from Marcgraf 1648

Marcgraf’s bird section in Historia Naturalis Brasiliae is a masterpiece that was THE authority on South American birds for the next two centuries. Even the paintings are pretty good given the quality of bird art in books by his contemporaries, and each species gets a separate account. Unfortunately for most scientists today, Marcgraf’s work is in Latin [2] and relatively inaccessible. It would really be worth translating into English and republishing if only for its historical value.

As far as I can tell the next regional bird books to be published were Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published from 1731 to 1743 and Eleazar Albin’s A Natural History of British Song Birds in 1731. Albin’s was probably the first regional bird book to be exclusively about birds. The 18th and, particularly the 19th, centuries saw a flourishing of regional bird books in Europe and North America with books on British Birds alone appearing every few years in the late 1800s [3].

BoNlaunchLast week, at the International Ornithological Congress in Vancouver, UBC Press launched a new book, Birds of Nunavut [4], a 2-volume work containing species accounts and subject chapters, profusely illustrated with photos of birds, habitats, nests, eggs, and chicks. The book contains full species accounts of 150 breeding, and 145 non-breeding species that summarize life histories appearances, ranges, conservation status, and research conducted in Nunavut.

While this new book is likely to be of tremendous use to libraries, schools and environmental biologists in northern Canada, it may be an—albeit very fine—example of a dying genre of bird books. With the ready availability of information about birds on the internet—at Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Birds of North America Online, xeno-canto, ebird, for example—I really do not see much point in regional books that publish extensive information on life histories, appearance, ranges and songs. That information on the internet is likely to be more extensive, more up-to-date, and more readily searchable than could be achieved in a printed book. A few regional bird books—like Ernst Mayr and Jared Diamond’s Birds of Northern Melanesia—seemed to herald a change in regional bird books by focusing on broad patterns as well as ecological and evolutionary analyses. But not many authors have risen to that challenge.

Despite my reservations, I have little doubt that books on the Birds of … will continue to be published at regular intervals. I do most of my reading on my tablet but still, when it comes to reading about—and dreaming about—birds, nothing beats a good book.

SOURCES

  • Albin E (1731) A Natural History of Birds: illustrated with a hundred and one copper plates, curiously engraven from the life (v. 1). London: Printed for the author and sold by William Innys in St. Paul’s Church yard, John Clarke under the Royal-Exchange, Cornhill, and John Brindley at the King’s Arms in New Bond-Street.

  • Catesby M (1731–43). The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. London: Privately published.

  • Marcgraf G. (1648) Qui agit de avibus. in Piso, W, Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. Lugdunum Batavorum and Amstelodami: Apud Franciscum Hackium and Apud Lud. Elzevirium.

  • Mayr E, Diamond JM (2001) The birds of northern Melanesia: speciation, ecology & biogeography. New York: Oxford University Press.

  •  Richards JM, Gaston AJ, editors (2018) The Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press


Footnotes

  1. books for every state and province: I did not search for all 60 regions but instead randomly sampled 12 titles on Amazon and each one yielded a half dozen books or more
  2. Marcgraf’s work is in Latin: like many students of my generation, I studied Latin for 5 years in high school and one in university. While I have found that education to be immensely useful, and I can read Marcgraf’s work, a good translation requires a proper Latin scholar.
  3. Books on British Birds: a quick survey of online bookstores yielded more than 30 books with ‘British Birds in the tile published between 1750 and 1900
  4. Birds of Nunavut: see also here. I wrote a couple of chapters and 11 species accounts for this book so I am not the least bit impartial.