Field Guides

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 3 June 2019

In the fall of 1973, shortly after starting my PhD at McGill University, I decided that I wanted to study a community of hummingbirds in western Mexico. During his own PhD research, my supervisor (major professor), Peter Grant, had discovered an apparent case of character displacement in the bill lengths of two hummingbird species on the Islas Tres Marìas, about 50 km off the Pacific coast at San Blas, Nayarit. Hummingbirds seemed a good choice—both then and now—for a field study as they were abundant, fairly easy to watch, and could be attracted to feeders. Most important for my study, it seemed at least possible to quantify the energetic costs and benefits of their foraging activities and how bill size might influence those costs and benefits.

My initial excitement about this project was seriously dampened when I discovered that what I thought was the only field guide to Mexican birds was the one that Peter had used during his field work in the mid-1960s [1]— Emmet Reid Blake’s Birds of Mexico, first published in 1952. Blake’s guide included some drawings but nothing really as useful as the field guides to North American birds that I was so familiar with. Asking around [2], I learned that two new guides to Mexican birds had been published in 1972—Irby Davis’s Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Central America and Ernest P. Edwards’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico —both with colour plates.

Blake’s Birds of Mexico with two species accounts

I ordered them both but when they arrived I saw that field identification was still going to be tough. One of my focal species—Cinnamon Hummingbird—was distinctive and easy, but the other was the Broad-billed hummingbird which looked to me very similar to a half dozen other species that I expected to encounter. From today’s perspective that now feels like I was being overly cautious but at the time I had only ever seen the Ruby-throated hummingbird and the vast array of tropical species made their identification seem bewildering complex. I learned to watch birds with Peterson’s Eastern Guide and Robbins’s Golden Guide in hand so even those new Mexican guides seemed primitive in comparison.

Edwards’s and Davis’s field guides and a hummingbird plate from each

By early October, I had pretty much decided to study gulls in Newfoundland for my PhD when I had one of those life-defining coincidences. My fellow graduate students and I drove from Montreal to Cape Cod to attend the AOU meeting in Provincetown. I told various people about my research dilemma and most commiserated with the problems of field identification in the tropics. Then, in a break between talks, I went to the vendors’ tables and there was the latest Peterson Field Guide—Peterson and Chalif’s A Field Guide to Mexican Birds. The book had actually been published in January 1973 but there was no internet in those days and we usually only found out about new books when the publisher sent around flyers, or we heard by word of mouth.

Peterson’s Mexico Guide and a plate of hummingbirds

The new Peterson Guide was perfect for me as it put field identification in terms that I was familiar with—great illustrations, arrows indicating key field marks on every bird [3], and brief, clear descriptions. A quick look at the relevant plates told me that I would have no trouble identifying all the hummingbirds I was likely to encounter in western Mexico. The following June (1974), my colleague Neil Brown and I drove from Montreal to San Blas in June 1974 to begin our PhD research—he studying Thryothorus wren songs in the nearby highlands at Tepic, and I working on the foraging ecology of hummingbirds along the coast. With the Peterson guide in hand, we made a discovery on our way south through Sinaloa that showed how a previous study of Neil’s wrens had probably misidentified them, possibly because those wrens had been too hard to positively identify in the field.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that field guides made bird-watching popular, and continue to attract people to the hobby and to professional ornithology. The very first real field guide—small enough to carry, with details on rapid identification—was probably Florence Augusta Merriam‘s Birds Through an Opera-Glass, published in 1889 by The Chautauqua Press [4]. Florence was encouraged by her parents and her aunt to study natural history and both she and her brother (C. Hart Merriam) became prominent ornithologists.

While attending Smith College (1882-1886), Florence began to write articles on bird protection for Audubon Magazine, and founded the Smith College Audubon Society. She was very interested in studying live birds rather than collecting them for museums. As a result, she one of the first people to suggest watching birds through binoculars to study their behaviour, rather than shooting them: “When going to watch birds, provided with opera-glass and note-book, and dressed in inconspicuous colors, proceed to some good birdy place, — the bushy bank of a stream or an old juniper pasture, — and sit down in the undergrowth or against a concealing tree-trunk, with your back to the sun, to look and listen in silence.” [5}

Florence’s guide covered 70 species of land birds common to eastern North America, with a few species illustrated with woodcuts from Baird, Brewster and Ridgway’s History of North American Birds published in 1874. It seems to me that she intended her book to be a guide to bird-watching rather than a guide to identification to be used in the field: “Carry a pocket note-book, and above all, take an opera or field glass with you…watching them closely, comparing them carefully, and writing down, while in the field, all the characteristics of every new bird seen” [6]. That sounds like she is advocating taking notes so that species can be figured out back home, with her book in hand. It would be interesting to know if anyone actually used this book as a field guide back in the day. Some parts of her book would have been useful to the novice trying to identify birds that they encountered—like the drawings and some of the descriptions—but the focus is more on methods and the details of her encounters with each species.

Some birds from Merriam’s guide

She begins, for example, with a short chapter on how to watch birds and figure out which species is which. She suggests using the abundant and familiar American Robin as point of departure for size, colour, songs, habitats and habits: “Begin with the commonest birds, and train your ears and eyes by pigeon-holing every bird you see and every song you hear. Classify roughly at first, — the finer distinctions will easily be made later” [7] She adds three Appendices with suggestions on pigeon-holing species to facilitate identification, on general family characteristics, and on classifying birds with respect 10 different traits that could be observed in the field.

Some of Merriam’s pigeon-holes

Most of Merriam’s book is devoted to those 70 species’ accounts, starting with the American Robin. These are charming, interesting and detailed descriptions of the birds and their habits, based largely on Florence’s own observations in the field. These must be among the first published details of the behaviour and ecology of most of these species, anticipating the sort of life histories that Arthur Cleveland Bent would begin publishing 30 years later. In some cases—like the thrushes—she presents information to allow the observer to distinguish similar species, and for many she includes details of song including notes and mnemonics, as shown below.

White-throated Sparrow songs

We have come through a half dozen revolutions in field guides since Merriam’s day, marked by things like printing all species in colour, Peterson’s field marks method, lifelike paintings showing all plumages, sonograms, and range maps. As I prepare to head off to Alaska for field work next week, I will make sure that my iPhone has the latest Sibley and ebird apps, but I won’t be taking any books. Birders can now go to almost any country in the world with a useful field guide, notebook and camera in their pocket. Florence began her little field guide with “Wherever there are people there are birds…” [8] but now, as a result of the hobby that she promoted, it would be fair to say that wherever there are birds there are people.


