The Auk’s Auk

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

Brewster, Allen and Coues when they were young men

On the first of August 1883, three young members of the tiny [1] Nuttall Ornithological Club (NOC) of Cambridge, Massachusetts—the President (William Brewster), as well as the Editor (Joel Asaph Allen) and the Associate Editor (Elliott Coues) of its Bulletin planted the seed that would grow into the AOU. All three were in their twenties at the time but would before long lead the scientific study of birds in North America.

To plant that seed, they sent a letter to 48 prominent North American ornithologists inviting them to a Convention in New York City in late September “for the purpose of founding the AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS UNION upon a basis similar to that of the “British Ornithologists’ Union” “[2]. At that convention:

…the question of an organ, in the form of a serial publication, was the first to present itself, and the impression was general that such a publication must prove indispensable to the work of the Union. It was accordingly voted to establish such a journal, its publication to begin January, 1884. Mr. Allen was chosen editor, to be assisted by a staff of associate-editors, likewise selected by the Council, who are collectively to decide the character of the periodical, and to whom will be intrusted its management…it became a question with the members of the Nuttall Ornithological Club whether the Nuttall Club should continue to publish an organ, which, under the new conditions, could only be a rival of that of the Union…the Nuttall Club, at a meeting held October 1, voted to discontinue its Bulletin with the close of the present volume, and to offer to the American Ornithologists’ Union its good will and subscription list…with the tacit understanding that the new serial of the Union shall be ostensibly a second series of the Nuttall Bulletin. It is therefore to be hoped and expected that the many friends of the Bulletin who have hitherto given it such hearty support will extend their allegiance to the new publication of the Union, freely contribute their observations to its pages, and use their influence to extend its usefulness. [3]

BNOClastAnd thus, in 1883, the AOU, and its journal, The Auk, were born—more by C-section than natural birth [4]—from the NOC and its journal . The NOC was the first scientific society (1873) devoted to ornithology in North America and its Bulletin (1876) the first ornithological journal in the USA. While we know when, how, and why the AOU and its journal were founded, the reasons for the AOU naming its journal ‘The Auk‘ and the origin of the line drawing on its cover are more mysterious.

As the short quotation above indicates, the AOU was patterned after the BOU (established in 1858), so it seems likely that the founders of the AOU wanted to name their journal after a bird, much as the BOU had done with The Ibis. But why ‘The Auk‘ and why the Great Auk on the cover?

The first editors simply claimed that: The outcry from all quarters excepting headquarters of American ornithological science against the name of our new journal satisfies us that the best possible name is The Auk [5]. And they go on to make several whimsical suggestions [6] for the choice of that name. I suspect, however, that the name was chosen simply because The Auk‘s first editor, Joel Asaph Allen, had great interest in this species, having published a note on their extinction in The American Naturalist in 1876. Like the Sacred Ibis that inspired the naming of The Ibis, the Great Auk was very much in the public eye in 1880, being the first North American bird clearly driven to extinction [7] by man, as recently as 1844.

Allen was also a friend of Charles Barney Cory, who lived in Boston and joined the NOC in 1876, when he was only 19. Cory was later one of the ipso facto founders of the AOU [8], one of the 26 men who attended that first conference in New York. In 1880, Cory began publishing his Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World, a large format work that was to appear in 12 Parts at about 3 month intervals, with each Part dealing with 2-3 species that Cory were most beautiful and curious. Each species account comprised both a hand coloured full-page (21″ x 27″) lithograph and 2-3 pages of text. Joseph Smit did the artwork, and the book was limited to 200 copies and could be obtained only by subscription.

In 1880, Allen reviewed Part 2 of Cory’s work in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club and said, of the Great Auk, that “the general execution of this plate is both spirited and artistic while the coloring is quite beyond criticism” [9]. Clearly, he was a fan of the book and the bird. That plate, or possibly the original painting, was used as the basis for the line drawing that appeared on the first volume of The Auk, shown below. Notice that in addition to pointing the bird the other way, The Auk cover shows a wider scene but the rest is identical.


In October 1973, a century after the founding of the Nuttall Club, the NOC presented to the AOU one of the original Great Auk plates [10] from Cory’s publication, in recognition of their shared history. That framed print is handed down from editor-in-chief to editor-in-chief of The Auk, and after 45 years was showing the mileage of its travels and its exposure to light and moisture. This year, the AOS is having this original print reframed and restored to ensure that it will continue to grace the offices of the journal’s editors-in-chief. Alan Brush (editor from 1984-92) recently donated to the AOS another beautifully framed Great Auk plate from the Cory book, which now hangs in the AOS executive office.

