Bird Paper Two

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guainumbi (hummingbird) in Marcgrave (1648)


  • Grew N (1693a) The description of the American tomineius, or hummingbird. Philosophical Transactions 17: 760-761
  • Grew N (1693b) A query put by Dr. N. Grew, concerning the food of the Humming Bird; occasioned by the description of it in the transactions. Numb. 200. Philosophical Transactions 17: 815
  • Klasing K (1998). Comparative Avian Nutrition. New York: CAB International.
  • de Léry J (1578) Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite Amerique. Contenant la navigation, et choses remarquables, veuës sur mer par l’aucteur. Le comportement de Villegagnon en ce pays la. Les mœurs et façons de vivre estranges des Sauvages Ameriquains : avec un colloque de leur langage. Ensemble la description de plusieurs Animaux, Arbres, Herbes, et autres choses singulieres, et du tout inconnues pardeçà: dont on verra les sommaires des chapitres au commencement du livre. Le tout recueilli sur les lieux par Jean de Lery, natif de la Margelle, terre de sainct Sene, au Duché de Bourgongne. La Rochelle ou Genève: Antoine Chuppin. [1611 edition available here]
  • de Léry J (1990) History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil. Translation and introduction by Janet Whatley. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • López-Calleja MV, Fernández MJ, Bozinovic F (2003) The integration of energy and nitrogen balance in the hummingbird Sephanoides sephaniodes. Journal of Experimental Biology 206:3349–3359.
  • Marcgrave G (1648) Historiae Naturalis Brasiliae, Liber Quintus, Qui agit de Avibus. in Piso et al. (1648)
  • Montgomerie RD, Redsell CA (1980) A nesting hummingbird feeding solely on arthropods. Condor 82:463–464.
  • Piso W, Hackius F, Laet JD, Marggraf G, Lud. E (1648) Historia naturalis Brasiliaeauspicio et beneficio illustriss. I. Mauriti Com. Nassau illius provinciae et maris summi praefecti adornata: in qua non tantum plantae et animalia, sed et indigenarum morbi, ingenia et mores describuntur et iconibus supra quingentas illustrantur. Leiden: Lugdnum Batavorum, Apud Franciscum Hackium, et Amstelodami apud L. Elzevirium. [available here]
  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Terns (1978)

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

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

First edition of the Auklet (1935)

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

1976 edition

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

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

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


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


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

Not Just a Bird in a Cage



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

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

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

Harriet Hemenway

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

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

M E Barber

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

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

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

African Hoopoes by M E Barber

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

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

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

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



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


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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.


  • 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.


  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

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.

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 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.

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 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.


  • 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.


  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

But is it art?

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 23 July 2018

LSNYBig cities—maybe surprisingly—are good places to live if you are interested in natural history. While country folk have nature on their doorstep, city folk have to work a little harder to find woodland and wildlife. The advantage to city life, though, is that there are lots of like-minded people nearby and the resources for nature study and discussion can be amazing—museums, aquaria, naturalist clubs, universities. The Linnaean Society of New York, for example, has brought together naturalists from all walks of life since 1878 to meet regularly at the American Museum of Natural History and to hear lectures from world-class naturalists and biologists. And just across the road from the museum lies Central Park, not a bad place for birding.

When I was 11 years old, my parents sent me off each Saturday morning to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), a few blocks from our home in downtown Toronto, to meet with 250 other children and young teens in the Toronto Juniour Field Naturalists’ Club TJFN). This was a magical experience for me, getting to hang out for 3 hours every week with like-minded people, hearing talks and watching natural history films, getting to explore behind the scenes in a great museum, and regularly going on field trips to nearby parks and conservation areas inside or very near the burgeoning city.