  • Baird SF, Brewer TM, Ridgway R (1874)  A History of North American Birds: Land Birds, Vols 1-3.. Boston, MA: Little, Brown. 
  • Bent AC (1919) Life Histories of North American Diving Birds. U. S. National Museum Bulletin 107.
  • Brewster W (“W.B.) (1889) Recent Literature: Birds Through an Opera Glass. The Auk 6: 330
  • Brown RN (1979) Structure and evolution of song form in the wrens Thryothorus sinaloa and T. felix. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 5: 111-131
  • Grant PR (1965) A systematic study of the terrestrial birds of the Tres Marias Islands, Mexico. Postilla 90:1–106.
  • Merriam FA (1890) Birds Through an Opera-Glass. New York: The Chautauqua Press.


  1. field work in the 1960s: since Grant was collecting birds, a field guide was not particularly important for most of his research.
  2. asking around about field guides: without email, this was a tedious and slow process of letter writing in those days.
  3. arrows indicating key field marks: I seem to recall that Peterson patented this method, which is why no other field guides could use it
  4. Chautauqua Press: the back of the title page says “This edition of “Birds Through an Opera-Glass” is issued for The Chautauqua Press by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., publishers of the work.”
  5. quotation about bird watching: from Merriam 1889: page iv
  6. quotation about notebooks: from Merriam 1889: page 3
  7. quotation about pigeon-holing: from Merriam 1889: page 1
  8. quotation about people and birds: from Merriam 1889: page 1

An Eye for Photography

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 8 April 2019

In the summers of 1966 and 1967, I worked (Dream Job #2) for Bill Carrick at the Niska Waterfowl Research Station near Guelph, Ontario. Bill was an outstanding wildlife cinematographer and a superb naturalist who was director/manager of that facility. My job was to raise and feed the myriad birds and mammals that he used in his films, and to act as what in film lingo is called ‘best boy’, looking after equipment and lighting, as well as nest-finding when we were in the field.

I lived on the property with Bill and his family and every morning took chicken scraps from the local butcher out to the feed several hawks and owls housed in big flight aviaries at the edge of a woodlot. The raptors largely ignored me as I cleaned up leftovers and piled chicken parts on a platform for their daily meal. One day, though, I heard a whoosh behind me and as I turned saw a red-tailed hawk with talons splayed, only a meter from my face. I somehow dodged in panic but one of the bird’s talons ripped open the left side of my head with a gash starting only a cm or two from my eye.

Eric Hosking

As Bill’s wife, Mary, was patching me up, he told me the story of Eric Hosking, who had lost an eye to a Tawny Owl when he was only 28 but already famous for his bird photography. Hosking lived in north London and in the spring of 1937 had set up a blind on a Tawny Owl nest near his home. Late in the evening of 12 May, he was climbing to his blind when one of the parent owls attacked (as they are now well known to do around their nests), striking his face and blinding his left eye. While this was a tragic accident, the subsequent publicity marked a turning point in Hosking’s career. Although Hosking’s photos were already widely published, the publicity over the loss of his eye while photographing birds made him a national celebrity.

Hosking was a spectacularly good bird photographer, who went on to write at least 14 books illustrated with his photographs. In 1970, he published his autobiography, An Eye for a Bird, in which he described how he lost his left eye more than 30 years earlier. That book was wildly popular and went through at least 7 editions. Just last year, it was made available in digital form on Amazon UK Kindle (here).

Hosking’s best photos, in my opinion, show birds in action, and are not simply portraits of birds on a pond or a stick. His action photos are all the more remarkable because, by today’s digital standards, bird photography in the 1930s was staggeringly difficult. To take a picture in those days, the photographer had to calculate the best f-stop and shutter speed for the lighting conditions, focus on a plate on the back of the camera, insert the film holder (containing a glass plate with the emulsion on one side) into the camera, and then hope nothing changed when the bird showed up and the shutter was pressed. Photographers among you will recognize how difficult it must have been to take pictures at the equivalent of ISO 10. On a good day, Hosking might get 12 exposed plates that he could take home to develop and print.

Barn Owl (1936) by Eric Hosking

Like all photographers that I know, Hosking liked to keep on top of the latest technological advances. He was one of the first to use flash bulbs in bird photography, thereby obtaining some of the earliest photos of birds at night. Previously, he would have had to use flash powder that must have been incredibly dangerous in woods and grasslands. In the 1940s, he also pioneered the use of electronic flash to capture and freeze birds in flight, showing things that nobody had been able to see before, like the bending of feathers and the angles of the wings on the up- and down-strokes.

Kingfisher (1951) by Eric Hosking

Because of, and in addition to, his contributions to bird photography, Hosking wrote several papers for bird journals, and was a champion for bird conservation. He was also president or vice-president of the BOU, RSPB, the Nature Photographic Society,  and the British Naturalists’ Association, and was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to both nature photography and conservation. In 1965, the Natural History Museum began a Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition that Hosking often judged. The first winner was C. V. R. Dowdeswell for his colour photo of a Tawny Owl [1], presented by none other than David Attenborough [2].

Attenborough (L), Dowdeswell (R) and the award-winning photo
Cherry (above) and Richard (below) taking a photo of a bird’s nest

Hosking was not the first bird photographer to gain national and international fame for his work. That honour is shared by Richard and Cherry Kearton in England, and a trio of naturalists in America. The Kearton brothers [3] were from a small village in the Yorkshire Dales where they developed an early interest in photography. Their first bird photos were taken in the 1880s, when they were in still in their teens. Cherry is credited with taking the first photo of a bird’s nest and eggs in 1892, when he was just 21. In 1898, the Keartons published a book (available here), With Nature and a Camera, about their 1896 trip to St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides northwest of Scotland. That book—illustrated with 160 of their photographs—is still quite readable, full of observations of and insights into the relationships between the people and birds on those remote islands, and the techniques developed by the Keartons for observation and photography.

cormorants and guillemots, St Kilda 1896, by Cherry Kearton
Finley (above) and Bohlman (below) with flickers

While the Keartons were exploring St Kilda, two American naturalists—William L. Finley and Herman T. Bohlman, both in their twenties—were beginning to photograph birds in the western USA. One of their goals was to use their photography to promote bird conservation. In 1905, Bohlman and Finley explored the Klamath River Valley along the Oregon-California border. Their writings and photos were a major impetus for President Teddy Roosevelt to set aside federal bird refuges in the west.