That first cover design served The Auk well for 30 years but was then replaced by an original drawing by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1913, then again by him in 1915 to match more closely the look of the original. That 1915 Great Auk by Fuertes has adorned the cover, with slight alterations, ever since:

The Auk covers beginning 1913, 1915, 1978 and 1998


  • Allen JA (1880) Recent Literature:  Cory’s “Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World.” Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 6: 111
  • Allen JA, Coues E, Brewster W (1883) The American Ornithologists’ Union. Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 8: 221-226
  • Anonymous (1884) Notes and News. The Auk 1: 105
  • Batchelder CF (1937) An account of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 1873 To 1919. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 8: 1-109
  • Bengston S-A (1984) Breeding ecology and extinction of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis): anecdotal evidence conjectures. The Auk 101: 1-12
  • Cory CB (1880-1883) Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World. Boston: published by the author for the subscribers


  1. members of the tiny NOC: the NOC was founded in November 1873 by 8 young men. The nucleus of that group was 4 former high school friends (including Brewster) who had been meeting each Monday for a couple of years to read Audubon and talk about birds. By 1883 the membership had grown to 15 (Batchelder 1937).
  2. quotation from letter to ornithologists: from Allen et al. 1883 page 221
  3. quotation about the AOU’s journal: from Anonymous 1884 page 105
  4. born by C-section: according to Batchelder (1937), Allen, Coues and Brewster acted on their own to found the AOU, using their NOC positions to establish some credibility. They did not, apparently, inform the other NOC members of their actions or their intention to transform the Bulletin into the Auk
  5. quotation about the best possible name: from Anonymous 1884 page 105
  6. whimsical suggestions: this rather long quotation, from page 105 in Anonymous 1884, is reproduced below
  7. first North American bird driven to extinction: the Labrador Duck was probably extinct by 1880 but it was always rare and it was not clear that humans had caused their extinction; the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet were still extant in the 1880s and were not extinct until early in the 20th century
  8. ipso facto founders of the AOU: as Allen et al. (1883, page 221) said in their report on the conference— Those who attend the first meeting will be considered ipso facto Founders of the American Ornithologists’ Union
  9. quotation from the review of Cory’s Part 2: from Allen 1880 page 111
  10. original Great Auk plate: see Bengston (1984). Cory’s publication is now for sale at auction for $30,000. Since only 200 were made, and the original lithographs destroyed, this is one of the rarest of 19th century works on birds

whimsical suggestions (see footnote 6):

Were the name of this journal one which anyone could have proposed and everyone liked, it could not have been an ‘inspiration.’ The editors beg to say that they have copyrighted, patented, and ‘called in’ the following puns and pleasantries: I. That The Auk is an awkward name. 2. That this journal is the awk-ward organ of the A. O. U. (These two species, with all possible subspecies, for sale cheap at this office.) 3. That this journal should be published in New Yauk. or in the Orkney or Auckland Islands. (It is published at Boston, Mass.. at $3.00 per annum, — free to active members of the A. O. U. not in arrears for dues.) 4. That an Auk is the trade-mark of a brand of guano. (A rose by any other name, etc. ) 5. That the Auk is already defunct, and The Auk likely to follow suit. (Mortua Alca impeninisin pennis ALCA rediviva!) 6. That the Auk couldn’t fly, and what’s the use of picking out a name. etc.. etc. (But the Auk could dive deeper and come up drier than any other bird, as Baird says.) 7. That The Auk apes ‘The Ibis.’ (Not at all. It is a great improvement on ‘Ibis.’ ‘Ibis’ is two syllables and four letters; ‘Auk’ is only one syllable and three letters — a fact which bibliographers will appreciate. It is simply following a good precedent because it is good. We wish, however, that we could ‘ape’ or otherwise imitate ‘The Ibis’ in sundry particulars. We should like to make THE AUK the leading ornithological journal of America, as ‘The Ibis’ is of the rest of the world. We should like to make THE AUK the recognized medium of communication between all the ornithologists of this country’, as ‘The Ibis’ is of that. We should like to take and keep the same high standard of excellence in every respect, and thus become such an acknowledged authority as ‘The Ibis’ is. We should like, on behalf of the A. O. U.. to imitate ‘The Ibis’ in the courtesy and kindliness already shown us on the part of the B. O. U. We should like to ‘ape’ or otherwise resemble ‘The Ibis’ in vitality and longevity. May its shadow, already’ ‘sacred,’ be cast while the pyramids stand ; and may THE AUK in due time be also known of men as an “antient and honourable foule” !)