The TJFN was organized into about dozen special interest groups—mammals, birds, insects, and the like—that we broke into after the initial presentation to share our experiences and learn from the group leader. I first joined the mammal group, led by a young man named  Bob, a local school teacher who had just returned from a 14-month-long expedition from Africa to Australia by Land Rover with one of his friends. That expedition was what our dreams were made of, and my three naturalist buddies and I spent many an evening planning to make a similar trek one day by Land Rover from Pont Barrow to Tierra del Fuego. Bob taught art at a local high school and gave us budding wildlife artists some great feedback on our feeble attempts to draw the local animals and plants. Years later he developed into one of the world’s best and best-known wildlife artists—Robert Bateman.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet by Bob Bateman, age 17

Bob was certainly the first real artist that I had ever met, but those TJFN meetings eventually brought me into contact with the ROM’s excellent artists and illustrators—Terry Shortt (birds), Paul Geraghty [1] (mammals, birds and dinosaurs), Peter Buerschaper (fishes) and Anker Odum (insects). It was only years later that I came to appreciate what a privilege it had been to know such outstanding wildlife artists.

In the late 1960s when I was working at the ROM for a year, I also got to meet a slew of young wildlife artists who brought their work into the bird department both to get some feedback on their latest work and to borrow skins to help them with details of plumage and bare parts. Names like J. Fenwick Lansdowne, Glen Loates, Barry Kent Mackay, and George MacLean might be familiar to some readers of this blog.

Once, on a long drive from Toronto to Thunder Bay, Paul Geraghty and I had a lively discussion about the nature of bird ‘art’ and bird ‘illustration’. I naively considered any drawing or painting of a bird to be ‘art’ but Paul, quite rightly I think, made a distinction between the two. To him, birds drawn or painted to highlight the bird’s features for the purpose of identification or to enhance some text were illustration, and birds drawn or painted in such a way that the work evoked a more emotional response were art.

For years after that trip, we often debated about paintings of wildlife. When I told Paul about some new painter I had discovered, he would often say, “but is it art?” I think we agreed that there was no point to trying to make a clear distinction along what was clearly a continuum, but the ends of that spectrum were quite clear to us—Bruno Liljefors’s painting of a Golden Eagle was art, but Roger Tory Peterson’s painting of that species in his field guide was illustration.

Golden eagle by Bruno Liljefors (L) and Roger Tory Peterson (R, bottom)

I think it’s fair to say that Audubon was among the first [2] to blur the distinction between art and illustration. Before Audubon, birds were (usually) painted [3] as part of a scene, portrait, or still life (art), or in bird books to show the salient features of a species (illustration). Most of Audubon’s portraits in his Birds of America served both purposes, often being very ‘artistic’ in composition, depicting birds in habitats, often flying, preying, defending or courting. My favourite Audubon (below) certainly blurs the lines for me, combining flight, attempted predation, and accuracy useful enough for identification.

Bobwhite and red-shouldered Hawk watercolour by JJ Audubon ca 1825

Before Audubon, most bird illustration looked wooden [4], showed little or no action or habitat, and lacked the sort of ‘jizz’ that makes a painted bird look real. Bird art, of course, goes back far into prehistory with ancient depictions of loon-like birds found in archaeological digs, and myriad birds in Japanese, Chinese and other works prepared before the start of the Christian Era. Some of these early bird drawings and paintings may have been used for ‘identification’ but my guess is that they were mostly symbolic or ornamental.

Unequivocal bird illustration may have begun with Frederick II in his manuscript De Arte Venandi cum Avibus where birds were drawn in colour in the margins to enhance the accompanying text. Frederick did not identify his birds explicitly but, in his 1983 paper, William Yapp made a good stab at figuring our which species were being illustrated. The bird drawings in Frederick’s manuscript represent at least 60 species and are remarkably identifiable today. OK, I said ‘unequivocal’, but you could argue that they are really art because of their composition, and the depiction of habitats and behaviours, much as Audubon did 600 years later.

bottom of folio 7r in Frederick II’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (ca 1245)

Willughby and Ray’s Ornithology may have been the first serious attempt to accurately depict birds in a book [5], showing their ‘characteristic marks’ for identification. Ray, however, was not pleased with result and the illustrations do look very wooden by today’s standards. For the next 150 years or so bird illustrations in books became progressively more life-like in part due to improvement in printing methods—certainly birds in ‘art’ were remarkably accurate more than 2000 years ago.