In 1907, Finley and Bohlman published American Birds (available here), with 21 chapters, each about a different species and illustrated with 137 of their photographs. Finley married his wife, Irene, in 1906, and she accompanied him on all of his subsequent expeditions, gradually taking over from Bohlman who decided to stay at home to attend to his family. All of their archived photographs (available here) are attributed to all three people so it is now impossible to know who took what, but clearly Irene was one of the earliest, and few, women bird photographers

Belted Kingfishers (1901) by HT Bohlman

As for bird collecting and egg collecting, bird photography has been largely a man’s game, with precious few exceptions. This 2015 listing of the world’s dozen best bird photographers, for example, mentions no women. I am aware of a few very talented women nature photographers working today and will highlight their work in a later post,. Many of those women, like Irene Findley, often shared the limelight with their male partners, or worked in their shadows


  • Bevis J (2007) Direct From Nature: The Photographic Work of Richard & Cherry Kearton. Axminster, UK: Colin Sackett.
  • Edwards G, Hosking E, Smith S (1947) Aggressive display of the ringed plover. British Birds 40:12–19.
  • Finley WL, Bohlman HT (1907) American Birds: Studied and photographed from life. New York: Scribner’s.
  • Hosking D. (2017) Book Review: An Eye for a bird. British Birds (3 Jan 2017 available here)
  • Hosking E, Lane F (1970) An Eye for a Bird. London: Hutchinson.
  • Kearton R, Kearton C (1898) With nature and a camera; being the adventures and observations of a field naturalist and an animal photographer. London: Cassell.


  1. colour photo of a Tawny Owl: is it just a coincidence that this was the winning photo, as that was the species that had taken out Hosking’s eye
  2. David Attenborough: was already well known in 1965, having for more than a decade worked for the BBC
  3. Kearton brothers: although both Richard and Cherry are often credited with their photographs, Cherry was really the photographer where Richard was the all-round naturalist and writer.

Magda and Kaethe


BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 18 March 2019

In one of my earliest memories—I must have been about 6 years old—it is summer and I am sitting in my grandfather’s garden as his seven hens and a rooster forage around me, almost within touch. I am watching them closely, giving each of them personalities, figuring out who is boss, who is good at finding worms and grubs, and who is mainly stealing from the others rather than scratching for food of its own.

I was not interested in birds then, but as long as I can remember I have loved watching animals close up. To that end, I kept all manner of snakes, frogs, salamanders, fishes and insects in my bedroom when I was a teenager, often much to the horror of my poor mother when they escaped, as they did with alarming regularity. My second paying job (Dream Job #2)—for two summers right after high school—was to raise and care for hundreds of ducks, geese, swans, hawks, owls, racoons and skunks at the Niska Waterfowl Research Station [1], near Guelph, Ontario. Every day I got to watch at close range dozens of domestic and exotic species from all over the world, and to raise their babies.

This week I highlight the lives of two woman ornithologists who kept and raised hundreds of bird species over a span of 40 years, and in so doing made immense—and virtually unknown and unsung— contributions to our knowledge of bird behaviour, growth and development during the first half of the twentieth century.

Magdalena Wiebe [2] was born in Berlin, Germany in 1883 and became interested in birds at a very early age. By the time she was 20, she was already a skilled taxidermist and aviculturist. After her marriage in 1904, she stayed at home where she kept and reared hundreds of birds over the next 28 years, gathering data on the breeding, behaviour and development of almost all of the species commonly found in Europe.

Katharina Berger was born in 1897 in Breslau, Germany, and also developed an abiding interest in animals at an early age. At university she studied both botany and zoology and did her PhD with Otto Koehler, one of the pioneers of ethology. Along with Konrad Lorenz, Koehler founded the journal Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. Katharina, like Magdalena, was an expert bird keeper. She published several key papers on pigeon orientation and behaviour. In 1945 she was appointed director of the Berlin Zoo, a position she held until her retirement in 1957.

What Magdalena and Katharina had in common was that they were both married to Oskar Heinroth, though not, of course, at the same time. Heinroth also became interested in animals when he was very young. Though trained as a medic, Oskar took a position at the Zoological Garden in Berlin in 1904 when he was in his early 30s, and spent the rest of his life studying birds, with Magdalena, then Katharina, both responsible for looking after the birds they studied, and devoting their lives with Oskar to studying their birds at close range.

Magdalena learned taxidermy from Oskar at the Natural History Museum, before they were married. At their engagement, Oskar gave Magdalena a ‘pet’ Blackcap in lieu of a ring. That pet was a portent of things to come as Magdalena spent the next 28 years raising birds in their apartment. During that period Oskar was assistant director then director at the Berlin Zoo, and studied waterfowl behaviour in his spare time.

Magdalena clearly did not like the idea of sitting idly at home so began raising small birds to learn more about their behaviour and development. She bought some of them at local bird markets but often went afield to collect eggs to incubate and raise at home. Eventually they devoted an entire room in their apartment to the birds, though Oskar was initially a little skeptical about the value of Magdalena’s hobby.

Magdalena was a wizard at bird husbandry and fearless attempted to raise many species known to be tough to keep, let alone rear, in captivity: Goldcrests, Dippers and Tree Creepers, for example. Soon her goal was to try to raise every single bird species native to Germany no matter how big, small or difficult. Over that 28-year period she raised about 1000 individuals of 236 species, many of which were exceptionally tame and remained in the apartment as adults. This must have strained their domestic relationship and their neighbours as the birds were often noisy and undoubtedly smelly. And how did they keep the raptors from eating the smaller birds?

Aquarium (Berlin)

After 9 years, the Heinroths moved to a more more spacious apartment in the Aquarium building where they could devote several rooms to their birds and have a somewhat less impact on their personal lives and the neighbourhood. The Aquarium was built in 1913 and was (and is) part of the Berlin Zoological Garden where Oskar was Director. This must have been a much more convenient living/working situation for the couple. With both facilities and subjects close at hand, the Heinroths were able to greatly expand the scope of their research (and, presumably, the size of the birds that they could house!).

Both the birds and the research took their toll on the couple, as they functioned on precious little sleep during the busy spring and summer breeding season. Oskar was also allergic to either feathers or the mealworms that they raised to feed the birds. He only recovered from his asthma when he stopped having birds in the house when this project ended rather abruptly in 1932.