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.

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]

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)]
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.


  • 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.


  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

An Australian want supplied

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 30 July 2018

BoAPossibly more so than in other branches of natural history, ornithology has had a long history of provincialism. For most of the last 500 years, most people who studied (and watched) birds were most interested in, and mostly wrote about, the birds of their own region. Different countries and cultures often started their own national—and regional—bird groups and people usually wrote books about the birds in their region. I can see the point of regional field guides but regional bird books that detail plumages, breeding biologies, annual cycles and ranges do not seem to make much sense anymore.

Until fairly recently most bird books focussed on states, provinces, and, less often, countries. Writers about the history of ornithology generally also have their national biases. Various colleagues have told us, for example, that our own Ten Thousand Birds gave short shrift to the history of European, American, Japanese, Russian, Australian and Chinese ornithology. I took this as a good sign as everyone seemed to be equally offended, suggesting that we might actually have achieved something of a balanced coverage [1].

HBWv1The current millennium has embraced  gobalization, a trend that is gradually pushing back against that provincialism, much to the benefit of ornithology. Birds do not recognize political boundaries, so why should we when we study them? The success of xeno-canto, the Handbook of Birds of the World, the International Ornithological Congress [2] and its world checklist, ebird, and phylogenies encompassing all bird species worldwide [3] attest to the interest in—and value of—a global approach to ornithology. When I approached the AOS, about a year ago, to prepare this website and write these weekly blog posts on the history of ornithology, I insisted that it have a global (rather than American) scope, and they agreed enthusiastically.

That said, because I am Canadian and have not yet even been to much of Europe, Asia and Africa, my ‘American’ biases and the scope of what I write about will always display some provincialism. I hope to rectify that soon by soliciting contributions from ornithologists worldwide to make this website a truly global resource for the history of ornithology. With this post I will start a series on the beginnings of ornithological societies and journals outside the historical North American and European epicentre of bird study.


In 1987, when I stepped out of the airport building in Cairns on my first sabbatical and first visit to Australia, I knew right away that I had entered a different world. As I stood on a grassy median waiting for my rental camper, small flocks of spoonbills, Australian White Ibises, Masked Lapwings and Straw-necked Ibises wheeled about punctuated by a flock of parrots screaming past. I heard both a Kookaburra and a Pied Currawong in the distance. I actually thought for a moment that I was dreaming, still asleep in the plane somewhere over the south Pacific. Few bird experiences have left such a vivid impression on me and I realized right away that I really knew nothing about birds, despite almost 25 years of birding experience and ornithological research. When I saw 10,000 spectacled flying foxes stream over our camp at Yorkey’s Knob that evening, I wondered again if I was still dreaming.

Straw-necked Ibises

That experience, and subsequent field trips to Heron and Lizard Islands, the Atherton Tableland, New South Wales, and Shark Bay (WA) convinced me that naturalists like Eleanor Russell and Ian Rowley were quite right to observe that many Australian birds did not follow the rules derived from bird studies in Europe and the Americas. As Rowley and Russell, and later Andrew Cockburn and Raoul Mulder, and many others, have shown us, any general analysis that ignores Australian birds gives an incomplete picture of the factors that shape bird behaviours and ecologies—cooperative breeding in particular.

I sometimes wonder if the founders the Australian Ornithologists’ Union felt the same about the unique lessons to be learned by studying Australian birds. A closer look at the state of ornithology in the late 1800s, suggests to me that they may not have, in part because many of them were expat Brits, who seemed intent on importing European ornithology to the Australian shores [4].

Bassian Thrush nest/eggs

On the evening of 15 August 1896, 17 men [5] interested in natural history met at Britannia House , South Yarra (Melbourne),  Australia, for an ornithological dinner [6] and social. The table was decorated with heaps of local flowers (acacia and native heaths) surrounding a freshly collected nest and eggs of the Bassian Thrush [7]. The nest had been collected by A. J. Campbell, who organized the soirée and had, at that time, the largest collection (500 species) of eggs of Australian birds. Campbell read a paper on some of his experiences in the field, and showed lantern slides of birds and nests that he had seen in his travels. As the local newspaper reported: “Before breaking up the meeting resolved to form an Australian Ornithological Union, on similar lines to the British and American Ornithological Unions.” [8]

The group met again in 1897, 1899, and 1900, resolving then to form an official society to represent Australian ornithology. With the patronage of ‘Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York’ [9] the Australian Ornithological Union was founded in July 1901, to study and protect birds. Its first general meeting convened in Adelaide in October of that year, where they resolved that “The Objects of the Society are the advancement and popularization of the Science of Ornithology, the protection of useful and ornamental avifauna, and the publication of a magazine called The Emu” [10].