Possibly due to Audubon’s influence and success, bird illustrations in books became much more ‘artistic’ in the 19th century with people like George Lodge, Archibald Thorburn, John Gould and many others putting more life, action and habitat into their work for bird books. While there were dozens of great bird artists in the century after Audubon, it seems to me that wildlife art became a ‘thing’ only in the 1970s, possibly fuelled by the critical and commercial success of Robert Bateman.

Snow Geese by Paul Geraghty ca 1973

We ornithologists are very lucky to have attracted such a wealth of talent to our discipline, adorning our books (and homes) with great images of our favourite animals. When Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and I were putting together our Ten Thousand Birds book on the recent history of ornithology, we decided to start each chapter with an example of superb bird art or illustration produced since Darwin. We were able to include the work of 12 great artisans but we were both delighted and perplexed by the wealth of available material. In the end, we had to make some rather arbitrary choices of whose work to include.

As one example of the current wealth of bird art, you need only attend the annual Birds in Art exhibiton at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, in Wasau, Wisconsin. This year, that exhibition will run from 8 September until 25 November and feature the work of more than 60 outstanding bird artists, including a few names that I recognize, like Tony Angell, Robert Bateman, Guy Coheleach, and Maynard Reece. There are dozens of such exhibitions every year in both North America and Europe, attesting to the popularity of this wildlife art. Art or illustration?…whatever you want to call it, the work is fabulous.


  • Audubon JJ (1827-1838) The Birds of America. Edinburgh & London: J. J. Audubon.

  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Frederick II (~1245) De arte venandi cum avibus. Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, codex Ms. Pal. Lat. 1071.
  • Johnsgard PA (1974) Song of the North Wind: a story of the snow goose. U of Nebraska Press.

  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.

  • Yapp WB (1983) The illustrations of birds in the Vatican manuscript of De arte venandi cum avibus of Frederick II. Annals of science 40:597–634.


  1. Paul Geraghty: not to be confused with the British author and illustrator of children’s books, often about dinosaurs and other animals. The Paul Geraghty I am referring to now lives in Saskatchewan and some examples of his early work can be seen in Johnsgard (1974). I have reproduced one of those drawings at the bottom of this essay. The cover of Johnsgard’s book says ‘Illustrations by Paul Geraghty’  but even by Paul’s own restrictive definition I would certainly call this ‘art’.
  2. Audubon among the first: I am being especially cautious here, and throughout this essay, because (i) I am no expert, and (ii) people are passionate about their favourite bird artists/illustrators and there is bound to be lots of disagreement. I do not see much point in playing the ‘who’s the first/who’s the best’ game, but I do think that the diversity of opinions is both interesting and productive. Feel free to weigh in on this topic in the comments.
  3. painted and drawn: I do recognize that these are not the only visual art forms but those are the ones I am dealing with in this essay. I will discuss sculptures, movies, and music some other time.
  4. bird illustrations looked wooden: it is pretty clear that the quality of bird illustration lagged behind that of plants, for example, because birds could not be accurately drawn from life. Bfore the ready availability of binoculars, telescopes and phoitography, birds could not usually be approached and opbserved very closely. As a result, most illustrators worked from dead birds, including Audubon. Audubon, however, often mounted his bird carcasses using wires etc into more or less lifelike poses as models for his work.
  5. Willughy and Ray illustrations: several previous authors (Aldrovandi, Belon, etc) had included bird illustrations in their books but Ray and Willughby made an explicit attempt to be accurate and to include some features useful in identification.