In addition to developing methods for the husbandry of a wide variety of species, the Heinroths measured growth, studied the development of locomotion, behaviour, and moult. They recorded everything in notebooks supplemented with more than 15,000 photographs of life stages and behaviours. For many of the birds they also drew or photographed the gapes of nestlings, realizing that this was an important signal to parents. It certainly did not escape Magdalena’s notice that they were on to something transformative in the study of behaviour: ‘‘Yes, it is often almost impossible to properly investigate the finer aspects of the habits of small birds in the wild …. If we … wish to get exact answers, the best thing is to keep the birds (in captivity), to do everything for them and observe them continuously’’ [3]

After 20 years of gathering this information and photographing their birds, the Heinroths began to put it all together in what was eventually a four-volume treatise published between 1924 and 1933. For each species they summarized all of their observations and measurements, and provided a series of 4040 photographs documenting various stages of development from egg to adult (see example pages below). In several of the photos, either Oskar or, more often, Magdalena, are visible, either for scale or simply to acknowledge the tameness of the birds. The book and their work in general is an important milestone in the history of ornithology, ethology and behavioural ecology. While their book was praised at the time, and is still monumentally useful, it and the Heinroths rather faded into obscurity [4].

After 28 consecutive years staying at home to rear birds, Magdalena took a holiday. The fourth volume of their book was now at the publisher, and Magdalena had suffered a couple of serious bouts of illness and really needed a break. After only two weeks away she suffered an intestinal blockage and died.

A year after Magdalena died and their project ended, Oskar married Katharina Berger. Kaethe had previously been married to Gustav Adolf Rösch, who was an assistant to Karl von Frisch [5] in Munich. When that union dissolved, she eventually moved to Berlin where she met and fell in love with Oskar. Like Magdalena, Kaethe also kept and studied birds, though presumably not in their apartment as the birds were pigeons and the subject was homing and orientation. With Oskar she published several influential papers on the subject. When Oskar died in 1945, Katharina was appointed scientific director at the zoo and initially spent her time restoring the zoo from the ravages of WWII. Long after Oscar died, Katharina wrote a book about his life and their lives together [6].

Katharina and Oskar
Hooded Crow (by L Binder, from Heinroth & Stenbacher 1962)

While Katharina’s life with Oskar was productive and undoubtedly rewarding, she outlived him by 43 years during which time she published many popular articles, an autobiography of her own life and a book about birds. That book, with Joachim Stenbacher, was illustrated by Ludwig Binder, and was published as the fifth in a series of looseleaf, boxed fascicles on a variety of European birds. This publishing methods is reminiscent of the subscription volumes of the 1800s, and the original printed species accounts in the Birds of North America series published by the American Ornithologists Union and the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia) in the 1990s [7].


  • Heinroth K (1971) Oskar Heinroth––Vater der Verhaltensforschung. Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft
  • Heinroth K (1979) Mit Faltern begann’s, Mein Leben mit Tieren in Breslau, München und Berlin. München: Kindler.
  • Heinroth K, Stenbacher J (1962) Mitteleuropäische Vögel. Hamburg: Kronen-Verlag
  • Heinroth M (1911) Zimmerbeobachtungen an seltener gehaltenen europa¨ischen Vo¨geln. Berichte V. Internat Ornithol Kongr Berlin 1910:703–764
  • Heinroth O, Heinroth K (1941) Das Heimfindevermögen der Brieftauben. Journal für Ornithology 69:213–256
  • Heinroth O, Heinroth M (1924–1933) Die Vögel Mitteleuropas—in allen Lebens- und Entwicklungsstufen photographisch aufgenommen und in ihrem Seelenleben bei der Aufzucht vom Ei an beobachtet. Band I–IV. Berlin: Hugo BehrmühlerVerlag
  • Podos J (1994) Early perspectives on the evolution of behavior: Charles Otis Whitman and Oskar Heinroth. Ethology ecology & evolution 6:467–480.
  • Rühl P (1932) Erinnerungen an Magdalena Heinroth. Journal für Ornithology 80: 542–551
  • Schulze-Hagen K, Birkhead TR (2015) The ethology and life history of birds: the forgotten contributions of Oskar, Magdalena and Katharina Heinroth. Journal of ornithology 156:9–18.


  1. Niska Waterfowl Research Station: was the research wing of Kortright Waterfowl Park established by the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation in the 1960s. The research station collected, raised and looked after the waterfowl for the public park, as well as conducting research on the resident waterfowl. The Park was open to the public for about 40 years.
  2. Magdalena Wiebe: I exercised some artistic licence in calling her Magda in the title of this essay. Magda is the diminutive form of Magdalena in Polish, at least. Katharina, on the other hand, is referred to as Kaethe in various sources.
  3. quotation about birds in captivity: from Heinroth 1911, translated in Schulze-Hagen and Birkhead 2015 page 12
  4. faded into obscurity: as Schulze-Hagen and Birkhead (2015) point out, both political events and the changing focus of ornithology were probably responsible. In particular, it seems likely that publication of the work in German limited its potential audience among researchers in the English-speaking world who were leading the transformation of evolutionary and behavioural biology
  5. Karl von Frisch: one of the founders of ethology, he shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen
  6. Katharina’s book about Oskar: see Heinroth (1971), published 26 years after Oskar died
  7. Birds of North America: is now online here, and continues to be the most important source of information about all the birds of North America.

IMAGES: Kortright Park sign from article in Guelph Mercury here; Magdalena from Rühl 1932; Aquarium from Wikipedia; photo montages from Die Vogel Mitteleuropas scanned by the author; Katharina and Oskar from Wikipedia; Hooded Crow scanned by the author.

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

In the Shadow of Men

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 February 2019

In 1973, I was stranded for several days on a small island in Witless Bay off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. I had gone there several times already that summer, conducting seabird surveys for the Canadian Wildlife Service. Landing on Green Island was sometimes difficult and the days were short as the local cod fishermen—Bill White and Henry Yard—who took me out and back liked to do so on certain tides to make the landings less dangerous. As the season was getting on and I still had a large part of the island to census, I decided, one day in June, to stay overnight so that I could get in 3-4 times as many hours on the island than was possible on a single visit. I took a tiny pup tent, two days’ food and water, a small camp stove full of fuel, a sleeping bag and a change of clothes as I knew I’d get wet.

shadowMy best-laid plans were thwarted by a fierce, unexpected storm that came to shore that night and lashed the island for more than a week. The storm was so wild that it prevented both the fishermen and an RCMP helicopter from picking me up. Often I had to spend hours in my little tent to stay dry and to keep from being blown off the cliffs. To pass the time I slept, made plans to stretch out my meagre food supply, and organized my field notes. I also built nooses of fishing line to catch some murres in case I needed to eat a few to survive as the storm was showing no signs of letting up. When cooped up in my little tent, I read, several times, the only book I had taken with me, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, which had just come out in paperback. That book—and the experience of being stranded and rescued—had a profound effect on me.