EMUTitlePageThe Emu began publication with that 1901 meeting, edited by A.J Campbell and H. Kendall, and is still going strong today, 117 years later. It was intended “to be “an outward and visible sign” of union, and should prove of value in the good cause. It will provide a recognized means of intercommunication between all interested in ornithology, whatever their branch of that study may be, and afford all an opportunity of recording facts and valuable observations, and of giving publicity to those and their own deductions. Thus bird students will be kept in touch with one another, original study will be aided, and an Australasian want supplied. [11]

That first issue introduced the society and the new journal but also contained papers on taxonomy, Emu feathers, bird protection, new specimens, whether birds were harmful or beneficial to agriculture, spring arrivals, bird behaviour and news of members, other journals and magazines, and exhibitions. While the content was somewhat different in emphasis from contemporary papers in The Auk and The Ibis, having generally more behavioural observations, there was still much about taxonomy and distributions, which dominated those other journals. Before The Emu, Australian ornithologists published mainly in The Ibis and The Victorian Naturalist, and there is no reason to expect that The Emu changed the kinds of papers published by Australians but rather just became a local venue focused on Australian birds. I was struck, however, by the quality and quantity of bird, nest and egg photos in those early issues [12].

One major difference in the focus of ornithology in Australia compared to Europe and North America, was the need to gather basic information about Australian birds. As the editor of that first edition of The Emu said: “Nearly lOO known species have their nests and eggs still undescribed, and of a large proportion of our birds some phases at least of their life-history are unknown.” [13]. The pages of The Emu often contained such descriptions for years to come, at a time when only a handful of North American, and no European, still needed descriptions of their basic breeding biology.

It took more than a century of changes in technology, travel, trade and the accumulation of ornithological knowledge to fulfill the promise that the editors of the Emu made in 1901: “No country or clime — only the wide world itself — limits the work and enthusiasm of the true naturalist.” [14].


  • Campbell AJ, Kendall H [presumably] (1901) The Australian Ornithologists’ Union: Its origin. The Emu 1: 1-5.
  • Cockburn A (1998) Evolution of helping behavior in cooperatively breeding birds. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 29:141–177.

  • Mulder RA, Magrath MJL (1994) Timing of prenuptial molt as a sexually selected indicator of male quality in superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus). Behavioural Ecology 5:393–400.

  • Roblin L (2002) The Flight of the Emu: A Hundred Years of Australian Ornithology 1901–-2001. Melbourne University Publishing.

  • Russell E, Rowley I (1988) Helper contributions to reproductive success in the splendid fairy-wren (Malurus splendens). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 22:131–140.


  1. balanced coverage in Ten Thousand BirdsI say this tongue in cheek as I am well aware that our treatment is biased and we pointed that out in our introduction. To our credit, I think we tried to give equivalent, if not equal, attention to the history of ornithology in Britain and North America, where all three authors had considerable experience.
  2. International Ornithological Congress: will hold its 27th meeting in Vancouver next month. I am not likely to be able to attend, but it looks like a fabulous meeting, and UBC Press will launch a new Birds of Nunavut, for which I wrote a couple of chapters and a few species accounts (more later on that example of provincialism).
  3. worldwide bird phylogenies: see here, here and (eventually) here
  4. importing European ornithology: I do not have any hard evidence for this but it would be worth looking at Roblin (2002) to see if she mentions this. I have ordered it and will report when I have read the book.
  5. 17 men: yes, they were all men, just as were the founders of the AOU,  BOU and DO-G in North America, Britain and Germany, respectively (see here and here for earlier posts on this topic). The Union was eventually established with 137 members, 6 of whom were women but even that small number was a remarkable achievement in those days.
  6. ornithological dinner: see here for more on this topic, in a different context
  7. Bassian Thrush: (Zoothera lunulata) was called the Ground or Mountain Thrush in the late 1800s. The nest was large and covered with moss; the eggs are a pale greyish with dense red-brown maculation
  8. quotation from local newspaper: from Campbell and Kendall 1901, page 1
  9. Duke and Duchess: visited Australia in 1901 as part of an ‘Empire Tour’ following the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia. When they returned to England,  they became the Prince and Princess of Wales, and later, in 1910, King George V and Queen Mary. when Edward VII died.
  10. quotation about the first general meeting: from The Emu 1:33, presumably written by the editors
  11. quotation about the purpose of The Emu: from page 5 in Campbell and Kendall 1901
  12. photos in first issue of The Emu: in contrast the entire 1901 volume of The Auk contained only photos of nests and eggs, and none of birds save a Pine Grosbeak on a nest. The Ibis had a couple of bird photos but excelled with line drawings of anatomy and coloured illustrations of birds.
  13. unknown species quote: from editorial note before page 1 in The Emu 1
  14. quotation about no limits to the naturalist: from editorial note at bottom of p 8 in Campbell and Kendall 1901

IMAGES: Bassian Thrush nest and eggs photo by A.J. Campbell (Museums Victoria,; book and journal covers in the public domain; Straw-necked Ibises photo by Cyrus Ray Macey, Wikimedia Commons.

Ladies, Parakeets, and the Biogeography of an Extinct Bird

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 25 June 2018

In 1850, an anonymous author published a superb diary of natural history observations called ‘Rural Hours by a Lady’ based on two years of exploring the woods and fields near Cooperstown, New York. The book was wildly popular, and it was not long before the author was revealed to be Susan Fenimore Cooper [1]. On page 146 she says:

Parakeet2It is well known that we have in the southern parts of the country a member of the Parrot tribe, the Carolina Parakeet. It is a handsome bird, and interesting from being the only one of its family met with in a temperate climate of the Northern Hemisphere. They are found in great numbers as far north as Virginia, on the Atlantic coast; beyond the Alleghanies, they spread themselves much farther to the northward, being frequent on the banks of the Ohio, and in the neighborhood of St. Louis. They are even found along the Illinois, nearly as far north as the shores of Lake Michigan. They fly in flocks, noisy and restless, like all their brethren…In the Southern States their flesh is eaten…Birds are frequently carried about against their will by gales of wind; the Stormy Petrels, for instance, thoroughly aquatic as they are, have been found, occasionally, far inland. And in the same way we must account for the visit of the Parakeets to the worthy Knickerbockers about Albany.  [2]

Here, she correctly describes the bird as being most common in the southeastern states, though seen regularly as far north as the Great Lakes west of the Allegheny Mountains. What she did not know, of course, was that these were two subspecies, with different morphologies, ecologies and migratory strategies, as described below.

Shufeldt’s photo

The Carolina Parakeet was still abundant throughout its range in 1850 but, like the Passenger Pigeon, was soon to be extirpated. The second-last individual was a female called ‘Lady Jane’ who died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1917; the last of its kind being Lady Jane’s mate, a male named ‘Incas’ who died there in 1918, one hundred years ago. Coincidentally, Incas died in the same cage where Martha, the last passenger pigeon, had died in 1914 [3]. There were reports of sightings in the wild for another 40 years or so, in Florida and Georgia, but none of those records were authenticated. Among the North American birds that have become extinct since the arrival of Europeans, the biology of the breeding biology Carolina Parakeet may be the poorest known [4]. And there is, surprisingly, only one photo of the bird in a natural-looking setting [5], taken by the irrepressible Robert Shufeldt in about 1900.


A recent pair of papers by Kevin Burgio and colleagues uses all of the known specimens and sightings of this bird to reveal some interesting insights into its distribution, ecology, and taxonomy. There were 401 of those sightings recorded between 1564 and 1944, and nearly 800 specimens in museums and private collections worldwide [6], almost all collected in the 1800s. As shown on the graphs below, the number of records climbed exponentially from 1500 to 1900, reflecting the increases in exploring the new continent, in writing about natural history, and in preserving ornithological data and specimens. There was an uptick in collecting, or at least preserving specimens, from 1870-1900 when it became clear that the bird was disappearing [6].

Records and specimens with known dates—note the log scale on upper two graphs.

Analyzing records only from states where the parakeet was known to breed, Burgio and colleagues, georeferenced all the data and used 147 unique localities to create the species breeding distribution models shown on the map to the right below. The map on the left was produced in 1889 by Edwin Hasbrouck with the known range in his day (black shading) nicely matching the newly reconstructed ranges of the two subspecies.