Three things about Goodall’s book were important to my development and outlook as a scientist. First, and foremost, this was the first book I had read by a woman biologist/naturalist [1], and it was just as good as all the others. I think that Goodall’s book more or less marked a turning point for biology that has transformed the role of women during the past 50 years. Prior to Goodall’s book, I had read many of the recent and now classic ‘popular’ books by and about naturalists—Tinbergen, Lorenz, Lack, Robert Ardry, George Schaller, Ernest Thompson Seton, Albert Hochbaum, Fred Bodsworth, James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson, to name just a few—all by men.

At that time, I knew of excellent recent work by women ornithologists—MM Nice, Mary Willson, Mercedes Foster, Janet Kear, Susan Smith—published in the bird journals, but they were very much in the minority. I have been looking at the publications by female ornithologists in The Auk and The Condor over the last 135 years and the trend—and the exponential increase in female authorships since 1970—is shown on the graph below, reflecting a similar trend in The American Naturalist.


My own experience as an academic reflects this welcome pattern as well. My first group of four graduate students were all men, all of whom went on to academic positions at excellent universities. My last (in both senses of the word) four graduate students were all female. It’s too early to tell what career path they will take but one of them just got a tenure-track job. This change in the composition of my research group since 1980 does not reflect any conscious attempt on my part to train women scientists—everyone that I took on as a graduate student was simply the best applicant at the time. During my first decade teaching (1980s), most undergraduate biology students were male; when I looked out on my 48-student History and Philosophy of Biology class last week I could count only 9 men.

Stilt Sandpiper, Churchill 1972

Goodall’s book also reminded me how much fun it is to study animals close up, and how much better your insights can be when you can get extremely close to animals without seeming to disturb them. I enjoyed that aspect of studying seabirds that summer in Newfoundland, but also when studying both sandpipers and collared lemmings on the tundra at Churchill, Manitoba, the previous two summers. Such close observations of behaviours seemed to be important for testing hypotheses in the nascent field of behavioural ecology, especially where social interactions were concerned. Partly for that reason, I returned to the arctic with my newly-minted research group in 1980 as I knew the birds would be tame, could be watched at close distance, and could be followed for as long as we wanted on the open tundra. That was one of the reasons that we were able to document high levels of extrapair mating in Lapland Longspurs, years before DNA fingerprinting revealed that extrapair paternity was common in passerine birds [2].

Ike and Tina just outside my tent

Finally, I was amused that Goodall had named all of the chimpanzees that she watched. I knew that Lorenz and others had named their study animals but I always thought that that would not be acceptable in a serious scientific study. Goodall reminded me that there was nothing wrong with making research fun and entertaining. Right away I started to give names to the pairs of seabirds nesting near my tent—was I going a little stir crazy? For the local pairs of puffins, black guillemots, herring gulls and common murres, I chose the names of my favourite folk and rock couples—Ian and Sylvia, Ike and Tina, (Peter) Paul and Mary, Jim and Jean, and Chuck and Joni [3]. Years later, we often gave names to our favourite pairs of Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings and Rock Ptarmigan. And, in the early 1990s, when we studied Ruffs on Gotland in the Baltic, we named each of the males on every lek and used hand-drawn mug shots to identify them individually.

Ruffs on Gotland—copy of a page from my 1990 field notes on Gotland

Today (11 February 2019) is the UN-sponsored International Day of Women and Girls in Science, designed to celebrate and promote the roles of women in all of the sciences. While we have come a long way since Jane Goodall began working on chimpanzees, less than 30% of scientists worldwide are women, and there are still many barriers and sources of discrimination and gender bias in the sciences.

At the AOS meeting in Anchorage this year we will have some displays celebrating the roles of women in ornithology. For a long time, ornithology was largely a man’s game [4] but there have been some great, but relatively unknown, woman ornithologists in the past. I have tried to highlight some of their accomplishments on this blog [4]. In that same vein, I will devote all of March (Women’s History Month in the USA) to posts about the contributions of women to ornithology before Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees.


  • Bronstein JL, Bolnick, DI (2018) “Her Joyous Enthusiasm for Her Life-Work…”: Early Women Authors in The American Naturalist. American Naturalist 192:655-663.

  • Burke T, Bruford MW (1987) DNA fingerprinting in birds. Nature 327:149–152.

  • Klopfer PH (1962) Behavioral aspects of ecology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

  • Goodall JvL (1971) In the shadow of man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


  1. first book I had read by a woman biologist/naturalist: it’s only when writing this post today that I realized this. It certainly did not surprise me at the time.
  2. Chuck and Joni: my friends and I went to hear folk concert by the Mitchells at a coffee shop (either Penny Farthing or Riverboat) in Toronto’s Yorkville Village one night in 1967 or so. But the couple had broken up the day before and so a very nervous Joni did the gig on her own. She never looked back.
  3. extrapair paternity was common in passerine birds: see Burke and Buford (1987) for an early example
  4. largely a man’s game: see previous posts here, here, here, here, and here

IMAGES: all photos, the Ruff drawings, and the Auk/Condor graph by the author; American Naturalist graph modified from Figure 1 in Bronstein and Bolnick (2018)

CORRECTIONS: in the original post I forgot to add the Bronstein and Bolnick reference, the image sources, and the drawings of Ruffs. All added on 13 Feb 2019

The Nice Bird Club

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 28 January 2019

When I took first-year Zoology at the University of Toronto, in the 1960s, our lab instructor/coordinator was Dr J. Murray Speirs. Speirs was a kindly gentleman with a bit of old-world charm, accentuated by his ever-present black beret. I warmed to him immediately because he was also a birder and had a reputation for encouraging young naturalists [1].

That warmth cooled somewhat when Dr Speirs gave me a ‘B’ grade for my bird list from a weekend class lab project where we had to record all of the birds seen in a day’s outing. My non-birder friends all got ‘A’s so I was particularly puzzled. When I asked him about my grade, he said that he gave me a ‘B’ because “every bird has a name, and you failed to name them all”.  I had listed 3 unidentified buteos and a half-dozen unidentified peeps, whereas my more-savvy confrères had—I found out later—fudged their reports based on what the bird books told them to expect in late September in Toronto [2].

Doris & Murray Speirs

Dr Speirs was married to Doris Heustis Speirs, who I met only once, at their home in Pickering, just east of Toronto. This was on a weekend birding/photography outing with my friends George Peck and Jim Richards. As we left the Speirs’s home, I commented that Doris really knew her birds. To which they replied “Yes, and she also founded the nice bird club”. “Interesting,” I said, “but what’s so nice about it”. They laughed: “No, no. It’s the Margaret Nice Bird Club, named after that famous woman ornithologist, and it’s open only to women.”