Burgio and colleagues’ research also suggested (i) that the breeding range of this species was much smaller than previously thought, (ii) that the two subspecies, previously only vaguely defined by size and colour, actually had disjunct ranges and occupied somewhat different climatic niches, and (iii) that the western subspecies was almost certainly migratory where the eastern one was not.

The authors also hoped their analysis would help to inform current conservation practices in an effort to save the 8% of bird species currently threatened to disappear as a result of climate change. Parrots, in particular, are in bad shape, with 42% of species listed as threatened or endangered.

LEFT from Hasbrouck (1889) estimating the limits of the parakeet’s historical range (black line) with shading showing the range in the 1880s. RIGHT from Burgio et al. (2017) estimating the ancestral breeding ranges of the two subspecies (Hasbrouck’s range limit shown as a red line)


Clay pipe ca. 1650

As much as I like those recent papers, I think it’s unfortunate that many biogeographers draw their maps as if animals obeyed political boundaries, as on the right-hand but not the left-hand maps above. The right-hand graph implies, for example, that the bird could never have crossed the US-Canada border as there was nowhere to go. Despite that, there is some evidence that it did occasionally occur in southwestern Ontario, possibly blown off course as Susan Cooper suggested above. At an archaeological dig at Grimsby, Ontario, for example, Walter Kenyon found a clay pipe that looks distinctly like a parrot, made by native peoples in the mid-1600s. And Rosemary Prevec found 3 Carolina Parakeet bones at a native site near London, Ontario, dated at around 1100 CE. Both of these findings are no more than suggestive and could have been obtained in trade with natives living further south.

Possibly more convincing are some observations that Samuel de Champlain recorded in his notes in 1615, in the woods near where I live in Kingston. He says that he  “…penetrated so far into the woods in pursuit of a certain bird which seemed to be peculiar, with a beak almost like that of a parrot, as big as a hen, yellow all over, except for its red head and blue wings, which made successive flights like a partridge.” [8] There are definitely no other birds even remotely resembling that description in eastern Ontario today.

Catalog page, New York Millinery and Supply Company, Inc., New York

None of this nationalism is really important to our understanding of the bird’s ecology and demise, except to note that at one time the species was clearly widespread and mobile. What is important is an attempt to understand why they went extinct, as even by the middle of the 1800s it appeared to be declining in numbers [6].

Burgio and colleagues point to habitat destruction and hunting as the likely causes. Not surprisingly, the parakeet’s feathers were prized for the millinery trade, with some reports suggesting that ladies hats were sometimes adorned with skins of the whole bird. The 1901 ad to the right, for example, shows a whole parrot (skin) in the lower right corner, for the bargain price of 25¢ a bird or $2.95 a dozen (about $7.50 and $88 in today’s currency). While the documentation is sketchy, it is also likely that this species was a popular cage bird in Germany as well as in North America. The only other known photo, besides Shufeltdt’s, is also one of a pet called  ‘Doodles‘, kept by Smithsonian malacologist Paul Bartsch. In 1900, ‘doodle‘ meant ‘fool‘ and not the ‘absentminded scribble‘, Google commemorative, or online scheduler that it is today. And I wonder if Bratsch gave it that name to reminder him what fools we are when let any species go extinct.


  • Anonymous [Cooper, SF] (1850) Rural Hours by a Lady. New York: G. Putnam.
  • Burgio KR, Carlson CJ, Tingley MW (2017) Lazarus ecology: Recovering the distribution and migratory patterns of the extinct Carolina parakeet. Ecology and Evolution 7:5467–5475.
  • Burgio K, Carlson C, Bond A (2018) Georeferenced sighting and specimen occurrence data of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) from 1564-1944. Biodiversity Data Journal 6:e25280.
  • Cokinos C (2000) Hope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. New York: Penguin.
  • Fuller E (2013) Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record. London: Bloomsbury.

  • Greene WT, Dutton FGFG, Fawcett B, Lydon AF (1883) Parrots in Captivity, v. 2. London: George Bell and Sons.

  • Hahn P (1963) Where is that Vanished Bird? Toronto: University of Toronto Press. [see this previous post for more on this book[
  • Kennedy CC (1984) Did Champlain stalk a Carolina Parakeet in southern Ontario in 1615? Arch Notes 84:55–62.