At a dinner with the Speirs on 10 Jan 1952, the biogeographer Miklos Udvardy was appalled to learn that his wife Maud would not be allowed to attend that evening’s meeting of the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC). Murray and Miklos were going, but the club was ‘men only’ [3]. Udvardy’s response was priceless: “Is this the fourteenth century?” He then suggested to Doris that she start an ornithological club of her own, for women only [4].

A week later, Doris had lunch with two friends—Irma Metcalfe and Marjorie Lawrence Meredith—interested in birds, and they decided to start just such a club. They chose to call it the Margaret Morse Nice Ornithological Club (MMNOC), in honour of one of the pioneers of behavioural and evolutionary ecology of birds, a renowned ornithologist, and, in those days, one of the few well-known women who studied birds. They limited membership to 12 women, and their little club flourished for the next 35 years.

Doris met Margaret Nice at the American Ornithologists Union meeting in October 1938 in Washington, DC. At that meeting, Margaret was one of four speakers in a symposium— ‘The Individual vs. the Species in Behavior Studies’ [5]. Her paper ‘The Social Kumpan in the Song Sparrow’ was published in The Auk in 1939 and pays homage to her friend Konrad Lorenz and his foundational ideas about social interactions. Based on her own studies of the Song Sparrow, Nice’s paper and her participation in the symposium illustrate her stature as one of the leading American ornithologists of the day. Doris was enthralled with meeting Nice and wrote to her brother about their conversation about Doris’s own research: “…she questioned me on my research with evidently a sincere and even keen interest, as though I could really contribute to her knowledge of bird behaviour by my observations. Her simplicity, her deep humility and sense of awe and wonder were evidences of her greatness.” [6]

Thus began a lifelong friendship and an obvious reason for the name that Doris gave to her bird club. Here is Nice on that friendship in a letter to Speirs: I feel that the study of ornithology is a wonderful game in which strong sympathy and fellowship reign between the serious participants: we are friends and glad to help one another. We have high standards for our science and we want beginners to realize this [7]. Nice visited the Speirs home several times, and there got the inspiration for her seminal review on avian incubation periods, published in The Condor in 1954. The Speirs maintained a fabulous ornithological library in their home and Nice began exploring their books to see what some writers, as far back as Aristotle, had to say about incubation. She noticed, for example, that new bird books often reported different incubation periods for the same species [8].

nicecoverIn 1979, a few years after Nice died, the MMNOC published her autobiography Research is a Passion with Me as a tribute to their patron saint. It’s not often—not often enough—that scientists, and particularly ornithologists, write their own stories and those by Charles Darwin, Margaret Nice and others are a treasure trove for historians of science about how the authors viewed themselves. One must, of course, read an autobiography with that in mind as the authors do have a certain bias, may leave out the unflattering bits, and have no real appreciation for the historical (in retrospect) context of their lives and research contributions. All that said, Nice’s autobiography is—as is Darwin’s—a wonderful read and was, for me, an inspiration. It was published, and I read it, in the year that I completed my PhD and it reminded me once again that it was OK to be passionate about research, and that persevering in the face of great odds was (or at least could be) very rewarding [9].

ogilviecoverSoon I will be reviewing a new full-length biography of Margaret Morse Nice in Birding magazine. This book—For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie (University of Oklahoma Press)—was published in September 2018 and is the first biography of this remarkable woman. While Nice’s autobiography gave us lots of insights into her life and research, Ogilvie’s book is richer with detail and context. Ogilvie was Curator of the History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma where much of Nice’s archives are housed, and she appears to have read everything that Nice ever wrote including letters, manuscripts, and publications, as well as talking to many of Nice’s relatives, friends and colleagues. Ogilvie chronicles an important period in biology, when women often struggled to do research and to obtain some recognition for their many accomplishments. In part, because of women like Margaret Morse Nice and Doris Huestis Speirs, they witnessed a sea change in the roles and prominence of women to ornithology during their lifetimes.


  • Darwin F, ed. (1887) The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray.
  • Falls JB (1990) Doris Huestis Speirs 1894 – 1989. Picoides 4: 3-4
  • Iron J, Pittaway R (2010) Who was Mrs. Gordon Mills? TOC Newletter, January 2010, pp 2-3
  • Nice MM (1939) The social kumpan and the Song Sparrow. The Auk 56: 255–262.
  • Nice MM (1954) Problems of incubation periods in North American birds. The Condor 56:173–197.

  • Nice MM (1979) Research Is a Passion with Me: The Autobiography of a Bird Lover. Dundurn.

  • Ogilvie MB (2018) For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.


  1. Murray Speirs’s reputation: Dr Speirs and his wife Doris took several local young naturalists under their wings and often took them out birding. I am grateful to Jim Richards for several insights about the Speirs and their generosity, in an email to me on 27 January 2019.
  2. first-year lab reports: I almost failed first-year Botany for always drawing accurately what I saw under the microscope, instead of what I was supposed to see. These experiences were transformative for me as I vowed to never penalize my own students—if I should ever became a professor, which seemed unlikely in those days as I was doing poorly in my courses—for describing exactly what they saw even if it seemed incorrect or unorthodox
  3. men only: I had been to a few meetings of the TOC as a guest of my older friends, and often wondered why no women ever attended.
  4. ornithological club for women: for more details see Miles Hearn’s blog here
  5. symposium speakers: the other speakers were Francis H. Herrick, Frederick Lincoln, and G. K. Noble
  6. Doris Speirs quotation: from Olgilvie 2018 page 220
  7. Margaret Nice quotation: from Nice 1979 page 268
  8. Nice on incubation periods: see Ogilvie 2019 pages 214-217 for more details
  9. on persevering: although I had been very privileged to do my PhD with a great scientist at an outstanding institution, the prospects for an academic appointment in Canada in those days, at least in my field, were zero. Over a period of more than 5 years around 1980 there was not a single academic job that I could apply for in Canada, and my interests were quite broad.

IMAGES: the Speirs from Iron and Pittaway (2010) colour-corrected; book covers by the author.

A very queer little fish: Bernard Brent, Charles Darwin, and elusive canaries

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 14 January 2019

trbredcanaryTwenty years ago when I was writing The Red Canary—the story of how in the 1920s a bird enthusiast and a biology teacher created a red canary—I needed to include an overview of the history of canary domestication. To obtain the necessary information, I started to collect eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books on canary breeding. As this was before many of these books became available on-line, I regularly checked for editions available at local and international booksellers.

Brent in 1863

Charles Darwin’s book The Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication, from 1868, provided an overview of variation, selective breeding and the process of domestication. In it, he covered the domestication of dogs, cats, pigeons, chickens, and (briefly) the canary. As his main source of information on the canary, Darwin cited a book by Bernard Brent [1]. Brent was a shipbuilder who was also a pigeon, poultry and cage bird enthusiast. He lived not far from Darwin and was a regular contributor to the Cottage Gardener [2] to which Darwin subscribed.

I eventually obtained a wide range of books on canaries, but Brent’s book, The Canary, British Finches, and some other Birds, eluded me. Despite regular inspection of the on-line second bookshops over several years, I never once saw Brent’s book offered for sale. Although this was slightly frustrating, it was not a major obstacle for my research since, I was able to use the copy once owned by Darwin himself, in the Cambridge University Library.

The apparent scarcity of Brent’s book made me suspect that only a few copies had been printed, but it also made me wonder whether Brent might not have been highly rated by the cage-bird cognoscenti. This view was reinforced, when I discovered that Brent had made a mistake—and one that Darwin repeated in Variation [3]—when he claimed that there existed a feather-footed breed of canaries. Brent had obtained this information from a mistranslation of the word ‘duvet’ (meaning down feathers) as ‘rough-footed’ (for unknown reasons) in the English edition of a well-known book about canaries by the French author J-C. Hervieux [4].  In his book, Brent wrote: “The rough-footed or feather-legged Canaries now seem to be very scarce, if the breed is not altogether lost, as I do not remember having seen but one, and that many years back.” [5] This suggests that he thought he may have seen one, which, of course, he could not have done as they do not exist.

brent's canaries plates
Brent’s canaries (1864)

My scouring of the on-line second-hand bookshops identified some twenty other books on canaries that Darwin could have cited in Variation, so why did he use Brent? The main reason I think was that Brent was one of first to enumerate and illustrate the different canary breeds. The drawings aren’t great (see illustration to the left [6]), but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. A further five or ten years were to pass before images of the different breeds in colour became available (see below).

Darwin knew Brent personally. They first met after Darwin became interested in the artificial selection of pigeons in 1855 and attended a fanciers’ meeting in London [7]. After this initial encounter Darwin wrote to his son William referring to Brent as “a very queer [meaning unusual] little fish”,  adding that “all pigeon fanciers are little men, I begin to think” [8]. Brent was indeed small in stature [9] and, according to Darwin. both “a very obliging kind man, but very crotchetty” [10] and “eccentric” [11]. Nevertheless, Brent and Darwin corresponded and Brent visited Darwin’s home [12] and became Darwin’s chief source of poultry information [13], as well  providing other details such as the breeding canary-finch hybrids [14]. It is also possible that Brent gave Darwin the copy of his Canary book.

img_7783 (1)
Canary breeds (Anon 1873)

Last week, some fifteen years after The Red Canary was published, I was looking for another old bird book on-line. Failing to find it reminded me of my earlier quest for Brent’s book. I looked again, and to my amazement, there was copy in a bookshop on England’s south coast. I couldn’t resist it—hence the inspiration for this essay.


  • Anonymous (1873) Canaries: their Varieties and Points. London: Dean.
  • Birkhead TR (2003) The Red Canary. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson [published in the USA as A Brand New Bird. New York: Basic Books; and reprinted by Bloomsbury, London in 2014].
  • Brent BP (1855) The Cottage Gardener 15: 16 Oct pages 42-43, 13 Nov pages 115-116, and  11 December pages 184-185
  • Brent BP (1864) The canary, British finches, and some other birds: including directions for their management and breeding in the cage and aviary ; as well as the treatment of their diseases; with numerous illustrations. London: Journal of Horticulture & Cottage Gardener Office.
  • Darwin C (1868) The Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication. London: John Murray.
  • Hervieux de Chanteloup J-C (1718) A New Treatise of Canary Birds.  London: Bernard Lintot, London. [Available here. This is an English translation of Hervieux de Chanteloup J-CC (1709) Nouveau traité des Serins de Canarie. Paris: Claude Prodhomme. Available here]
  • Irwin R (1951) British Bird Books: an index to British ornithology, A.D. 1481 to A.D. 1948. London: Grafton & Co.
  • 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.

  • Wood CA (1931) An Introduction to the  Literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press.


  1. a book by Bernard Brent: still not available anywhere online. Brent’s book is not listed in any of the bibliographies in my library, including: Wood (19310, Irwin (1951), and Mullens & Swan (1917). This is, in itself, is a quite telling indication of the scarcity of Brent’s. book. In 1878, Brent’s book sold for 1s. 6d. [the equivalent of US$11.15 in today’s currency]. Bernard Peirce Brent (1822-1867) lived at Bessels Green, Riverhead, in 1857, only 15 km from Darwin’s house in Downe, Kent
  2. The Cottage Gardener: from 1849-1855 published under this name for volumes 1-15 [vol 1-11 available here, but vol 15 with Brent’s article curiously unavailable online] then from 1861-1871 as Journal of horticulture, cottage gardener and country gentlemen with the new series starting with volume 1 in 1861 [vols 1-4, 6-8, 19-21, and 23  available here]
  3. Darwin repeated in Variation: as a result this mistake was repeated by others, trusting Darwin
  4. J-C. Hervieux: Jean-Claude Hervieux de Chanteloup (1683-1747) was inspecteur des bois à batir [timber inspector] in Paris, and looked after canaries owned by the Princesse de Condé who lived in the palace at Chantilly and to whom Hervieux dedicated his book
  5. two quotations: from Brent 1864, page 22
  6. Brent’s illustrations: the drawings are from Brent (1864) but I have added the names that he used
  7. attended a pigeon fanciers’ meeting in London: Darwin attended a meeting of the Columbarian Society, near London Bridge, on the 29 November 1855.
  8. quotation: see Darwin Correspondence Project Corr 5: 509
  9. small in stature: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 15: 119
  10. “…very crochetty”: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 13, Suppl. : 443 [see here]
  11. “eccentric”: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 15: 337 [see here]
  12. Brent visited Darwin’s home: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 247
  13. Darwin’s chief source of poultry information: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 60 n6
  14. breeding canary-finch hybrids: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 470

IMAGES: Red Canary cover by the author; Brent portrait from a site summarizing his family tree and relation to Isaac Newton [here]; canaries from Brent (1864) and Anon (1873) are from the author’s copies

Holiday Reads

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 31 December 2018

When I first began to take a serious interest in the history of ornithology, about 20 years ago, there were very few books on the topic. In 1975, Stresemann’s Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present was translated into English from the original 1951 German edition. Ernst Mayr added a chapter to that to bring it more or less up-to-date with respect largely to North American research, but besides some excellent edited works there was little else. This past year, in contrast, has seen the publication of  a dozen books—including three fascinating biographies—that have tapped the rich history of our discipline.