  • McKinley, D. (1960) The Carolina parakeet in pioneer Missouri. The Wilson Bulletin 72:274–287.
  • McKinley D (1977) Climatic relations, seasonal mobility, and hibernation in the Carolina Parakeet. Jack-Pine Warbler 55:107–124.
  • Prevec R (1984) The Carolina Parakeet—its first appearance in southern Ontario. Arch Notes 84:51-54.
  • Snyder NFR (2004) The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


  1. Susan Fenimore Cooper: was a superb naturalist, author, and artist whose work was overshadowed in more ways than one by that of her father, James. She deserves recognition and a separate essay on her own work, Stay tuned.
  2. Cooper quotation: from Anonymous 1850 page 146
  3. ‘Incas’ the parakeet: Like Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Incas was frozen and sent to the Smithsonian, but he was lost in transit (Fuller 2013)
  4. breeding biology poorly known: see Snyder (2004)
  5. Shufeldt’s photo: is one of a pair of pet birds that Shufeldt borrowed from his friend Edward Schmidt, and it took him hours to get it to sit still enough on a cocklebur to make a decent photo (Cokinos 2001). Both of Schmidt’s birds later died from chewing on the bars of their cage, possibly from lead paint poisoning (Fuller 2013)
  6. declining numbers by mid 1800s: see Hasbrouck (1889)
  7. records and specimens: see Hahn (1963), McKinley (1960, 1977) and Snyder (2004) for background
  8. Champlain quotation: from Kennedy 1984 page 55

IMAGES:  first parakeet is by Robert Ridgway from Baird et al. (1905); graphs by the author based on data in Burgio et al. (2017, supplement)—parakeet is an engraving by Benjamin Fawcett in Greene et al. (1883); maps from the original papers; clay pipe from Kennedy (1984); millinery ad from the Smithsonian collection

Ornithology, March 1918

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

Unpublished manuscript dated March 26th, 1918
by Lloyd Kerswill, King City, Ontario [1]

It’s nearly the end of March and I have in front of me the first issues for 1918 of the world’s major ornithological journals—The Ibis, The Auk, The Condor, The Wilson Bulletin, The Emu, and Journal für Ornithologie. Even though there are probably only a few thousand professional and amateur ornithologists worldwide, the number of scientific publications about birds has burgeoned this century. Several journals do a nice job of publishing information on some current papers, but I thought it might be useful to provide a general overview here.

Even just summarizing all of the books—let alone the scientific papers—about birds in any of the great libraries is a daunting task that may soon be impossible.  I know that Messrs. William Mullens and Kirke Swann are putting together a comprehensive bibliography of British ornithology, but even that may take years to complete [2]. The AOU has almost completed a Bibliography of Bibliographies summarizing approximately 200 bibliographies including 26,000 titles and that might see publication in the next year or two [3]. The sort of listing of all ornithological publications attempted by earlier compilers, however, is probably a thing of the past.


These are trying times for humanity. The German juggernaut has just this month crossed the Somme in this endless war, and may soon occupy all of Europe. For months, now, the front page of the New York Times has been dominated by war news. I see also that there has been an outbreak of Spanish influenza in Kansas. This deadly disease is the scourge of modern medicine as it seems to appear from nowhere then sometimes spread like wildfire [4]. The AOU is taking up a collection to support our members who have gone overseas to aid in the war effort and I encourage you all to contribute to this worthy cause. The AOU will also not require that dues be paid by members in active military service [5].

As I write, the very popular Darktown Strutters’ Ball is playing on my gramophone. This catchy song was written by fellow Canadian, Shelton Brooks, who was born down in Amherstburg near Point Pelee where we go every year to watch the spectacular spring migrations. Those new musical rhythms are uplifting in this time of world tragedy, as are the ornithological journals. There’s a lot of interesting natural history being published and we should be grateful that most scientific research transcends the boundaries of nations and politics.

Here’s a brief summary of what’s in those first issues of ornithological journals in 1918 [6], in alphabetical order:

AUKjan1918THE AUK (Jan 1918): papers and notes on species’ distributions (21), breeding biology (2), migration (1), taxonomy (2), history (1), anatomy (1), behaviour (1) plus a memorial, and notes on society business, ornithological journals, papers in other (i.e., not major ornithological) journals, publications (mainly books) received, and 18 brief notes on bird papers from the recent literature.

THE CONDOR (Jan-Feb 1918):  papers and notes on species’ distributions (12), migration (2), anatomy (1), and behaviour (1) plus 2 brief reviews of recent books, and a note from the editor (Joseph Grinnell) on some recent papers that interested him and society news including the recent deaths of members. I like the personal touch that Grinnell adds to this journal and his insights into all things avian.

EMUjan1918THE EMU (Jan 1918): papers and notes on species’ distributions (2), breeding biology (3, incl 1 on oölogy), and taxonomy (1), plus a memorial, some 3 letters from members on a variety of ornithological topics, and the annual report of the RAOU for 1917. That report includes details of the recent donation of H. L. White’s magnificent egg collection to the RAOU, as well as many other donations of egg and skin collections to the society. The RAOU will deposit all of these specimens in the National Museum in Sydney where they will be preserved for study and the education of future generations.

IBISjan1918THE IBIS (Jan 1918):  papers and notes on species’ distributions (1), breeding biology (3, and 2 of these on oölogy), taxonomy (1), history (1), anatomy (1), behaviour (1) plus a memorial, some notes on recent ornithological publications (including books and journals), and 7 letters from members on a variety of ornithological topics, as well as some ornithological news. One of those news items summarized the eggs presented at the Third Oölogical Dinner held in London last September where the main topic of discussion (and display) was erythristic eggs. The paper that I have categorized as ‘history’ lists all of the coloured plates published in The Ibis from 1859 to the present—a wonderful resource.

JOURNAL FÜR ORNITHOLOGIE (Jan 1918): papers on species’ distributions (4), and breeding biology (1), plus summaries of recent meetings of the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft. The paper that I have categorized as ‘breeding biology’ is an interesting one on the effects of the war on birds.

THE WILSON BULLETIN (March 1918): papers and notes on species’ distributions (6), and breeding biology (1), plus a complete listing of the 54 women and 205 men who are currently members of the Wilson Ornithological Club, including my friend James H. Fleming of Toronto and 8 other Canadians.

From today’s perspective (March 2018)

parrotsI was surprised to find so little taxonomy in these journals as that was probably the main scientific pursuit of professional ornithologists in those days. Papers and notes on the birds of different places and regions dominated all of the journals. The Auk had the most papers and the widest diversity of topics but I found the papers in The Ibis and The Emu most relevant to my current interests in behavioural ecology. I was also surprised at both the number and quality of photographs in those journals.

I particularly liked a paper by Gregory M. Mathews on the plumage colours of Australian Rosellas published in The Ibis, with two beautiful plates painted by the superb Danish artist Henrik Grønvold. That paper speculated on the evolution of the different colour patterns within and between species and is full of interesting insights.

Besides the science noted above, one striking thing about The Auk in 1918 is that the editor required manuscripts to be submitted to him at least 6 weeks before the publication date. That means 6 weeks from submission to print! Presumably the editor did all of the reviewing (if any) but even that is a remarkable turnaround by today’s standards.


  • Mathews GM (1918) The Platycercine parrots of Australia: a study in colour-change. Ibis Tenth Series Vol 6: 115-127

  • Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A bibliography of British ornithology from the earliest times to the end of 1912, including biographical accounts of the principal writers and bibliographies of their published works. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited.


1. Article from 1918: This post intended to be my (first and rather feeble) attempt at historical fiction. My idea is to try to recreate the language and feel of something written in a century ago, based on the facts available. The fictitious writer is my real maternal grandfather, Lloyd Kerswill, who did live in on the family farm in King City in 1918 (when he was 34) but he was not particularly interested in birds. He did fuel my interest in behaviour and natural history, though, and I can remember enough about him to write in his voice and to relate to some of his lifestyle on the farm, which still exists on the outskirts of Toronto. I used to listen to his ancient one-sided, shellac-based records on his wind-up gramophone in the 1950s.

2. Mullens and Swann: This work was initially published in parts, and part 6 had just been issued by Jan 1918. That turned out to be the final part so the book was put together and published officially in 1919, and a further supplement was published as a single volume in 1923.

3. Bibliography of Bibliographies: In a brief search, I can find no further mention of this work and assume that it was never published

4. Influenza: The 1918 flu pandemic eventually killed a staggering 50–100 million people worldwide

5. No AOU dues for military: see Palmer 1981 Auk 35: 70

6. Journals from 1918: back issues of The Auk, The Condor and the Wilson Bulletin are all freely available at SORA; back issues of IbisEmu and Journal für Ornithologie are available at the BioDiversity Heritage Library