Months ago (see here), I fully intended to read and review on this blog each of those books by the end of the year. But here it is, the last day of the year, and I have barely started. Here, then, is a brief roundup up my holiday readings, both books and online, relevant to the history of ornithology, all published in 2018 except McGhie’s book on Henry Dresser, published in the closing days of 2017.


  • MoralEntanglementsBargheer S (2018) Moral Entanglements : Conserving Birds in Britain and Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This is both an historical account and a sociological analysis of two contrasting national approaches to the conservation of birds. While this is an interesting, somewhat stereotypical comparison of two cultures, I am not convinced that we learn very much about the needs of conservation now by looking at the moral underpinnings of conservation past. Thought provoking, at the very least.
  • Birkhead TR (2018) The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury. Francis Willughby is little-known today, in part because he died in 1672 at the age of 36, before he wrote anything of note about birds. But with his friend and tutor, John Ray, Willughby tried to revolutionize natural history in the 17th century. After Willughby died, Ray published Ornithologia Tres Libris based on Willughby’s research and ideas. Birkhead argues well that Willughby was the first true ornithologists and their book the first encyclopedia of ornithology. This is Willughby’s story, told as an engaging narrative, with surprising insights into his work and achievements
  • CatesbyLegacyBrush MJ, Brush AH (2018) Mark Catesby’s Legacy: Natural History Then and Now. Charleston, SC: The Catesby Commemorative Trust. This is an unusual but very engaging book by the illustrator Martha Brush and her husband, Alan, who was editor of The Auk in the 1980s. It’s unusual because rather than just write about Catesby and his work, the Brushes traced Catesby’s travels, explored his writings, and assessing how the world that Catesby saw has changed in the past 250 years. And rather than reproducing Catesby’s (not very good) illustrations, Martha Brush has included 32 (very good) watercolours of species that Catesby described. While based on and inspired by Catesby’s work, the Brushes have made this book their own in a way that makes a unique connection between ornithology past and present.
  • Davis Jr WE, Boles WE, Recher HF, editors. (2018) Contributions to the History of Australasian Ornithology. Volume IV. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 23. This is the fourth volume in this series of Nuttall Club publications on the history of ornithology in the Australasian region, begun in 2008. I have not seen this one yet but I expect that, like the others, it will be detailed scholarly, and useful.
  • landfillDee T (2018) Landfill. Dorchester, Dorset: Little Toller Books, . An engaging account of the long association between gulls and humans in cities, inspired by the author’s experience banding (ringing) gulls at a landfill in Essex, UK. With gulls as his guide and inspiration, Dee takes us on a voyage through the Anthropocene and our long and bizarre association with waste.
  • Johnson KW (2018) The Feather Thief: Beauty, obsession, and the natural history heist of the century. London: Hutchinson. This is the true story of concert flautist Edwin Rist who stole almost 300 valuable bird specimens from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2008. Rist broke into the museum late one night and loaded up a suitcase with birds of paradise, cotingas, and other rare and colourful birds all so he could harvest their feathers to make expensive flies for salmon fishing. Rist was only 20 at the time and planned to sell the feathers for hundreds of thousands of dollars in part to fund his purchase of a golden flute. Johnson weaves this story around the origins of these specimens, many collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, and the obsessive fraternity of elite fly tiers. This is an easy read that is one many year-end best-books lists.
  • BelongingLewis D (2018) Belonging on an Island: Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawaii. New Haven:Yale University Press. Focused on 4 birds — Small-billed Moa-Nalo, ‘O‘o, Palila, and Japanese White-Eye, Lewis describes the history of research and conservation of birds in Hawaii.
  • MacGhie HA (2017) Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, books and business. Manchester: Manchester University Press While the focus here is on the life of Henry Dresser, from Manchester, UK, this book is a superb window on the state of ornithology and ornithologists in the late 1800s. I have a written a full review for the January 2019 issue of The Auk: Ornithological Advances. See also here.
  • Moss S (2018) Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got their Names. London: Faber & Faber. Even though at least a dozen other books have been published on the origins of bird names, dating back to at least 1885 (see here), this one is surprisingly fresh, interesting and useful.
  • MynottMynott J (2018) Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mynott has produced an incredibly detailed, scholarly, and wide-ranging survey of man’s relations to and knowledge of birds in ancient Greece and Rome in particular. This is as much a cultural as an ornithological history of a long neglected aspect of ancient civilizations.
  • Ogilvie MB (2018) For the Birds: American Ornithologist, Margaret Morse Nice. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Every professional ornithologist knows about Nice’s pioneering research on song sparrows, and many have read her autobiography, but this is the first comprehensive biography of this amazing woman. Ogilvie has tapped a wide range of resources to produce this definitive, interesting and thoroughly readable account. I will be reviewing this book in detail in a forthcoming issue of Birding magazine. Highly recommended.
  • Olina GP (2018) Pasta for Nightingales: A 17th century handbook of bird-care and Folklore. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.  This is the first English translation, by Kate Clayton, of some parts of one of the classics of early ornithology written ins 1622. Illustrated with contemporary watercolours from Olina’s day, but disappointingly superficial.


  • Biodiversity Heritage Library: a vast and growing collection of historically significant works on all aspects of biology. In addition to the earliest years of ornithological journals like the Auk, The Ibis, The Condor and The Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, among others. This is a very convenient and rich resource of rare old books on birds. [see here]
  • Birding New Jersey—The Experience of Birding: This excellent blog, written by Rick Wright, often has posts relevant to the history of ornithology. In 2018, for example Rick wrote about the origins of some common and scientific names of birds, when the first Whooping Crane was purchased for the London Zoo (1858), the superb contributions to ornithology by the virtually unknown François Levaillant and Magnus von Wright, and the early exploits of both Audubon and Vieillot.   [see here]
  • Matthew R. Halley’s website: among other things Halley maintains an archive [here] of material that he has gathered on the history of science, largely ornithology


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

  • Ray J (1676) Ornithologiae libri tres: in quibus aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè descripbuntur, descriptiones iconibus. London: John Martyn.

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

Birds of the Incunables

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

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

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

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

Buch der Natur 1475

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Stresemann’s History of Ornithology

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

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

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

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

Stresemann in 1919 (age 30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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